By Elena Day
It’s been a summer of too many 90-degree-plus days. I’ve noted that hot weather affects the fruit set of my French filet or “skinny” beans. These have blossomed heavily the last two weeks with relatively little bean production. In hotter weather beans, tomatoes and peppers, all of which are self-pollinating, drop blossoms rather than set fruit. Veggies like cucumbers, which are dependent on bee pollination, also set less fruit because bees are less active in hot weather. Gardeners are in for it as global warming becomes the constant.
This past spring I found some prickly seeded spinach seed in the refrigerator that had been given to me years ago. I planted it and it came up thick. (It’s a lighter green and the leaves are less crinkly and easier to clean than smooth seeded varieties.) I was able to harvest a substantial amount of this heirloom spinach before it bolted. I let it seed and now I have plenty of prickly seeds to plant this fall. The prickly seeds have been painful to pull off the stalk.
Thomas Jefferson planted prickly seeded spinach in his Monticello garden from 1809 to 1812. First mention of prickly seeded spinach was in the 13th century in Germany. The smooth seeded, curly darker green “Savoy” variety was documented in horticultural texts in Europe in 1552. The origin of spinach is Persia. Bernard McMahon, an early American horticulturalist residing in Philadelphia, recommended this traditional European variety as “the hardiest kind” of spinach for overwintering and early spring eating. It is also easier to clean as its leaves are smooth.
McMahon wrote The American Gardeners’ Calendar, a 600-plus-page reference book on everything a North American needed to know about gardening in the early 1800’s. He was also the recipient of the seeds and pressed plant specimens that Meriwether Lewis collected on his journey of exploration of the Louisiana Purchase (1804-1807).
I grow French filet beans, green snaps, yellow snaps or “wax” beans, and Italian flat beans. Most commercially available green and yellow beans have had the string bred out of them within the last 30 years. I was selling a string variety at the Charlottesville Farmers’ Market up until five or so years ago, but customers complained about stringing the beans. Few market gardeners grow beans because picking is time consuming. I’ve heard said, “There’s no money in beans.”
Agribusiness beans mature all at once and are harvested by machine. These varieties are toughened so that they won’t break during mechanical harvesting. Toughening also lengthens shelf life. This year I noticed that a number of customers ask why there aren’t more green beans (and sweet corn) at the local farmers’ market. Perhaps folks are redeveloping a taste for snap beans. I’ve become interested in diversifying the bean varieties that I grow next season.
The number of heirloom beans is daunting. Appalachian Heirloom Bean, which offers 80 varieties of pole (also called “cornfield”) bean seeds, claims “real green bean lovers say that if a green bean does not have strings it is no good.” Bill Best of Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center near Berea, Kentucky, has collected 700 varieties of heirloom beans. Beans are categorized as pole, growing up to 12 feet on trellises; bush, which grow about 2 feet tall; and half-runners that might climb to 5 feet. There are “greasy” beans that are described as being slick in appearance because of lack of fuzz and “cut-short” beans, crowded in the hull and squared off. Yellow wax beans are described as having a satin finish with a “hint of wax” in their texture. Dry bean seeds are of all colors and combinations of colors.
My personal favorite is the Italian flat bean. I haven’t found this flat bean included in the heirloom collections cited above. I grow both bush and pole Italian flats. The flavor is distinctive and buttery. Varieties of Italian flats in the seed catalogues are limited. Johnny’s Selected Seeds markets bush Jumbo and pole Northeaster and Garden of Eden. Pinetree Seeds has provided me with bush Romanos for years.
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I was disappointed to learn that the Monsanto DARK Act that overturned Vermont’s GMO labeling law passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Obama on August 1. Polls find that 90 percent of Americans want labeling of genetically modified foods. The Agriculture Department now has two years to write rules to implement the act. Unfortunately compliance by the food giants is not mandatory and for labeling they are permitted to use QR codes, 1-800 numbers, and other difficult-to-access technology for those without smart phones. According to the Organic Consumers Association, concerned citizens have no other recourse than simply to boycott products that aren’t labeled USDA organic, 100% grass fed or non-GMO. “All Natural” is a meaningless designation meant to confuse the consumer.
On August 25 a lawsuit was filed by three nonprofits—Moms Across America, Beyond Pesticides, and the Organic Consumers Association—against General Mills. Their claim is that General Mills is misleading the public by labeling its Nature Valley brand granola bars as “Made with 100% NATURAL whole grain OATS.” Consumers expect Nature Valley to be natural and free of synthetic or toxic chemicals. Instead the oat bars are contaminated with glyphosate (Roundup).
Next time: Regenerative Agriculture.