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Groundwork: The towering bean

Joe Brunetti harvests the pods of Kentucky Wonder, a green bean vine that has grown nine feet high under his care. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The bean forms the backbone of any vegetable garden, perhaps because it is one of the few veggies that grows happily in the awful sticky heat of a Washington summer and the long, sweet decline of the autumn. This is achieved with an array of species, varieties and forms that fit any bill. Some gardeners like the compact and obliging bush bean, but if you want to give beans their due, and lend some vertical oomph to your plot, pole beans are a must.

Recipe Included

Joe Brunetti, of the American History Museum's Victory Garden, is a bean-o-maniac, and is reaping the rewards of this passion in the late season bounty of eight varieties of pole bean and two bush beans.

"You've gone nuts with beans," I say. "They're easy," he shoots back. "I had to cut my list in half."

He has planted about half a dozen 12-foot rows of beans, most of them trellised, and each enough to feed a family of four.

Bush beans are favored by farmers for their ease of harvest, they're low-growing, self supporting and the pods pretty much mature all at once.

One of Joe's bush beans is a variety named Pencil Pod, a yellow wax bean distinctive for its pale lemon pods and jet black seeds. Picked fresh, it is mouthwateringly sweet.
You can prolong the bush bean harvest by continual picking, but the whole crop is pretty much ready at the same time. Many gardeners will make sowings every two weeks to extend the season. Beans can be sown from mid-May (no earlier, the soil is too cool) to mid-July for a long harvest.

Dow Purple Podded, a pole bean that snaps open to reveal luscious lime green flesh. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

A pole bean produces more sequentially over several weeks, making it perfect for the domestic needs of the home gardener. At this time of year, though, it's important to harvest every three or four days and to pick pods before they get too big. This diligence keeps the plant healthy, vigorous and fruitful.

Among standard green beans, Joe is growing the tried-and-true Kentucky Wonder; specifically, a strain called Old Homestead. It's been around since the Civil War or before, and for decades afterward it was the most popular pole bean in America. Even raw, it's tender, fairly stringless and sweet. The vine is robust and completely covers a nine foot bamboo trellis.

One of the consolations of Washington's hot, sticky summer (and this year was as bad as ever) is our ability to grow two heat-seeking, long-season beans that are poles apart, so to speak, when it comes to their character. Lima beans, savored for their seeds, produce hefty, curled pods. Joe is growing a variety named Red Calico, which pretty much sums up the coloration of the mature beans. "It's a burgundy red. Gorgeous," he said. Oh, and you can't tell a bean from its flower: The blossoms of limas are tiny. Those of the asparagus bean, by contrast, are the size and shape of eyelids. They go on to produce the most amazing fruit, pods that hang in pairs. They never get more than a quarter-inch thick but grow like bolos at a cowboy convention. A pod can go from eight to 18 inches in a few days. They are at their best when taken between 12 and 20 inches, though they will grow merrily to 24 inches or more, giving this legume its other popular name, the yard long bean.

The deceptively dainty blooms of the lima bean. Note the baby pods on the pollinated flowers. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Scarlet runner beans, which light up the vegetable gardens of Britain and France, will grow here, but are best planted in late July for a fall crop. They bloom in high summer but the fruit set is basically nonexistent until temperatures drop. The flowers, though, look so pretty and draw hummingbirds. White and bicolored (red-white) varieties are available. Joe is growing the regular scarlet variety this year.

Beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow, they're not heavy feeders but Joe's vines did not get so lush and vigorous by accident: He sowed them in deep, enriched soil and made sure they were adequately watered. Rainfall has been most uneven this summer, and dry spells cause bean pods to grow in an incomplete and distorted fashion. To avoid this, regular watering is a must. Use a watering can or hose wand and soak the roots while keeping the foliage dry, which is good practice for all your veggies.

-- Adrian Higgins; follow me on Twitter.

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Green Beans With Figs and Walnuts
6 servings

Green beans are like the perfect little black dress: appropriate for so many occasions. Dressed with a bit of butter, they are a welcome, simple companion to roasts, steaks, fried chicken, even scrambled eggs. Toss in a few nuts or flavored oils and they are ready for company. With nuts, figs and herbs, they'll be the hit of any dinner party.

Try this recipe with different herbs and nuts, but definitely keep the figs. The dried fruit can be used, but rehydrate them with a liquid -– wine, apple juice, water, etc. -- before adding them to the recipe.

From Smithsonian Gardens education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

2 pounds fresh green beans, rinsed, drained and ends trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 2 or 3 lemons)
1 teaspoon fig balsamic vinegar
6 fresh figs, cut into sixths (may substitute rehydrated dried figs; see headnote)
Freshly ground black pepper
Water, as needed
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted (see NOTE)

Fill a large saucepan three-quarters full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Carefully add the green beans; once the water returns to a boil, cook for 4 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water until the beans are cool to the touch.

Add the oil to the saucepan and return to the stove over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the rosemary, honey, mustard, lemon zest and vinegar; mix well to form a glaze.

Add the cooled green beans and stir to coat evenly, then add the figs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the beans are warmed through and the flavors have had a chance to mingle. If the glaze begins to thicken and stick to the bottom of the saucepan, add water a tablespoon at a time to achieve the desired consistency.

Remove from the heat. Toss in the walnuts and serve warm, or at room temperature.

NOTE: Toast walnuts in a dry skillet over medium-low heat for 4 to 6 minutes or until fragrant, shaking them occasionally to keep them from burning.

Per serving: 180 calories, 5 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  September 13, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Groundwork; Adrian Higgins; Cindy Brown; Joe Brunetti  
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