bean beauty (plus focus: week three)

Let me tell you one of the main drawbacks to having a precious family heirloom bean and a teeny, tiny kitchen garden.

I can’t try growing any of the gorgeous shelling beans that fill my daydreams.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that I’m determined to grow enough seed to save for several years, in case I end up in a place without a garden.  Yes, I know, this is a nightmarish thought and we’d all rather not go there, even in speculation.  But part of having the responsibility of carrying on a living family tradition is planning for worst-case scenarios.

I plan to grow enough this year to send a generous supply to an organization which tracks and conserves heirloom and rare seeds, just in case.  It may be that my family’s variety is already in their seed bank, sent in by someone else.  In fact, I’ve seen a bean described as “popular in North Georgia in the late 1800s” in a rare seed listing which looks remarkably similar to our own.

This discovery actually made me breathe a sigh of relief, because then I’m not in sole possession of some of the world’s rapidly dwindling seed diversity.

But what if my family’s variety is unique?  Part of the legacy of saving seeds for generations is adaptation, and that bean didn’t look exactly like mine.  Just close.  And my family’s version was grown in West Georgia for at least the last four generations.  Would four generations of selecting for the healthiest seeds, the ones that withstand the crazy droughts in that region, be enough to create a slightly different bean?


In that case, too, wouldn’t I be changing the bean if we end up moving away from this bioregion?  What if I do have a garden, but it’s in, say, the Pacific Northwest?  Would it even perform in those quite different conditions?  It certainly won’t feel at home, which is why I grew enough this year to give a generous supply of the seed (five times what I began with) to my sister.  She and her husband are in the process of improving their property’s soil in preparation for an eventual garden.

I want to grow as much again this season to supply my mother, who has plans to start a vegetable garden when she retires next year.  I have a feeling she’s going to blow us all away with hitherto unused skills.  Mom claims she’s forgotten everything about growing food, in spite of (or perhaps because of) spending the first 21 years of her life on the farm.  But you should see her houseplants and ornamental deck plantings.  Her thumb is emerald.

Anyway, between Mom and my sister, the seeds can stay growing in Georgia, at least, no matter where F. and I end up moving.

Because I intend to grow a large enough patch for these purposes, and because I don’t want to risk any genetic crosses with other beans in the vicinity (rare, but it happens), I cannot grow other shelling beans.  And that’s a pity, really.  They make some of the most beautiful harvests, and I love to store pretty dried beans in mason jars and range them along the open shelf where their various colors and forms may be appreciated.  Much too pretty to be hidden away in the pantry.

I did take the risk of growing purple-podded pole beans last year, because from what I understand it would be visually obvious if any crosses had occurred, and I could immediately eject those from the gene pool.

This year, I plan to grow a prettily-speckled pole lima bean, because I understand limas do not cross with green beans. In the event my information is incorrect, I hope any resulting offspring would have weird reddish splashes or an unusually flat form.

I’m definitely feeling less stress about the whole heritage seed-saving mission this year, as I was able to save so much healthy seed last year.  I won’t be starting out with exactly 25 seeds which sat in an old Taster’s Choice jar in a cluttered garage for over 5 years, experiencing swings of temperature and humidity that are not ideal for living organisms, even dormant ones.  I’ve saved enough to see us through at least a few failed harvests… although of course I’d rather not go through any failed harvests, if at all possible.

I’ve experienced failed harvests twice in my short gardening career, both times gardening in containers on a blazing hot terrace in midtown Atlanta, with a magnificent view of the skyscraper-studded skyline — but no access to running water during two of the worst droughts in my lifetime.

I spent June and July carrying all the water up the stairs in recycled gallon milk jugs and praying for rains that never came.  By August, there was no point in making the climb.

But whenever I ask my “what if” questions, worrying about the unpredictability of the garden, especially the weather, Granddaddy asks me a pointed question, “You know what the farmers in North Georgia say about the weather; don’t you?”

“No, I don’t,” I say.  (Even though I’ve heard it a bunch of times, it is good to hear it again.)

He gives me his lopsided, half-hidden grin.  “We’ll take it when it comes.”

Ah.  Yes.  Elderly farmers can become Zen masters sometimes.  Well, at least when it comes to their area of expertise.

(By the way, this photo is going to be my choice for documenting the third week of a year in focus.  This week some clarity began to emerge for me.  The picture was clear enough to see where this one important area of my life is headed, but the how details are still a bit veiled, precisely like these dried beans seen through their cloudy soaking water.  I’m sure you’ll hear all about it eventually… if I ever get it clear.)

17 Responses to “bean beauty (plus focus: week three)”

  1. Just discovered your beautiful blog and loved this post. It is very inspiring to read of your passion for saving heritage seeds and your family’s heritage along with it. I also loved the comment about your Mum’s ‘Emerald’ thumb!

  2. What a lovely legacy – those seeds.

    • Yes, Lynn, I think so. I sometimes feel undeserving. But that’s a step up from last year, wondering if I was completely inadequate to the task. (Of course, I learned that I was inadequate to the task. Nature basically had to help me every step of the way. ;))

  3. It’s great that your focus is getting sharper. That photo is amazing – the beans are beautiful. Your grandfather is right – take it when it comes. Really great wisdom for any area of life. That’s the hard thing about gardening and life – no matter how prepared we are, nature has her own plan.

    • Thanks for the compliment on the photo, Lynn. It was pure accident, really. I was standing in the kitchen, frustrated that I couldn’t get a good shot of a particular bird out the kitchen window, when I noticed them sitting in their soak water by the sink. Serendipity, really. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed this post and enjoy your writing. I have learned a lot about beans from you and I just love that you are working to continue your particular family strain of beans.

  5. maybe i missed it, but i didn’t realize you came from a family of growers.

    • Well, Alish, I didn’t… quite. That is, my mom & dad were not gardeners in any sense of the word, although they admire nature. 🙂 My maternal grandfather was a farmer for over 50 years, on 100 acres of old family land that are now mostly owned by the bank, and my paternal grandmother was pretty passionate (some say obsessed) about her rose & herb gardens, terraced nearly straight up behind her house in Atlanta.

      So there were gardens around when I was young. The gene or green thumb, or whatever it is, didn’t really kick in until college, though. Summer of my freshman year I decided to plant 24 — count ’em, 24 — rose bushes in my parents’ yard, just because I’d fallen in love with roses. It was quite a steep learning curve.

  6. It is a sweet gesture on your side to see the continuity of a particular strain of beans…. The only beans I grow here is winged beans! ~bangchik

  7. I had never eaten beans much before I moved to the South. My husband loves ’em…he showed me how to make a mean bean soup 😀 He likes it when I make it with pinto beans or butterbeans, and I like it with black eyed peas. 🙂 He saw the picture at the top of this post and got excited lol

    • Kyna, this is step one of making old-fashioned Hillbilly Bean Soup, so-called because it’s a mixture of whatever you’ve got on hand. Although I actually pre-mixed about fifteen different kinds of beans for a proprietary home mix that looks so pretty sitting on the shelves in Mason jars, it can even be given away as gifts. 😉

      Glad your husband enjoyed the picture. I never imagined soaking beans would make an interesting photo, but I ended up loving it, too. 🙂

  8. What a neat post. Not many people can say they are carrying on the legacy of a family bean 🙂

    • No, I guess not, Ginger. It’s pretty rare nowadays… but I have to tell you I do daydream about a time when many, many of us are amateur plant breeders again, enjoying creativity in the garden and carefully tending and nurturing our collective seed heritage. 🙂

  9. Beautiful beans indeed!How wonderful to have inherited bean seeds.Yes they probably would be a little different growing where you are. A lot of plants change tastes a bit etc depending on the soil.
    Wow Mer
    Love that your grand daddy is a zen master.

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