‘Jackson Wonder’ Lima Beans

This tasty, ‘wonder’ful bean is widely adapted and requires less heat than most lima beans.

| Winter 2018

  • Use these beans in the delicious chicken and corn potpie recipe.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • "Jackson Wonder' is a dwarf bush lima bean, so the abundant pods are easy to harvest.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Not your typical lima-bean green: These legumes are a showy speckled red.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo

As a kid, I was never fond of lima beans, but as I came to know more about the heirloom cultivars and the wide range of tastes and textures that make them so special, I learned that the mealy mush balls sold frozen in supermarkets (or worse, the ones from cans) just don’t make the grade. Of all the heirloom bush limas still available today, ‘Jackson Wonder’ is one of the hardiest and most visually attractive. Best of all, it has a meaty flavor more like a baking bean than a lima, so it has a versatility that sets it apart.

‘Jackson Wonder’ was developed by Thomas Jackson of Atlanta, and introduced commercially in 1888 by David Landreth & Sons of Philadelphia. The bean is aptly named because it’s both a dwarf bush, growing about 12 to 18 inches tall, and one of the most prolific producers of beans all summer long. Jackson developed the lima for market gardeners who wanted to avoid the fuss of growing limas on poles. (Some traditional cultivars require poles as tall as 16 feet.) Harvesting beans at that height is more than just time-consuming —­ it also requires the use of a ladder, so Jackson’s creation was greeted with enthusiasm. These lima beans’ most unique characteristic, however, may be their color: not your typical lima-bean green. They’re a brilliant scarlet with maroon speckles. They’re so attractive, in fact, that some Victorian hobbyists even made jewelry with them.

I first came across ‘Jackson Wonder’ at a farming conference in central Pennsylvania where it was being touted as an old Pennsylvania Dutch cultivar. Having studied Pennsylvania Dutch gardens for many years, I didn’t think this was true because much of Pennsylvania wasn’t good lima bean country (the nights are too cool). But when I saw the brilliant beans in a jar of chow-chow (pickled mixed vegetables), I couldn’t help but smile — this lima had certainly found its place in the hearts of Pennsylvania Dutch families.

That day I discovered that this lima could be grown just about anywhere in the state — certainly in the coldest parts of Zone 6 and the warmer areas of Zone 5. I’m not sure Thomas Jackson knew that back in 1888, but the test of time has proven it, which is one of the nice things about growing heirlooms.

‘Jackson Wonder’ doesn’t need little stakes like some bush limas do because the plants are extremely compact and they support each other if planted close together. The pods form in massive clusters close to the central stem, so the plants aren’t in danger of toppling over. The only downside to bush limas with pods that close to the ground is that a wet, rainy summer can be their undoing, especially if you’re trying to save seed by allowing the beans to ripen on the vine. On the other hand, hot, dry summers work perfectly. You can probably grow the lima in most parts of the continental United States, with the exception of the rainy Northwest. Cool temperatures don’t seem to bother it as much as too much water does.

Growing Tips

My method is not to start the seed out-of-doors in the ground, although you can certainly do that as soon as the weather is warm enough to plant tomatoes. Voles, chipmunks, and mice — even an occasional aggressive crow — will gladly go after the germinating seeds. To avoid that frustration, I start my beans in my greenhouse in small, 2-inch pots a good 2 to 3 weeks before transplanting them. This gives me a head start against late frosts, and by the time I move them outside, the plants already have their third or fourth leaves. I just pop them in the ground about 8 to 10 inches apart, give them a good boost of fish emulsion, and that’s it. They take care of themselves the rest of the season. Best of all, they get through extremely dry weather rather well.

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