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Groundwork: Giving a Hill of Beans

Grapevine ripening on the shed at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

A bit of rain in recent days has helped the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, even if ripening grapes actually benefit from a dry spell. (The fruit is sweeter and less prone to splitting and rotting.)

For the rest of the garden, however, the rain has been welcome after a cool, wet spring followed by heat and a paucity of rain. This seesawing has confused a lot of garden plants, and the season has been spotty and slow. The good news: Most vegetables are annuals that know they are in a race against time, and they want to perform. With hand watering and a nice mulch of leaf mold (half rotted, shredded leaves), most have endured a tough month to become robust specimens. Even the deer-nibbled cucumbers are not only resprouting, but beginning to fruit nicely.

Many plants are as much as a month behind this year, but even the once stubbornly dormant potatoes are beginning to sprout and are showing their first flower buds, so Cindy Brown and the gang are delighted at the prospect of spuds. Late-season potatoes, by the way, are not as productive as tubers that would have been March-sown and July-harvested. But they seem to have fewer problems with potato beetles, and the potatoes tend to store better for winter.

In my own Alexandria garden, I have sown three varieties of fingerling potatoes, late, and am looking forward to a feast in September. There won't be any left to store by the time I've had my fill. Home-grown potatoes are beyond description, though we'll try to find the right words when the time comes.

The gardeners at Green Spring have pulled the cabbages and kale, which seemed to have drawn a flock of whitefly that has found a home, thank you very much, on the eggplants. The eggplant leaves already have been perforated by flea beetles, but this is a plant that, once it reaches a robust size, can handle the pests. To be sure, the gardeners have dusted the leaves with kaolin, a white clay used to make porcelain. It has been shown to repel insects organically and is used, in a spray, in organic apple orchards.

This gives them an interesting icing effect, as you can see.

Eggplant meets kaolin. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Among the snap beans at Green Spring, the gardeners are growing both bush and pole varieties. In either form, frequent harvesting will prolong the yield. Don't let the pods get longer than eight inches and don't wait to see the beans swelling in the pods if you're planning to use them as green beans. I much prefer pole beans on trellises; you'll get more beans per given area, and they are off the ground and generally healthier. For urban gardens with limited space, pole beans are a no-brainer. A 10-foot row would feed a couple for the summer.

Snap, string and green beans are the same animal, by the way, and there are three ways to harvest them. The conventional green beans are taken when the pod is immature and edible; they may or may not need de-stringing, depending on the variety and/or age of the pod. The second option is to take them as shelling beans, when the pod, still green, begins to swell with seeds. The beans are soft and plump (the pods are past their prime). At this stage, Cindy likes to steam them with ham, onion and garlic, which sounds delicious. Dry beans, the third stage, are simply left on the vine for the pods to turn brown and the seeds to harden. This is the bean of winter soups, and some take on beautiful markings, varieties such as Jacob's Cattle (sometimes called Trout), Soldier and Vermont Cranberry Bush.

At last, the pole beans reach for the sky. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

At least one of the two string trellises is seeing some healthy growth of the pole bean variety Kentucky Wonder. The summer squash at its feet, the Italian zucchini Costata Romanesco, has yet to produce its prominently ribbed fruit. But the vine is going gangbusters after a month of sulking in infancy.

But back to beans, and over to Cindy....

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Green beans are one of the most versatile summer vegetables. A pot of blanched green beans can be dressed up with all kinds of herbs, onions, bits of meat and, of course, other vegetables. Blanched green beans stay fresh in the refrigerator for several days.

Here's a recipe that will jump-start your creative juices. What combinations will make this your signature bean dish?

Mediterranean Green Beans
6 side-dish servings

Using lemon-infused olive oil instead of lemon juice keeps the beans from turning an unappetizing olive green. The dish can be served warm, at room temperature or cold, and it's great with roast chicken.

2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed
3 tablespoons lemon-infused olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 or 3 stems oregano (1 tablespoon; may substitute 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
Freshly ground black pepper
Finely grated zest from 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1 medium tomato, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice (3/4 to 1 cup)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (see NOTE)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water and ice cubes.

Add the trimmed beans and cook (blanch) for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the desired degree of crunchiness. Drain the beans, then transfer them to the ice-water bath to stop the cooking process. Once they have cooled, drain them.

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and oregano; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cooled green beans and stir to coat evenly; cook for 3 or 4 minutes or just until the beans have warmed through.

Add the lemon zest and tomato; stir to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the toasted pine nuts. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.

NOTE: Spread the pine nuts on a small baking sheet or in a pie plate. Toast in a 350-degree oven for 6 or 7 minutes or until golden brown. Watch closely, because they burn easily. Let cool completely.

Per serving: 156 calories, 4 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 36 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 27, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, recipes  
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