Until very recently, the largest of my raised beds looked like a sickly mess. It had plants with yellowed leaves, vines wrapped around bamboo sticks flopped all over the place, basically a general unkempt appearance. It was my bean garden; more specifically, my dried bean garden. That garden was a special kind of mess because buried within it was unexpected beauty. You could pick one of the brownish or yellowing pods and open it to find shiny perfect beans lined up inside. It was the kind of mess you just had to keep the faith about. To hang in there until the timing was right so you could reap its bounty.
My grand idea to grow dried beans occurred to me this past winter when I was making a ridiculous amount of soup and pouring over seed catalogues. The plan to actually grow them myself was a step that seemed pretty bold to me because how many times do you see dried beans at the farmers’ markets? I’ve never seen them. Frankly, I feel there is an entirely untapped dried bean, well, market. Either that, or nobody buys dried beans, the farmers’ market people figured that out years ago and now here I show up on the scene a know-it-all with grand ideas about dried bean sales. At the very least I think a few people should sell them just to prove the point of their unsellability so people like me won’t have to keep wondering about such things.
Well, the seed catalogue certainly sells plenty of dried bean seeds, (which it turns out is just a pack of dried beans), so somebody must be buying them. I was one of those somebodies. Admittedly, like most of my seed purchases, I over did it. The thing is, seed catalogues have the same romantic zeal as real estate listings or wine descriptions. (My newest favorite real estate listing reads, “Bring your flashlights and your imagination.” Ah-ha! It doesn’t lack electricity, it offers adventure!) As for the beans, you feel like you are going to be a better person if you would just grow this bean, and that bean, and that other bean. If nothing else, it will be the best darned bean you’ve ever baked with, or put in a soup, or eaten, or seen, or grew. Actually, some of the beans have a whole story to tell. The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” variety had me feeling it was a symbol of perseverance and survival to grow those beans. It turns out that was kind of true.
The thing about growing beans specifically until they are dry enough to keep is you have to wait for the plant to ‘go to seed’. In growing other things, that phrase invokes fear. It is something vegetables do when they feel threatened or are past their prime. When flowers go to seed they turn ugly. Something about the process of bearing their offspring renders them utterly unattractive. I believe the expression is used in reference to some housewives for that same reason. Although certainly not by me.
So to sit back and wait for that to happen seems cruel somehow. Seeing beautifully edible pods ripen into actual food that would be good in a stir fry and then instead of picking them, watching them start to turn into something decidedly other, is not for the weak willed. Intentionally waiting for something to go to seed is an exercise in self control. You watch its ripest most edible moment come and go with the faith that the more advanced stage of its life cycle will bring even greater rewards. And in the case of my beans, it worked out.
Unfortunately, however, unlike the beans you just pick and eat, these require a little more work. Those beautiful beans don’t just jump out of those pods on their own accord. They must be removed. Shelled, if you will. After prying open several hundred pods by hand, I started to understand how other methods of dried bean shelling came to be. Which is to say, I can see what lead someone to put them in a bag and stomp on them, or put them in a bag, tie them to a tree and beat on them with a stick. Frankly, you get pretty darned sick of the little suckers after a while.
The reason I didn’t employ one of those methods (threshing, they're called) is because as I am new to gardening, and henceforth growing dried beans, I was unsure when exactly the plant had fully gone to seed. Some pods I waited too long, it seemed, because the seeds were sprouting in there or had shriveled up. Some were still too wet. Yet again, I’d like to implore gardening book writers to be as specific with their instructions as possible so people like me who had never actually seen a bean plant, let alone one going to seed, would know what to look for. For the record, "crispy dry" is not specific enough. Honestly, I’m still not really sure about the whole thing and I’m kind of hoping to find a master dried beaner out there one of these days.
I’m sure a lot of my yield was lost to the ineptitude of said gardener, moi-même, but I still have a bowl of beans to show for it. And no one can pass by it and not put their hands in it. There is something alluring about their smooth multitude.
Now I have an empty spot in my garden which induces mixed thoughts about fall. To me fall sounds like both, “Woohoo, harvest!” and “Hiss, boo winter” at the same time. So I think a fall crop of some sort is in order. However, I am a little apprehensive about starting anything new right now. I no longer have a fresh slate. That garden seems kind of used up since I have taken so much out of it already. I feel like I need to nurture it a little before I ask more of it. So for now it is just out there heaped with the carcasses of the pulled bean plants, spent. But, I’m confident with some TLC and maybe some bat guano it will be ready for action once again.
Yesterday I overheard my cats complaining about their litter box. It was a valid complaint, actually, it was so bad their poo had turned white. I wonder how long that actually takes. My cats are a brother and sister couplet I named Boris and Doris. They were barn cats whose mother abandoned them. I try not to judge. Until I’ve walked a mile in her paws, etc.
Doris was a special needs kitten. She had a traumatic eye injury sometime between birth and when I met her which has left her left eye kind of marginal. She is thinner than her brother and she pukes all the time, so I can’t help but believe her early childhood was a tough one. Boris tends to intimidate her with his strength and size and good eyes. He constantly chases her and overpowers her. But they clean each other’s ears and other parts I wish I never had to witness cleaning so there must be some bond even in what appears to be a dysfunctional relationship.
I bring up my cats not because I am a cat person; or an animal person, as I am not. But only to illustrate that even these cast off animals that don’t expect much out of the world deserve to be taken care of a little bit. Not because of their inherent worth as animals, I am not chasing down deer and checking them for ticks after all, but because when I brought them into my home and thereby prevented them from trying to make it on their own out in the world, I made a commitment to them to provide that which they would otherwise have taken care of themselves.
I made a contract with my cats, albeit unwritten, which is just as well because of course they can’t read. They’re cats. The contract was this: I will take care of you if you keep me company and kill any mice that run across my living room floor. When I take a little too long to clean out their litter box, or to fill up their feeder, I am in breach.
The contract I have with my cats is not the only one I have of course. My name is on hundreds of proverbial dotted lines: my kids, my job, my family, my finances, my friends, my garden, my blog, my home, my husband. Life is full of commitments big and small, written and unwritten. Every last one of them expects a certain level of attention; deserves a certain level of attention. Even if I don’t feel like giving it.
While these commitments can sometimes feel like an oppressive weight, they are at the same time a buoying force that keeps a person involved in life. When any one area threatens to overwhelm, the rest are at my back pushing me forward: “Let’s not wallow. Work to be done. Move along. Just keep swimming.” They take away the ability to sink into darkness when things get really bad by being quietly demanding. As in, ok, you can spend a little while indulging in your sorrows, but then the laundry needs to be folded, dinner needs to be made and the kids need a bath. Actually, there isn’t really time to indulge, because if you don’t pick those cucumbers they will go bad and wouldn’t it be a shame if all those cucumbers went bad because you were just lying there crying? Get up and pick the cucumbers. And the rest of the beans while you are at it.
Consistent advice given to young whippersnappers starting out in sales is to, “fake it till you make it” or “act as if”. The idea being that eventually you will have the confidence you don’t yet feel, but you have to pretend to have it, because, well, you won’t be a very successful salesperson if you don’t. That advice carries over into other aspects of the human experience. Sometimes it has to be enough that you are going through the motions and smiling on the outside, even if the world inside feels like a tropical storm.
I have also heard that “motivation is everything” but I don’t think that is true. Showing up is more important than why you are there. Maybe not to you, but to the people who depend on you.
Recently I’ve been accused that, “fake it till you make it”, puts a false front on things that aren’t really as rosy underneath. The argument is that the down and dirty truth, a.k.a. reality, is inherently better than a cracked façade. The reason I disagree is because negativity has a power of its own. It is a nasty beast that feeds on itself and infects everything around it like an airborne virus. Masking negative emotions with a positive spin has the two-fold benefit of not depressing everyone around you and eventually rubbing off on you to the point that you actually start to feel positive. It’s like magic. And sometimes when reality is really unsatisfactory, a little magic helps.
So I got the cats’ message and cleaned their litter area. I harvested the garden. I’m posting to my blog. Life is pushing me forward, pulling me along, dragging me kicking and screaming at times but I am still here. I am showing up and I am smiling.
I just spent a week at the beach and like life itself, there were sunny days and rainy ones. Luckily, the rainy ones didn’t come until the end when my children and I needed a break from the sun; for our own protection. It is funny how quickly complacency can set in. Not only did I start taking the sunshine for granted, I became more lackadaisical about protecting our skin. Sunscreen started to seem like such a hassle. I just wanted to get to the beach and not worry about that kind of bothersome detail. It is amazing how doing that little bit of work kept things going great but once I stopped putting forth the effort, well, we all got burned.
So the rain turned out to be a good thing for us. We took a ferry ride. There is something odd about driving a car onto a boat. It’s like transportation overkill. Regardless, being on a boat, even in the middle of a parking lot, is heavenly. Why is it that the breeze you feel while riding on a boat is different from any other kind of breeze? Is it a speed thing? A bike riding breeze has its own feel too, now that I think about it. I wonder if outdoorsy people have 100 different ways to classify a breeze, like Eskimos and snow.
Perhaps I am waxing poetically about breezes because they seem to have left my house entirely without a forwarding address. Our air conditioning is not working so we have come to depend on the movement of air to tolerate summer. I’m wondering if I should be alarmed that our local winds have ceased to exist. Perhaps they have lost their will to live in all of this heat. Should I call Al Gore? Surely the least he could do is land a helicopter in our backyard. Maybe that would get things moving.
My garden had its own sunshine and rain while I was away. I’m pretty sure Charles Griffith, who wrote The Little Shop of Horrors (thank you, Wikipedia) grew pumpkins. Those vines seem to be a bit maniacal. They are actually growing into the neighboring raised beds. And if one of those gigantic yellow flowers started talking to me, I’m not sure I’d be surprised at this point. What was surprising, though, was when I learned that when a pumpkin vine snakes out, the vine itself actually develops its own roots. I went to move one so my husband could mow the lawn and it had staked itself down. Creepy! One of the vines has almost made it to our backyard tree. Presumably to eat it.
Tomatoes do the rooting thing too. I know this because going on multiple week long vacations is not compatible with keeping 42 tomato plants well staked. Live and learn.
Speaking of tomatoes, I had read the phrase, “blossom end rot”, repeatedly when I was researching how to grow tomatoes from seed but I never really got what it was. Life is just full of lessons because several of my tomatoes are exhibiting signs of just that. Best named garden problem I’ve come across yet. The guru had told me to bury eggshells under the plants when I transplanted them to avoid that very illness (apparently it is a calcium deficiency problem). And I did for about the first 20 or so, then I ran out of eggshells and didn’t want to impede my momentum. Now that I’ve spent two days pulling off rotting green tomatoes from my plants, my failure to heed good advice is nagging at my soul. Yet again, just a little bit of preventative maintenance can make a big difference in outcomes.
The cucumbers are doing well, though, well enough that my family could probably go until next summer without craving another cucumber. Or beans, for that matter. On another rainy note, though, the soggy beets decided they had enough rain and just keeled over. It was a mass suicide of sorts. That’s what my pole beans looked like too, but I’m pretty sure their supports weren’t strong enough to weather the storms. Even lying down some of the plants are still producing beans.
The beauty of planting a ridiculous number of seeds is I can’t feel too badly about things not making it because there is so much that is. And things keep surprising me. My eggplants (eggplant plants?) seem to have made a revival effort out of nowhere and I even have an encouraging blossom.
My goal was to be able to harvest something from my buckshot approach and I have certainly met it. I have a gallon of cucumber salad in the refrigerator to prove it. And I’ve learned some things along the way as well. A corollary benefit to gardening, if you will.
Between the beach and the garden my life lesson learned these past couple of weeks is that I can’t control the weather, but there are plenty of things I can do to help things flow in a more positive direction. And sometimes a little bit of effort, even the preventative kind, can make a big difference in how things turn out.
I like to throw things.