The sign on the bushel baskets read, “Bean seeds for children to play with,” the baskets half-filled with dry beans of many colors. They’d been placed on the ground in the Fedco Seeds booth at the annual Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. A boy of about 4 was sitting in one of the baskets while his toddler sister picked up beans from another and sprinkled them over the boy’s head. She continued to do so as I shopped for black turtle beans, cannelinis, tiger eyes and scarlet runners. I, too, like to play with beans.
Fall isn’t bean-planting time, but it’s the time you harvest them and save some for next year. If you have ever wanted to try your hand at seed-saving, this is a straightforward crop to start with, because the seeds you eat are the same as the ones you plant.
Dry beans do the thinking for you. Whereas the green beans you grow for fresh eating require regular picking and a watchful eye, lest the pods grow large and tough, beans for drying are simply left on the vine until the pods turn tan and crisp, and the seeds inside mature to their final coloration.
You do need to check on the pods from time to time. Catch them before they split open and scatter their precious contents on the ground. If the weather’s been very wet and the pods start to turn moldy, or a hard frost is predicted before all the beans are ripe, bring them indoors and let them continue drying there. Just cut the vines at ground level, tie them together in bunches and hang them from the rafters of a dry shed, garage or barn, spreading an old sheet below them to catch any beans that fall. Don’t have a spot like that? Then spread them out on the sheet and they’ll dry fine.
Getting them out of the pods is tiresome if you empty them one by one. Instead, grab the old pillowcase that went with that old sheet (a feed sack works, too) and stuff the pods inside. Then tie or gather its opening shut and beat it repeatedly on a hard surface such as a table. The beans will fall to the bottom. It’s also fun — and effective — to stomp on the bagged pods with your feet, or rattle them against the inside walls of a metal garbage can. After sorting out the beans, you can clean them of any remaining chaff by pouring the beans from one bowl to another, repeatedly, in front of a fan. Store them in tightly closed jars after they are perfectly dry and can no longer be dented with your fingernail.
All of the beans I bought at the fair, as well as those I grow in my garden for drying, were open-pollinated varieties as opposed to hybrids, which means any saved for replanting next spring will breed true. They’ll produce beans exactly like themselves.
The little girl had begun to arrange her treasures in patterns on the seat of a nearby folding chair. And I went home with mine.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”
— Adrian Higgins