It was in kindergarten that I first heard the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk." Alas, I missed the most exciting part. While the rest of the class was mentally climbing the beanstalk with Jack, I was back on terra firma, trying to imagine the harvest from such a magnificent plant.
It was more than a plateful, I'll venture.
I always wondered what happened to all the beans on that beanstalk. Did Jack's mother pick them while her son was off on a wild goose chase? Or did Jack simply eat his way to the top?
I thought about that while planting snap beans last week. My seeds aren't magic, but I can't complain. Our harvests are plentiful; we preserve enough for winter.
In 25 years of raising beans, I've yet to match Jack's efforts. Frankly, I don't want to. The side effects are too risky. Consider the damage a falling giant would inflict on a garden.
Fairy-tale harvests aside, snap beans are remarkably easy to grow and rank second in popularity among home vegetable gardeners, according to a recent Gallup Poll. (Tomatoes are No. 1.)
Given good soil, lots of water and plenty of sunlight, beans thrive in any back yard. They are particularly suited for city gardens, in urban soils testing high in lead. The beans themselves absorb less of that contaminant than most leaf and root crops.
Bean pods like to hide beneath their foliage and are thus less susceptible to theft than other vegetables, which also makes them a favorite of city gardeners.
The only controversy surrounding snap beans is their nomenclature. What do we call them? String beans? Sorry, they've been stringless for 100 years. Green beans? No, because yellow varieties have been around for 150 years. Snap beans, then, because they snap in half when picked fresh from the garden.
(Supermarket beans will not do this. I once spent five minutes trying to break a bean in half in the produce department. I bent, twisted and squeezed it to no avail. And when I tossed it back into the bin with the other beans, it bounced.)
Bean plants aren't fussy, producing bumper crops when spaced as close as 1 inch apart. They can survive without much fertilizer. In fact, beans help to pump nitrogen back into the soil. Indians knew this and planted beans alongside their corn. The beans fed the cornstalks, which in turn provided support for the beans.
Man has raised beans for 10,000 years, but the Aztecs were really good at it, harvesting more than 5,000 tons of pole beans a year.
There are two types of snap beans, pole and bush. Pole beans are different from bush beans in that the plants grow straight up on vines. Bush beans are planted in long rows. American Indians had their own names for bush and pole beans: They called them "walking beans" and "beans not walking."
Pole beans have the beaniest flavor, bear all summer and are less prone to insect damage. Support pole beans on a trellis of vertical wires or cord. For some reason, horizontal supports appear to bewilder the plants.
Or make a tepee out of several 8-foot stakes, and then sow the bean seeds at the base. With a little luck and a lot of water, the vines will cover the stakes and create a living tent for the kids. Certainly, growing a bean tent is cheaper than buying one from -- dare I say it? -- L. L. Bean.
Bush beans tire more quickly than pole beans. Bush beans do their job for several weeks, then stop producing. I think they were named for the president.
Bush beans are a favorite of the Mexican bean beetle, which slips across the U.S. border each summer and makes a beeline for my garden. Left unchecked, this voracious, copper-colored varmint and its fuzzy yellow larvae can demolish a crop in mere days. Hand-picking them is a chore. Organic insecticides (rotenone and pyrethrums) work better.
But the best defense against beetles is to blanket the beans with a floating row cover, or agricultural cloth. Light and moisture pass through the cloth, but insects cannot.
Bean beetles are said to be related to ladybugs, the good guys of the garden. I refuse to believe this. I'm just getting over the fact that Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar were kin.