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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Twenty years on gardening roller coaster and finally figuring out the beans

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

This is something I know beans about.  Beans.  All kinds of beans.

Over the past twenty, or so, years I have always raised beans: pole beans, bush beans, green beans, dried beans–you name it.

Early on, I always raised pole beans.  It seemed like the sensible way to manage the small amount of dirt that I had at my disposal at the time.  I could raise a lot of green beans on a small foot print.  And, the requisite teepee added a nice dimension to the garden vista. Being a visual sort, this has become a necessary part of my gardening aesthetic.  Things have to look good and that teepee added a nice focal point.

Your Intrepid Farmer back in her salad days with BlueLakes in 1998

Now, because things have to look good to me, does not necessarily mean they look good to others.  As time has gone on, the size of my garden has increased exponentially, and accordingly, it’s appearance has morphed as well.  I no longer have a “landscaped” back yard (actually, I never have.  As I’ve said before, I am no Martha Stewart).

Like most people, I have found over the years that my sense of aesthetics has changed.  What looked good to me in my twenties or thirties, does not anymore.  This is why my bedroom is no longer painted chartreuse with red curtains.  I am not kidding.  I will not tell you the colors now because it will not matter.  This previous color scheme has pinned me in your mind as someone who does not have any taste, or whose taste must be only in their mouths. 

My garden probably affects people the same way.  Unless, they are garden nerds like myself. 

Over time, my idea of garden beauty has been altered by a different set of criteria.  I know this is true when I speak to other, usually novice, gardeners.  I carry on to them about the virtues of mulching everything with straw and newspaper.  This idea is always met with a blank stare.  I know that by this response, they are not on board with what I am suggesting.  

It won’t look right to them.  I get that.  I felt the same way before I tried it.

But, after getting really tired of battling weeds, I did it anyway.  The benefits of weed suppression and moisture retention suddenly made that straw and newspaper beautiful.  Thankfully, my practical streak won that little battle.  The right brain had to concede.

Now, back to those beans.

As I said before, I always raised pole beans in the early years of my gardening exploits.  Blue Lake was my preferred variety.  They are a stringless type.  I always liked these because even if the beans were a little past their pick date, they weren’t inedible.  I’ve always had full-time businesses to run; something had to take second place, and generally it was the bean harvest.  Anyone who has had the “pleasure” of harvesting beans in 90 degree heat and has experienced the combination of sweat and itching that accompanies it will know why this task is sometimes a second place priority.

This year’s crop: Kentucky Blue

My success with these beans went on for several years.  But, as time went on (beginner’s luck is a real thing, by the way), they weren’t doing as well.  They didn’t grow with the vigor that I had enjoyed and the Japanese Beetles started to move in.  The leaves developed a rust that I hadn’t experience before.  What was going on?  Unfortunately, that’s about as much thought as I gave it.

I just soldiered on each year down the same wretched path, futilely hoping things would be better.  In my attempt to beautify my garden, I unwittingly sabotaged the beans even more.  I decided to do away with the wooden teepee that I had used and replaced it with a fancy, four-legged iron support topped with a fleur-de-lis.  Frenchy!  It looked pretty, but the beans hated it.  They wouldn’t even touch it!  Stupid Beans.  Or maybe the beans had been reading Mark Twain?

Actually, it was the heat of the iron in the hot sun that repelled the beans.  They turned out to be a lot smarter than I thought.  I wish I had that kind of smart.  Think of the things I could have avoided in my misspent youth.

I didn’t figure out this last mistake right away.  It took a couple of years for that eureka moment to foment.  At the time, I was just disgusted with the whole thing and took a ninety degree turn and decided that the solution would be to abandon pole beans altogether.

So, for one year, I raised bush beans.  They did well, but I didn’t like how they looked in the garden.  I missed my teepee.  The garden didn’t have it’s exclamation point.  Back to pole beans.

The next few years I planted a really great variety called Fortex.  These are good beans.  They get huge (11”!), they are stringless and they never seem to get too old to harvest.  They were wonderful.  They, too, hated the Frenchy Fleur-de-lis teepee.  

Both types of beans couldn’t be the same stupid, could they? Well, as I’ve always said, “you don’t have to smack me in the face twice to get my attention.”  Hot iron.  Eureka, Stupid!  It was a sobering eureka.  The Frenchy bean teepee was sacked.  It was now ugly to me.

One of several buckets I’ve harvested. Hope I’ve learned my lesson

I still had a lesson to learn though, from the first go around with the Blue Lakes.  I continued to plant Fortex each year and they started to go south, just like the Blue Lakes did.  I still had no clue as to why this was happening.

After over twenty years of this bean roller coaster, I finally — and unfortunately, accidentally — figured it out.

On an utter whim, I just decided to plant a new type of bean this year — Kentucky Blue pole beans.  They are doing really well.  The light bulb FINALLY went on.

Knowing full well that it is important to rotate crops, even with a limited space to do it in, I had missed the point that rotating cultivars (variety), was as important to do as to where it was placed in the garden.  

Finally, I know beans about it. 


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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