Beans For Food And Fun

THE REAL DIRT

May 22, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Put away the hammer, nails and Band-Aids. I don't have to build a treehouse.

Whew. My life is no longer in danger.

Forget 911. Cancel the ambulance. I don't need it. My daughter let me off the hook.

She scrapped her plans for a treehouse. No problem, I said, returning the bandages to the medicine chest.

Instead of a treehouse, Beth wants a tepee. A very special tepee, with vine-covered walls and a built-in snack bar.

A tepee made entirely of "pole" beans.

That request, I can handle. All I need to build a bean tepee are some long wooden stakes, a little twine and a handful of pole bean seeds. No hammers or saws. Only sunshine and water. Constructing a bean tepee is simple: Fasten three 8-foot stakes at the top, place the tripod in the garden and plant some beans at the base. Mother Nature does the rest.

The plants twine up the takes, creating living walls of thick green vines laden with juicy green beans. This natural wigwam is a perfect place for kids to play and nibble away.

My role in this production is easy -- and painless. In fact, I've offered to build all the bean tepees that Beth wants.

Anything to keep my green thumb from turning black and blue.

Green beans are a mainstay in most home gardens, where they come in two sizes: pole and bush. Pole bean plants grow vertically, sometimes reaching 8 feet in height. Bush beans grow on compact 18-inch plants in long, straight rows. Native Americans had their own names for bush and pole varieties: They called them "walking beans" and "beans not-walking," and planted the latter in cornfields so the pole beans could shinny up the cornstalks.

Both types are easy to grow, in average soil and full sun. Bush beans are the pick of many weekend gardeners who haven't time to build tepees or trellises. But if space is limited, consider raising pole beans, the skyscrapers of the legume family.

Both beans have distinct advantages. Bush types produce all their beans at once, sometimes overwhelming even those folks who enjoy canning their veggies. Pole beans trickle in all summer and are generally harvested right up to frost.

However, bush beans are hardier than poles and cope with a light frost better than their taller kin. All beans favor warm weather, but one bush variety, Royalty, tolerates cool soil and yields plentiful purple pods that turn green when cooked.

Pole beans have a richer "beany" flavor than most bush types. With careful tending, poles can be grown in containers, on patios and decks.

Bush beans require less mulching than pole varieties. The growing plants form a thick hedge and usually shade each other. This is good. But when these plants become top-heavy with beans, they tend to topple and break, so shore up the stems with extra soil.

All beans are vulnerable to the same insects and diseases. The most notorious villain is the Mexican bean beetle, a copper-colored cousin of the ladybug. A voracious eater, this tiny tan pest can ravage a row of beans overnight, making a skeleton of the leaves. Its fuzzy yellow larvae likes to hide on the underside of the bean foliage to escape overhead dustings of Rotenone powder, an effective organic pesticide.

Garden slugs like to chew holes in the tender bean pods. They usually nibble many beans but rarely destroy the whole pod. This is small consolation to gardeners; who wants to eat the slugs' leftovers? Spraying the plants with diatomaceous earth, another organic remedy found in most garden centers, deters this slimy pest.

New bean seedlings are often attacked by the cutworm, which likes to behead the young plants, leaving a row of bare stems rising mournfully from the soil. Dust the ground with wood ashes from the fireplace to chase off cutworms.

Disease is rarely a problem when plants are watered early in the day. Water the stem area, not the foliage. Leaves shouldn't remain wet overnight and should never be handled when wet.

Soak the bean patch regularly. If bean pods curl up like the letter "J," or contain undeveloped seeds, it's a sure sign that the plants are thirsty.

As for bean tepees, gardeners should disregard their cries for soda. Also pizza. Just squirt the tepees with the garden hose and they'll probably stop fussing.

Then again, maybe not.

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