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Groundwork: Planting that rises above

Broccoli and carrots in livestock watering troughs at Ed Snodgrass's in Street, Md. The ideal city garden in a can? (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Spring has been a wild ride the garden.

Every spring is like that, one way or another, but memories fade so we contemplate the present. This year we have been buffeted by precocious heat alternating with lingering cold, and a good dose of unwelcome dryness. This has unsettled certain vegetables.
If you haven't done so already, weed your beds, give them a good soak and spread a thin layer of organic mulch. Straw is good, shredded leaves are better.

Those who put In tomatoes and basil early have seen stunted growth, and, in some outlying areas, actual frost damage. The moral is that you don't need to start tomato seedlings until late March or early April, and there is little value in planting them before now. If you have yet to put in young plants that have become too large, remove the lower leaves and plant the tomato so that half its stalk is buried sideways. The tomato plant has the ability to sprout roots from its buried stem.

Bean season began in May. Whatever the air is doing, the soil has warmed sufficiently to coax beans into rapid germination. In unrelentingly cold and wet spring seasons, beans run the risk of rotting, and the white-seeded ones seem most eager to perish.

At Green Spring Gardens, west of Alexandria, the gardeners have sown bush bean varieties that have already sprouted, among them Royal Burgundy, Taylor dwarf shell and a bush form of the haricot vert. They also sowed pole beans: Cascade Giant Pole and Purple Peacock.

I prefer to grow my beans as climbers. It's more fuss, but the yield is greater, more successive and the plants are healthier for being up in the air. You can also grow more with limited real estate: a no-brainer in the urban garden.

Successive sowing of either bush or pole beans every two weeks until the end of July will assure a continuing crop well into the fall. Beans make an excellent vegetable to replace peas and spring greens such as lettuces and arugulas, as well as radishes and spinach. There is still time to order and plant the heat-loving beans, limas and yard-long and the (decorative) purple hyacinth bean. I sow my runner beans in July so they mature as the weather begins to cool. They are not a bean for our dog days.

The brassicas of the fall have gone to flower and pod. This is a way for Cindy Brown and the gardeners to demonstrate where seed comes from. And if you grow heirloom (more precisely, open-pollinated) varieties, you can save the seed to grow another day.

Chinese cabbage, gone to seed. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

I think the dryness and ensuing stresses have made for some unhappy plants. The kale is showing signs of white-fly infestation; those insects are a tenacious pain. I use yellow sticky cards as a reasonable, pesticide-free way to capture them. If one plant in particular is heavily infested, I will simply pull it and bag it with as many pests on it as possible.

The inventive gardener stands ready to use new tactics against pests. In Street, Md., nurseryman Ed Snodgrass has come up with an ingenious solution to beat the rabbits. It seems to be working. He is planting a new veggie garden in galvanized livestock troughs. Designed to slake the thirst of a herd, they are now pressed into service as the ultimate rabbit beaters. Curiously, they seem to have fended off insects that no rabbit fence could exclude, namely cabbage white worms and flea beetles.

They hold a lot of soil -- perfect for root crops such as carrots and beets. You could lay stones at the lowest level to reduce the required soil volume, Ed just uses spare topsoil and then tops up the troughs with aged compost in the growing area. They are mulched with sand to encourage seed germination, and they have a drain plug, positioned on the downward side of a sloping terrace. I find them, how shall we say, stark, although the brilliance would reflect summer's heat. Snodgrass thinks they would be great for an urban garden where space is tight and the native soil not always dependably free of lead or other contaminants.

Kohlrabi: seed started in January, planted in March, yummy by Memorial Day. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Back at Green Spring, the lettuces are full and at their prime for spring salads, and the cabbages are thriving. Their relative, the kohlrabi, is bulbing up nicely and will be ready for the table by the end of the month.

But I've got beans on the brain. Garden beans are enjoyed in a number of ways: green in the pod, as fresh seeds, as semi-mature shellies or Indeed as dried beans for winter use. What a fabulous and useful plant. No garden should be without them.

-- Adrian Higgins (Follow me on Twitter.)

Green Bean, Orange and Olive Salad
8 side-dish servings

Green bean salads are perfect make-ahead side dishes for picnics, buffets or family dinners. The salads can be composed ahead of time and remain crisp and fresh-tasting even after being dressed.

This one is a unique combination of flavors, with colorful ingredients: sweet oranges, savory shallots, rich herbs and briny olives.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Adapted from a recipe in the May 2007 issue of Bon App├ętit magazine.

1 pound fresh green beans, ends trimmed
15 ounces canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
Freshly grated zest of 1 orange (about 1 tablespoon)
Flesh of 1 orange (pith removed), cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup pitted green olives, cut in half lengthwise
Leaves from 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 large shallots, minced (1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the green beans in a large saucepan and cover with cool water; place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for about 4 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Drain, rinse and pat dry, then transfer to a large salad bowl.

Add the cannellini beans, orange pieces, grated orange zest, parsley and olives; mix well.

Combine the oil and shallots in a medium skillet over medium heat. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Whisk in the oregano, mustard and honey; once they are well incorporated, whisk in the vinegar to form a warm salad dressing. Immediately remove from the heat.

Drizzle the warm dressing over the green bean mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then toss the salad to coat evenly.

Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 140 calories, 5 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 17, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring, Groundwork, recipes  
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