The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Heirloom plants’ category

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.