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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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How green are my beans
Good for you... and the soil, too

I love green beans. And purple and yellow. I love them in their pods, or, months later, dried and cooked. Beans are easy to grow, and even though the experts will tell you otherwise, you can grow "Southern" beans in the Madison area. Green beans are a good source of carbohydrates, and a moderate source of protein, dietary fiber, vitamin C and beta carotene, with small amounts of calcium and other trace nutrients. Because they fix nitrogen they're good for the soil too. If grown right, they'll yield plenty in a relatively small space.

Beans are warm-weather crops and should be planted after the last frost date, around May 15 in our area, when soil temperatures are above 50F. They need full sun and well-drained soil. Incorporating compost and a little manure before planting would do them good, but avoid too much nitrogen (found in fertilizers like fish emulsion and blood meal). That will create plenty of beautiful leaves and very few pods. Rotate the location in which you grow beans each season to avoid disease.

Look for seeds that have not been treated with fungicide available from organic seed sources like Seeds for Change, Johnny Seeds, Park Seed and others. Plant them according to the packet instructions; most beans should be planted 1 inch deep in heavy soils and 1.5 inches in loose, sandy soils. Lima and other smaller beans should be planted 0.5-1 inch deep. For continuous harvest, plant every 2-3 weeks until mid-summer. And no one said you have to plant the same variety each time - try several different kinds each season. Water after planting, being careful not to over-water.

Bush beans are the easiest to grow. Plant them 2-4 inches apart in rows 2-3 feet apart. Pole beans will generally yield more pods, but they need support. Plant them in rows 6-10 inches apart, or in "hills"; that is, in circles. Either way, provide 6-7-foot-tall stakes with rough surfaces to help the plant climb, and train the vines to them. If you use hills, form a tripod from several poles; for rows, tie ropes in between the stakes. If the vines exceed the poles' height you may clip the tops off, which will encourage branching.

For variety, try yardlong beans, also known as asparagus beans, which have very tall vines with very long, narrow pods. Be sure to provide them heavy-duty support.

Water weekly if there's no rain but don't overwater; too much or too little water, as well as excessive heat, will cause the blossoms and pods to drop. It's always best to water in the morning before the air is too hot and to allow plants to dry. Sitting in water can cause root and foliar diseases.

The easiest way to keep beans weeded is to apply a mulch like straw, shredded bark, or black plastic cover in which you cut small holes for the seeds. If gardening without mulch, weed, but be careful - beans have shallow roots that will be harmed if adjacent weeds are pulled. Simply whack the weed tops to weaken them. Don't cultivate when the plants are wet, to avoid spreading disease.

The pods may be harvested in several stages, depending on the intended use. Cut them when they begin to fill with seeds to use them as snap beans. Wait till the seeds have grown, but are not yet hard, to use them as string beans. In both cases, eat them raw or cooked. Harvest continuously before the seeds mature to keep the plant producing. Or let the pods fill and dry on the vine to use them as dried beans. If fall is rainy, they may not last long before developing mold.

If you keep good sanitary practices - especially staying away from beans when the plants are wet - diseases are rare in small gardens. Bacterial bean blight manifests through bright yellow or brown spots on the leaves or water-soaked spots on the pods. Bean mosaic disease causes a light green-yellow and dark green mosaic pattern on the leaves, which curl. Buy mosaic-resistant varieties such as Derby or Provider and remove all bean debris from the garden to prevent these diseases.

The Mexican bean beetle, which looks like a large ladybug, can cause damage. More harmful are its larvae, which are fuzzy, bright yellow insects. If they pose a problem, use NEEM oil spray or some other insecticidal soap that specifies them on its label. To prevent the problem altogether, cover the planted area with floating row covers, lightweight material that protects the beans from insects while allowing light and water through.

Certain bean varieties are more sensitive to cold weather and considered to be Southern and not appropriate for our region. However, I've had good results growing both lima beans and fava beans. Limas should be planted two weeks later than other beans, and you'd be smarter to choose baby limas, which mature earlier than their larger relatives. The seeds are delicious fresh. Harvest and shell the beans when the pods are round, well-filled and firm but still bright green. Cook them for five minutes in boiling water, add spices and herbs and enjoy a delicious dish.

Fava Beans (see recipe) are also known as broad beans. Unlike other beans, they should be sown in early spring, together with peas. They are larger and should be sown 1-2 inches deep, 3-6 inches apart with 24 inches between rows. Again, harvest when the beans are plump and full and the pods still green, or let them dry for later use.

Inch by inch, row by row

A beginner's guide to growing your own vegetables

If all the discussion of "eating local" has prompted you to try your hand at producing some of your own food, congratulations! Here's a very brief guide to what you'll need.

  • Soil. Your back or front yard, a community garden plot, or some large pots. If the latter, read about container gardening, an art in itself.
  • Soil improvements such as manure and compost. Buy them, start your own compost pile, find a farmer with a manure pile (but use only well-composted manure. Hot manure will burn plants' roots).
  • Sunlight. All vegetables need light. Create a garden in areas that get at least six hours of sun.
  • Water. It may rain...or it may not. Most vegetables need to be watered at least once a week, more when the weather gets hot. Be sure to have access to water.
  • Tools. A shovel or spade to turn the soil; a rototiller helps till larger spaces (they can be rented at local hardware stores); a hoe for preparing seedbeds, making furrows, removing weeds, and breaking up caked soil; a rake to smooth seedbeds, clear debris from the garden and spread mulch; and a trowel to help with transplanting seedlings or digging shallow-rooted weeds. Small hand cultivators, which often come in sets with trowels, are helpful for weeding in small areas and between closely spaced plants.
  • Seeds. Buy them in a local store or online. If you can, look for organic seed. The Willy Street Co-op also sells organic seeds.
  • Planting guide for our region. Like many other useful garden-related publications, you can order it from the University of Wisconsin Extension, 877-947-7827, or I also recommend Jerry Minnich's The Wisconsin Garden Guide (Prairie Oak Press).

Don't forget to plant some herbs. And consider planting some flowers, too - especially beneficial ones like marigolds, nasturtiums and nicotiana (they attract polinators and other helpful bugs).

Fava Bean Foul (pronounced "Fool")

This hearty, delicious dish is popular in the Middle East. Serves 4.

For the beans:
Olive oil
Seasonings to taste: cumin, turmeric, cayenne, salt
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups dried fava beans
1 small onion, chopped

For the tahini sauce:
3 tablespoons tahini paste
1 garlic clove, chopped
Salt to taste

To serve:
Hard-boiled eggs
Another onion, quartered
Pita bread

Fry onion in olive oil until limp, add garlic and fry until brown. Add seasonings and stir. Add fava beans and salt to taste and cover with three times as much water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, let cook for three hours or until the beans are tender.

In the meantime, prepare the tahini sauce: mix the tahini paste with enough water to make it the consistency of thick salad dressing. Add the chopped garlic and salt. Keep refrigerated.

When the foul is ready, serve the beans and broth in bowls with a big dollop of tahini sauce. Drizzle olive oil over everything. Serve with a quarter of the onion, hard-boiled egg and pita bread.

Eat a spoonful of foul, a bite of onion, a bite of egg and a bite of pita.

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