Bean harvest begins when the ground is covered in snow. Late winter is the season when late summer’s crop is planned. Gardening is a work-study course in history and causation.
We buy our seeds from two sources. (“We” at this stage means my wife; when it comes to planting and picking, I will do my share, but the distaff is the general staff.) Some seeds we order from catalogues, those hopeful February come-ons, bursting with photographs of bountiful harvests. We buy our other seeds at the big market store outside the old state capital 30 miles away, where packages are lined up on shelves, or in circular wire racks like paperback books in drug stores (when drug stores still sold paperback books). The European seed packages reflect the soul of man under the EU: multilingual instructions at the gibberish level, supplemented by drawings for the post-lingual. The high-end domestic seed packets show spindly ye-olde-plant portraits, as if just water-colored. For a bean planter, the vital piece of information is, Are they bush beans, or pole beans? Do you plant them in clusters around a stake, or alongside a fence and let them go wild? The rest is commentary.
The snow melts, eventually. January thaws proclaim global warming, March blizzards are climate-change deniers. After the snow cover is put away, the ground warms up enough to plant. On go our gardening clothes, soaked in bug-killer: We have found ticks seeking a day’s food and lodging in our nether regions before spring even begins. We will not put the clothes away until Halloween.
Beans do not go in first. The first wave, Dieppe before D-Day, is peas. Peas go in early because they like the cold, but the cold they like can also slow their growth. Yet nothing, except a madrigal, says high spring like pasta with your own peas. Fingers crossed.
Our garden has two parallel raised beds, surrounded by an exterior raised bed supporting a wire fence. There is a grand entrance, wrapped in roses and kiwi vines, and a servants’ entrance at the back (lords and laborers, we use both). When the peas are done, pole beans will take their place at the fence; bush beans will huddle inside.
Planting is a mixture of invasion and intimacy, recalling doctors’ exams, toilet training, petting. There are tools that put the Iron Age between you and it, but for beans the way to go is to kneel and use your index finger, poking holes, or swiping little trenches like a clay potter. You wear gardener’s gloves so your nails do not turn black, which makes tearing open the seed packet clumsy, especially if you are trying to leave a flap for re-closing. In they go, black, brown, white. If the packet says one to a hole, drop three. One for insects, one for critters, one for you, is the rule of finger. Cover the holes, water, and wait.
These are some of the beans we planted this year. Scarlet runner. They join the roses and the kiwi vines at the main gate. Hummingbirds love their flowers; the long green pods are decorative, like the earrings of hippie chicks. Trionfo violetto, annelino verde — Italian pole beans (rampicante). Vermont cranberry, black valentine — domestic bush beans. The trick with bush beans is to keep them from crawling along the ground in a mud-spattered tangle. They need elevation, just not too much. They are the middlebrow of beans: The New Yorker, not The New York Review of Books. For pole beans, there is no trick at all. They spiral up the wires and fence posts, briefly hesitate when they reach the top, feeling for another ascent, then tangle with one another or double back along themselves. They have to be kept from squatting on the tomato cages and making unwanted advances to the cucumber vines. A fence of mature pole beans becomes a cascade of leaves, making the garden a bower. To pick thoroughly, you must pry the leaves apart lest a hidden unharvested cluster become as long as bananas. One November, as I tore the whole thing down, I found a tiny bird’s abandoned nest at the penthouse level.
Not this year. This was the year the critters, not satisfied with their customary third, ran the table. First was a woodchuck, who came just as spring was ending, chewing up the cabbages, trampling the peas. I found where he had wriggled and dug in, through a gap in the wire under a potting shelf at the back. I sealed his pet door with Belgian blocks and put out a contract on him. A friend of a friend is a trapper of pests. His dog found the burrow, in went the trap. He is also a shot, and paid a few calls on weekday mornings. Don’t tell the vegetarians. He guards you while you eat.
Came another pest — no woodchuck, for it could climb. It ate every other bean plant at the roots, and bit off the blossoms and shoots of strands that had managed to rise up. I planted a second wave of beans; they were nipped as soon as they raised their heads out of the ground. This harvester was painstaking and thorough. Also discriminating: Tomatoes and chard were not touched; squash plants have grown so large we could rent them as cottages. My guess is the new guest is a chipmunk. Chipmunks are ubiquitous, they lived here long before we did. Their waking up is one of the first signs of the end of winter. They are Disney-cute, with child-big heads and eyes. I did notice a lot of them early this year; evidently the surplus got hungry. Time to study ways to sicken or kill them for next year. Or perhaps nature will supply the remedy. I have seen a cat lurking around.
So no bower this year. The garden is a glass house. But in case the cat does its work, I planted a fall crop of peas.