To bean, or not to bean

We’ve been trying out a variety of dry beans over the years, and have settled on a few favorites. Beans are pretty cheap at the store if you’re just looking for easy protein, but given how easy they are to grow, and how much better they taste homegrown, we can’t resist. Being a legume, they also pull nitrogen from the environment and fix it to the soil for other plants to use. As part of our goal to close as many input loops as possible (i.e. no store-bought fertilizer) adding beans to our crop rotation makes sense.

Looking at this depiction of the nitrogen cycle, it’s easy to see how important it is to pay attention to all aspects of growing food. Animals, plants, fungi and bacteria all work together to make healthy soil, and so far Seven Trees has some really healthy soil!

This year we tested an early pink kidney bean from Fedco Seeds in Maine. We make a lot of chili and use mostly kidney and black beans, so we wanted to see how they did. The area they were planted in was where Patty Pig had been housed last summer. Being the only pig, he didn’t till as much as we’d hoped, so we rototilled the area again this spring. We learned the hard way that freshly tilled sod is often home to wireworms, so we wanted to plant a crop that wouldn’t be affected by them. Enter the kidney bean! Not only would we get a useful crop from this new ground, but we’d try something new, and add fertility for the next crop (about 450 cloves of garlic).

So here are a few of the legumes we’ve grown or are currently growing at Seven Trees…

The lovely red kidney beans were ready right off the mark. Our slow spring didn’t hurt them at all, and they seemed to fight off slug damage pretty well too. They are a bush bean, meaning they take more space but don’t require poles or trellising as they only get about 2ft tall. Most pods were packed full and most beans were plump and blemish-free. Many shades of pink too.

A delightful surprise among the kidney beans were some beautiful purple and cream speckled mutants. I usually inspect every seed I plant to make sure only the best will be allowed to reproduce, and I certainly don’t recall any speckled curiosities in the seed packet. There aren’t many, maybe 1% of the total, but they are well-formed and pretty, so we’re going to plant these and see what happens.

Hidatsa Shield Figure is a pole variety we have grown in the past and had good results. The name refers to the markings around the “eye” of the bean that resemble the way the Hidatsa tribe painted their shields. These beans are large and cook up huge, but a tiny bit chalky. I thought they made great ham & vegetable soup, but they weren’t a rave with the other human of Seven Trees. If space is at a premium, pole beans are the way to go, and this heritage variety delivers. I have a small quantity left from 2008 and will plant more to renew my seed stock.

We tried Hutterite soup beans last year, but still haven’t cooked any yet. We harvested them during a terrific rainstorm, and they were not happy about it. They tended to mold as they dried, and got left in a crate for a long time. I know it’s not their fault, but I don’t know that we’ll try these again given how happy we are with the kidney beans. They’re a bush bean and seemed to grow well in our now-usual slow spring weather. Another pick for the Slow Food ark of taste. Who knows, maybe we’ll change our minds, since a white bean a la Great Northern or navy is on our to-grow list.

Here are some winter peas given to me by a friend from Bosnia. Not sure what variety they are, only that her mom says to plant them now. (Winter peas are a common pasture amendment that sprout in fall and hold over to grow in spring, bringing nitrogen to the soil, and if left alone provide an edible legume harvest.) I started a few, but am saving some back just in case. The spring peas we didn’t harvest ended up on the ground and are sprouting now, so I assume these will be equally precocious. I plan to shelter them as needed when the frosts hit. Can’t wait to see how these world travellers turn out!

Also from Bosnia is this colorful assortment of beans. Some are bush, some pole. Some are used as green beans and some dry. We’ll try a few of each to get to know them and more importantly to grow out seed stock. Seed Savers Exchange was founded on the principle that sharing rare and heirloom seeds from all over the world is the key to food security. The Pacific Northwest was the destination for many Italian farm families, and they brought seeds and plant starts from their homeland that have become integral to our foodways today. Hopefully these Bosnian immigrants will expand our growing range as well as our recipe collection.

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