Beans, beans, beans!

Joe wasn’t kidding about the beans.

“I’m not seeing any flowers,” I whined in early August, gazing up at my pole bean plant that had already climbed eight feet up its trellis. No flowers meant no beans anytime soon. “Just wait,” said Joe (the garden educator for the Neighborhood Farm Initiative Kitchen Gardening Program), “soon you’ll have more than you can handle.” Pole beans race to the sky Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style. The climb upward lasts for weeks before they produce their bounty, unlike bush beans that stay reasonably grounded and produce decent harvests more promptly. But Joe was right; one week without warning, out popped the little buttery-yellow flowers, and two seconds later my trellis was dripping with beans. Beans that I would snap off and pop in my mouth with one hand, the other hand still working to harvest more beans beans beans. I could fill a gallon sized bag with all the green beans in one day’s harvest. Before I knew it, I was googling “bean and okra casserole” – something my New England-raised self never thought I would do, but that the realities of gardening in September drove me to.

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My mother helping to harvest the pole beans in my plot at the Mamie D. Lee Community Garden. It takes a village!

Pole beans are the most fun vegetable to harvest; picking beans feels like a treasure hunt for the hanging, camouflaged fruit, making them a fun crop to grow in school gardens and engage students with! I have the fantastic job of Sustainability Coordinator and Cooking and Gardening teacher at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School, in Washington, DC. We have a wonderful school garden where students plant, tend to and harvest a variety of vegetables for tasting and using in cooking classes. I’ve found that when students pick it themselves, they are far more likely to want to stuff those vegetables in their mouths!

 

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Second grade students at Mundo Verde Public Charter School and their bountiful school garden bean harvest!

Eventually, I realized that I was glad my pole beans bode their time. To explain, let’s talk about diversity. Diversity is a good thing everywhere: in human communities and in ecosystems. You want diversity in your pantry, on your plate, and in your 12 by 12 foot garden plot if you’re a community gardener like myself. By diversifying the crops you grow, you ensure that your garden is a robust workforce of colleagues with different strengths and weaknesses.  Take Steve, the tomato, who excels at producing delicious fruit that everyone raves over in July and August. But he needs a lot of support from administration in the form of trellising, pruning, fertilizing and watering. Steve is also not so good at withstanding pests, diseases, bad weather…or really anything. (Seriously, why do beginning gardeners choose to start with tomato pots? They’re the most colicky plants.) Anna, the kale plant colleague, on the other hand is productive in the cooler weather months: May, June, October, November. She doesn’t need quite as much support from leadership as Steve does. But Anna really crumbles under the cabbage moth siege that inevitably comes in July. Really, Anna, every single year? Thank god for Petey the radish, that mild colleague who isn’t particularly popular, but he’s very reliable and can churn out a good product in a month’s time when everyone else is lost in the weeds. And we come to Beatrice the pole bean plant – that colleague you’ve had to let bide her time while she works on this lofty project with no sign of stopping. But whenever you start to think it was a mistake to include Beatrice on the team, you remember that she’s a nitrogen-fixer, which means she has the special talent of taking that all-important nutrient nitrogen out of the air and “fixing it” in the soil. Other plant colleagues gratefully absorb the added nitrogen through their roots to foster their own growth. Kind of like the colleague who’s always ready to cheerfully run to the Starbucks to get everyone a latté. And after all, Beatrice is not taking up that much space since she makes herself thin and tall, climbing up instead of spreading out like most other plant colleagues in the garden. Then finally, when you’ve almost forgotten about her and her projects, Beatrice gives you the full results of her workload in the format of 35 emails per day. But you’re glad to have the onslaught because the other colleagues have tapped out for the summer or are only starting to rev up again for the cool fall season.

At this point you’re probably saying OKAY, ENOUGH WITH THE RANDOM METAPHORS ABOUT BEANS. However before I go, let me share my favorite green bean recipe I discovered this season. Trust me, this one you have to try…because bacon. And maple syrup. ‘Nuff said.

Enjoy!

Green Beans with Bacon and Pecans, by Alice Currah in Savory Sweet Life.

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Author: Savory Sweet Life
Recipe type: Vegetable
Prep time:  10 mins
Cook time:  5 mins
Total time:  15 mins
Serves: 4-6
A nice green bean side dish made with a maple syrup and Dijon mustard dressing. Tossed with crumbled bacon and pecans, this side dish is a great way to dress up green beans.
Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 6 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
  • ¼ cup chopped candied pecans
  • salt and pepper
Instructions
  1. Emulsify maple syrup, olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and garlic in a food processor or blender, and set aside.
  2. Blanch green beans by boiling them for 3-5 minutes until crisp. Drain the beans immediately and transfer them to a large bowl of ice water. Wait three minutes and drain. Allow the green beans to air dry or by patting them with a paper towel.
  3. Toss the beans in the dressing and top them off with the crumbled bacon and pecans. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

 

 

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Trade you my lettuce for your cabbage?

I’ve come to a conclusion: community gardens are the perfect places for extroverts to get some alone time.

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Author enjoying alone time in her garden (…but grateful for the neighbor who took the picture!)

I came to this conclusion after initially feeling left out when our garden instructor, Joe, proclaimed that gardening was a perfect hobby for an introvert, because “you get two gardeners together, and they can talk shop forever!” he said. Well, after being in the Neighborhood Farm Initiative community gardening program for a few months and clocking many revitalizing hours just me with my plants, I can say that gardening – particularly community gardening – is the perfect setting for an extrovert like myself to get the alone time we also need, but while basking in the energy of being surrounded by fellow farmers who also are “just with their plants.”

Many friends have expressed surprise at how much I rave about my time gardening with the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s program. “Don’t you do that for work already?” they ask quizzically. While it’s true that I am a Cooking and Gardening teacher at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School and I find my time gardening with the students extremely rewarding, it is certainly a different vibe from being “just with the plants.” In fact it often looks like this:

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Exhibit A: The school garden bean harvest turns into a school garden mass feast.

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Exhibit B: Tidying up the garden turns into a soil and weeds free-for-all.

As a single, child-less extrovert, I tend to overbook my evenings and weekends with social activities. But at least twice a week it’s just me and the garden for a few hours. I crouch down to get at plant level and lose myself in methodical weeding, searching for just the right radishes to harvest, or suckering the tomatoes.

Then, from time to time I resurface from my garden plot bubble, and see what’s going on with my neighbors. It always feels a little like waking from a dream to me.

“What great lettuce!” My plot neighbor, Doienne, compliments me.

“Thanks!” I beam.

“Do you think I should harvest my cabbage?” she points to her own plot. We inspect together the cabbage and discuss the pros and cons of harvesting now versus later. Well they’re kind of small….but the cabbage moths are picking up, you don’t want to lose it to pests…

“You know truthfully, I don’t really care for cabbage anyways, I just wanted to see what it would be like to grow it!” she laughed. Eagerly I offered to trade her some of my extra lettuce for her cabbage. As we made the exchange I had the feeling that we were enacting a scene as old as humankind; the sharing of our food. After all, before the days of NFI gardening classes the only way people learned better ways to grow their own food or added unexpected diversity to their garden harvest was through their neighbors!

“Man, there is hardly an inch of bare soil in the sweet potato plot” I said, gazing at the plot a few rows down from us. Sweet potatoes take up so much space with their sprawling almost weedy vines that NFI had relegated them to their own plot instead of giving a few to each farmer.

I was disappointed that the sweet potato slips in the school garden had for some reason not taken, and I was afraid that it was too late in the season to get any real tubers this year if I started over.

Doienne said thoughtfully, “You know, where I’m from in West Africa, it’s actually more common to eat the leaves of the sweet potato plant!” I tore one off and chewed slowly. The dark green heart-shaped leaf was far softer than I had anticipated, and very mild in flavor. I took several cuttings of sweet potato vines to take back to the school garden, excited to share this new discovery with my students.

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Author taking cuttings from the NFI sweet potato garden bed for replanting in the school garden. To get them to reroot, I pulled off all the leaves from the vine except for the ones at the very tip, then planted the vine just below the surface along the whole length with just the tip sticking above ground. Roots will soon sprout out of the open wound left by the removed leaves.

Thanks to our exchange in the garden, even if I don’t get full tubers this season, I’ll be sure to cook with my students a sweet potato vine stew of sorts. Next time I’ll ask Doienne her favorite recipe from home!

Doienne said good-bye and I knelt down by my tomato plants once more. Garden bubble resealed, alone-time recommenced.

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Joe, NFI Instructor, showing Kitchen Garden Education students how to sucker their tomato plants. (We might be laughing at the word “sucker,” who knows.)

Suckering tomatoes is perhaps my favorite gardening activity. “Suckering” a tomato means that you remove the extra stalks (or suckers) that have sprouted between the primary tomato ‘trunk’ and it’s fruit-bearing branches. These sucker stalks are essentially starting mini tomato bushes off of the main one. The problem is that leaving these extra limbs of the tomato plant can make the plant a chaotic place. When too many branches shoot off the trunk, resources are drawn away from the production of fruit. The plant also becomes too crowded and aeration is reduced, leading to greater risk of disease in the plant. I gaze empathetically at one of my tomato plants. My busy life, full to the brim of ambitions, commitments, and activities can sometimes seem like a tomato plant with suckers shooting off every which way, draining energy from the main trunk. But I’m learning to simplify, to choose more wisely where to channel my energy, to nip away the excess suckers, and recognize where my true strength (my trunk) lies.

Shaking my head in amusement I stood up, leaving my garden bubble. I had drifted into the deep end of philosophizing; always a sign that it’s time to go home and cook dinner. And cabbage was on the menu!

 

Blog post by Tara McNerney, 6/29/16

 

A Muddy Start to Growing My Own Food

“Oooof!” I gingerly rested the hoe I was clutching in the mud next to me and breathed hot air on my numb fingers. Very few patches of me were dry at this point, I was covered in mud, but I had a dopey elated smile on my flushed face. I assessed the progress my friend Jenn and I had made on our 12 x 12 foot plot at the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s multi-acre garden in Fort Totten.

Well, the crab grass was almost gone.

I extended my gaze out across the impressively large urban farm parceled into many small individual plots. My gardening neighbors seemed to already have beautifully mounded and mulched beds. I looked over at Jenn, who in the past muddy hour had developed an intense crab grass persecution mind-set. She was currently whacking at the stuff with a shovel, yanking it by the hair out of the ground, shaking the good rich soil off and tossing it into a pile that was reaching thigh height. Whack, pull, shake, toss. Splash. This rain just would not let up. Hard to believe that only a week ago we were in sunshine and unzipping our coats while working in the garden.

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The “before” photo. Jenn is looking very happy and dry as we are still feeling good about our odds against the crab-grass!

 

 

Jenn and I are a part of the Kitchen Garden Education Program, a course on how to grow food as you actually grow your own food alongside your peers at the Mamie D Lee Community Garden at Fort Totten. Every couple of Saturdays all the participants congregate for a two hour gardening lesson with Joe, NFI’s incredible Garden Educator who is both an encyclopedia of a naturalist and a talented humorous story-teller.

Though I could honestly listen to Joe tell me about soil health, vegetable history, and the importance of mulch all day long, today after our drizzly lesson my chill had reached a point where I thought about casually mentioning to Jenn that we come back another day to finish the weeding. But no, we had put it off long enough, and there was the ego factor: we couldn’t look like lazy cop-out gardeners in front of our fellow Kitchen Garden Education classmates! And the truth was, frozen fingers or not, this was probably the most fun I had had in a long time.

“You know,” I joked to Jenn as I picked back up my hoe, “maybe next time we should all just pitch in and hire a horse-drawn plow to dig up all the grass at the beginning of the season.”

“I think this is part of their strategy though” our plot neighbor chimed in, a young woman who was impressively tackling the care of her plot on her own. Most of the gardeners I saw at the plots around me were in families, tag-teaming and partnering up on the hard jobs. “They want us to really get in touch with the land, feel the effort it takes to grow food.”

And she was probably right. Joe started our class that day by having all the new gardeners share something that had surprised them thus far about the experience. I felt my heart go out to each budding farmer as we went around the circle. Something about learning to work the land side by side is such an earnest endeavor, it bonds you to your neighbor. I love the community of the other gardeners at the Fort Totten farm. We seem to represent all different backgrounds and ages, but we’re all bending and pulling and patting at the soil, all of us getting sweaty and muddy and sprayed with water, sharing the hoses and shovels and exchanging that shy and happy smile that says “look what we’re doing, isn’t it awesome!” (Hopefully I won’t be changing my view on all this feel good comradery once our plants are tall and casting unwanted shade on each others plot…but I don’t think so!)

“I was surprised how much I thought about my garden during the week” one gardener shared. “I even woke up in the middle of the night from weeding dreams!”

I said: “I’m most surprised how different it feels to be farming in the earth, not a box. I’m so used to gardening in raised beds in the city, it just feels like a totally different experience to be cultivating the land under your feet.”

And I have to think: if I’m already this attached to a bare plot of soil, I can only imagine what it will be like as things start to grow!