Plants We Love: Black Turtle Beans

I have one sharp memory of harvesting and winnowing dry beans as a young child in the family garden, perhaps becuse the process involved jumping and stomping on a truckbed full of dry pods on a chilly fall day. Most years, though, our family garden did not include dry beans, and this year was the first I've grown them myself. 

Once we decided to include dry beans in the garden, it took considerable restraint to limit ourselves to 4 or 5 varieties. Heirloom beans are one of those crops with a diversity of colors and patterns that draws me in to a point perhaps beyond reason; the flavor descriptions only furthered the obsession. I poured over the bean section of the seed catalog and found myself wanting to collect these varieties the way birders accumulate species on their life lists.  And yet, this was new to me, the first time I'd planted them in a garden of my own.  Most backyard growers I know don't bother with dry beans.  We've been missing out. 

A double handful of Black Turtle Beans, and two stray Jacob's Cattle Beans, straight from the garden.  

Dry beans are one of those crops that often cause people to ask "is that really worth growing yourself?"  It's a question worth asking.  Buying enough fresh basil to make our year's worth of pesto would be drastically expensive, so certain crops like that make clear economic sense.  Cooking beans, on the other hand, are already one of the most affordable foods available, especially in bulk.  If you credit any sort of value to your time, you probably aren't going to put away much savings by growing your own black beans.  But of course that isn't the only reason we plant. 

One of our goals this year has been to go beyond just vegetable-growing, to really think about and learn what it takes to feed ourselves completely, to grow the staple calorie and protein crops that provide the base of the diet.  When we think about the feasibility of feeding the world--filling the billions of bellies--these kinds of crops seem important to know and understand. 

This is a food you can raise yourself and easily eat throughout the year, without any special means of putting-up. No canning, freezing, or special dehydrating needed. Once they dry on the vine, it's actually quite quick to crush the pods and blow the peices off the top of the heavier beans.  Or you can sit around and shell them by hand if you happen to be having a long conversation with a neighbor who also isn't used to sitting with hands still. Now we have quart jars filled on the shelf for winter, and another box of dry pods that can just wait till we have time for it.  In the end, these were one of our easiest crops.  

They were remarkably simple to grow, essentially taking care of themselves after initial planting and a few passes of weeding and mulch.  By mid-summer they were a thick jungle of leaves well capable of holding out against any weeds--almost impossible to walk through, but that was fine since they didn't really need any attention again till fall, when we collected dry pods from the frost-killed vines. 

The beans pictured here, and appearing most frequently on our table lately, are the Black Turtle Beans, grown from seeds from the High Mowing catalog.  They are the most-mainstream of the bean varieties we grew, in part because black beans are our favorite bean for burritos, a frequent food on our table.  I was skeptical of whether there would be much taste difference between our home-grown and store-bought black beans.  It's not the level of difference that we notice between purchased and home-grown tomatoes, but it's there.  The beans cook more quickly (probably because they did not get an additional heated drying period on a warehouse after harvesting), and we think they do have a richer, deeper flavor. Though they'd be cheap to buy, growing them ourselves was well worth it. 


Plants we Love: Delicata Squash

In our garden, Delicata Squash have a special nickname.  Though they are one of our favorite varieties of winter squash, we refer to them mostly as "unauthorized cucurbita." Some plants we love for their flavor, their easy growth, heavy yields, or their striking colors.  The Delicata has all that.  But some plants we also love for the story they carry of their origin, or our personal discovery of them. The unauthorized cucurbita is one of those, with a history special to us.  

When we were first courting, I was teaching at a small college in Oregon, and Noah was  working in a wide range of places in Asia and Africa, based out of Malaysia.  It's not easy to woo someone from several continents away, but we managed, exchanging long and involved letters by email for months.  The first tangible letter came in a mysterious package Noah mailed between assignments when back at his home base in Kuala Lumpur. He'd alluded to something coming in the real mail in the electronic letters, but I had no idea what to expect.  The box, when it arrived, released a potent mix of exotic smells into the air of my Oregon porch:  cloves from Madagascar, farm-cured vanilla beans, coffee from Tanzania. All were carefully labelled in plastic bags with the bright yellow tape I now know also marks all Noah's photo gear. Deep inside the box was one very official and cryptic sheet of paper with the US customs stamp and a record of one confiscated item, listed as "Unauthorized Propagative Material: Cucurbita spp."  I am enough of a botanist to know that must mean seeds of something in the genus Cucurbita.  But that includes melons, cucumbers, and a whole host of varieties of squash and gourds. I wondered what special exotic forest-edge seeds he might have tried to send, and what their fate was at the US border.  

It turned out that in fact they were nothing so exotic, and of all the things in that package, the only one that actually originated in the US.  Knowing that spring was coming in the Pacific Northwest, he'd enclosed a packet of seeds he'd received while filming a farmer training class put on by friends in Wisconsin:  Delicata Squash seeds officially grown, packaged, and labeled by High Mowing Seeds, with a USDA stamp. They were certainly the most official and approved item in that box, but the only one held up at the border. 

Luckily, on returning to the US later that spring, Noah brought another packet to replace them, and I planted them in the small garden of my new Forest Grove home.  With such a history, and a tendency toward metaphor, I kept an extra careful eye on those plants as they grew in the raised bed garden that summer: a slow start, one seedling eaten by slugs, a bout of powdery mildew.  But they grew right through all of that, through tough clay soil and no small number of weeds. Through some smokey hot August days and into the drizzling Oregon fall.  By the time Noah moved permanently back to the US and joined me in the above-garage apartment we referred to as The Treehouse, we had an impressive basketful of striped oblong "unauthorized cucurbita" fruits: the first Delicata harvest.  

This year, we planted an entire 100-square foot bed of them, covering them with protective cloth through early and late season frosts, still with a watchful eye.  They produced at least 100 pounds, and we have entered full squash-eating season with delight.  They are one of the best squash for simply cutting in half and baking in the oven, then eating with butter and salt, a dash of pesto, or cheese, or maple syrup, depending on your squash-eating inclinations.  You might not expect romance in a winter squash. I never did.  But it's the surprises in the garden and the growing that are the best gifts. 


Plants we love: Gift Garlic

We moved to Missoula last year just a few days after pulling our garlic from the ground in Oregon.  We packed two burlap coffee sacks with green garlic and stuffed them into the U-Haul as the final cargo.  Opening the door of that moving van when we arrived unleashed a powerful and unique smell mixture: garlic, green coffee beans, and waste vegetable oil (fuel for our car). We hung it to finish curing in the entryway of our small summer sublet apartment.  

When it came time to plant garlic last fall, we realized we wanted a crop a good bit larger than what we could spare from our own stocks without being garlic-poor all winter.  We also though it would be good to get something we knew for sure could handle a solid Montana winter.  We got a gift of a mix of hardneck varieties from some friends in Wisconsin who came to visit and even helped us plant last fall.    

Garlic drying in the barn of friends in Wisconsin.  They brought us bulbs to plant from the stock they have been growing for years.  Photo by Noah.

We also asked around for good varieties and good deals from local farmers and were lucky to get ahold of Josh Slotnick just after his crew had planted their garlic at the PEAS Farm, and he gave us a great deal on ten pounds of seed garlic.  He had to think hard about what variety it might have started out as, and we’re still not sure.  He’s been saving the best cloves to replant each year for so long--more than fifteen years--that we just knew it must be pretty well adapted to our area.  It's a softneck, which makes it good for long storage.  The Wisconsin garlic blend were hardnecks--larger cloves with stronger flavors that have added a powerful kick to our pestos this summer.  

If you got a bulb of garlic in your last coffee mailing, it was one of those Missoula softnecks.  We tucked the gifts into the boxes with the special satisfaction of sharing something straight from the soil here.  It grew in the smaller of our two gardens all summer, the first thing that went into the ground in our time on this farm, and the first thing to emerge as a sign of spring.  It cured and dried in the hayloft of the barn this summer and hadn't left the farm till it went to the post office in your box. It's wonderful to cook with of course, but if you haven't eaten the whole bulb yet, consider planting a clove or two for your next summer. It's garlic planting time in much of the US; we'll be getting ours into the ground again sometime soon. We might branch out to a few different known-and-named varieties, but we’ll also stick with some of our unnamed gift varieties that allowed us to store up our largest garlic harvest yet, this year. 

This year's garlic harvest, waiting in the shade to be spread in our hayloft to dry and cure.  We were a little late to harvest, but hope it will still store well.