Until very recently, the largest of my raised beds looked like a sickly mess. It had plants with yellowed leaves, vines wrapped around bamboo sticks flopped all over the place, basically a general unkempt appearance. It was my bean garden; more specifically, my dried bean garden. That garden was a special kind of mess because buried within it was unexpected beauty. You could pick one of the brownish or yellowing pods and open it to find shiny perfect beans lined up inside. It was the kind of mess you just had to keep the faith about. To hang in there until the timing was right so you could reap its bounty.
My grand idea to grow dried beans occurred to me this past winter when I was making a ridiculous amount of soup and pouring over seed catalogues. The plan to actually grow them myself was a step that seemed pretty bold to me because how many times do you see dried beans at the farmers’ markets? I’ve never seen them. Frankly, I feel there is an entirely untapped dried bean, well, market. Either that, or nobody buys dried beans, the farmers’ market people figured that out years ago and now here I show up on the scene a know-it-all with grand ideas about dried bean sales. At the very least I think a few people should sell them just to prove the point of their unsellability so people like me won’t have to keep wondering about such things.
Well, the seed catalogue certainly sells plenty of dried bean seeds, (which it turns out is just a pack of dried beans), so somebody must be buying them. I was one of those somebodies. Admittedly, like most of my seed purchases, I over did it. The thing is, seed catalogues have the same romantic zeal as real estate listings or wine descriptions. (My newest favorite real estate listing reads, “Bring your flashlights and your imagination.” Ah-ha! It doesn’t lack electricity, it offers adventure!) As for the beans, you feel like you are going to be a better person if you would just grow this bean, and that bean, and that other bean. If nothing else, it will be the best darned bean you’ve ever baked with, or put in a soup, or eaten, or seen, or grew. Actually, some of the beans have a whole story to tell. The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” variety had me feeling it was a symbol of perseverance and survival to grow those beans. It turns out that was kind of true.
The thing about growing beans specifically until they are dry enough to keep is you have to wait for the plant to ‘go to seed’. In growing other things, that phrase invokes fear. It is something vegetables do when they feel threatened or are past their prime. When flowers go to seed they turn ugly. Something about the process of bearing their offspring renders them utterly unattractive. I believe the expression is used in reference to some housewives for that same reason. Although certainly not by me.
So to sit back and wait for that to happen seems cruel somehow. Seeing beautifully edible pods ripen into actual food that would be good in a stir fry and then instead of picking them, watching them start to turn into something decidedly other, is not for the weak willed. Intentionally waiting for something to go to seed is an exercise in self control. You watch its ripest most edible moment come and go with the faith that the more advanced stage of its life cycle will bring even greater rewards. And in the case of my beans, it worked out.
Unfortunately, however, unlike the beans you just pick and eat, these require a little more work. Those beautiful beans don’t just jump out of those pods on their own accord. They must be removed. Shelled, if you will. After prying open several hundred pods by hand, I started to understand how other methods of dried bean shelling came to be. Which is to say, I can see what lead someone to put them in a bag and stomp on them, or put them in a bag, tie them to a tree and beat on them with a stick. Frankly, you get pretty darned sick of the little suckers after a while.
The reason I didn’t employ one of those methods (threshing, they're called) is because as I am new to gardening, and henceforth growing dried beans, I was unsure when exactly the plant had fully gone to seed. Some pods I waited too long, it seemed, because the seeds were sprouting in there or had shriveled up. Some were still too wet. Yet again, I’d like to implore gardening book writers to be as specific with their instructions as possible so people like me who had never actually seen a bean plant, let alone one going to seed, would know what to look for. For the record, "crispy dry" is not specific enough. Honestly, I’m still not really sure about the whole thing and I’m kind of hoping to find a master dried beaner out there one of these days.
I’m sure a lot of my yield was lost to the ineptitude of said gardener, moi-même, but I still have a bowl of beans to show for it. And no one can pass by it and not put their hands in it. There is something alluring about their smooth multitude.
Now I have an empty spot in my garden which induces mixed thoughts about fall. To me fall sounds like both, “Woohoo, harvest!” and “Hiss, boo winter” at the same time. So I think a fall crop of some sort is in order. However, I am a little apprehensive about starting anything new right now. I no longer have a fresh slate. That garden seems kind of used up since I have taken so much out of it already. I feel like I need to nurture it a little before I ask more of it. So for now it is just out there heaped with the carcasses of the pulled bean plants, spent. But, I’m confident with some TLC and maybe some bat guano it will be ready for action once again.
I like to throw things.