If I was told that I could only grow one type of vegetable in my garden, I think I would have to choose beans. I’m not sure when my obsession with beans began, but I have been growing them annually in my vegetable garden for the past 13 years. I can’t imagine ever leaving them off my planting list, as the garden wouldn’t seem the same without them. Beans appeal to me for several reasons, with their versatility, flavor, countless varieties, and history topping the list.
Considered a superfood, beans pack a powerful punch in the nutrition department, being loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals while being low in calories and fat. They are also extremely versatile. Eaten at different stages of maturity, depending on the variety, beans can be enjoyed either raw or cooked in many ways. They can be eaten fresh or stored for future eating via canning, freezing, or drying. Cuisines from all over the world incorporate beans in their culinary creations, so there is never a lack of recipes to choose from.
In my husband’s family lineage, there is a long-standing tradition of baking beans. Grandmother Ruth’s (G.G.’s) baked bean recipe, a tweaked version from famed Maine cook Marjorie Standish, is a highly guarded family heirloom and has been handed down for generations. It was given to us shortly after our wedding day, along with a traditional bean pot handed down from Aunt Polly. Baking beans is a much anticipated all-day event in our household, soaking the beans for 24 hours in advance and baking them slowly at low heat in the oven for 6-9 hours. It is oh, so worth it!
Growing beans, in my humble opinion, is just as enjoyable as eating them. If you decide to plant beans in your garden, the number of choices are seemingly endless. Currently, the genebanks of the world hold over 40,000 bean varieties! There are many subcategories of beans, including bush beans (dry or green), pole beans (dry or green), fava, lima, butterbeans, runner beans, soybeans, or wax beans, to name a few. In each of these subcategories, there are more decisions to be made: would you enjoy snap, string, or filet? What texture, color, or size would you prefer? What stage of maturity would you like to eat the beans? If you are like me, the possibilities can become overwhelming, and you may have a difficult time choosing. The colors alone are mind-boggling, with varieties spanning the rainbow in a dizzying array of beautiful colors and patterns. One could easily argue that beans are the most colorful foods in the garden.
In the end, I typically choose a mixture of bush and pole beans, both for fresh eating and drying. In the past, I have enjoyed bush varieties such as Gold Rush, Provider, Dwarf French Velour, Maxibel Haricot Vert, Royal Burgundy, Tavera Haricot Filet, and Mellow Yellow, dry bush bean varieties such as Jacobs Cattle, Calypso, and Dragon Tongue, pole bean varieties such as Fortex, Blue Coco, Blue Lake, and Kentucky Wonder, and dry pole bean varieties such as Chocolate Runner and Haudenosaunee Skunk. For the 2021 growing season, I plan on adding several varieties I’ve never grown before, including Navy Pea, Good Mother Stallard, and Peregion. The ongoing conundrum, so many varieties yet so little time…and space, plagues me!
All of these qualities belonging to beans are enough to entice me to grow them each year, but their history intrigues me the most. Evidence of wild bean variants being used as a food source dates back over 9,000 years in Thailand, the Himalayan foothills, and Afghanistan. They have also been found in numerous archeological digs across the globe, from the Egyptians’ tombs to the caves of Peru. Beans are one of the earliest and longest cultivated plants, with evidence of their cultivation in Thailand dating back over 4,000 years.
One of the varieties I planted this year was the beautiful Haudenosaunee Skunk Pole Bean. This variety has been grown in the Finger Lakes region of New York by the indigenous Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people for centuries, well before Europeans arrived. For untold generations, they have selected, saved, grown, and shared these beans. What an honor to have the opportunity to plant them in my own humble garden! Before planting, I gazed at the colorful bean seeds and imagined the history stored within each seed. Their entire history, their story, from the first person who ever planted that variety and saved its seed to the person who planted it directly before me, is stored within each seed. When we plant seeds, we become part of their story, and if we save the seeds we grow and share them with others, we make sure that their story continues. When we hold a seed in our hands, we are literally holding history.
My ambition is to save some of my Haudenosaunee Skunk Pole Bean seeds to plant in the garden next year so that I can continue their story. With most bean varieties being self-pollinating, where most fertilization occurs before the flowers even open, they are great candidates for reliable seed saving—just another reason to love beans. I imagine I will continue to include several varieties of beans in my garden for as long as I can dig in the soil. Every time I plant a seed, I think of all of the gardeners who planted the variety before me, and I am thankful for them. Without them, I would not have the opportunity to grow and enjoy what they started. Their story is being planted along-side the seed, and with every seed I plant, I plant a piece of history.
Photographs (from top to bottom): Featured Image: Calypso and Jacobs Cattle dry beans, pole bean plant, Provider and Gold Rush Wax bush beans, Our 2lb and 1lb bean pots, Calypso and Jacobs Cattle dry beans, Bean Varieties (clockwise from top): Good Mother Stallard, Peregion, Navy Pea, and Calypso, final five images: Haudenosaunee Skunk pole beans