In mid-May, with highs in the mid-50s and lows in the 40s, a Maine gardener has to have faith that by the second week of June the soil temperature at a 4-inch depth will be above 60º F, the minimum temperature for planting pole beans. Acting in this faith, Marjorie and I sowed pole bean seeds in 3-inch pots on May 17, knowing that germination and seedling development are swift and that, after three weeks in a warm coldframe, these transplants will quickly lose vigor. They must be planted in the garden by the second week of June.
We opted for growing transplants of pole beans, rather than direct sowing them, to thwart the mysterious creatures that devour emerging cotyledons (“seed leaves”) during the night. Cutworms and slugs are the likely suspects. Come morning, all that remains of each seedling is its stem, severed at the soil line. Three-week-old transplants, their hardened stems wrapped in newspaper collars that extend an inch above and below the soil, will grow unmolested. Of course, planting three-week-old transplants in early June, rather than direct sowing, also means picking fresh beans three weeks earlier, assuming warm weather comes.
Last year we grew one variety of Romano pole bean, Kwintus, and enjoyed eating the flat pods in a favorite stir-fry recipe (see below) as often as we could harvest a double handful of young pods. This season we are growing eight varieties to see if we can detect any differences in taste and texture. This trial will not take up much garden space, only a couple of four-pole teepees with a different variety assigned to each pole.
The varieties in our little pole bean trial include Helda (matures in 60 days), described in the seed catalogs as a flavorful variety that yields big, flat, stringless pods averaging 9 inches in length; Musica (67 days), a bright green bean averaging 7 to 8 inches long; Supermarconi (80 days), a variety that grows to 9 feet tall with violet flowers; Marvel of Venice (78 days) with yellow pods; Italian Snap (67 days) which grows to 6 feet tall; Garden of Eden (65 days), an Italian heirloom that grows to 8 feet tall and does well in drought and cold nights; and Northeaster (56 days), a variety named for its suitability in short-season climes. There is a month’s difference in maturity date among these seven varieties, so the harvest of young pods should be nicely spaced.
The eighth variety is an heirloom pole bean, an Italian Romano variety called “Uncle Charlie’s Beans”. The oval amber-brown seeds were a gift from a friend and fellow gardener, Tony Burkart of Franklin, Maine, who described them as “among the best I’ve ever grown.” Tony got his first seeds from a neighbor, Susanne Grosjean. Susanne’s uncle Charlie, a child of German immigrants who settled in Calaveras County, California, in 1880, was given some of the beans by an Italian family who had emigrated around the same time and had the neighboring ranch. Uncle Charlie shared seeds with Susanne’s father who grew them for many years, first in Maryland and then Massachusetts. Susanne has been growing Uncle Charlie’s Beans in Maine for the past 20 years, sharing the seeds with gardeners in Hancock and Washington Counties. Marjorie and I feel truly honored to be included in the list of Maine gardeners growing this heirloom bean.
Pole beans are among the least demanding garden crops with only a few simple guidelines for success, most dealing with water. Beans demand even moisture, especially when flowering and developing pods. Be sure they get an inch of water every week, either from rain or the hose. To minimize diseases, avoid wetting the foliage when watering and avoid harvesting and other work with the plants when the foliage is wet from rain. Mulching the plants after they develop the second set of true leaves will reduce weed seed germination and help conserve soil moisture.
Avoid the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Because beans, in collaboration with soil bacteria, can fix atmospheric nitrogen for their use, applying additional nitrogen will push vegetative growth at the expense of flowering and fruiting.
I look forward to reporting on the results of our pole bean trial this fall. Meanwhile, for those of you who will also be growing pole beans this year, here is a simple recipe that Marjorie and I enjoy at least once a week during the bean harvest.
Sesame Romano Beans
1 tablespoon canola oil
1-1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 pound fresh pole beans, washed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Warm a large skillet or wok over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, pour in canola and sesame oils, then place whole pole beans into the skillet. Stir the beans to coat with oil. Cook until the beans are bright green and slightly browned in spots, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in soy sauce; cover, and let sit about 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately!