While touring Henry VIII’s palace as a child, I was most impressed not by the excess of his consumption, but by a tale recounted by the guide. Apparently Henry’s demanding appetite was as particular as it was large, for he deliberately refrained from telling his cooks which vegetables to serve until close to mealtime so that the green beans would be freshly picked and at their prime.
Whether or not this tale is true, it made a big impact on my young mind, for I had not previously given much thought to the correlation between freshness and flavor. Indeed, I had never given much thought to the lowly bean as a delectable treat for a gourmand. In ensuing years, moreover, I considered beans unworthy of taking up precious garden space since they are so readily available at a low price. My attitude has changed, however, as I continue to experiment with many unusual varieties, and I now regard legumes as one of the most rewarding crops. The range in shapes, colors, and subtle flavors is remarkably vast as indicated by a sampling of my favorites: the delicately crisp Masai; the juicy, Golden Rocky wax bean; the Asian Yard Long Red Noodle; and the countless heirloom shelled beans of which Hidatsa is on the top of the list.
As an added bonus, what makes growing legumes especially beneficial is their ability to enrich the soil while, at the same time, providing us with a source of quality protein, vitamins, minerals and fibers. In a naturally occurring, symbiotic relationship with legumes, rhizobia bacteria in the root zone convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. In exchange, the host plant supplies carbohydrates that the bacteria thrive on. Nitrogen is an essential, but volatile, nutrient for plant growth. Thus, growing legumes, such as beans, peas, clover, vetch and alfalfa, whether for consumption or as a cover crop, is an important way to replenish the soil with nitrogen organically. Although rhizobia are found naturally in moist, healthy soil, especially in areas where legumes have previously been grown, many growers purchase them in the form of inoculants to assure greater productivity in leguminous crops. Certain types of inoculants are preferred by different legumes, so be sure to select one that is specifically compatible with beans. I soak my seeds for 24 hours before I coat them with a light dusting of inoculants. Another method is to coat the beans with a slurry of rhizobia mixed with diluted molasses; the latter feeds the bacteria and enhances their growth.
Basically, one could break down beans into two major groups: bush beans and pole beans. The former consists of low-growing plants that produce prolifically over a short period. The latter are slow to mature but have an extended harvest. Pole beans continue to produce until fall’s cold temperature kills them. When to harvest beans is particularly critical for the delicate French green bean haricot vert, which must be picked almost on a daily basis when pods are no larger than 1/4” in diameter. Snap beans, on the other hand, should be picked before any sign of seed swelling in the pod; otherwise they become tough and starchy. In fact, leaving these to mature on the plant actually encourages the plant to stop producing prematurely. In contrast, shelling beans that are meant for drying should not be harvested until the pods become brittle. These fully developed beans are then threshed and left to dry, single layered, on large trays. Certain varieties are intentionally harvested at different stages of maturity, which allows for a range of flavors and textures. Edamame, for instance, is fresh soybean, picked when the pods are green; whereas dry soybeans, used to make tofu, are left to fully mature on the plant. For the latter, I pull up the entire plant when its leaves drop and hang it up to dry in a well-ventilated, warm space.
In recent years I have begun to germinate pole beans indoors several weeks before the last frost date in order to give these cold-sensitive, slow-to-mature crops a head start. Since they do not tolerate root disturbance well, I start the seedlings in recycled plastic cups that I have cut in half horizontally with the two sections held together with duct tape. When transplanting into the garden, I simply remove the bottom half of the container, leaving the upper portion standing one inch above the soil line as a collar to prevent cutworms from severing the seedling’s stem.