The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Seed Savers Exchange’ category

Conti’s Marconi Rampicante Romano Bean

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

The name is musical and surely doesn’t sound like a Vermont heirloom bean, but indeed it is, with a history approaching 100 years of being grown in Barre. It just goes to show that there really was some cultural diversity in Vermont in the 20th century, even though, at least when I was growing up, cultural diversity was not much discussed or encouraged.

pods of conti's marconi bean

I received this seed from Alan LePage, a market gardener in Barre, who received it from one of his neighbors, Constantino “Stan” Conti. Stan’s parents brought the seed with them to Barre sometime between 1914 and the mid 1920s when they emigrated from the stone-quarrying village of Lettommanoppello, in eastern central Italy, to live in the granite-quarrying town of Barre, central Vermont.

“Rampicante” is Italian for “climbing” and this is a rampantly climbing pole bean for sure. I’ve had some jump their 10 foot poles and climb into an apple tree. This vigor extends to their pod production as well – the flat Romano pods average 10 inches long at maturity, and if kept picked it will keep bearing until the frosts come. But, what is amazing about this bean is the superb flavor and crisp texture, even when the pods reach 10 inches and more. I can understand why the Contis brought the seed with them and continued to grow it in Barre all those years.

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Conti’s Marconi Romano behind some “wild” (non-bulbing) perennial fennel.

The “Marconi” part of this bean’s name was probably given as a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi, an inventor known as the “father of radio.” He was evidently widely celebrated in Italy with many streets in towns and cities all over the country named after him. There is a Marconi sweet pepper, and a quick internet search reveals Supermarconi Romano pole beans, Supernano Marconi Gold, White-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans, and Black-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans being offered by seed vendors. If anyone knows anything for sure about the history of "Marconi" beans in Italy, I’d love to hear about it.

I find it interesting that there are no Romano beans, or anything resembling them, listed in The Beans of New York. Published in 1931, Beans of NY was part of a WPA project to catalog vegetable varieties known in the Northeastern US at the time, and it’s pretty thorough. I’m sure there were many other folks besides the Conti family who brought Romano-type bean seed with them from Italy when they came to the US in the early 20th century, but evidently these beans were not well known outside the Italian-American community.

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Romano beans as a category are snap beans, stringless, with flat, wide succulent pods. They are great examples of the plant breeding proficiency of Italian gardeners and farmers. Consider that many vegetables now considered quintessentially Italian – tomatoes, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peppers, and corn – had their origins in the New World and were unknown in Italy until the 16th century

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The seeds

While its culinary aspects are excellent, for a bean, Conti’s is a bit of a nuisance to get seeds from. What makes it so tasty – the pods’ ability to stay tender and crisp – means that the pods are not inclined to dry down well and protect the seeds from mold at the end of the season. Plus, the seeds are thin-skinned and prone to splitting open in the drying process. Our autumns tend to be cool and damp, so the pods with mature seeds have to be brought inside and dried with gentle applied heat. I hang them in net bags near our wood furnace, and turn them daily. The extra attention is well worth it. This is one of the finest tasting green beans you’ll ever come across.

Two Remarkable Tomatoes

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Dan and Val McMurray, or Grunt and Grungy as they were known on the Homegrown Goodness Forum, were fellow extreme gardeners in British Columbia. Their presence is sorely missed, but many of us were gifted with seed and good gardening advice from them, and they live on in our gardens and memories.

Tomatoes were a particular passion with them. When I realized the extent of their tomato endeavours (I believe they grew hundreds of varieties) I had two questions to ask: Of all the varieties you have grown, which are the best tasting early tomatoes, and which are the longest keeping tomatoes?

Burztyn

I promptly received seed for several varieties of each category in the mail. In trialing them, two real stars emerged that adapted well to our climate and have become “must-grow-every-year” tomatoes for us.

Burztyn was aquired by Dan and Val in 2004 in a trade with someone named Jetta in Denmark. There may be another variety in the Seed Savers Exchange that goes by the same name, but is indeterminate. Our Burztyn is determinate. To add to the confusion, the word “burztyn” means amber-colored in Polish, and there are a few varieties floating around from eastern Europe and the former USSR called Amber or Amber-Colored. I may have to try to get a few seeds of the SSE’s accession to grow out to see if they are the same variety.

Burztyn a few weeks after picking

Here’s Dan and Val’s description: “60 – 70 days, det., regular leaf, blemish free amber colored fruit, 2-4 oz. Very good tomato taste, more sweet than acid. A must regrow here. 9 lbs/plant.”

We found it to be nicely early, and the flavor is such that when it’s ripe there is a tendency to ignore other ripe tomatoes. Burztyn seems to have a certain amount of disease resistance – it can stand up to late blight a little longer than some, though it’s certainly not immune. It also keeps a month or so after picking, which is very handy in our climate where frosts can strike any time after September. Burztyn can be purchased at Tatiana’s Tomato Base

Giraffe Abricot has very tall vines

The second tomato is not a luscious tomato by any stretch of the imagination, but no other tomato I know of stores as well. It’s called Giraffe Abricot (or just Giraffe), giraffe because the plants are very tall and elongated (it requires about 6 feet of vertical support), and abricot because of the apricot color (yellow blushing orange) of the ripe fruits. I don’t know exactly who Dan and Val got it from, but it is a Russian commercial variety bred at the VI Edelstein Vegetable Experimental Station.

Giraffe Abricot picked in early September
for winter storage.

Here’s more about storage tomatoes.

Now, as I write this at the end of January 2013, I still have 3 Giraffe Abricots left that were picked in September of 2011. I wouldn’t seriously plan on keeping them into a second winter as part of our food scheme, but I am amazed by their shelf longevity. Nothing was done except to pick them carefully into a flat lined with newspaper (as seen in the photo above), and put the flat on a shelf in our cold room. In all honesty, after 16 months in storage, they are not really palatable – at this point they completely lack acidity and they are rather pallid. You can see the color difference in the two photos.

Giraffe Abricot in first winter of storage.

Through the first winter, they do have enough flavor to make a positive contribution to such culinary endeavors as omelettes, sandwiches, quiches, etc., if they are thinly sliced, but forget about salads, sauces or salsa.

This tomato is about storage, not flavor. It has better disease resistance than the other long-term storage tomatoes I’ve grown. Those others have better flavor, but when it comes right down to it, the better flavor doesn’t do me any good if they are going to promptly rot out. We’ve been dealing with late blight for the past few years, and I’ve found that for Giraffe, if I pick the fruit at the first signs of LB on the plant’s foliage, the fruits escape infection. That’s how it was when I harvested this batch in September 2011. I was not paying close enough attention this past fall, and the blight got into the fruits, so I lost the entire crop.

Giraffe Abricot in second winter of storage.

So, of course it has occurred to me that maybe a cross of these two gifts from Dan and Val would result in an improved storage tomato. I think I’ll have to try it this coming season. A Burstin’ Giraffe perhaps?

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.

Kelley’s Pixie tomato

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

LB hits

Late blight on Pixie, August 18

The summer of 2009 was a disaster for our tomato crop. It was consistently wet and cold until the end of August, and late blight showed up the first week of August. We had over 70 tomato plants, comprised of 16 different varieties. I always try a “new” variety or two, but this year I had decided to run more extensive trials for tomatoes with storage potential. (More about that another time.) Once late blight hit, I spent a lot of time “grooming” – picking off affected tomato and potato foliage, and burning the trimmings with the flame weeder. I was hoping to stave off the disease long enough to get a few tomatoes ripe of each variety to at least collect seed, and maybe get some sense of the new varieties’ storage potential. Seed for many of the varieties is not readily available.

I don’t know if my grooming efforts were really worth it. It was a lot of work. Late blight is very deadly, but we were able to get ripe fruit and therefore at least some seed from all but two varieties. On the bright side, I got to see how all these responded to every tomato and potato grower’s worst nightmare.

colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

Colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

The two varieties that held out the longest and were able to mature a decent amount of fruit (considering) were old friends, Kelley’s Pixie and Red Currant. Both have been evolving in our gardens for more than 15 years. Pixie produced enough, combined with the odds and ends of more heavily afflicted tomatoes, for us to can about 12 pints of thin tomato sauce, which is better than nothing. There were also enough Pixies and Red Currants for us to have a daily fresh tomato ration into November, without getting into the real storage tomatoes.

Pixie was originally a very popular hybrid released by Burpee in 1971. Burpee no longer produces it. I got the seed in 1993 from SR Kelley, a market gardener in Derby VT, on the Canadian border. He “true-lined” the Pixie hybrid, meaning he saved seed from it, and grew out successive generations so that it became a stable open pollinated variety.

colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

There are gardeners who think hybrids are evil, but that’s a simplistic view of the issues around creating and maintaining genetic diversity in the garden. I avoid buying hybrid seed for many reasons, but I can appreciate hybrids as works of art, not to mention potential genetic material to play with.

Kelley’s Pixie has larger fruit than the catalog descriptions of the Burpee hybrid, but the same rugose leaves, and very heavy stemmed, compact plant architecture, which makes it a good candidate for container and greenhouse growing. It is determinate, cold tolerant, among the earliest, and is the best tasting very early full sized OP tomato we’ve grown. It has a nice sweet complex flavor, and tastes pretty good even in years when our lack of sun and warmth causes other tomatoes with ambrosial flavor potential to taste like cardboard.

LB hitsLB hits

Both the plants and the fruits are very uniform, and quite bullet-proof, late blight not withstanding (NOTHING is immune to late blight). Pixie has no cracking, cat-facing, or other fruiting vices. I break all the rules with them, and get away with it. I don’t stake them. I grow them in the same place year after year. (They do each go into a big hole filled with compost).

Some years I mulch Pixie with grass clippings if we have enough, but it’s a trade off because an organic mulch makes the soil cooler, and here growing tomatoes is mostly about beating the cold. But, with no staking, the fruit lies on the ground, which can be really asking for trouble in a wet year, so a cushion of mulch insures a crop of nearly 100% unblemished fruit. I no longer use plastic mulch for growing. Plastic does work well for tomatoes, but I’m always trying not to buy stuff, especially petroleum stuff that will soon end up in the landfill. I do still use black plastic in the compost area on the large pile of weedy things that need to be killed before going into the compost pile.

Pixie’s fruit is moderately firm and moderately juicy. It’s great fresh, and it also keeps well short term, say 6-8 weeks after picking; and we can them. This is an all-purpose tomato, an “old reliable” in our garden, and I’m quite grateful to SR Kelley, who knew a good tomato when he grew it.

Ground Cherry – Cossack Pineapple

Friday, February 27th, 2009

OK, here’s another installment about my issues with plant names. Did I hear somebody say “Get a life!”?

The ground cherry Cossack Pineapple came to me through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Bill Ellis (PA EL B). It was put into the SSE by seed-saver super-hero Will Bonsall (ME BO W), who has the god-like power (in my eyes) to get seed directly out of the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. This particular Cossack Pineapple is the USDA’s PI285705, and came to them from Warsaw, Poland.

Cossack Pineapple Groundcherry

I can say for sure it is a member of the genus Physalis, which makes it a close relative of tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) and the ornamental Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi). All of these plants have calyxes that form a papery envelope around each fruit, and are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

There is a lot of confusion about Physalis species. My Cossack Pineapple is either P. peruviana (aka P. edulis) or P. pruinosa (aka P. pubescens). The USDA lists this accession as P. peruviana, and calls it an annual. However, Taylor’s Gardening Encyclopedia calls P. peruviana a tender perennial, and P. pruinosa a hardy annual. In his booklet Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes and Tomatillos Craig Dremann has wisely avoided the annual/perennial issue, except to say that the genus includes annuals and perennials. I have been growing this plant for more than 20 years, and I don’t know. Doesn’t make much difference to me – even if it is a tender perennial, in my climate I have to treat it as an annual. Google Cossack Pineapple and you’ll find this cultivar name attributed to either species. Some of the photos and descriptions match my plants, some don’t.

Cultivation is the same as for tomatoes: start them early inside, transplant after frost danger, feed well. I usually have volunteers, but they bear a lot less fruit than the transplants. The plants are upright (2-3 feet) and spreading. The fruit ripens and forms sugars well even in cool temperatures, which is probably why it became quite popular as a commercial crop in the Ukraine and Poland. This strain has really delicious, sweet subacid fruit with none of the off-flavors often associated with ground cherries. We eat them raw out-of-hand, in salads, and they make fantastic salsa. I love the combination of Cossack Pineapple with cilantro and fresh hot peppers. The trick is to be sure they are completely ripe, which is easy to discern because the husk turns brown and the fruit falls to the ground. They also keep really well. The plants will survive a light frost, so at first frost, I pick all the fruit into a basket, hulls and all, and keep them in the pantry (65 degrees F). Most of the unripe will ripen in the basket, and if you aren’t keeping up with eating them as they ripen, they will dry very nicely. We ate the last of ours this year in early February, but if the harvest had been bigger, we would still be eating them out of the basket.

I think the name Cossack Pineapple may be one of those very generic variety names, which frequently happens with off-the-beaten track species. I do wonder if this plant’s wild origins were in the Andes (if it is P. peruviana), or in eastern Europe. Could it have been collected on a Vavilov expedition to South America, and introduced into the agriculture of the USSR in the twentieth century? I’d love to know more.

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Littleton pole bean, dried

Here’s yet another horticultural bean from my neck of the woods. Thankfully, I have not heard or seen it referred to as a Cranberry bean. This is one I acquired in 1985 by participating in Seed Savers Exchange growers’ network. BN-17, as it is also known, was originally put into SSE by Ernest Dana of Etna, New Hampshire.

The name refers to Littleton NH. Plant breeders extraordinaire Elwin Meader and Albert Yeager referred to it as an “old New Hampshire heirloom” in Breeding New Vegetable Varieties (1957, NH Agriculture Experiment Station). They chose it to cross with their own Flash in a quest to breed a bush horticultural bean with bright red color, not only on the pods but also on the seeds at the green shell stage. They also wanted pods that would pop open easily. At that time, horticultural beans typically went to market in the pod when the seed was mature, but not dry, and the seed color at that stage is usually off white with only a hint of the streaking and color that becomes pronounced when the bean seeds are dry. The characteristics sought from Littleton were the large seed size, earliness and prolific production. From Littleton x Flash they created Shelleasy.

Littleton bean in bloom

Littleton is not a bush bean – it won’t stand up on its own; but, it’s not a typical pole bean either – the vines only grow to about 4′ long. Beans with this kind of plant architecture are sometimes referred to as twiners or half-runners. Like full sized pole beans, half runners have fallen out of favor. They’re not suited for mechanized harvest, and most home gardeners don’t want to be bothered with the extra work of providing support. But those whose make the extra effort discover that these types of bean give higher yields in a given amount of garden space than bush varieties.

I was always intrigued by the concept of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) grown together in hills, with the beans climbing the cornstalks. I tried this several times with various pole bean varieties only to have the beans strangle and smother the corn. When I finally tried half-runners on the corn, it worked…

You may notice in the photo below, there is no corn. In the past few years we have had a severe raccoon problem, and I can’t chance growing these rare beans where they’re likely to get ripped and trampled.

The beans growing in a bed with squashBean pods at the green shell stage

Littleton growing on short poles in a bed with squash.

The same season I got Littleton through the SSE grower’s network, I also grew out another half-runner, Mohawk Horticultural, SSE BN-220. Very little information came with either Littleton or Mohawk. For Mohawk it was simply “80-105 days, Indian, 1825 ” and that the original source was ME/HO/L (ME = Maine). After growing both for several years, I have to say that they are identical as far as I can tell.

I have an educated guess and a strong gut-level feeling about Littleton’s origins. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont was Abenaki territory. West of Lake Champlain was Mohawk territory. The Abenaki engaged in trade with the Mohawks, so I think it is reasonable to assume that Abenakis were growing this bean and calling it Mohawk in some cases. The area around Littleton NH was in the heart of the territory of the Cowas Abenakis, my ancestors. I cannot prove the connection between the Cowas and this bean, but I feel it.

Unfortunately, my grandparents’ generation was pretty phobic about anything that might be perceived as indian-ness. At the time they were starting a family racial prejudice reached a real crescendo with Vermont’s eugenics program. So, there was a major erasure of culture, and I can only piece random fragments together and guess…

Dolloff pole bean – a northern Vermont heirloom

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Dollof pole bean, dried

And now, I’m proud to present my favorite bean of all, Dolloff pole bean. I “discovered” this one in 1985 in West Burke, Vermont, just a few miles from where I grew up. I guess I could have named it Gray, after Hattie Gray, who grew it for 60 years and gave it to me, but I like to go back as far as possible with names, and Hattie’s mother got it from a Roy Dolloff in Burke Hollow sometime in the 1920s. Hattie remembered walking with her mother to Burke Hollow and back to get the seed when she was a girl.

Dolloff is for green shell and dry bean use, and is excellent either way. To illustrate, Hattie was locally famous for her baked beans served at church suppers. She laughed when she told me about how people kept asking her for her recipe. She gave the recipe out freely, but people were usually disappointed because they inevitably tried it with some other bean, and the recipe was nothing special in itself. It was all in Hattie’s beans.

Actually, Hattie called them Cranberry pole beans, but that term was widely used around here for any bean with horticultural type markings (see this post about Cranberry beans). Dolloff, however, does not have the usual horticultural bean shape. As you can see, it’s more disk-shaped, like a lima bean. Therein lies another tale. I am 99% certain that they are descendants of Horticultural Lima, as described in Beans of New York c.1931, page 72 (oops, have I revealed what a geek I am… ?). Anyway, here’s the entry:

Horticultural Lima Syn. Giant Horticultural. This variety is an anomaly among beans, and showed certain characters that led to the name and gave support to the belief that that the variety came from an accidental, or field cross, between Dreer Improved Pole Lima (Challenger) and Horticultural Pole (Speckled Cranberry) or Dwarf Horticultural which stood near each other on the place of J.H. (Alex J.-Tracy) Hodges, Pepton [sic, Ripton], Addison Co., VT. In 1885, Mr. Hodges found a pod of six beans, from which Horticultural Lima resulted. He grew it two years and placed most of the stock in the hands of O.H. Alexander, of Charlotte, Vt. The latter sold the variety to Childs, who introduced it in 1891. Ferry listed it in 1893 and after two years tests commended it highly, as did Gregory in 1894. It was said to be as early as Dwarf Horticultural and to yield good crops of fine quality green-shell beans. Gregory could not recognize any of the lima flavor with which others credited it. It was listed by 20 seedsmen in 1901.

The possibility of a cross between beans of the two species Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus lunatis is denied by botanists and plant breeders, all evidence is lacking in the case of Gregory’s Curious Pole, and nothing definite supports Burbank’s claim of a similar cross. We are forced to conclude that certain peculiarities, possibly due to “sporting” of one of the horticultural varieties, or to a cross between tall and dwarf varieties in that group, misled Hodges and others into believing that a cross had taken place with Challenger as the male parent. Somewhat similar beans have arisen from inter-varietal crosses between tall horticultural varieties, like Boston Favorite (Goddard) and Crimson Beauty, which have seeds similarly marked, but long, kidney-shaped or oblong.

Plants of Horticultural Lima were rather small for pole type, not much branched, moderately vigorous; leaflets large, coarse, wrinkled like those of Dwarf Horticultural; flowers starting near ground, of medium size, white. Pods in clusters, 4 to 6 inches long, almost straight (gently curved in Gregory’s figure), with long-rounded ends and short, curved, almost central tips, flat type but quite plump, swollen over beans and constricted between them, dark green, occasionally marked purple. Seeds 3 to 6, about shape and size of Dreer Lima (Ferry), shape between kidney and lima, that is, very broad oval with straight eye-line, about 1/2 inch long, 3/4 as wide, quite plump, marked like Dwarf Horticultural, but ground color slightly darker.

There is a variety offered by the Seeds Saver’s Exchange called Golden Lima which is probably also descended from Horticultural Lima. I have not grown it, but the photos and description look very similar to Dolloff. Dolloff however, has been through more than 60 years of evolution in the extreme rigors of growing in Burke Hollow and West Burke, two of the coldest cold hollows in Vermont (USDA zone 3). Hattie used to can most of them at the green shell stage, I think perhaps because she had trouble getting them to all mature to the dry stage reliably in her cold and frost-prone location. I generally don’t have that problem. We’re only about 10 miles from West Burke as the crow flies, but we probably have a week longer season between frosts.

Dolloff has vines that will grow to more than 8 feet,
so it needs serious support.

Dolloff is a vigorous grower and bearer, so adequate support is needed. When we cut ash for firewood in the late winter, I lop off the long, more or less straight branches to an appropriate length for this purpose. I can get 2 seasons out of a pole, but after that they’re not trustworthy for anything but kindling, and believe me, you don’t want your poles collapsing in August. I use a long iron bar to make the holes to set the poles. The row shown above yielded about a gallon of dried beans.

Culinary-wise, they are great just about anyway you want to prepare them, but we especially like them for chili, baked beans, and in the green shell stage, they’re dynamite to saute and simmer a bit with whatever fresh veg you have in late August and September. Oh, and did I mention they’re low-gas? What more could you ask for from a bean!

Stumbling into plant breeding – cucumber Damascus

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

My Damascus cucumber is not an heirloom, but it certainly can be called “rare”. I purchased the original seed in 1978 from Nichols Garden Nursery. This variety disappeared from trade shortly thereafter. I had saved seed from it for a few seasons before I noticed that it had been listed as a hybrid. Funny, it has always been pretty stable for me – I guess after 30 years I can safely say it’s been true-lined (meaning it’s now open-pollinated).

Looking back I’m really glad I didn’t notice that it was listed as a hybrid, because I would have missed out on this variety entirely. In the first place, I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it wasn’t open-pollinated, nor would I have tried to save seed from a hybrid at that time. Now I know better.

Cucumber DamascusCucumber Damascus

Cucumber Damascus

Anyhow, this is a Middle-Eastern type, intended for salads (a “slicing” cuke). Damascus is smooth and thin skinned (no peeling necessary), and crisp with a nice clean cuke flavor (no bitterness or muskiness). I have never grown a better tasting salad cucumber.

It’s about 57 days to first harvest. Obviously it does well for us here, or we wouldn’t have kept it 30 years. However, I shared seed with a gardener in a warmer clime who had disease problems with it. This has led me to wonder, if this variety is particularly susceptible:

1. Could it be that disease is present here, but since our growing season is so short, the disease is not expressed before the foliage is hit by frost anyway;

2. Or, perhaps the disease is not present here, again because of the short, cool growing season.

I dunno. I do think it’s a good example of how a variety can be great in one location, and quite unsuited to another – an argument for being skeptical about increasingly centralized “one size fits all” plant breeding. Unfortunately, that’s where the most money is for commercial breeding, not with maintaining or developing oddball local varieties.

Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

My first exposure to the miasma that is vegetable variety names was in the 80s, and had to do with some fine baked beans grown and cooked up by a couple of roommates of mine nearly ten years earlier, in Lyndonville, VT. They called them “Vermont Cranberry” beans. When I began to grok seed saving and heirloom plants, one of the first plants I was looking for was this bean. I figured they were called “Cranberry” due to the bean’s predominately cranberry/maroon color.

My quest was not as simple as I expected. I first tried “Vermont Cranberry” pole beans purchased from the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but these were nothing like what I remembered – the beans were not as elongated, and they had a bright pink cast with maroon streaking. I grew them out, but was not impressed.

Then, there’s also the “True Red Cranberry” bean which actually looks like a cranberry both in form and color, and has northern New England origins, with some sources saying Vermont. I haven’t grown this one, but it’s definitely not the bean I remembered.

Through Seed Saver’s Exchange Grower’s Network, I grew out “Vermont Cranberry” BN-269, which is yer basic horticultural bush bean. The next year, through SSE, I got “Vermont Cranberry Bush” from a grower in Oregon, very like in form to BN-269, but with beans that had the bright pink cast of the “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans from Vermont Bean Seed Company. Still no joy…

Smith's is very productiveThis a really tall pole bean that needs good support

Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole beans

About that time I went out in earnest in search of heirlooms in my neighborhood, and found plenty. In 1985, I discovered that one of Lyndonville’s most colorful characters was a great gardener. The embodiment of extreme Vermont thrift, Alfred Smith saved his own seed, much of which was handed down from his parents. Alfred was known to most everybody who traveled though town regularly due to his annoying habit of driving his very old tractor, with wagon and chain saw, slowly through the main thoroughfares, constantly scavenging firewood all around town. Anyway, he had what he called “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans that had been in his family for as long as he could remember.

Smith's flowers

Flowers of
Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole bean

These are some excellent beans. Alfred used them as a dry bean, as we do. The plants and the beans are large, the vigor is very good, it’s prolific, and early enough to mature here – about 95 days to harvest for dry beans. Perhaps the color of the mature pods is the reason for “cranberry” in its name. After my experiences, though, I was hesitant to put this bean into the SSE network as “Vermont Cranberry Pole” so I dubbed it “Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole,” now aka BEAN 4315 in the Seed Savers Exchange.

These were still not the beans I remembered, but a year later I did find what I was looking for, not much more than a mile away from our home in Wheelock, at one of the last dairy farms left in our town, and going by a different name – “the Johnson” bean. Pat Wiley’s mother had been growing it nearby in Barnet VT when Pat was growing up, and Pat continued to grow it here in Wheelock.

Two heirloom beans from my neighborhood

Left, Smith’s Vermont Cranberry; right, the Johnson

Pat didn’t know what “Johnson” referred to, just that her mother always called them “the Johnson Bean.” For years I have wondered whether Johnson was a family name, or was Johnson VT, but I recently came across this seed listing from Victory Seeds, which makes me strongly suspect that Pat’s beans had to do with Johnson VT, about 40 miles west of us. Here’s Victory’s catalog description for “Gross Brothers Cranberry” bean:

65 to 85 days — An heirloom variety that was sent to us several years back by a gardening friend. She rescued it from an older gardener who has since passed away but who had grown it for many years in the short gardening season of the Cold Hollow Mountain region near Enosburgh, Vermont. Introduced commercial by us in 2007. We have been growing out limited quantities and are making them available to home gardeners. The seeds are buff and heavily mottled with cranberry coloring. They are used as green beans when young or dried. There are four to five seeds per five inch pod. The plants are upright and do not require support.

Victory’s bean photo for “Gross Brother’s Cranberry” looks exactly like “the Johnson”, the plant description matches, and Johnson VT is just a few miles from Enosburg. Best of all, “the Johnson” is the bean I remember from the 70s in Lyndonville (as “Vermont Cranberry”). Sorry I don’t have photos of the plants themselves. They’re scheduled for grow-out this next season, and I’ll be doing more thorough photo documentation at that time.

After a few years of exploring for heirlooms in northeastern Vermont, I came to the conclusion that the terms “cranberry” and “Vermont cranberry” were liberally applied to nearly any old horticultural-type bean – or should I say any bean with horticultural-type markings… and there were and are lots of them. Yes, it can all be pretty confusing, but that is the nature of heirloom plant names… and you never know what amazing plants you’ll find along the way if you set out on a quest like this one.

Pet peas – De Grace

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I really like edible podded peas, and make about 5 succession plantings to have a steady supply from mid June to the end of September. Each planting of snow or snap peas is a 12 foot row on chicken wire support, and gives us enough for two people to eat their heart’s content daily, with enough for seed saving as well.

First of June, pea De Grace along bed edge, with Over-Winter spinach and volunteer cilantro, volunteer pak-choi and volunteer garlic.

I’m not keen on canned and frozen vegetables, with a few exceptions. My preference is always to have food as unprocessed as possible…. especially when I’m the food processor. Not that I ‘m lazy (well, maybe a little), but when supper time approaches, I pretty consistently gravitate to the edible podded peas as opposed to the green peas that must be shelled. I’ve grown quite a few varieties of green shell peas, but have only kept one or two long term over the years, largely out of guilt because they are nice varieties and were abandoned by the seed industry.

Anyway, each year now our first and last planting of the eat-all peas is a snow pea called De Grace. Originally, I purchased De Grace in 1985 from William Dam Seeds, a Canadian seed house with Dutch connections. (They no longer ship seed to the US — I miss them!)

Dam dropped this variety soon after I got it from them, and according to the Seeds of Diversity Heritage Plants Database, De Grace has not been offered by US or Canadian seedhouses in more than 20 years. I found one 2007 commercial listing by a Thomas Etty, in the UK, who specializes in heirloom varieties, but sells only in the EU. This variety was also known as Dutch Sugar and is mentioned by both names in the The American Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs, Vol II, 1836. (Love those 19th century book titles…)

Actually, I didn’t realize it was so venerable – De Grace was adopted into my botanical menagerie because it’s really good all around, and it thrives in my garden and the short growing season.

not ready yet

It’s early and more frost resistant than some of the other peas I’ve tried, definitely more so than the modern snap peas, and it’s quite heat tolerant, too. So, De Grace has become my “bookends” for the yearly pea succession.

Once you know the trick of harvesting them, they are very delicious. They are OK harvested when the pods are still small and flat, like most people harvest snow peas (see photo at right), but if you allow the peas to fatten in the pod (below), the sugars form and they are divinely sweet and crisp. You do have to snap off the stem end and pull off the strings, but this is easily accomplished in one quick motion.

ready to eat

In my garden De Grace continues to flower and bear peas over a long period of time (3-4 weeks), and I have been selecting seed for that characteristic among others. I suppose some growers might consider this a vice, but I’m not canning or freezing them, I just want an ongoing supply of fresh pods.

De Grace is a good example of a vegetable variety teetering on the brink of being lost to gardeners. I find that a lot of these older plant varieties seem to have a lot more genetic diversity and are better able to adapt to the rigors of life in my garden than many of the more modern varieties.