Edamame Scare

Got a couple of scares in the garden this season. No, not some woodchuck making its way past the dogs and then through some openings in the fences to chomp down a row of peas (which look especially vibrant this year, thank you). And no late frost that wiped out my carefully tended tomato transplants. 

The first scare came last week as I looked down on the bed where I had planted edamame a couple of weeks previously. No green showed in the bed, a stark contrast to the nearby bed planted at the same time with snap beans, the small plants enjoying the warm sunshine and neatly lined up four inches apart in two rows down the bed.

Testing edamame seeds

Testing edamame seeds

Scratching gingerly into the soil of the edamame bed did not reveal any seeds germinating but not yet above ground. In fact, I couldn’t find any seeds at all! Had I opened furrows and forgotten to plant seeds in them before covering the furrow? Doubtful, especially since I had planted another bed, still barren, in the other vegetable garden at the same time. Had a mouse or some other animal cruised underground enjoying a snack every four inches down the row? That would be a very thorough rodent. Plus, he or she would have left a tunnel.

Had the seeds rotted? Possibly, but that would be very quick for them to so thoroughly disappear. Had the seeds been old, which would make them more prone to rotting? I do save my own edamame seed every year, the variety Shirofumi, so that is a possibility. Except that I planted last year’s seed.

The mystery still exists but there was still time for action. I had additional Shirofumi seed left. Rather than just plant it, I’d test its germination, which I did by sprouting the seeds indoors. After an overnight soak in a beaker, I poured off the water and then rinsed the seeds twice daily. As it turned out seed from 2018 and 2015 didn’t germinate at all.

Last year’s seed germinated very well, and I planted them while their root sprouts were still very short. One week later, the plants have emerged. But the mystery still exists.Planting sprouted edamame

What If?

The second scare of the season is seed-related but hypothetical. What if seeds are unavailable next year, or any year? Or, at least, seeds of some of the varieties I want to grow.

This fear is not all that hypothetical. This spring, because of the surge in interest in gardening, seeds were harder to get.

And in years past, seeds of some of my favorite varieties of vegetables became difficult to find. Sweet Italia pepper, for instance, which I consider the best as far as flavor and early ripening for colder climates. My recourse has been to save my own seeds of these varieties for many years. In addition to Sweet Italia, I also save seed of Pink Pearl and Pennsylvania Dutch Butter popcorn, Otto File polenta corn, and, as mentioned above, Shirofumi edemame.

Sweet Italia pepperPopcorn hanging from kitchen rafters

This season, the plan is to save seed of more vegetables.

A few guidelines will make seed-saving a success. First, I won’t save seed from “F-1 hybrids;” they are produced with selected, different parents, so the saved seed will not yield the same variety as the seed that is saved.

Selecting seeds from too few individuals can result in inbreeding depression, or generally weaker plants. So my second guideline is to save a few seeds from a lot of plants, then combine them to put more genetic diversity into the seed packet packet. Saving seed from more than one plant also provides insurance just in case a seed plant dies.

Some vegetable plants — corn, onions, and the cabbage family, for example — are especially prone to inbreeding depression. Saving seeds from Otto File and my popcorns is especially easy since the seeds are dry and mature when ready to eat or save. When I twist the kernels off an ear for eating, I just take out a few to add to my growing seed packet of that particular variety.

Arugula (Cabbage family) flower and seedpod

Arugula (Cabbage family) flower and seedpod

A third consideration in saving seed is keeping the seed true to variety. Varieties of sweet corn readily cross-pollinate. Again, it is corn, onions, and the cabbage family that are among the common vegetables that readily cross pollinate. So I grow popcorn in one vegetable garden and sweet corn in the other, and Otto File corn out in my meadow between dwarf apple trees. If my Golden Bantam sweet corn were to grow too close to my Pink Pearl Popcorn, the resulting seeds will grow into plants yielding kernels that were less sweet or less poppable. 

Although squashes have separate female and male flowers on the same plant, which would make them prone to cross-pollination, that’s no problem here. Zucchini flower and fruitI grow only Sweet Mama and Waltham winter squashes. The first variety is botanically Cucumbita maxima and the second is C. moschata; the two species do not cross-pollinate.

Plants that can self-pollinate, such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, and peas, could be contaminated by pollen from other, nearby varieties. Tomato flowerDistance between varieties can prevent cross-pollination. So can fine mesh bags. I plan to use small organza bags normally sold for wedding favors.

And finally, good storage, meaning dry and cool or cold conditions, makes sure seeds germinate well. Which my edamame did not. Hmmm.

(For more depth in seed saving, see the excellent and thorough book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth.)

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