Friday, August 12, 2011

pole beans

We planted three varieties of pole beans this spring, using seeds purchased from Seed Saver’s Exchange.
We arranged our seeds in circles around tripods fashioned from aluminum tubes lashed with gardening twine. We planted Green Sultan at the west end of the bed; Bountiful in the middle; and Cherokee Trail of Tears* at the east end.

Within a fortnight, young bean plants emerged from the dirt, some with their originating seeds still clasping a leaf.

As the season progressed, the growing vines eventually found the poles of the aluminum trellises, and the tripods soon turned into leafy teepees. I strung clothesline rope between the tripods and added bamboo seats from salvaged papasan chairs. The vines soon covered everything, forming a boat-shaped mass of leaves.
The vine of a pole bean is a marvel of plant engineering, optimized for finding and using support. The surface of the vine is slightly sticky. If you gently wrap the tendril of a vine around a finger and then release it, the vine will often remain curled, as if prehensile. Vines will even use other vines for support, extending into space curled around themselves like gymnasts or modern dancers.

Along the intertwined tendrils’s balletic trajectories bloom tiny-petaled flowers in white or pink. If all goes as expected, bean pods will later emerge from the flowers.

Harvesting beans is a bit like looking for 3-D images in stereoscopic photos. If you look too intently into the masses of vines, you will probably miss many pods that are right in front of you. If you instead slightly relax your focus and wait, pods will pop into your peripheral vision. Many times, I have told people heading to a bean trellis that I’ve already gone over it, only to see them return with handfuls of beans that had escaped me.

We have harvested only a few pounds of beans so far: as with almost everything this year, the bean plants appear to have been delayed in their growth by the cold spring. If the number of flowers is any indication of future yield, though, we may be in for a good crop.


*At first, I was appalled that a bean variety would be named Cherokee Trail of Tears. Why would anyone name a vegetable after an atrocity? I later read that John Wyche, the Seed Savers Exchange member who donated the original seeds, descended from people who carried the beans with them along the march during the winter of 1837. So the name of a bean commemorates the victims of genocide, and I will not regard a simple bean pod in the same way again.