Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bean & Gone

After last years experiments with growing French beans for the ripe seeds as well as than the immature green pods, and spending the cold winter reading "Beans: A History" by Ken Albala*, this year in the garden has become a little bit bean-fixated (though with the 3 varieties of sweetcorn & the several billion squashes, perhaps milpa-fixated is a more appropriate term). Tall, dwarf, yellow, purple, green, spotted & speckled, from the highly ornamental but still very edible 'Dolichos Lablab' (also known as the Hyacinth bean) to the basic green bean 'Blue Lake', they're all growing here.
And with good reason, beans were one of the first plants to be cultivated, and due to their ability to crop well on even the most impoverished soil, meant the difference between life & slow & horrible starvation for nearly every culture at some point in history. They also dry & store easily. Unfortunately, their very reliability has them dismissed as "poor man's meat".

Well nuts to that, beans are awesome! There are few other veggies out there that offer such variety - they can be slender 'filet' pods, or large & flattened like small runner beans, or even curled up like shrimps. They come in green, yellow & purple coloured pods, and then there are the beans themselves! Creamy white haricot, green tinged flageolets, shiny black turtle beans, smooth brown seeds & an almost infinite variety of cream or white seeds speckled with red, brown or black.

There are roughly two categories that French beans fall in to. Climbing beans reach a height of 2-2.5 meters, and need supports to climb up (bamboo canes in wigwams or 'toblerones' are the most common methods, but they are very pretty growing up a trellis or against a warm sunny wall or side of a shed). Dwarf beans grow into small, bushy plants around 45cm tall, and shouldn't need much support (though you can give them a supporting layer of twigs & brush if you're growing them for dried beans, to keep them from flopping over under the weight). Dwarf beans take up less space & are easier to maintain, but climbing beans will give a bigger crop. The seeds are sown from April to July, and will give you a crop of succulent pods from June to October. Seeds are best sown in pots or trays before planting out after the last frosts. For some reason they seem to do better started off in pots than with direct sowing. You can also speed up germination by soaking the seeds overnight, though it's not essential.

After that, there's not much they need, aside from the odd bit of string to encourage them to go up the pole, rather than whatever crackerarsed direction they're actually headed in (or maybe I'm just blessed with particularly dumb beans) & water in dry weather. Squashes & pumpkins can be planted at the base, to suppress weeds & scramble up the canes. I found the winter squashes Marina di Chioggia & Uchiki Kuri worked really well, roving around the beans without getting in their way (and giving me the occasional shock when harvesting beans and brushing against a knobbly, ripening squash!).

The young pods freeze well, and the ripe beans can be frozen or dried too.

Okay, off to finish planting out Tomato Mile.

*A lot more interesting than it sounds. Did you know that St Jerome forbade Nuns from eating beans as they partibus genitalibus titillationes - "Tickled the genitals". Aww, poor nuns!

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