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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Full of Beans

For me, fresh green beans are one of the most wonderful, sentimental vegetables of the summer garden. My grandfather (the epic old-school gardener), had an entire fifty foot row of willow sapling teepees loaded with pole beans. I can still see that sight in my mind today. It is one of my more vivid memories of summer.
 
One of my few childhood chores was “snapping beans” and I became quite proficient at it... still am, in fact. Snapping beans is a life lesson. It teaches you patience, the importance of completing tasks, and the mechanics of a bean pod. Which way do you snap off which tip, to get that nice little zipper of string off of the bean? How little I realized what a good lesson in problem solving I was getting.  
 
I have been raising pole beans for about twenty years. I’ve used different varieties of beans, different supports and experienced wildly varying degrees of success.  
 
I had spectacular beans for quite a few years. I liked the Kentucky Blue variety pole bean, as it was stringless. I used constructed wooden triangle shaped teepees that a former tenant had left behind. They worked fine. I thought to myself, this is a cakewalk.  
 
And then the inevitable thing happened that happens to anyone who has been gardening in the same place for a long time.  Bug trouble. Some trouble with Japanese beetles, and big trouble with spider mites. The Japanese beetles weren’t that big of a problem, really, but a couple of years of drought really gave the spider mites something to sink their rotten little teeth into! My bean crop was almost a complete failure. Now, I must add, I had no idea that my luck would run out. This unpleasant development in my bean gardening was sudden and appalling.
 
Now also, about this same time, I decided I needed to change my teepee support. I decided that I would get all fancy and put in a very tall black iron four legged teepee topped by a picturesque fleur-de-lis. Frenchy! Perhaps now I would call them haricots verts! Mark Twain, forgive me... I know... FRENCH.
 
I liked the fleur-de-lis teepee. The beans hated it. The beans wouldn’t even go near it. They would grow and then just hug the ground. I even tried to force them to grow on it by wrapping them around the supports. They refused. I blamed it on the bean variety I had selected. Stupid beans.
 
After this perfect storm of bugs, drought, and exterior decor, I became disillusioned with pole beans. Bush beans were going to be it from here on out.
 
Bush beans were fine for a couple of years. I had good luck with them, but they just didn’t have the charisma.  There’s just something about that big teepee of beans in the garden. It had to be there. The garden just didn’t look right without it.
 
So, after a stretch with this uninteresting, flat garden vista, I went back to pole beans.  
 
But this time, I really tried to look back and analyze my previous failures. I don’t know how or why, but I had a eureka moment! The fancy iron fleur-de-lis teepee got too hot! The beans had better sense than I did. They wouldn’t embrace it because they got burnt. How I wish, at times in my life, I had had that kind of insight.
 
This year, I planted my pole beans with a new teepee. I used some slender bamboo poles that a friend of mine gave me. They seemed a little fine-boned, but bamboo has this reputation of being very strong, so I went ahead and used them. They wouldn’t get as hot as iron in the dead of summer.
 
I planted my beans. They grew very nicely and immediately reached up and twirled themselves around my new bamboo support. Success! 
 
I was a little premature in my celebrating. As the beans continued on up the teepee, they became very lush and HEAVY. The teepee was clearly groaning under this weight.    This was a very critical watch and wait situation.  I really just didn’t quite know how to address this obvious misjudgment of compressive strength.
 
And then it rained. Yes, that bamboo was very strong. It didn’t break. Horror of horrors! It just simply folded in half! My lush tower of beans was folded over like a Jolly Green Giant with appendicitis. I had to do something quick.
 
I got out the old wooden triangles I had used in the past. With a great amount of difficulty and much swearing I was able to push the teepee of beans upright and put a support in place on either side to hold it. It worked. I now have the only teepee of pole beans, that I know of, that has an exoskeleton. Next year, I WILL find willow saplings.
 
Fortunately, this journey in bean growing, with its own particular path, has paid off. I am once again enjoying a great crop of beans. The variety that I planted this year was “Fortex” from Johnny’s Seeds of Winslow, Maine. This is the same variety that I blamed on the initial fleur-de-lis teepee failure. Fortex is a completely stringless round bean that grows to eleven inches in length. It never loses its flavor or tenderness, even in maturity. It’s perfect for the busy gardener who can’t always harvest at just the right moment. For my purposes, I’ve never grown such an eminently suitable variety.
 
Fortunately, this was a case where, for once, selective memory worked for me. I remembered the end result, but forgot the initial diagnosis!  
 
Ginger Dawson is The Intrepid Urban Farmer. Read her column every other Sunday at The River City News. Questions? Email: [email protected]
 
Photo: Teepee of beans with the famous exoskeleton/Ginger Dawson
 
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