Heirloom Beans

When someone gifts you beans, by golly, you gotta plant them.

2 years ago, a beautiful sage, whose hair is spun with silver, and whose gardening wisdom and experience is hard to match, passed these beans on to me and told me there was a story in them. A story? But what kind of story could a bean tell? What does ‘heirloom’ even mean? I held those beans in my hands and there was a little flutter in my heart, and then, of course, I planted them. 

They were Mr. Tung’s Pole Beans.

I typed into google, and what I found was actually a really good story.  In the early 1900s, Mr. Tung, a Chinese immigrant, brought these beans to BC, where he worked on a small family farm for many years as labourer. He was loved by the family, and he planted a little garden, and it wasn’t long before his beans became a family favourite. Year after year, prolific seasons of Mr. Tung’s beans, until the second world war happened, the family farm lay dormant. The beloved beans were forgotten until many years later when a few were found in a basket. Someone recognized them, and they were planted. Well, those beans remembered the earth and they grew once again. They have been saved and traded around BC for years since. And this, in one story, is what it means to be an heirloom bean. 

Harvest basket. Mr. Tung’s Pole beans.

I planted a small 6 ft row along the garden fence, and even with significant watering neglect during our hottest, driest summer on record, these beans flourished. I didn’t harvest any green beans, because I was intent on drying them, but I have heard that they make a most excellent green bean. The have a thick, meaty pod and I don’t imagine it could ever dry out properly outdoors in this end of season climate, so I picked the long wrinkly pods and brought them in to dry. Even this was a long shot, and I ended up shelling the beans before they rattled because they were getting mushy rotten spots, and I pretty much just couldn’t wait. They were still soft but fully mature, and they dried nicely out of their shell turning from a very light grey (think deathly pallor) to a light mushroom brown or taupe, and they tasted great – nice firm, creamy texture, similar to a yellow potato. 

A most delicious fall meal: Kale, Chanerelles, and Mr. Tung’s beans.

One bean planted turns into: Food. Story. Gratitude. 

Thank you Mother Earth, thank you Mr. Tung, and thank you, Jeannie, for passing them my way.

And with that one bean inspiration, last summer I managed to plant 20 different varieties of heirloom beans, each with their own unique story that honours the act of saving, the art of remembering, and the beautiful act of planting a seed and watching it grow. (metaphor!!)

Growing a crop of drying beans is a long and intimate relationship with each different variety. There’s ways in which you’ll come to know their unique characteristics of growth; the habits of the plant, the speed at which it germinates, the race to the sun, and when they flower. You’ll learn about hardiness, tolerances, tenacity. You’ll discover what beans bear prolific pods, the characteristics of each pod, the size and shape and texture and feel, the thickness, the way it dries, the way it lets go of its beans. You’ll pick favourites. 

But the  best part? The best part of all, are the baskets of beans. Submerging your hands in the silky glistening morsels. The weight, the softness, the swishy clicking of hard shells falling between fingers. The colours, the way each bean is a jewel. Each bean a painting, a work of art.  Each bean saved, passed down, remembered. Each and every bean, a story. 

Truly!

One time, I was standing in my garden with my friend Jill, when she reached into her dirty farm pants pocket, and handed me about a dozen beans. I’m not sure what they are, she said. I think they’re Russian. And just like that, the long slender black and brown mystery beans passed from her hand to mine, were dropped into my dirty farm pants pockets, and from there, they bore another generation, and another chapter in their story began. 

These pods were particularly fleshy and firm, long and slender. They gripped their beans ever tighter as they dried. But with each pod I tediously shelled, I started to find a rainbow. There were pods containing white, gold, burgundy, purple, and blue, all the way to black. 

A mysterious rainbow, from the mysterious beans!

All of the beans are pure delight to my boy too…as long as he doesn’t have to eat them— my cruel irony, I know! He just loves to dive his little hands into the beans, and bury his toys, and sift and pile and scoop and pour. He always promises not to spill the beans… but nevertheless I’ve learned that spreading a bed sheet out under the baskets is a smart way to avoid dog hair and dust bunnies mixed in. And let me tell you, there’s never an instance of me vacuuming or sweeping my  house without finding at least one little dried bean hiding somewhere. 

Baskets of beans… on a shag rug. I have since learned.

But I gotta say, if this is how his relationship with beans begins, then I think it’s a mighty solid start.

Now, how do you choose which beans to grow?

Choose your beans by how they inspire you. Choose them by their story. Choose them because they were a gift. Choose them by what grows well in your part of the world. Choose them by what you love to eat. Choose them for fun, and experience, and hope, and joy.

So many Fire Tongues!!!

This is Lingua De Fuoco. Fire Tongue. This also was a gift from my friend Jill, from Shorewolf Farm. It’s a bean that I, for some reason (miscommunication), thought was going to be a bush bean. It is not a bush bean! It is a climbing, reaching, vining, pole bean. It was more vigorous than most of my other beans, and last year, (my first year) I did not provide it with adequate support… It’s a producer. So many big red pods, so many succulent beans. I came to understand that pole beans are the big money. That vertical climb means more pods per plant, and in those pods… are bigger beans. So use that fence, any sort of vertical support. And you will see for yourself. A bean wonderland!!

It wouldn’t be entirely fair if I didn’t mention the dedication, the stress, and the hours of work it takes to dry beans in our wet, rainy, west coast climate. You can hope and pray for a warm dry September all you want. That *might* work. You can obsess over the forecast, and go out there everyday, feeling the pods for signs of dryness, or.. rot. You can harvest and bring all your mature beans to dry indoors, which is not ideal, but it will save them if the weather turns wet. And speaking from experience, that just becomes part of the story… your deep attachment, unwavering commitment, (borderline obsession LOL) to this endeavour!

September rain will bring the entire crop of black beans inside to dry.
Tiger’s Eye beans. Arrowynn’s favourite.
Scarlet runners. Huge. Jewel tones. Completely magic.
Good Mother Stallard. Pole bean.
Calypso beans. The paint job! Also called Orca beans, or Yin Yang. Obviously.

My colourful little trophy jewels, my homegrown heirloom protein morsels, each one a precious symbol of the 2021 season of growth, the hard work, the reciprocity of my garden, the labour of love, our growing self-sufficiency.  But I know they are too delicious to just be sitting up there on the shelf.

Indeed, beans take a little forethought to cook up from dry, and that excuse can mean the jars never get opened for supper. So I decided to pressure-can a couple batches so they’d actually get eaten. 

And now we have cooked, (though remarkably less colourful and beautiful) canned beans at the ready to add into soups, chilis, veggie sautés, tacos, and, oh, anything else you could imagine! …I love them as a side with eggs in the morning too…  

Step by step:

Pour somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 a cup of dry beans in a half-pint jar.

Fill the rest of the way with water, and soak overnight.

Beans should have expanded to fill the jar. Make sure there is 1/2” headspace. Adjust water and bean levels as necessary. 

Screw on lids, and place in your trusted pressure canner, (If you know what you’re doing)

Bring canner to 12lbs of pressure, and cook for 90 mins. (Actually, it might be too long for some varieties. It’s perfect for black beans, but others got a little overcooked)

Now. This is important. BE SURE TO LABEL YOUR JARS. They all look the same after cooking.

Mmm. Delicious, right!?

We’ve been adding beans to soups and stews, tacos and rice. I love them with our homemade tomato sauce, over spaghetti squash. I intended on taste testing, comparing, contrasting, really scientifically investigating each and every kind of bean, and making decisions for the next season based on what we like best. But. We liked them all. And so I made decisions based on trying new ones, ones that promise a high yield and early maturation. And from the ones we’ve already grown, I chose those that were productive and were easy to dry. Ones we enjoyed shelling, beans that we loved to feel, and beans that are just so beautiful.

It’s been a crazy cold and wet spring, but finally the weather looks to be reliable above 10′ over night, so that is time for planting beans. If beans are too cold, they won’t germinate, they will just rot.

We counted down the days to bean planting day. Today, May 29th, we got 1374 beans in the ground. 18 different varieties. Arrowynn plunked them into the holes, and carefully navigated the newly planted rows. It took 3 women 2 hours to plant all those beans, and it’s going to be a beautiful crop. …. But I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to sleep if I don’t plant that one last section, boost my bean count to 1500, and add 2 more varieties for an even 20. 

So. I’m not done yet. 

And there are so many reasons. Like food security, and plant protein, and baskets of jewels and the pure and simple love of growing and nurturing a life.

Here are the seeds of hope for this year:

May 29, 2022. Bean planting day!

The most current update- May 29, 2022, 6:00pm: I did plant 2 more varieties, Calypso, and Jacob’s Gold, but was 6 beans short of 60 on each row, so I am 16 beans short of 1500, and it’s touch and go, but maybe I can sleep tonight. I’ll try and make it a goal, anyway. Because there’s actually no more space for beans in my garden. The beans are bursting at the seams! And I just can’t wait to see those little heads poking out….

So stay tuned! This story isn’t over yet.

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