Between the Rows: beans and squash and rabbits
Beans are among the most common vegetable crops. Because they are so common, perhaps we don’t think about the great variety of beans that we can grow and enjoy. Beyond string beans, we have shelly beans, long beans, lima beans, garbanzo beans, soy beans, butter beans and tepary beans. Within each of those bean families are dozens of varieties. There are green beans, yellow wax beans, purple podded beans and beans with names like “Tongues of Fire.” There are old heritage varieties like Beurre de Rocquencourt and new disease resistant beans like Jade.
My neighbors Lynn Perry and Rol Hesselbart have a beautiful garden that includes productive Jade bush beans. They have been growing Jade for several years. “When they were new, Johnny’s Selected Seeds described them as a gourmet bean that was slender and tender. I’ve always found that to be true” Perry said.
The reason beans are so popular is because they are easy to grow and nearly everyone likes to eat beans — of one sort or another. Beans like a moderately rich soil with lots of organic matter and a pH between 6 and 7, slightly acidic to neutral. They need sun. If you are growing pole beans, make sure they are sited so they do not shade other crops, although lettuces will welcome some summer shade.
Beans are a warm-weather plant and are seeded directly in the soil, which means the soil needs to be warm enough. Gardeners often worry about frost dates to determine when it is warm enough to plant tomatoes or other warm weather crops, but soil temperature plays a large part in germination. Beans germinate best in a soil temperature of 60 degrees or more. Soil thermometers are available from seed catalogs and in many garden centers for less than about $15.
When I was looking through seed catalogs this spring, I came across tepary beans for the first time. This is an ancient bean native to the American southwest and there is evidence that it was cultivated as long as 5,000 years ago. The beans are small, but they are extremely heat- and drought-tolerant.
Tepary beans do need water to germinate so, in those days, they were planted after a rain. Once they were established, they did not need regular watering. The Native Seeds/SEARCH website offers 30 varieties of tepary beans in assorted colors from white to black, yellow to red, and speckled. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds also sells tepary seeds.
I am always saying that a walk down the garden path has many side paths into myth, literature, science and history. Tepary beans lead us into some of the ancient history of our own country.
If we are talking about beans of the Southwest, we are led to a consideration of squash. The teaching of the Native American’s system of the Three Sisters is quite common in elementary schools — or maybe I am leaping to that conclusion because I live in western Massachusetts, where many schools have gardens and where the Hawlemont school has launched a whole new agricultural curriculum.
The Three Sisters is a system where corn is planted first and when the corn has begun to grow, pole beans are planted around the corn so that it can climb the stalk as it grows. At the same time, squash seeds are planted. The squash foliage provides a weed-suppressing, living mulch that also helps to conserve moisture.
Recently, I have been having trouble with rabbits again. It just occurred to me — a little late for this season — that I could institute a Two Sisters program. The rabbits have been eating my beans when they are just beginning to grow. They don’t actually kill the plants, but they put them behind. Rabbits are not supposed to like rough hairy foliage, like that of squash. I am wondering if I could plant squash around my pole beans and discourage some of those wicked bunnies. I can see that it would depend on how quickly the squash get going, and how hairy the young foliage is. Still, it is an experiment for next year.
I planted summer Yellow Crookneck squash, Black Raven zucchini and Lakota winter squash in their own beds. Like beans, squash likes rich soil with a pH of about 6. Some say it takes a bushel of manure for each squash hill. I am lucky that I have lots of compost made with chicken manure.
Still, I have to say that neither my beans nor my squash are rampantly growing this year. I do not think the problem is the quality of my soil. I think the problem is the very cool summer we are having up here at the end of the road. Beans and squash like hot summers.
When I visited the Perry/Hesselbart garden, I had to take off my sweat shirt. The sun came out and it was suddenly warm. I couldn’t believe how luxuriant their bean plants were. I complained to them about the rabbits in our garden and the chilly days and nights. They reminded me that they live in South Heath and I live in North Heath. I am about 300 feet higher than they are. Microclimates do make a difference!
Perry and Hesselbart do have a garden with supersoil, but my soil is good (I had it tested) so I will accept their excuse ... I mean, their explanation for the slow growth of my squash and beans. Besides, they have an energetic Labradoodle. That means no rabbits.
Pat Leuchtman, who is The Recorder’s garden columnist, has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.