It's been an unusually mild winter here in the Pacific Northwest, and though we're only half way through February, the past week has brought several days in the low 50's. I know it's too early to plant, but it's hard not to think about it. Of all the vegetables that I routinely plant in my garden, my favorite is the green bean. If you are one who enjoys a vegetable garden as well, I thought I might embark upon a short series of diaries on various heirloom vegetables and uncommon vegetable ideas to tickle your curiosity.
I'll begin with my favorite...the green bean. They say a good man is hard to find...but a good green bean? Even harder. If you buy your seeds from the local garden center or big box store, your choices are pretty limited. But seed catalogues and online sources vastly increase the spectrum of beans you can choose to plant. There's a whole nuther world of beans beyond Kentucky Wonders and Blue Lakes.
Ever heard of greasy beans? Rattlesnake beans? Half-runners? Lazy Wife beans? Just about everyone is familiar with heirloom tomatoes...but there are heirloom beans as well. Dig in below the fold for the lowdown on good beans.
I will admit straight up...when it comes to green beans for me, "it's about the bean, stupid." I'm not terribly fond of those slender haricots verts or italian varieties that are all pod and no bean. Nope...I like some beans in my green beans. Late in the summer, my favorite pot of beans is one that has a fair amount of shellies in it...beans that have gotten a little bg, and the pod a little tough, so you just shell the still soft beans out and throw them in with the rest that have been snapped. Mix in some small, tender new potatoes...and that's some good eatin.'
My grandparents moved to southern Ohio from Eastern Kentucky back in the 20's, and they must have brought some bean seed with them. They always grew a large garden, and usually had two or three kinds of beans. Pole beans, half runners and greasy beans. My grandmother always saved some dried beans for the next year's garden.
What are greasy beans, you ask? They are a variety of bean that doesn't have the short "fuzz" that normally covers a grean bean pod, so they look and feel slick. Hence the name greasy. They grow them a lot in Kentucky, W. Virginia and parts of Georgia and North Carolina. They are meaty, tender, and packed with flavor. Greasy beans are a category of bean, and there are many local varieties. Some are long, some short. Some have tightly packed beans inside the hulls that get large and give the pod a beaded look...cut shorts they call them. They're all good.
Pole beans are always good, and I won't lie...I've planted my share of Kentucky Wonders. They are productive, dependable and don't taste bad at all. For canning, they hold up well, though these days most of the beans I put up are blanched and frozen. I don't see many gardeners here in urban Portland growing pole beans. Maybe space is a concern. I usually grow them, but I don't use the old "teepee" supports that I used to used back in Ohio where I had a much larger gardening space.
Now I use 2X2X8 ft lumber, and staple nylon bird netting to the poles to make one long continuous trellis. It works fine for me, and is actually very space efficient. I set the poles about 12 inches deep for support, and that leaves 7 vertical feet of trellis. Not quite the 8 ft I would like, but it serves the purpose.
Rattlesnake beans are a type of pole bean, and they can be found in many seed catalogues. If you garden in a hot clime, you should definitely give them a try, as they're very heat tolerant. Just keep them watered. They have a purplish striped/mottled pod, and are very tasty. Another great pole bean is one called Logan Giants...another heirloom. I've grown Partridge Head beans (sometimes called Paterge Beans) as well, and they make great shelly beans. The bean isn't solid white...it's a mottled brown, and is popular in parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. Really, if you're getting to that age where stooping over and picking beans is hard on your back or knees...give my trellis system a try and grow pole beans. They produce like gang busters and are easy to pick.
Now Half, Runners are my unqualified favorites for eating during the season. There are many varieties, but some of what is sold as Half Runners in the big catalogues has been bred over the years and lost many of the traits that make the heirlooms so good to eat. They have been bred for longevity, and have become tougher, with less flavorful beans. A good, heirloom Half Runner is something else, and as prolific a bean as the day is long. Pick 'em today, and you'll have more to pick in 3 day's time.
The term "half runner" refers to its growth habit. It's somewhere between a bush bean and a pole bean. Some half runners are more like "quarter runners...essentially bush beans. Others are truly in between, while still others probably should be grown with a low trellis. I will sometimes drive a few 3 ft stakes along the rows and simply tie a cotton twine along them about 2 feet or so above the ground for the runners to cling to as they grow.
There are white, pink, brown and mottled Half Runners, and every region has it's old varieties. Once I left the Midwest and moved out west, however, I found them hard to find. The regional taste preference, at least here in Oregon, seems to be for the slender beans with very immature (not full) beans inside the pods. I buy my Half Runner seed mail order now. I used to be able to go to the local hardware store during gardening season, where thy had seed in bulk in large apothecary jars. I haven't found anyplace like that out here.
My favorite way of cooking fresh green beans is to cook some bacon ends and pieces in a pot till just crisping, and then put the freshly snapped and rinsed beans in the pot over low heat. I only add enough water to keep them from scorching, and let them wilt down and cook till they are soft. Just some salt and pepper for seasoning, and some small new potatoes if I have some. I really don't enjoy "tender-crisp" green beans, which is the only way my health conscious sister makes them anymore. I like my pasta al dente, not my beans.
I'm going to post a link to a wonderful seed source for heirloom seeds. It's called Sustainable Mountain Agriculture, and they have tomatoes and beans. Do check it out, and read the home page where it explains what they are up to...it's a pretty amazing undertaking in this day and age. I've ordered from them in the past, but with the beans...depending upon the variety you select, they often limit the quantity you can order at one time due to their limited inventory.
If you do some googling, there are other sources out there...but this company has some truly hard to find regional heirloom varieties. It is one of the things that makes gardening fun
Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 8:31 AM PT: Here's a nice article on greasy beans: