The Great Big Blessing of Garden Beans

Nothing signifies summer and gardening, for me, more than beans.  Perhaps it is because my earliest memories of gardening are in a large garden meant to feed 14 and to can for our entire year’s needs.  This garden lay in the sharp curve of a large river that flooded it most springs, when the ice went out, depositing rich nutrients.

We grew a lot of beans: bush beans, pole beans, green, yellow and purple beans, shellies, and beans to dry.  I was of the toddling age and picked beans by pulling straight up, often falling on my behind in the dirt, unintentionally pulling the whole plant out.  If you live with grandma, I can assure you this is NOT the way to pick beans.  When she got done with her tongue lashing, Dad used to threaten to “tan my behind”.  I guess one benefit was that it did remove some of the dirt on my britches.

For years after growing up, I hated picking beans and refused to grow them.  For one thing, how do you know when to pick beans?  One day they are tiny thin things.  It seems the next day they are too big.  So start by knowing that once beans start coming in, you need to pick frequently.

The perfect green bean varies in length, depending upon the variety you grow, but should be thin and smooth.  Once you can start seeing the lumps of the individual beans in the pods they start getting too mealy for green beans, but, if left awhile longer, some varieties make good shellie beans, meaning you let the pods fill out until the individual beans are nice and plump, then you shell them out of the pod and cook them.  Still other varieties of beans go even further and stay on the vine, usually until the vine dies, then they are shelled, laid in single layer sheets until very dry, and stored in canning jars.

I hated picking beans because it’s not easy.  It’s hard to see all of them and you have to be careful since the vines are fragile.  You need to pull the bean off cleanly while supporting the stem or you will crimp the stem, preventing any further harvest.  Bean leaves stick to your clothes, so pole bean picking can make you feel like someone threw a sheet over you and you are thrashing to get out!

Now, as an adult, I really enjoy beans.  I grew half-runners this year for the first time.  I gave up on pole beans (remember the sheet nightmare).  Also, the spider mites seemed to get them each year with the leaves turning pale, then flecked, and then browning at the edges, curling, and dying before I even got much of a crop.  Pole beans need a very tall structure for support and a sky-hook to pick.

The catalog promised that half-runners only got half as high as pole beans.  Makes sense.  Once my half-runners scrambled over 5’ (6’ poles with a foot in the ground and lateral supports), I got the tallest bamboo poles I could cut and drove them in at the ends of the wire I originally had stretched between 6’ poles.  I simply strung twine at 6” intervals in rows above the wire as far as I could go.  I think that must be more than 8’ above the soil.  Now the lines are sagging with the weight of the beans and 2’-3’ arms are waving above the top twine and flopping back down to tickle you as you pick.  I must have gotten the bigger half on these runners.

I’ve come to terms with growing and picking beans.  Beans have taught me lessons about nature, sharing, how things work, geometry, color, art, and good nutrition.  I enjoy the quiet time in the garden with the song birds, which are in abundance because I use few chemicals.  I enjoy the help birds give me in exchange for a few pecks, and I see few beetles.  Birds like life in three dimensions so they thrive in and are attracted to a garden with varying heights instead of just low crops.  I like the temporary truce you have with the bees as they forage along side of you.  I like the white and yellow blooms, even though they stick to you too, but it aggravates me less as the years go by.  It is still hard to find the beans because they blend in with the vines, but if you are still, under the canopy of the leaves, and let your eyes adjust to the changes in light, they begin to come into focus.  The greens range from yellow to medium-green to very dark as the sun plays through the leaves.  The motion and ever-changing colors make you want to stay, slow down, and breathe easier.

Life is not so bad in a bean patch, and even if your back gets sore from stooping to pick bush beans, the smells and look of the good earth and soil life are worth the effort.  The crème de la crème is the pot on the stove, the fresh green smell, the “snap” of the snap bean and the tiny bursts of flavor… a little salt, some butter.  Did I mention I really like growing beans?

Barbara Leach,

Horticulture Technician,

VCE Roanoke

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