The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for December, 2008

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.

Where have all the farmers gone?

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

It’s been very disturbing to me lately to read about how much farmland is being bought up around the world by transnational corporations. Here’s a really scary example of what is going on in the name of globalization and free trade:

Daewoo Logistics is a subsidiary of the South Korean conglomerate Daewoo Corporation. In November 2008, world media reported that it was securing rights to 1.3 million hectares of farmland in Madagascar — half the country’s arable soils. The company intends to produce corn for export back to Korea. Daewoo said the deal is meant to assure Korea’s food security. They described food as a weapon, and boasted that their job was to be able to ship food to Korea in case of crisis. A lot of people around the world were shocked by this news and called it neocolonialism.

Here’s the full article at Grain.org .

Vegetables of Interest

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

I was doing some deep googling for a project I’m working on involving an esoteric bit of potato history when I stumbled on this blog. I haven’t seen any reference to it in this little corner of the gardening blogosphere, so I thought I’d share it. Craig’s posts are fascinating, richly detailed portraits of heirloom varieties that he grows in California. I am amazed by the scholarship involved…. not to mention jealous of his peach trees…

Sugarloaf chicory – Blanc de Milan

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

This is the time of year for one of my favorite greens, sugarloaf-type chicory (chicorium intybus). There is no lettuce that can compare to a sugarloaf’s crunchy, very sweet and faintly bitter taste, in my humble opinion. Best of all, it’s early December and we are still harvesting sugarloaves right out of the garden, no greenhouse or coldframe.

Snow covers a bed of sugarloaf chicoryBeneath the snow and leaved are delicious greens

We’ve had a few nights down to about 10 degrees F, but a thick covering of maple leaves is keeping the sugarloaves in good shape, and a pea fence laid over the top prevents the deer (who are especially fond of these chicories) from getting them all before we do. There is now some damage to the heads from freezing, but with a little trimming, there are still plenty of crisp, sweet leaves. What’s in the colander below is one untrimmed head, which is plenty for a two person salad.

Ready to trim

I have been working on establishing a naturalised population of sugarloaves in our gardens, with good success, though I’m still trying to understand their cycles better. My limited understanding is not a hindrance, though, because they seem to like it here and do just fine on their own.

We have about 4 different patches, corresponding to 4 different parent varieties: Greenlof, Cornet D’Anjou, Sugarhat, and Blanc de Milan. There is, of course, crossing going on, which is fine – I’m not maintaining a particular variety. I want to develop a hardy strain for our garden.

Blanc de Milan

Blanc de Milan, featured in all the photos here, is the latest strain to be added to the mix, and I am very impressed with it. Above is a cheesecake photo of a primo specimen harvested several weeks ago. Notice the curving, wide leaf veins, the curling leaf edges, the nice thick cylindrical form, and the shear size of it – now that’s what I like in a chicory!

Purchased seed was sown in 2006, and the plants that survived the winter unprotected bolted in 2007. I pushed the tall seed stalks over towards another part of the bed, collected some seed and allowed some seed to fall on to the soil in the bed. The plants here are from the seed that fell, so I guess you could call them volunteers, except that I aimed the mother plants.