Green Beans: A Heritage Food


beansThe end of summer is a most is a most appealing time of the year. Goldenrod and tickseed (fall coreopsis) adorn the roadways and the delicate asters are coming on.  I grow oppressed by those red orbs we call tomatoes.  I don’t want to can any more of them.

Green beans are coming on strong in these shortening days and cooler weather. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm about green beans and I am still harvesting them. I enjoy comparison tasting of the multiple varieties I grow for the city market.

There are over 130 varieties of Phaeseolus vulgaris or snap beans. The green in beans refers to their immaturity. The snap is associated with the freshness when the stem end is snapped off and the beans are halved or quartered lengthwise before cooking. Green beans are also referred to as string beans because of the tough fibrous strings along the pods’ sides that needed to be removed back in the day before most seed companies successfully bred the strings away. The first stringless bean was bred by Calvin Keeney, “father of the stringless bean,” in 1894 in LeRoy, New York.

Snap beans come in green, yellow, red and purple. I haven’t grown or seen red ones yet.  The genus includes unusual varieties like Dragon Langerie, which is yellow-tinged with purple stripes. The name means Dragon Tongue. French filet beans or Haricot Verts (in England they are called fine beans) are thinner, crisper and harvested when five to seven inches long and a quarter-inch thick. These must be picked every three days. They don’t really have a “snap” to them. Italian broad or flat beans have been increasing in popularity. Their flavor is quite different. I describe it as buttery, even without the butter.

Shell beans are mature snap beans. The pod is discarded and the mature beans are eaten fresh. Examples include cranberry beans and lima beans.

Snap beans are also dried for winter use and then are known to us as as pintos, navy beans, cannellini beans, etc.

Snap beans are a New World plant. By the time the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, beans had been under cultivation for 7,000 years. The Spaniards brought snap beans back to the Old World as ornamentals in the 16th century. Many New World plants, including tomatoes, were initially introduced to Europe as ornamentals. The French found poison ivy’s and sumac’s fall red leaves so appealing that they cultivated these in their gardens.

China ranks as the biggest producer of snap beans worldwide, followed by Indonesia and India. Italy is in seventh place and the U.S. doesn’t even make the top ten. In the U.S., western New York, Wisconsin, and Oregon are the primary snap bean producers.

Snap beans are either bush or pole or half runners. Half runners grow halfway between a bush bean, which has no vines, and pole beans, which might continue to grow to the sky, with appropriate supports, like in the Jack and the Beanstalk tale.

Most snap beans in the U.S. are bush types and are machine harvested to reduce labor costs. Beans are canned, frozen, and sold fresh. Weeds are a problem when beans are machine harvested, so rest assured that herbicide application is heavy and widespread. Machine harvested fresh beans look somewhat beat up generally.

Until the last couple of years, few market gardeners grew fresh snap beans. This has all to do with labor. One has to bend down for the bush beans and the older you get it becomes harder to creep along a row. Pole beans are easier to pick because one can forego a lot of the bending. Pole beans are highly productive and very flavorful. These keep on giving while bush beans lose their vigor after three or four good pickings.

Snap beans are easy to grow. Some bush varieties grow to maturity within 50 days. I am regularly appalled to see four-packs of snap beans offered at local nurseries. Just plant the seeds. The soil doesn’t even need to be particularly nitrogen-rich as beans fix their own nitrogen within a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that infests their roots. Compost is always good (for vegetables in general) and mulching will decrease weeds and keep soil moist.  Beans need to be planted when soil temperatures are at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit, although the optimal bean germination temperature is 80 degrees. Beans do not set fruit well when temperatures are into the nineties.  Later summer plantings (if not too late) do well because the crop ripens in somewhat cooler temperatures with enhanced flavor. Beans cease to set fruit once the night temperature averages 45 degrees.

The literature mentions spider mites, aphids, and stink bug damage (in recent years) as cultivation setbacks. Damping off, or death by fungal agent, sometimes occurs if the beans are planted too early and the spring is particularly wet and cool. Bean rust and powdery mildew are other fungal pitfalls.

The worst enemy of a good bean harvest in my garden is the bean beetle, Epilachna varivestis, native to southern Mexico. The beetles are coppery-brown or yellow with dots and resemble ladybugs. The larvae are bright yellow and hairy-looking. Both adults and larvae eat the underside of the bean leaves and even munch on the developing beans. A bad infestation defoliates the plants and effectively decreases yield. Insecticidal soap and organic sprays hardly work. Since beans are self-pollinating, floating row covers can be used preventatively. I monitor for adults, larvae and deposits of yellow eggs on the underside of leaves and squish them. Most years I succeed in keeping the beetles in check.

One can also release parasitic wasps that feed on the bean beetle larvae. A state-sponsored program initiated in the early 1980s to release tiny parasitic Pediobius foveolatus has nearly eliminated the beetles in New Jersey soybean fields. There is an ongoing program of wasp releases in Maryland soybean fields as well. A vial of 20 mummies costs a home gardener $45.

Check out the garden catalogues to choose your bean plantings for next season. The versatility in flavor and productivity will be surprising. Nutritionally, snap beans are a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and K, folate and manganese.

Snap beans rank up there with corn and apples in the hierarchy of our heritage foods.

A recent high point for me was attending the People’s Climate March in New York City September 21. It’s quite clear that we need to change many things and we need everyone who loves our Earth home to join in. The continued expansion of industrial agricultural drives global warming, as does fracking, coal-fired power plants and more cars on the planet. The nuclear fuel cycle is not free of carbon emission either, beginning with mining and milling of uranium and its processing into fuel rods. And, of course, there are immense amounts of deadly radioactive waste it leaves to our future generations.

World leaders are currently unlikely to take definitive, unified actions to stem carbon emissions. But all actions have some cumulative effect toward change. One doesn’t know what will result in rapid and substantive improvement in our human condition. Incredibly swift changes for middle class women of my generation occurred in the late 60s and early 70s. Suddenly women had access to birth control, changing relationships with men forever. All male colleges and universities opened their doors to women and women could choose to be doctors and lawyers instead of teachers, nurses or homemakers.

So we must hope and work.

I recall an observation made by Noam Chomsky, linguist, political commentator and activist, when he spoke at U.Va. in the early 90s. Imagine what it would have been like in the 1840s, he said, to invite friends and neighbors over to discuss the abolition of slavery. Guests would likely have been few. Yet slavery was abolished and the civil rights movement continues today.



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