In our ongoing hands-on homestead experiment in self-sufficiency, my husband Bob-O and I tend to expand our garden, both in size and vegetable varieties. This past season, we tried several different vegetables with great success. But our main earnest effort was what he called “The Grand Dried Bean Experiment.”
More than 20 years ago, my gardening neighbor gave me a collapsible garden trellis. This structure enables me to hang vegetable netting or chicken wire to support climbing plants. A few years ago, I started looping garden twine over the top bar and dangling each end into a pole bean plant. This worked wonderfully well. Once the beans found the string, they grew lushly all the way to the top—8 feet on my trellis. At the end of the season, I just cut the twine and composted the dried vines and twine together.
Every year, I grew several neat-sounding pole varieties: Rattlesnake, Hidatsa Shield Figure, Good Mother Stallard, and a very large, white mystery bean given to me by the people we bought our dog from. I can never keep up with picking the fresh beans, so I let some dry out every year, getting about a half gallon of a mixed dried-bean medley. This provided us five or so meals made with our own beans.
This past spring, we were ready to try growing a crop that would fill our dried bean needs for at least a year. However, one thing we’ve found in our years of gardening is that you can’t always count on a good harvest. Some plants grow well each year—and some don’t. I save seed from the plants that do very well, but even these can have lackluster yields at times.
We sampled several different kinds of dried beans, looking for one we liked enough to eat year-round. We only tried bush-variety beans, as making trellis for as many plants as we planned would have been daunting.
We chose the Vermont Cranberry bush bean, liking its flavor and creamy texture. A New England open-pollinated heirloom, this bean has a reputation for reliable harvests. A lot of its popularity comes from its ability to produce very well in areas with short summers. Dried, the variety stores exceptionally well. The maroon-colored beans are mottled with darker red markings. The Vermont Cranberry beans can be eaten at any stage of development, but we were interested in drying them as a staple.
As is usual in our house, we planned early for this project. Bob-O tilled and made hills in five long rows in our lower garden. I laid out hose with a 1 gallon-per-hour dripper every foot. I had about 130 planting spots.
Mail-order prices for organic open-pollinated heirloom Vermont Cranberry seed were high, so I bought a couple of pounds of these dried beans from my local organic food store’s bulk bins. I brought them home, put a handful in a pint jar, and rinsed them a couple of times a day. About four or five days later, they were all sprouting. I took those out to my greenhouse and potted them, along with some others I had soaked overnight. I still only had enough plants to fill half of the rows.