Oh, the sweet taste of irony in the morning.
When I was a kid, my dad turned our backyard into a thriving quarter-acre vegetable garden, filled with mustard and turnip greens, tomatoes, corn, even sugar cane.
And butterbeans. I hated butterbeans.
Well, technically, that’s not true. To hate something, in theory, one should try it first, and that wasn’t an option.
You see, what I actually hated was picking butterbeans (a.k.a. lima beans, if you’re outside the southern U.S. or the U.K.) It’s backbreaking work that took time away from things far more important to my eight-year-old self. Like playing Berzerk on a smoking-hot, new Atari 2600.
But I had a plan. I reasoned that if I didn’t eat something, I shouldn’t be responsible for harvesting it, so I vowed to stand fast and never-ever-ever eat butterbeans.
Believe it or not, my parents bought the argument and gave me a pass. I’d like to say it was because of my brilliant rhetoric, but let’s be honest. They were sleep-deprived fifty-year-olds who were probably longing for a tiny bit of peace and quiet.
Now I can just imagine my dad’s devilish grin, savoring the sight of me harvesting a 70-foot row of Jackson Wonder butterbeans on a blistering July morning.
Field of beans
So how did I find myself contorted over a tangled jungle of bean pods drying in the sun?
Planning our first season at Dew Point Farm was a little tricksy because we knew we’d have no storage space for tools, no walk-in cooler, and no wash station. We decided to stick primarily to crops that could be harvested and taken straight to market: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers. The usual summer fare. But those plants would only take up one of our two available fields.
Remember the sixty-one cubic yards of compost we brought in? That was only enough to cover one field, so it made sense to put the cash crops there. The second field remained a conundrum. We couldn’t guarantee high yields; we couldn’t grow anything that required cold storage after harvest; and we didn’t want to buy more equipment like trellising and shade cloth that would just have to be stored later.
That’s why we settled on beans. For $20 in seed, we could test that area of unamended soil and, if it worked, we’d have a winter’s supply of locally grown protein with hopefully a little extra for market.
Pining over the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, we chose five bush varieties of drying beans: Kebarika, Tiger Eye, Black Turtle, Calypso, and Jackson Wonder. Bush = no trellising, and drying = no rush to pick them when we’d be slammed harvesting other summer crops. We allotted seven rows, with the more useful Tiger Eye (a substitute for creamy cannellini) and Black Turtle beans each getting two spots.
Bean there, done that
The experiment was mostly a success. An hour’s sowing and a few weeding sessions yielded twenty pounds of beans — no surplus to sell this time around, but enough to feed us for the next year. To prepare them for winter, all we had to do was shell the withered pods and toss them into a collapsible drying rack for a couple of weeks.
Not all beans were created equal, though. The striking yin-yang markings of the Calypso bean won our Most Aesthetically Pleasing award, but, unfortunately, it had the lowest yield with 1.1 pounds for its 70-foot row. The amber and burgundy Tiger Eye fared better, with 1.9 pounds.
Black Turtles were still better, at 2.87 per row. But the real heroes were the violet and white Kebarika at 4.73 pounds and those Jackson Wonder speckled butterbeans at 4.62 pounds.
Because these are heirloom varieties that will grow true, we saved several hundred of the biggest and most beautiful beans to use for next year’s crop.
As we stored the seed, I flashed back to seeing Thoreau’s bean field at Walden Pond a few years ago. He wrote of that hallowed place, “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”
Eating our first harvest of butterbeans with corn bread for dinner, I, too came to love my rows, my beans. The entire experience was so delicious, I think even my eight-year-old self would approve.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a certain extra-terrestrial and an Atari emulator.