One reason I decided to turn my yard into a garden was so I could savor the flavor of fine varieties of green beans at their very freshest. Like corn, green beans are a seasonal delicacy that must be eaten as soon as possible after harvesting. They have a short shelf life and, if not organic, are doused with fungicides to keep them from rotting during transport and storage. I’ve never liked canned or frozen green beans, so during the warm season here in my eco-niche, 2,500 feet up in the Southern Appalachians, I make sure my garden is full of fresh ones — as locally grown as you can get.
Using suitable varieties and succession plantings, my bean season stretches from late June through late October. The rest of the time, I do what people have done for a thousand years or more — eat the dried kind in soups, chilis, casseroles and tostados.
Ivy Rose, my gardener-granddaughter, loves growing and picking beans. For a child who’s curious about plant needs and cycles, no crop is more instructive. Ivy Rose knows the difference between determinate bush beans — bred to produce one big harvest for freezing or canning — and indeterminate pole beans, which continue to flower and crank out pods all summer long. We plant bush beans three times a season — in May, June and July — and pole beans once. Recently, however, my granddaughter posed a thoughtful question: Why grow bush beans at all? Besides producing four times as many pods, pole beans save space, are much easier to pick, and taste better than most varieties of bush beans.
But there are some richly flavorful bush beans that I can’t find, even at our excellent local tailgate markets; beans that produce an abundance of pods over a long period. Earlier maturity is another advantage over pole beans. Heirlooms Black Valentine (sold since 1850) and Slenderette have always flourished in my garden. In 2003 I tried Montpelier, a French filet bean, which I liked enough to reorder this year. All three varieties are available from the Vermont Bean Seed Company. And my taste buds are so smitten by the Emerite pole beans I order from the Pine Tree Seed Company that I’ve given up all other pole varieties.
I grow Emerites on bean “tepees,” one of my woodcrafter husband’s annual contributions to the garden. He pushes four 7-foot saplings into the soil a foot or two apart and ties them securely at the top with stout twine. If I had enough sun to grow corn, I’d use cornstalks for bean poles, Native American style.
Beans do just fine in the light, well-drained soil of my constantly mulched, earthworm-casting-enriched raised beds. I try to plant beans where heavy-feeding crops like broccoli or squash last grew, because, as Ivy Rose says, beans are fertilizer factories. Members of the awesome legume family, they harbor rhizobial bacteria in their roots that transfer nitrogen from the air to the soil in a form plants can use. I’ve never invested in expensive legume innoculants to produce more of these bacteria, since my few plants are generally so full of beans anyway that the neighbors receive CARE packages all season long. I sometimes sprinkle wood ashes around the plants, which deters slugs and snails while providing extra potassium and phosphorus to encourage strong fruiting. (Strictly speaking, bean pods are the seed-bearing “fruit” of the plant.)
Beans are a true summer crop that thrives in warmed soil and full sun. Ivy Rose always helps me plant the first bean patch in mid-May. She uses a dibble I gave her as a birthday present to make 1-inch-deep holes. And she knows how to set a bean in its hole with the spot or indentation on the seed — the hylum — facing down to encourage faster germination. We plant bush-bean seeds the full length of a raised bed, with a different variety on each side, staggering the seed holes to improve air circulation and make picking easier. When the seedlings are about 3 inches high, we thin them, leaving 6 inches between plants. With pole beans, we plant six beans around each of the four poles of our bean tepees, thinning them to three plants per pole before the seedlings begin climbing. And until they germinate (10 days to two weeks after planting), we keep the planting area moist and lightly mulched.
Tending beans is easy. The lush plants soon shade out most weeds, which keeps watering to a minimum. Many sources recommend avoiding the bean patch when the foliage is wet, to keep from spreading disease.
And though beans seem to thrive in the company of most other vegetables, in my experience, they don’t do as well in close proximity to members of the onion family. So I keep them apart in the garden and avoid rotating beans into beds where I’ve just harvested alliums of one sort or another.
I protect tender, young seedlings from rabbit raids the same way I do carrots, using a simple, easily removable chicken-wire “fence” (see “Mining for Carrots,” April 21 Xpress). Once the plants start putting their energy into flowering, their leaves stop attracting rabbits and the fencing is no longer necessary.
Until I learned how to manage them, Mexican bean beetles laid waste my beans, but these predators’ numbers dwindled after I stopped planting standard varieties like Blue Lake and Top Crop — and after my soil improved. Ivy Rose and I try to patrol the bean plots on a daily basis, armed with a jar of soapy water. We grab any adult beetles or fuzzy yellow larvae we see and pop them into the jar of soap solution. Because she’s shorter, Ivy Rose gets to check the undersides of the leaves for yellow egg clusters, which she squashes with an intrepid thumb. Mexican bean beetles are great for teaching kids the three developmental stages of most insects — and also that the greedy little larvae are responsible for most leaf damage.
Growing beans also taught Ivy Rose that the fruit of a plant emerges from the flower. Now, she insists on planting borage (her favorite herb, also much loved by bees) close to the bean patches, planning it so that their blossoming times coincide.
Ivy Rose also knows that if the seeds within the bean pods are allowed to enlarge, the flowers will switch their energy from flower production to seed-making. To keep the plants full of beans, we have to pick the pods when they’re young and tender, which means harvesting every two or three days. My granddaughter’s short stature, supple back and keen eye are real assets for bean-picking.
Beans are a high-fiber vegetable rich in vitamins A, C and the entire B complex. I like to steam them until they’re just tender (garden-fresh vegetables cook faster), then saute them in olive oil with a handful of slivered almonds and a splash of balsamic vinegar. And since bean season is also prime time for tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, squash and basil, I frequently combine these summery tastes in a salad Nicoise or a Mediterranean stir-fry.
If I could grow only one warm-season crop — not counting herbs — I would definitely opt for the marvelous flavor and huge yields of a vegetable that even fertilizes the soil it’s grown in. In short, my garden would be full of beans.
[Victoria Maddux tends her garden in the mountains near Asheville.]