Thursday, April 03, 2014

Saving Beans

Tonight, I'll be teaching a group of home gardeners how to keep bean varieties pure. These gardeners are helping me grow out and maintain the bean collection I inherited last week. As I was putting materials together to share tonight, I realized I should share the same information here so the information is public, available to any who'd like it.

Basic rules of seed saving:
1.     Do everything you can to ensure the plants are healthy. They’re the mothers of your seeds!
2.     Collect seeds from early flowers rather than later. The younger plant is less likely to experience mutations that may negatively affect your seed stock. I like to keep seed from the second or third sets of flowers on bean plants.
3.     Mark fruit you’re keeping for seed with twist ties or other tools. This is particularly important if you’re using mechanical isolation (see below).
4.     Do not keep seeds from malformed fruits or sick plants. Always, you are trying to preserve the ideal.

How to isolate:
Beans are perfect flowers and usually pollinate themselves; therefore, many people do not worry about protecting them from cross-pollination. However, we live in an area with lots of bumblebees who often tear open flowers to reach food. I have had little success maintaining bean purity without some form of isolation. Each of the following forms of isolation has proven successful for me.

Physical: This is the easiest form of isolation. If you’re the only person growing beans on the block, and you grow only one variety of bean, you’ve already isolated your variety so that the seed will be pure.

Mechanical: Since I grow lots of beans at one time, this is the strategy I most frequently use. It’s fiddly, but it works. I gently bag flower stems with organza drawstring bags before the flowers open. If a flower on the blossom spray has already opened, I snap that flower off and cover the rest. This guarantees that whatever beans develop on a flower stem will be isolated from cross-pollination and will have pure seed. Try to collect seed from as many plants of your variety as possible—the more the better to help maintain varietal genetic health. Once the pods have set, remove the bag to allow the pods to grow normally and mark the flower stem with a twist-tie or similar.

Temporal: Use time to help you isolate beans. You might try growing your variety in the fall instead of having it share a yard this spring with another variety. With temporal isolation, your goal is to make sure the variety blooms at a time no other bean nearby is blooming.

Wait until the pods are dry and crackly before removing pods from the vine. After you shuck the seed, let the seed dry further on a plate until they are dry enough to “crack” rather than “smash.” Once seed stock is thoroughly dry, place in a ziplock bag or other airtight container, and freeze for three days to kill any bean seed maggot larvae. After you remove the bag from the freezer, let it defrost completely before unsealing it. This helps keep the moisture balanced so there aren’t extreme shifts in moisture, which greatly limit the seeds’ viability.

I keep all my dry beans in lidded jars in a dark cabinet. Keep them away from shifts in temperature and light. You can also keep your seed beans in the freezer—that helps keep in them viable for longer.

Bean Vocabulary:
Bush: Low-growing variety with no twining stems.
Cornfield: Pole variety suitable for growing in a cornfield, up corn stalks.
Common: Phaseolus vulgaris, snap and dry beans.
Cutshort: Descriptor for varieties whose seeds are packed so tightly inside the pod that the ends are “cut short.”
Dry: syn. “Eating,” descriptor for beans are grown for their dried seeds, not their green pods.
Greasy: Descriptor for varieties that lack the normal super-short, fine hairs on the pods that make them appear velvety—these pods appear “greasy” because they are naturally hairless.
Half-runner: Medium-height variety that has some twining stems. (This is confusing terminology, as a runner bean is a different species, Phaseolus coccineus, but a half runner is still the same species as a common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris.)
Lima: Phaseolus lunatus, a different species than common bean. Limas grow better in heat than common beans do.
Pole: Tall, twining variety that needs trellises and support.
Runner: Phaseolus coccineus, a different species than common bean that won’t set pods in heat, but does grow beautiful, tall plants with red, white, or orange flowers.
Shelly: A stage between snap and dry when the pods are mostly dry and the seeds inside full-size; remove the beans from the dry pods, and eat them this stage after braising them in butter and stock. Mmmmm.
Snap: syn. “String,” descriptor for varieties grown for their fresh pods. Many dry beans make decent snaps, too.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

One Fruit, Two Marmalades

Let's start with the marmalade that's a sonofabitch. How could that be?

Think of it this way: A Spaniard, a Basque, and a Scot walk into a bar and plays drinking games until she hits the floor, because she's only one but she's been drinking for three.

That's this marmalade.

It's very assertive in flavor and dark in color, but when spread on toast, it snaps and sparkles. The smoke from the scotch and the heat from the peppers add to the fiery effect. Though I haven't tried it this way yet, I think it would work really well as a glaze for pork or chicken.

Seville Orange Marmalade with Chiles and Scotch
You will need:
2 1/4 cups Seville (bitter) oranges
juice of one lemon
1 cup muscovado sugar
1 cup brown sugar
7 cups sugar
3 piment d'espelette dried peppers (or similar, medium-heat peppers), split, seeds removed, and minced
3 ounces smoky, peaty scotch
(Cooking directions are below the ingredients for the second marmalade.)

The second marmalade is more refined but still pleasantly drawly. Without making the marmalade any more alcoholic, the brown sugar and vanilla bean amplify the bourbon.  Slather this on whole wheat cream scones or tender, fluffy biscuits. Use it as sweetener in a modified Old Fashioned.

Seville Orange Marmalade with Vanilla and Bourbon
You will need:
2 1/4 cups Seville (bitter) oranges
juice of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
8 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
3 ounces bourbon

To make either marmalade:
Wash oranges well, cut them in half, and juice them. Don't discard the seeds or the juice; you'll need both. Pull off any membranes that still hang on the insides of the peels, and slice each peel cup in half, then crosswise into strips as thin or wide as you like. Place the rinds, juice, and 10 cups of cold filtered water in a large bowl. Tie the seeds in cheesecloth or a tea bag and drop the package in the bowl. Let sit overnight.

Pour the mixture into a large pot, bring to a boil, then simmer until the peel is very tender and the contents have reduced by 1/3. This takes a while: over an hour, maybe up to two. With a slotted spoon, fish out the bag of seeds and press it against the side of the pot to release any remaining pectin. Discard the seed bag.

Stir in lemon juice, the chile or vanilla bean, and the sugars. Raise the heat and stir until you've dissolved the sugar. Boil for 20 minutes or so, until the marmalade reaches setting point. Let cool for a minute or two, stir in the scotch or bourbon, and can according to USDA directions.

Both recipes make approximately 6 1/2 pints of marmalade.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I love seeds. Seeds tell me stories of cultures and families and soils. In a fold in fate that makes me grin, someone with whom I've had a few seed exchanges recognized my passion and passed my name on to another person, who through the death of a seed saving neighbor, was suddenly rich in historic bean seeds, and soon thereafter, I became rich in these seeds as well. Yesterday, a box of 33 varieties of beans—many quite rare, a few more familiar—arrived in my mailbox.

As soon as I heard these beans were coming my way, I recruited a team of local gardeners, some experienced, some new, and one even a former student, to help me maintain this collection by growing it out. We'll meet next Thursday at a local pub, where I'll distribute seeds, tools to perform small-scale mechanical isolation, and information on how to maintain varietal purity.


Tucomares Chocolate Runner

Herren Bohnli



Tennessee Wonder

If the internet didn't exist, it is very likely all this history wouldn't be sitting in my lap. Yet, the internet does exist, and through it, in 2014, I have a box with a shy estimate of 2,500 years of seasons—droughts, floods, freezes, bounties, and lean years—right here with me on my couch in my house on the edge of a canyon.

Sunday, March 09, 2014


The citrus is beginning to perfume the neighborhood, lots of South African bulbs are blooming, and the earliest roses are hinting at the show to come. It's a beautiful time of year.

An unknown bromeliad species that never looks like much until it blooms, then ooooooo-baby.
The March garden chores that happen in my neck of the woods:

1) Pot up tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings. By the end of this March, tomatoes can begin to go in the ground. 

The Albuca circinata is blooming.
2) Dig in the cover crops to prepare beds for summer planting. This year, I planted agricultural mustard as a cover crop in two beds to act as green manure and to help combat root knot nematodes. Yesterday, I turned over one of the beds so the mustard can decompose before I plant out the tomatoes.

3) Weed.

4) Start a second round of pole beans.

This year, I grafted four pieces of Hawaii apple to my Golden Russet. Every scion took. 
5) Find something to do with all the Meyer lemons. Make marmalade, Meyer lemon liqueur, preserved Meyer lemons, Meyer lemon aigre-doux. Dry them, make curd, make cookies, send them to friends in cold places.

6) Prune back winter damage and worn-out on perennials and blooming shrubs for a good mid-spring show.

6) Fertilize citrus, roses, perennials, garlic, onions, everything.

Four years ago, I planted scarlet flax from seed and I've never needed to plant purposefully again; now I just thin for where I want it.
7) Thin the self-seeded annuals for the best show later this month and through the spring.

8) Check the irrigation lines before it gets hot to make sure the gophers haven't cut through them and all the drips are functioning.

The apricots are struggling this year with so few chill hours. This branch of Goldkist has bloomed, but most of the rest of the tree and its sister, Blenheim, hasn't bloomed.
9) Curse the damn, mother-licking gophers for being assholes.

10) Thin the fruit on early-setting stone fruit.

11) Weed some more.

Royal Lee cherry has a nice set of fruit, the most yet.
Minnie Royal is loaded. I can't wait for cherries.
12) Turn over the compost pile and deliver completed compost to the awaiting beds.

This rose pre-existed my tenure in this garden, and it is a fragrant, silvery showstopper. Later this month, it will be loaded with buds.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Desert Bluebells

Phacelia campanularia, aka Desert Bluebells, a California native wildflower, grows readily from seed, glows blue and burgundy, and seeds itself in new and interesting places year after year. Seeds are often available on your closest rocky hillside in the late spring. 

Or, do like I did. Receive the seeds as a gift from your very-talented-gardener-mother (or father or aunt or friend, whatever your equivalent). Tuck the envelope into your backpack for safekeeping on the trip home. Promptly forget the seeds are there. Continue to forget for a couple years, then find them one day, releasing a weird squeal-groan combo that simultaneously expresses delight at finding what was lost and guilt for losing it in the first place. Plant the seeds that fall. The following spring, collect seeds from the plants that resented your forgetfulness the least, and toss them around the yard. Then, wait for this year's show of plants that have fully forgiven.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


When people complain about oxalis invading lawns, usually they're whining about Oxalis corniculata, Creeping Woodsorrel, a vigorously crawling, low growing plant covered with tiny yellow flowers that eventually turn into explosive seed pods, scattering more creepers every direction. Others complain about the South African weed that covers California hillsides in the late winter—Oxalis pes-caprae, Cape Sorrel or Goat's Foot—a lush-looking plant with green, heart-shaped leaves spattered purple, and quarter-sized satin-y yellow flowers. The long roots attach to small bulbs deep underground that are hard to find. Pulling them out never seems to pull the bulb out. Both these species of oxalis are edible in small quantities, and their leaves and flowers add a pleasant lemony flavor to salads or garnishes.

I understand the dismay over the Creeping Woodsorrel, as it is never beautiful and grows so thickly it overtakes other plants. Yet, I have mixed feelings over Goat's Foot. It's so pretty. When it blankets a freeway bank or untended hillside this time of year, the whole area gleams deep green and gold. I pull lots of Goat's Foot, but some gets away from me every year, and right now, a small patch is blooming in the front meadow. I'll wait until it has finished its gorgeous bloom-season to pull it out, then kick myself later for waiting so long.

Oxalis pes-caprae flower

Oxalis pes-caprae leaves

While these two species give the genus a bad rap, there are many other species that are dreamy. Between stepping stones in a bed of bearded iris, Oxalis fabaefolia grows, nearly flat to the ground, spreading slowly and manageably. The leaves look just like rosettes of fava bean leaves, and the profuse fall-blooming flowers are half-dollar sized and the same, satiny yellow as Goat's Foot blossoms.

Oxalis fabaefolia

In another part of the bed, Oxalis tetraphylla, var "Iron Cross" grows, with large four-leafed fans stained bloody in the center. Iron Cross never blooms much for me, but I'll never get over the thrill of finding four-leaf shamrocks in my own yard.

Oxalis tetraphylla, var "Iron Cross"

Right now, the Oxalis purpurea, var "Garnet" is blooming. This is its second year and first bloom in my garden, and I'm happy to see the small patch is spreading underneath one of my apple trees. The plant is worth growing for its velvety purple, rounded leaves, but the 80's-lipstick-pink flowers and their twirling-skirt blooming habit make this species even sexier. The plants stay low to the ground, as you can see in this picture where it mingles with m√Ęche, a salad green that has naturalized in my yard.

Oxalis purpurea, var "Garnet"
Oxalis species work well in my garden of alkaline, well-draining soil and mild winters. They receive very little care and not much water, but they make themselves right at home here. There are more species and varieties I lust after: pale-moon blossomed Oxalis luteola; with flowers like candycanes and leaves like palm trees, Oxalis versicolor; and any of the dramatically colored variations of Oxalis obtusa

What's the difference between the weed and the dream? Is a weed something that reminds us that we don't have control? Maybe this is the year I should give up the fight against Goat's Foot and simply enjoy it. Or, maybe not. Oxalis tests my own definitions and desires.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

2013 Bean Report (Better Late Than Never)

For the last couple years, since I've been participating in the Rancho Gordo "Bean Buddies" program, which pairs home growers with heirloom beans to test in a variety of conditions, I've been writing up my dry bean harvest. I'm late for the 2013 report: a) It's clearly not 2013 anymore, and b) I've eaten a bunch of the harvest so I can't take pictures of complete quantities.

Before I begin, I'll explain that this year had its challenges in all parts of the vegetable garden. All beds were infested with root knot nematodes that greatly reduced the yields of most plants. (I've taken several steps to organically take care of the nematode problem, which appear, at least so far, to have some positive results. But, more on that in another post.) So, my yields may be low, but it also may be of interest to see which varieties succeeded even when challenged.

I'll start with the beans I received through the program.

Negro Delgado de Arbol:
Negro Delgado de Arbol did not grow like a tree but like a weed. It grew to about five feet tall, no taller, but was lush with small leaves and loaded with flowers. I grew one tower of these beans, but in future seasons I will grow more. This variety was unique among those I grew this year in that most the pods set and ripened in a short window of time, so harvesting was a breeze. The whole plant loaded up with pods and promptly ripened to dry. And though the beans themselves are small, there are so many of them. I harvested over a pound of dry beans from one ten-plant tower.

As a cooking bean, it's wonderful. The beans are small so they need just a short soak, not an overnight bath, and they cook up sweet and quickly. They aren't a creamy bean, but instead, fudgy. They're delicious. There's a pot on the stove right now, bubbling away with half an onion, a clove of garlic, and a piece of pork belly skin from our recently smoked batch of bacon.

Cacahuatle Putla:
Cacahuatle Putla vines grew to be short runners with huge leaves in my garden, and they produced long, fat pods that were full of beans. Unfortunately, the plants seemed to suffer from the nematodes, so they didn't produce many pods. The ten vines produced a quarter pound of large, gorgeous peach, fuchsia, and maroon beans. Though I haven't tasted this variety yet, I sure enjoy looking at them.

Frijol China de Putla:
This was my mystery bean of the summer. Though nearly ever seedling was attacked by sowbugs and eaten to nubs, I was left with one very healthy plant. Early, this plant was clearly not a common bean, P. vulgaris, but appeared to me to be a cowpea, Vigna unguiculata. At first I thought it would run like its Asian long bean relatives, but the plant sent out only a few short runners and stayed low and bushy like the field pea it is. It had butterfly-like lavender and pale green flowers and sported long pods that dried to silver and contained pretty, tan and puce speckled small beans. The one plant gave me several ounces of dried beans that I haven't tried eating yet. If I like them, I'll try growing them out again, even though I have such a limited gene pool. Cowpeas and long beans deal so well with the heat, it's worth finding varieties that I like to grow out in the deep summer.

The rest of the beans are either keepers that grow every year in my garden, or varieties that I received from other heirloom vegetable gardeners.

Here's a mix of beans, mostly Blue Cocos (which I grow primarily as a fresh bean but make a very nice, creamy dried bean), that came in a few spurts after the main harvest so I just tossed all together. I'll use them in some kind of soup.

Blue Shackamaxon:
I've written about this bean before. It's a great bean for lots of reasons, its productivity first and foremost. Though I bagged the blossoms of the pods I saved in 2012, I must not have bagged well enough, because this year's grow-out showed a little more genetic diversity than I expected to see. Usually the beans are shiny blue black, but this year, there were a few multicolored blue and jade green beans and a few rust colored ones as well. I bagged very well this year and saved only seeds that were true to type, so we'll see how next year's grow-out does. The ten plant tower gave me a pound and a half of dry beans, half of which we've already eaten.

Tarahumara Dark Purple:
I love this bean that comes to my garden every year. It feels like it was meant to grow in my soil, sun, and alkaline water. It produces loads of pods that dry blonde but hold vibrantly colored beans inside. This year, I pushed the harvest too early and shelled lots of not quite dried beans, which led to lighter colored dry beans. Next year, I'll be more patient. The ten plant tower produced just over a pound of dried beans.

Mt. Pima Burro and Caballito:
Some of these beans are two colors, others three. They're all beautiful in shades of fawn and cream. The vines weren't happy with the nematodes and produced about a third of a pound of beans. I haven't tasted them yet.

Lynch Collection Lima:
I learned this year that nematodes and limas do not play well together at all. My lima vines were sparse and ratty all summer. They still gave me beans, but not a bounty, only a quarter pound from a ten plant tower. This is my second year growing this variety of lima, and I really like it. The diversity of color is stunning, the petite size pleasing, and the taste sweet and slightly herbaceous. I hope by this summer I will have won at least part of the nematode battle so I can have a bigger crop of these lovely beanies.

Beans, you never bore me.