Category Archives: Beans

Befriending Beans

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 20, 2021

How do you know it’s time to plant your beans? As the climate crisis accelerates, historical planting dates will become less and less useful. I use phenological cues

  • When the dogwood blossom petals are the size of a squirrel’s ear
  • When the wild blackberries bloom
  • Peter waits for the soil to hit 60 degrees
  • When the snow is gone from the face of Cultus Mountain

I grow several different types of beans: 

 

But none of them get their own dedicated garden space. Instead, I plant them at the feet of heavy feeders like dahlias, tomatoes, and corn. My primary goal with beans is fertility, not food. The fact that we also get to eat beans is a lovely side effect! 

 

Legumes like peas, beans, and clover have a very cool thing going on underground. All plants need nitrogen, but they can only absorb it from the soil, not from the air where it’s most abundant. Legumes have come up with a creative solution: make homes on the surface of their roots for symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria take the nitrogen in the air pockets of the soil and fix it into a soluble form that plant roots can absorb. These little round nodules are where the magic happens: 

 

All this is to say that beans make very good neighbors, especially for nitrogen-hungry plants. Indigenous farmers have recognized this since time immemorial, growing beans alongside corn and squash in three sisters plots. Lots of people have written about this. The relationships are beautifully traced in Braiding Sweetgrass, and some exact methods are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden

Beans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and growing habits. Consider the height of each bean variety relative to its neighbors when you plan your garden. Many wonderful combinations are possible. Here’s what I’m growing this season, and where: 

“Rockwell” and “Ireland Creek Annie” bush dry beans under dahlias

  • “Provider” and “Empress” bush green beans under tomatoes
  • “Withner’s True Cornfield”, a half-high pole bean which makes flat pods, under corn
  • “Scarlet Runner” against tall fences and among tall blackberry canes

Beans also make a great beginner seed-saving project. All of the above except the scarlet runner belong to a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris, so it’s possible for them to breed with each other and produce unpredictable offspring. But because the flowers are mostly self-fertile, they rarely do. The Seed Garden (published by Seed Savers Exchange) recommends just 10-20 feet of isolation distance between varieties to keep each true to type. 

Saving the seeds is as simple as allowing the pods to dry in place on the vines. When they’re golden-yellow, crispy, and make a slight rattling noise, they’re ready. You can harvest individual pods as they ripen, or cut the whole bean plant at the soil level. Don’t pull its roots up, or you’ll be robbing its companion of a final nitrogen boost before the end of the season. 

To plant beans, I like to wake them up with a pleasant warm bath for a few hours. (An overnight soak seems to be too long, resulting in wrinkled seed coats and splitting seeds as they begin to decompose.) Then I take them outside and push them into the soil at the base of their companions with their belly-buttons facing down or sideways (never up). I give the companion plants a head start, waiting to plant the beans until they’ve got at least few sets of true leaves. 

 

If you’re only planting a few beans and you can’t afford to lose any to the birds or bugs who are attracted to their fleshy cotyledons, you may want to take extra precautions. In her excellent book Backyard Bounty, Linda Gilkeson recommends pre-sprouting them in trays of vermiculite: “Every seed seems to germinate, and there is little risk of root rot as the vermiculite doesn’t hold excess water. The seedlings can grow for 2-3 weeks (until they are a couple of inches high) on the food stored in the seed, so they don’t need soil.” She recommends poking seeds an inch deep into damp vermiculite inside a plastic container with drainage holes in it, keeping them at room temperature until they germinate, and then giving them strong light in a windowsill or cold frame. When it’s time to plant them, it’s easy to disentangle their roots in the loose vermiculite. 

I used to start my beans that way, but now I direct-sow them because I plant so many that I can afford to share with birds and bugs. Once you befriend beans, there’s no going back. 

I’ll leave you with our family recipe for “Dilly Beans,” i.e. pickled green beans. 

First, load pint jars with the following, in order: 

  • One grape leaf to line the bottom (this helps the beans stay crunchy)
  • Two small cloves garlic
  • One small serrano pepper (we now skip it in deference to our four-year-old, who doesn’t want his beans to be spicy)
  • Half a teaspoon mustard seed
  • Three or four peppercorns
  • A small handful of fresh dill (seeds and leaves)

Then, pack in the beans as far as they’ll go, side by side and pointy-end down, so tightly that they squeak against each other. Cut off the stem end of the beans below the jar neck. 

Last, bring the brine to a boil: 

  • Ten parts vinegar (white and brown mixed)
  • Ten parts water
  • One part canning salt

Ladle the hot brine into the jars on top of the beans. Add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I make these all summer long, and then we wait until Thanksgiving to pop open the first jar. 

Breeding Resilient Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 15, 2021

Some people manage to plant, weed, fertilize, water, mulch, trellis, and prune each of their vegetables at the appropriate time. 

Meanwhile, if you’re a plant in my jungle/garden, watch out. If the chickens don’t get you, the aphids might. If I give myself salmonella poisoning, I will forget to water for a week. Hope you like living next to curly dock, because I do not have time to dig it out. Oh, you wanted a taller trellis? The best I can do for you is stick 4 more bamboo posts into the ground and hope you don’t fall on my head. Et cetera. 

But when you’re breeding vegetables, being a laissez-faire gardener is a superpower. I’m serious! Ideal growing conditions are not favored by climate chaos. Think about it: will a displaced population facing major drought and supply chain interruptions be able to provide ideal conditions for each and every domestic plant? No. 

So why are we breeding domestic plants under these conditions?! Because we’ve relegated plant breeding to professionals, that’s why. This is insane. Not only do the professionals not live here on Fidalgo Island, but most of their fields are far more intensively managed than our gardens. In other words, they’re breeding for different growing conditions than we require. 

Many professional plant breeders have goals like increased yield, uniformity, and transportability, but before they ever select for those traits, the environment in which they grow their parent stock has made its own selection: it favors performance under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions essentially hide whatever genetic advantages individual plants might carry against disease, drought, or other hardships, so those advantages can’t be selected for.

In contrast, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon subjected his lettuce to a three-year trial that he called “Hell’s Half Acre,” in which he gave them the worst possible conditions, inoculated them with diseases, and tried to kill them, just to see who would survive. Using survivor parents as breeding stock allowed him to develop new disease- and disaster-resistant varieties of lettuce. 

Let me give you another example. I like dahlias and tomatoes, and I also like to eat beans, but I like dahlias and tomatoes more. The beans never rank high enough to get their own dedicated bed. I grow them underneath the dahlias and tomatoes. Most of them limp along looking resentful and succumb to mildew or aphids before their seed is ready to harvest. But a small proportion of the total bean population manages to dry down its pods in full shade. I save those seeds, and replant them under the dahlias and tomatoes again the next season. Since all of the genes are from plants that “made it” the first year, a bigger proportion of my second-generation beans survive to reproduce. And on and on it goes. I’m breeding towards beans that are happy playing at the feet of dahlias and tomatoes.

 

Can you spy the bean? Also pictured above is the great-great granddaughter of the first Russian Kale I ever planted in Anacortes. I’ve encouraged it to naturalize, and it now feeds us year-round with zero effort on my part. I’m sure it will outlast us on this plot. That’s the sort of vegetable I want to bet on during the climate crisis. 

If you’re like me and you grow most of your veggies in less-than-ideal conditions, I challenge you to claim your superpower. Start to save seed. Different plants have different life cycles and different pollination patterns, so if this is new to you, start with a legume like peas or beans. They’re very forgiving. For further reading, check out: 

Once you’ve begun to develop your own hyper-local, diverse, resilient varieties, share them with friends and neighbors! Transition Fidalgo is working to set up a local seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected. What better legacy could each of us leave for the gardeners who will tend this soil after us? 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

The Summer Pivot

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted August 3, 2020

The end of July is the mid-point in the growing season: most of the early spring crops such as peas and lettuce are succumbing to the heat; the broccoli and cauliflower are just about done for now, along with the artichokes. The main summer produce, such as beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are about to come into full production. All the gardening energy that previously went into raising and cultivating plants switches at this point to immediate plans for harvesting, consuming and preserving.

In August, when I’m working in the garden, the first thought each day is which vegetables need to be picked right now. Then, how am I going to prepare them once they’re in the kitchen, and finally how can I put up the inevitable surplus into storage jars or freezer packets. My first step is always dealing with the most fragile thing I just picked, usually the constantly flowering tips of the basil plants. Since the delicate leaves turn black very quickly, they go right into the blender along with garlic, olive oil and a little lemon juice, to make a base for either pesto (with Parmesan) or a pistou (without Parmesan) sauce. Both versions can be easily frozen in pint jars for a year-round supply of fresh basil. At this time of the year I keep a fresh jar in the fridge, mostly of a quick pistou, and put it on everything from toast to roasted eggplant.

My standard way of preparing crunchy vegetables such as snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower or green beans is to blanch and then immediately chill them in very cold water. They’re ready to serve cold along with a preferred dip, or just plain, since they have that touch of sweetness that comes with fresh picked produce. I think of them as vegetable antipasti, to be accompanied by a few olives and some cheese.

The snap peas are blanched for only a minute or two, the broccoli flowerets and green beans a bit longer. Wait for the green vegetables to turn a brighter, slightly iridescent green and then quickly remove to the cold water bath to stop the cooking process. A few ice cubes always helps, especially for the snap peas. Cauliflower needs to blanch a bit longer, to when it just starts to get soft, before transferring it to the cold bath.

The benefit of the blanch and chill process is that the vegetables are also now ready for freezing. Except for the snap peas, which are too delicate, any surplus can go straight into a freezer bag. To prevent ice build up make sure to dry the chilled produce off first and then squeeze out as much air from the filled bag. In the deep of winter the green or white bits of summer are welcome additions to soups or stews.

The flow of peppers has begun as well, led off by the sweet yellow Gypsy variety. Besides having them fresh, I also roast them for a Provençal style appetizer. Cut them in half, remove the seeds and stem, brush the skins with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and place skin side up on parchment paper in a roasting pan. I let them brown or char slightly under the broiler for a smokey flavor. I freeze the extras, stacked flat in quart bags for later use.

Currently in the garden, the Blue Lake pole beans have reached the top of the three parallel 8-foot high x 8-foot long trellises and are trying to go higher still. To keep the beans within reach, I am training the ever upward spiraling stems to go horizontally onto connecting rafter poles laid between the tops of the trellises. It is a daily task since the leaders, following the call of heliotrophism, constantly keep growing towards the sun. The aim is to have a leafy arbor between the trellises, with the later ripening beans from the upper parts of the plants hanging straight down overhead, making for easy picking, though it will take a step ladder to reach them. But the initial rush of beans will start lower down on the side walls of the trellises. An Arch of Beans.

Plan now for a Fall-Winter garden

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted July 5, 2020

 

Pivot Point

Having just passed the summer solstice, the garden is at its seasonal pivot point. Even as summer begins, hopefully with some good sunny weather to end the extended rains, the days are getting slightly shorter. It’s time to start planning for fall and winter crops. Summer harvests will start to pile up, the weather will assuredly turn dry and hot, and watering will become the daily issue. But amidst all the garden rush, it pays to start planning now where the following season’s plantings will go.

The first winter crop I think of is leeks. Since this year’s onions have been hindered by the rains, developing mold on the bulbs, or generally not thriving, I turn to leeks, the reliable allium. Being an extended stem rather than a terminal bulb, they resist rot in the ground, and hold up all winter long against the cold and the wet. I already have an early, summer/fall leek crop going, but I need to put in a second wave of leeks that will mature in the fall and continue to be harvested through the winter months. No need for drying and storage. The leeks are always in the ground, ready for use, whatever the weather.

The outer leek sheaths will get eventually soft and mushy by mid-winter, but with a simple stripping, the clean white inner core is ready for the pot. The key is the hardy root system that keeps growing slowly all winter. When you dig up a hefty leek in February, a large bolus of soil comes out as well, held onto by the extensive white roots. To form that solid foundation get them in the ground now so they can slowly develop all summer and into the fall. The reward will come in the short days of winter.

 

Other Fall Plantings

The nursery starts for fall plantings began showing up a few weeks ago, so seek them out before they disappear in this year of increased demand for garden supplies. Look for late varieties of cabbage, such as January King, as well as hardy collards. Seek out fall and winter varieties of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as any of the hardy kales. There is also the hardy Tatsoi mustard, the standard Winter Bloomsdale spinach, plus Daikon and Black Spanish winter radishes. Lots to choose from if you look. Not to forget the perennial garlic chives, which will stay green if you keep it protected during cold spells.

Last winter I had fresh turnip greens lasting all the way into spring from a fall-sown Tokyo Cross type designed to produce leafy tops, rather than roots. The large woody root, eventually rising above ground like a small dome, kept sending up fresh sprouts deep into spring, trying to go to seed. As long as I kept snacking on the shoots and buds, it kept sending up new growth. At the end, the dome was a hollow shell that came easily out of the soil, but it had completed its mission, like some long-lived interplanetary voyager with little leafy antennas.

 

Summer Duties

At this point in the season, things have settled into a regular pattern:

watering, weeding, and harvesting. In the hoop house, the cherry tomato plants have grown to the ceiling and will need to be trimmed; the regular tomatoes have filled out their cages and should start setting more fruit in the warm weather. Now is the time to start thinning out the suckers and removing central foliage to allow better air circulation.

The peppers are starting to form and ripen, along with the first cucumbers and eggplants. Each day I help the curlicued tendrils of the cucumber vines grab onto the trellis to help support the coming weight of the mature cukes. Outside, the pole beans are climbing their trellis, and there again I make sure the emerging vines at the ground level latch onto the nearest vertical support. Vegetable kindergarten, helping little hands grab onto things.

 

Bee Swarm Update

With the loss of the queen and some of the bees, I thought the hive had failed, since I hadn’t seen any bees in flight for days on end during the recent cold and wet weather. After a follow-up inspection, our keeper said all was ok. The newly installed queen had been busy making new brood to fill out combs, with the workers staying at home, relying on bottled sugar water. On the first sunny day two weeks later the restored bees were out again, finding the waiting winter squash and zucchini blossoms. Now that the first 6-inch zucchinis have appeared, it’s truly summer.

 

Beans

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 11, 2020
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With the warm weather in May, once the soil temperature is above 60 degrees, it is time to plant beans. At the large vegetable garden I share with another family, we plant three 8-foot long rows of Blue Lake pole beans, a reliable northwest variety that is good both fresh and frozen. In the past we used tall metal fence posts supporting string or netting to hold the vines. This year to make it easier to do the initial set up, and the removal of the dead vines in the fall, we are using galvanized 4×8 metal cattle guard fencing set on end. Once the beanstalks get to the top, and want to keep on growing out of easy reach,  I redirect them laterally on horizontal sticks laid between the the tops of the bean walls. The result is a covered arbor; the beans hanging down over the inner walkways, easily picked like overhanging fruit.

I like pole beans because they can be harvested continuously over a long period of time. The trick is to keep them picked while they are still tender, before the beans swell inside the pods and become inedible. Unless you want to save seed for next year, be sure to remove any bean pods at the bottom of the stalk that start to turn brown, to keep the plant producing new beans at the growing tips at the top.

There are many types of bush beans, which generally produce a more concentrated crop over a shorter period of time. My personal favorites include Burgundy beans, dark purple beans that turn bright green when cooked, along with tender French filet beans, a gourmet variety that is picked when very thin and delicate. This year I am trying Venus, a white Italian cannellini bean for either fresh use or when dried as the standard dry bean for minestrone soup.

With our longer and warmer summers these days, it is increasingly possible to harvest dry beans in the maritime Northwest. Several pioneer-era varieties of beans that will dry successfully before the fall rains were carefully saved by Puget Sound area gardeners over the years. The short-season varieties have been rediscovered and are now beginning to be available commercially. The WSU Agricultural Research Extension in Mount Vernon is also doing trials on other dry beans for local use. Grow your own vegetable protein.

Finally, there are Scarlet Runner beans, well-known for the red flowers that attract hummingbirds and for the vigorous vines that will easily ascend the tallest pole you can supply. As dry beans, the large, dark purple and black beans are very meaty tasting . A unique trait is that a mature Scarlet Runner bean that falls to the ground and gets buried in the soil will sometimes overwinter and sprout in the spring.