Beans, Beans, . . . and Blueberries

Deb and David gather around the kitchen table as the contenders are brought forth, each steeped in its own cooking juice in a custard cup. The event is the long-awaited bean test, home-grown Cannellini beans vs. store-bought Cannellini beans vs. home-grown Calypso (Yin Yang) beans. Mostly, we are interested in

whether the home-grown Cannellini’s would be better than the store bought, a possible reason being that stored, dry beans get tougher with age.

I planted a very short row of the Cannellini and of Calypso beans back in the middle of May. I do mean short, only about 5 feet each. After all, this planting was for testing, not for production.
The beans I planted, as well as kidney beans, pinto beans, and some other dry beans, and green beans, share the same botanical lineage, Phaseolus vulgaris. All can be grown just like green beans except that for dry beans, the harvest is of mature seeds, so a longer season is required, typically around 90 days or so.
After my dry bean harvest, I transferred an aliquot of each variety into its own glass custard cup, did the same with an aliquot of store-bought Cannellini beans, and filled the custard cups with water. The cups went into a larger pot with an inch of water and the whole setup went onto the woodstove to simmer for a couple of days. Retrieval and cooling bring us to this moment.
No need for a blindfold test because the differences were dramatic. The results? All three of us gave the home-grown Cannellini’s the highest marks in terms of creamy texture and good flavor. Second best was Calypso. It appears that I’ll be devoting more space next year to growing Cannellini beans.
In addition to mouth-watering flavor and creamy texture, Cannellini beans (and other white beans) are rich in phosphatidylserine. The thinnest thread of evidence suggests that phosphatidylserine might — just might — improve memory and cognition, as well as confer other health benefits. Cow brains are among the richest sources of phosphatidylserine, but I’d rather be forgetful than get mad cow disease.
Lowbush blueberries abound in the woods around here but are conspicuously absent from gardens and landscapes — except in my front yard. I grow them for “luscious landscaping,” that is, for both beauty and

good eating. Plants recently shed their crimson leaves, which is how they show off in autumn. In spring, they show off their nodding, bell-shaped, white flowers, and all summer long, the ground is blanketed with healthy, bluish-green leaves on stems a foot and a half high.

Next summer, I know my plants won’t fruit because yesterday I cut all the stems right down to the ground. Best yields come from stems that are one-year-old and two-years-old, so stems have to grow at least a year before they can flower and fruit.
Traditionally, and under natural conditions, periodic pruning of lowbush blueberries was done with fire. Fire had the additional advantage of knocking out some potential weed and pest problems. Of course, burning also has its hazards and I’m not seeking any excitement in the blueberry bed along the east side of my house beyond a big crop of berries. So I went at the plants this week with hedge shears and hand shears, cutting the stems as low as possible. The lower to the ground plants are lopped back, the fewer the resulting stems next summer, and the more energy the plants can channel into fruit buds for the following year’s harvest.
I don’t really want to sacrifice all of next year’s lowbush blueberry crop so I lopped to the ground only half the planting. Next year, that half that was spared my shears will bear and next autumn I’ll cut those stems down. The summer after next, this year’s lopped down plants will bear fruit, and next year’s lopped down plants won’t. And so the harvest can continue hopscotching merrily along, keeping the plants productive and me in berries every year.

Sharing the lowbush blueberry bed is an Arnold’s Promise witchhazel shrub getting its digs in to offer what is perhaps the final oddity for a generally odd growing season. Year after year it has reliably flowered in March. This year it’s flowering right now, probably because of cool weather followed by extended warm weather duping the shrub into acting as if it was, in fact, March.
One problem with November flowering is that fewer or no flowers will open this coming March. Another problem is that I’d rather see the flowers in March, coming in other heels of winter’s relatively achromatic landscape.

Tomatoes and Corn, mmmm

And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . Lillian’s Yellow. Last week’s tomato growing workshop here climaxed with a tomato tasting of 15 heirloom varieties. Many of the fruits came from Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY, which specializes in and, in spring, sells transplants of, heirloom varieties.
In order to be semi-scientific about which heirlooms tasted best, I splayed them out on a tray, and as I sliced each variety, we tasted and rated them on a scale of 1 to 10. Occasionally we went back to tasting prior ones to see if taste buds were getting dulled or if we had started out setting the bar either to high or too low.
Lillian’s Yellow’s victory, with an average rating of 8, came as a surprise. After all, it was up against Brandywine, which is a top contender in every tomato taste-off. Carolyn Male, in her excellent book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for American Gardens, describes Lillian’s Yellow as having a creamy, yet meaty, flesh and a deep and complex flavor, “rich, citrusy, yet slightly sweet.” Put more simply, it tastes very, very good. This variety is not high-yielding and the fruit often ripens with blemishes and in odd shapes. Still, on the basis of flavor alone, I’ll be planting it next year.
Brandywine, which came in as a close second with an average rating of 7.7, is described by Male, as exploding “with flavor, literally assaulting your senses with every bite, and [having] a depth of flavor that truly matches its century-long heritage.” Brandywine’s close kin, Yellow Brandywine, was no slacker, just missing coming in third. That prize went to the variety Goldie, which averaged 6.7 to beat out Yellow Brandywine at 6.6.
Averages have their limitations. Someone who really really loved Golden King of Siberia, which most people at the workshop disliked for having a soapy flavor, might bring up the average. One eccentric taste bud would be evident in the wide range of the rating. Here, then, is the average and range of ratings for each of the heirloom varieties we tried:
 Variety Average Range
Amish Paste 4.2 6
Aunt Ruby 7 4
Belgian Giant 5.3 5
Brandywine 7.7 3
German Johnson 4.8 5
Golden King of Siberia 3.2 5
Goldie 6.7 5
Green Zebra 6.3 5
Lillian’s Yellow 8 2
Mortgage Lifter 6 5
Mountain Princess 4.2 5
Nepal 5.1 4
Rose de Berne 7 2
Truckers’ Favorite 5.8 4
Yellow Brandywine 6.6 4
Take all this with a grain of salt (literally, if you like) because weather also might figure  into tomato flavor. And then, of course, it is all a matter of taste.
I’m not sure just how much effect weather has on tomato flavor but the effect can be much more dramatic in other ways in the garden. Especially this year’s weather.
How about that heat back in July? I’m blaming it on a poor showing of peppers and a couple of plantings of corn. Peppers are especially finicky about the weather. Blossoms drop without getting pollinated when daytime temperatures rise above 90° in conjunction with nighttime temperatures above 75°, or if nighttime temperatures are below 55°. Sensitivity varies with pepper variety, with hot peppers being more heat (as in weather) tolerant than sweet peppers.
Unfortunately, this year I grew varieties that seem to be temperature sensitive. Most plants are beautifully lush and green, but have few fruits on them. Many fruits have set after the heat wave and won’t have time to reach full, red ripeness.
Corn also had pollination problems, evidenced by ears with too many missing kernels and uneven ripening. Temperatures in the 90s kill the pollen, which is shed from the tassels atop each plant, although

most pollen is shed in the morning before temperatures get that hot. Again, though, nights that are too warm can interfere with corn pollination. Some insect eating the silk at critical stage could also result in incomplete pollination.

Whacky weather can also put tasseling and silking out of synch. Pollen is usually shed beginning two to three days before silks emerge and continues for five to eight days. Dry weather — especially hot, dry weather — slows silk growth but not tasseling so that when silks are finally receptive, there’s not enough pollen around for complete pollination. Complete pollination, where each of the about 1,000 silks of each ear gets some viable pollen so that the kernel to which it is attached can grow, is what leads to plump, full ears.
To keep us in fresh corn from midsummer on, I made four planting of corn, each a couple of weeks apart. Yields from the last two plantings are heavy, so we’ve been eating and freezing corn almost daily. 
Getting back to the question of weather and tomato flavor . . . Although a lot of people feel like the effect can be dramatic, no studies have shown that to be the case. True, cloudy weather means less photosynthesis, which translates to less sugars and other flavor components. And yes, quantitative differences in flavor components have been measured by sensitive instruments. And a lot of rain probably does make tomatoes somewhat more watery. But generally, such changes are too small to be noticed by our taste buds.
Except, there is one dramatic, taste-able difference due to weather. If poor fruit set occurs and fewer fruits result, the remaining fruits will taste noticeably better. Which is one reason why determinate varieties of tomatoes, which set all their fruit in a short window of time (good from a commercial standpoint), taste so bad. And why many heirloom varieties, whose harvest is spread over many weeks, taste so good.

Beans, Beans, . . .

Lima beans are one of those things, like artichokes, okra, and dark beer, that people either love or hate. I love them. The problem is that this far north, summer temperatures usually hover below those in which lima bean plants thrive, at least those best-tasting varieties of lima having large seeds and dry, sweetish flesh something like chestnuts.
A few years ago, I grew the variety Jackson Wonder, which was billed as a “prolific, cold-hardy heirloom with bright nutty flavor.” It was cold-hardy and prolific, and it is an heirloom dating back to 1888, but the flavor was blah.
A long, long time ago, I grew what might be the best-tasting of all lima beans, a pole variety named Dr. Martin. Dr. Martin’s demand for warm summers resulted in a harvest that was too paltry to justify space for those long vines again.
The earth has warmed in the quarter century since I grew Dr. Martin. The growing season is longer and summer temperatures are hotter. So this spring I thought it was time again to try growing some big, fat, flavorful lima beans. King of the Garden was the variety at hand, a variety perhaps as good as Dr. Martin. I started the seed in spring in pots indoors and planted out the seedlings, 2 per bamboo pole with 3 poles tied at their tops to form a teepee, a the end of May, by which time hot weather had worked its way into both air and soil.
King of the Garden plants grew, and grew, and grew. And flowered, and grew, and grew. And occasionally, I noticed a little, very little, pod beginning to develop. But no flowers or mini-pods grew to become large pods filled with big, fat, flavorful lima beans.
Lima beans are a finicky lot. Not only do they shiver in cool weather; they also underperform in weather that’s too hot. Like the hot weather we had, at times, this summer. More recent, cooler nights should improve pod set. That is, unless something else is the roadblock to pod production. That “something else” could be stinkbugs. Stinkbugs and stinkbug problems are moving north from their more traditional southern haunts. There were plenty this summer. The buggers enjoy limas.
Moving over to another bean, green beans, my third and last planting of which is now being feasted upon by Mexican bean beetles. (They also feed on the limas, but not enough to cause significant damage.) Mexican bean beetles are not something new that’s become more problematic with warmer summers and winters; they’ve been showing up in my garden for decades although few other gardeners with whom I speak seem to have problems with them.
Despite the beetles, I harvest plenty of green beans; my main beef with the beetles is that they keep me from being able to grow pole green beans. Pole beans, unlike bush beans, which get sequentially planted and then pulled out after a few weeks of harvest, are a long season crop planted in late spring to grow and bear until frost. That long season of growth offers a 24/7 dinner to bean beetles. Growing only bush beans restricts my choice of varieties and makes growing and harvesting the beans, for fresh eating and for freezing, more frantic.
This year, I tried to check bean beetle infestations with weekly sprays of neem, a relatively nontoxic pesticide derived from the Indian neem tree. It was ineffective. Another possibility is to elicit the help of a stinkbug! No, not any old stinkbug but one known as the spined soldier beetle, a predator a many plant pests. These bugs can be purchased as such or pheromone attractants can be purchased to attract them to the garden. I tried the traps many years ago to no good effect. Perhaps it’s time to import the bugs themselves.
One bean that seems to be pretty much ignored by bean beetles and stinkbugs, and any other pest, is soybean, which I harvest green as edamame. The edamame harvest this season has, as usual, been excellent. I grow the variety Shirofumi, both for its flavor and good yields.
Edamame usually flower and ripen pods in response to daylength, and Shirofumi edamame harvest ends in early August. Then, I usually pull the plants to make space for late plantings of cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and other cool weather vegetables. This year, the space was not needed so I decided to leave the plants in place.
Soybeans, along with green beans, lima beans, and other beans, are legumes, which are plants that, with the help of symbiotic bacteria in their roots, can use nitrogen from the air as food. Much of that nitrogen becomes the protein in the soybean seeds; the rest is in the leaves, stems, and roots. Leaving my soybean plants in place is helping to enrich the soil with nitrogen, from old roots that slough off. The rest of the plants, once pulled, go into the compost pile to provide nitrogen there and, as the finished compost is spread, subsequently in the garden. My lima bean plants, even if they remain podless, provide those same benefits. The same goes for my green bean plants, from which I’ll get a little extra nitrogen from all the Mexcan bean beetles on their leaves.
Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as “large” as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns inn Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see