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.
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.
Harvesting is easy, and like any other lima, you can use these as shelly beans very young in the pod, as mature (but not yet dry) beans for a firmer texture, or as a fancy dry bean that cooks red-brown and retains all of its distinctive markings. These colorful beans will give a certain decorative panache to any bean casserole or succotash, and if you steam the young ones carefully (no more than about six minutes), they’ll keep their color and make a decorative addition to a summer meal.
Regarding pests, all lima beans are subject to bean beetles — a universal problem. I keep them under control with insecticidal soap, and that seems to do the trick. If you have a groundhog or deer problem, you may need to resort to strong netting. Liquid Fence is a stinky organic spray that works to deter deer, but not groundhogs.
When saving seed, keep in mind that lima beans cross more readily than common beans, in part because limas have sweet nectar and small, delicate flowers that are easily entered by bumblebees. To be safe, I isolate them 50 to 75 feet from any other limas in the garden. I do this even though I have large numbers of flowers interplanted among my vegetables.
For best germination rates, let the beans ripen on the vine. The pods will turn brown and pop open at the touch when fully ripe. If you suspect a hard freeze is heading your way and you have a lot of pods that are still green, you can pull up the bushes, tie them in bundles, and hang them upside down in a greenhouse or someplace where they can dry out slowly without being disturbed by squirrels. Let the plants hang until the pods are totally brown and brittle, then harvest the seed and store in airtight containers out of direct sunlight. ‘Jackson Wonder’ seeds stored at ambient temperatures in a dark closet that’s free from dampness or high humidity will remain viable for up to six years. I recommend renewing your seed stock every three years.
Ways to prepare lima beans:
Contributing editor William Woys Weaver shares his knowledge of rare, intriguing vegetables in his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History.