Good green beans, as anyone who has ever shopped in a supermarket around here knows, are among the rarest of vegetables. During most of the year, what are to be found under the green bean sign are limp, pale green things, with funny spots, that cost too much. To get good green beans, you must grow them yourself.
Years ago, at the beginning of inflation, my husband and I launched into our careers as home gardeners. We were by no means alone. For a while, home gardens were a major conversation topic. The vegetables we urban and suburban amateurs grew were proof of our independence from supermarkets. They were proof that we could survive. They were a source of pride and friendly rivalry. Wildly sophisticated Washington hosts thought nothing of asking women guests into the garden to see their green beans. Have you ever tried to look at green beans with a flashlight?
Our home garden was, to put it kindly, a learning experience. One of the first things we learned was that corn was out. Just as the ears ripened, the raccoons would sneak into the garden at night, fell the stalk by nibbling at the bottom, and make off with the corn. This is a shattering sight to see in the morning, and after two years of being outwitted by raccoons, we gave up. We also gave up on cantaloupes (they refused to ripen) and on broccoli.
Over the years, certain vegetables performed so well under amateur conditions that they became reliable favorites. Tomatoes and zucchini were among them, as were cucumbers, except for the year that the seeds produced extremely long thin cukes which we threw away as mutants, not realizing that they would soon show up as delicacies in the local markets.
And, of course, green beans. At first, we grew green beans with moderate success. Then, I read that you hasten germination by soaking the seeds before planting. That was the beginning of the end. That year, my husband soaked the seeds overnight. The next morning, he took them out into the garden and carefully dropped seeds in carefully dug holes. That afternoon, it began to rain. Three days later, the sun came out. The beans, of course, had drowned.
In subsequent years, he delayed planting beans from mid-April to early May. Each year, the ritual was the same: he soaked the beans overnight, planted them the next day, and within hours a downpour would begin and our seeds would end up rotted in the ground. Less committed souls might have given up. There is something to be said for stubbornness, however. There is also something to be said for division of labor.
Early this May, we went out into the garden carrying our soaked beans to the freshly composted vegetable plot. The earth was black. Nothing could fail. My husband began planting his handful of seeds into carefully measured holes. I, trying to keep a 2-year-old from trampling through the vegetable garden, dug a trench with the tip of the hoe, dropped the seeds in as fast as I could, and hastily covered them up.
My husband's beans didn't come up.
Green beans became a delicate subject.
Along about the 7th or 8th of August, flushed with the success of my earlier effort, I decided to defy the instructions on the seed packages that tell you you can't plant beans after late July. My husband, with dire warnings that I was too late, prepared the soil. That weekend, I dropped a bunch of soaked seeds into shallow trenches and covered them up. According to the seed packet, a second crop would germinate in 14 days.
Four days later, my husband glanced out into the garden. A miracle had occurred. All the beans were up. Never before had beans germinated so quickly. My place as the premiere household authority on bean culture was assured.
Then things got nasty. The drought that began in late August continued into September. One night, my husband decided my beans needed water. He turned the sprinkler on them and came inside. He did not, however, go back outside until the following morning.
There, weighted into the ground by water, awash in mud, were my beans.
"You tried to kill my beans!" I cried.
He contended that it was an accident.
But the plants survived, and this year for the first time ever we enter the month of October with a bountiful crop of fresh green beans. And while I am reeling with a heady sense of accomplishment, the point of this story is not that you can plant beans after the end of July. No, the real moral of this story is that he who engages in friendly gardening rivalries should beware of a little help from his friends.