Modern gardeners owe more than we know to the American Indian. Three of our favorite summer foods -- beans, squash and corn -- are Indian crops and their "primitive" methods of cultivation still make sense.
We're more likely today to spread nitrogen chemicals over our corn patch out back than to bury dead fish, but the effect is much the same. High-intensity gardeners can pick up valuable pointers from squaws who long ago planted beans to climb up corn stalks (saving themselves the hassel of staking) and grew pumpkins in between.
As frost warnings fade and the oaks unfurl their spring greenery, we can start to sow some of these Indian plants. There are green or yellow snaps, scarlet runners to rival Jack's beanstalk, purple and white horticultural beans to shell and cook in their own "liquor" or dry for pintos, black-eyed cowpeas of soul food fame, red kidneys, sweet baby limas in addition to the European broadbean and oriental soybean.
The first decision a backyard gardener should make is whether to plant bush or pole varieties. Climbing beans take longer to mature but produce more food. They save space twining along a chain link fence or if trained make green tepees for kids to hide in. Bush beans are less likely to be affected by gnawing beetles, but you'll need several plantings to get you through the summer.
Beans like warm soil and a little care to avoid disease. Choose mosaic-resistant varieties, rotate from year to year and never pick or weed when plants are wet. Soaking seeds before planting speeds germination, and mulching before hot weather hits in June means you'll spend your summer picking, instead of hoeing.
Snap beans are the easiest the grow and prepare for eating. Limas are sensitive to cold and need richer soil. Podded varieties require the added effort of shelling, but add iron to the nutrients they provide. Soybeans, a low-fat meat alternative, are the worst to shell -- try soaking them in boiling water briefly before splitting or pull the whole plant and hang it up to dry. RAPPAHANNOCK BLACK-EYED PEAS (6 servings) 4 cups cooked blackeyed peas 1 cup salad oil 1/3 cup wine vinegar 1/3 cup chopped onion 1 clove garlic 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix well and marinate in refrigerator at least 24 hours. Remove garlic before serving. ED'S SHELL BEANS (4 to 5 servings) 1 pound shelled horticultural beans (2 to 3 pounds unshelled) 1/3 cup milk 2 tablespoons butter Pepper and salt to taste
Place shelled beans in saucepan in enough water to barely cover. Bring to a boil and cover. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until just tender. Add milk and butter and cook slowly another 15 minutes. Season and serve in bowls. DILLY BEANS (8 pints) 4 pounds tender new snap beans 4 cups white vinegar 2 cups water 4 tablespoons salt 4 teaspoons dill weed (fresh is preferable, add more to taste) 4 cloves garlic, halved Dash of dried red pepped (or slices of fresh hot pepper)
Snap stem ends of perfect, small beans and blanch for a minute or two in boiling water. Drain and pack in sterilized pint jars. Bring vinegar and water to a boil, add salt, dill and garlic cloves. Pour over beans, adding a slice of pepper and garlic half to each jar. Seal and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.