Columbus, Ohio USA
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By Joel Knepp
July/August 2017 Issue
Once again, it’s gardening season for us Short North old timers, and probably for some of the newbies, too. Nothing gets one in touch with reality better than growing, preparing, and eating your own produce. With the climate change undeniable to anyone who has grown food for a long time, many of us got an early start. To illustrate Central Ohio’s situation over the long haul, in the Seventies the published last frost date for gardeners was May 31. That seems ridiculous nowadays; imagine a hard frost on May 31, by which date practically every person in the Short North under 40 is going around half naked! At this point, I can’t even remember a frost in early May. Of course, living in the heat sink of the city moderates cold temperatures, leaving us several degrees warmer that the suburbs if any sunshine has recently been stored up in the asphalt, brick, and concrete.
Everything in our garden is at least two or three weeks early, even for modern times. Lettuce and other greens began to bolt (go to seed and get bitter) in early June. White cabbage moths arrived early and deposited their tiny, creepy-crawly offspring on leaves of cruciferous plants (cabbage family), turning them into green lace practically overnight. Tulips, poppies, pansies, and irises have all come and gone and we are well into roses and lilies, and the lilies will probably be gone once you read this. Baby green tomatoes are on plants which are already escaping their cages. We have consumed mature broccoli from our raised beds. However, the real starting point of food harvest at our house is bean-picking time. It’s the solstice, when food gardens go mad with maxed-out solar energy. At this time of year, beans are paragons of hypergrowth.
The green bean is not quite a sure bet for home gardener, but pretty darn close to it. We’ve had perhaps one or two weak bean years out of 20+. We prefer the no-fuss Provider variety bush bean over runner beans that need a structure to hold them up, although both are productive and taste pretty much the same. Basically, you plant the seeds (which are themselves beans, either from a packet or saved from the previous year’s crop) in some good dirt, add water, and stand back. Soon you have beautiful little bushes, in a few weeks the bushes are crammed full of little white and purple blossoms, and within a few days you have the first and best wave of beautiful bean pods commonly known as green beans.
The overriding goal of the Phaseolus vulgaris, aka the common bean, like that of many -most? all? - earthly life forms, is to produce offspring and continue the line. Bringing in a touch of anthropomorphism here, the bean clearly does not want to be found and picked. No, it would much prefer its protective pod to grow to its maximum size, turn brownish-tan in color, dry up, drop to the ground, and split open, whereupon the mature bean seed can get rained on, sprout, and grow a new plant. To support this desire, the wily bean plant has developed an impressive array of strategies to stymie, foil, frustrate, and thwart the gardener and thereby prevent the consumption of its babies.
The first of these strategies is concealment; the profuse leaf growth produced by the bush bean does an excellent job of hiding the beans. Second is camouflage: the bean pod is thin and almost exactly the same color as the plant stem, and since bush beans have a lot of stems, it’s easy to confuse the two and miss the bean. Third is chemical warfare; the leaves produce a substance which is mildly irritating to some folks’ bare skin, especially in the hot, humid summer months, and there is no way to pick bush beans without brushing up against the leaves.
The fourth trick is productivity; these plants produce so many beans that it’s almost impossible to get them all, especially toward the end of the growing season when you are weary of seemingly endless picking. Closely related is number five, speed; the bean can go from a flower to a little green toothpick to a ready-to-eat pod in a shockingly short number of days. If the immature beans within one of those tasty pods manage with the above tactics to avoid you for even a few days, they’re practically home free because their slender, green cradle turns into a bumpy, tough cigar that nobody wants to eat. The final tactic is the fact that at least in our yard, bean bushes provide a happy home for mosquitoes. The females eagerly suck your blood as you pick the beans so as to further their own reproduction. I guess you call this symbiosis, but you’d better consult a qualified biologist.
But to all budding gardeners I say, be not afraid! As clever and sneaky as these bush beans are, if you have a little patience and can develop a sharp eye and deft fingers, you can and will overcome and be rewarded. Bush beans are super-easy to grow, take up little garden space, and taste great, even raw straight from the bush. Here are some harvesting tips to overcome the above no-pick strategies:
• Once the beans start maturing, faithfully harvest every day or every other day at the latest.
• Examine the plants from every angle, high and low, and don’t be afraid to get in there and move the foliage around to find every last bean pod.
• Once you have gone over all the plants, examine them again from different angles. You will find beans missed on the first pass.
• Don’t worry if you pick a few immature beans (too skinny, no bumps). They’re fine to eat, and there’ll be plenty more where those came from. In fact, better to pick too early than too late.
• If your skin is sensitive to the leaves, wear long sleeves, but forget about garden gloves, since you will need maximum fine motor skills to pick the beans without trashing the plants, and the repellant doesn’t usually bother your hands, anyway. Long sleeves will also help with skeeters.
• Avoid harvesting at dusk, when the mosquitoes are most active.
• After the first big wave, flowering will slow way down. Don’t rip out the plants. Keep the faith. The plants are resting up for a second wave, and later likely a third.
• Even if the beans are successful in avoiding being picked and become mature, you can still get the last laugh by shucking them and cooking them like, well, beans!
What to do with all those lovely green beans? You can can ‘em (not the French music hall dance), freeze ‘em, make all kinds of dishes from the fresh ones, and they make nice gifts to nongardening friends and neighbors. Here is a favorite method of preparation:
1. Snap off the stems but don’t segment the pods like your granny did.
2. Steam lightly.
3. Thinly slice as much garlic as you can stand and heat it in a skillet with olive oil.
4. When hot, add the steamed beans and salt to taste. Vege-Sal is great for this.
5. Squeeze on fresh lemon juice and stir-fry for several minutes on medium heat. A little brown here and there is OK, but don’t burn them.
6. Serve hot or cold. Bean appetit!
Joel Knepp lives in Victorian Village with his wife Lynda McClanahan, an artist.
They performed as the musical duo Nick & Polina for many years in the area.
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