Nurturing winter green, learning about beans

Dry beans can be shelled by hand, but there are other techniques — like whacking a burlap bag of beans (see text). — Photo by Susan Safford

Continuing my commentary on creating winter oases of green, it is timely to appreciate holly, now that references to it are seasonal and frequent. “The holly and the ivy,” in the words of the ancient carol, offers up spiky, glossy, evergreen foliage, and red berries, a valuable asset to the winter garden and landscape, not to mention to the birds it shelters. The image the name conjures is the English holly, Ilex aquifolium, but the beautiful native, I. opaca, along with many modern hybrids, bestow their greenery upon the winter garden.

However, not all “hollies” belong to the Ilex family. The Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium, other species and hybrids), an evergreen that in my opinion is under-utilized here in Island gardens, sports not only spiky, glossy, evergreen foliage but also racemes of scented yellow flowers that transform into bloomy blue, possibly edible, berries.

Although now transferred by the taxonomists into the genus Berberis — over the objections of many — the Mahonias’ striking foliar resemblance to the true hollies remains unchanged. Mahonia is a genus of about 70 species of evergreen shrubs in the family Berberidaceae, native to eastern Asia, the Himalaya, North America and Central America. I was able to find a spot at home for an Asian species, M. gracillipes, purchased at Polly Hill Arboretum, with super long, holly-like leaves with white undersides, its most dramatic feature. I would like to add additional varieties.

Then there is the holly fern, or cyrtomium, another holly look-alike but this one only feet and inches above the ground. Previously thought of as a plant of southern gardens and not reliably hardy here, conditions have changed enough to permit holly fern to be grown in island gardens, when well sited.

The genus Cyrtomium contains, according to Wikipedia, “about 15-20 species of ferns in the family Dryopteridaceae, native to Asia, Africa (including Madagascar), and the Pacific Ocean islands (Hawaii). It is very closely related to the genus Polystichum, with recent research suggesting it should be included within it….” (Those taxonomists again!)

The cyrtomium that I planted here, C. fortunei, in some ways resembles a diminutive leucothoë in form and habit, with a similar vase-like form and lustrous divided foliage. It seems happy enough in deep fallen leaves in the humus-y soil and medium shade of the white oak woods behind our house, where it stands out dramatically from its companion ferns, the regal and ostrich; but each winter I hold my breath a little for its survival.

The necessity for gardeners such as myself with a limited budget is to acquire and then propagate these special plants relentlessly, to achieve abundant winter greenery; otherwise the effects are spotty and hardly look like an oasis of green.

What I learned about beans

Several seasons back I began to change the way I focused on beans in the vegetable garden. I placed a lot of garden space at their service, usually growing several sorts of bush beans and giving over space for pole beans too. Heretofore I had been a “green bean” thinker — you know, fresh green snap beans for summer suppers and plenty in the freezer, too.

Gradually though, I became more aware of the utility of dry beans: they are planted and then left to their own devices, to ripen and dry without all that bending and picking, processing and freezing. When the seeds rattle in the pods, they are ready. A friend in Vermont gave me seeds for a tan-seeded pole variety, Franka’s Italian Beans: these are very reliable. I decided, however, to add cannellini, the Italian white kidney bean of minestrone.

Once they are harvested, storage of the little protein nuggets requires nothing more elaborate than oven or wood-stove-top heating (insect control) and mason jars with tight lids. Baked bean casseroles and soups containing a bit of meat and the beans, such as minestrone and kale soup, are some of the most satisfying, nourishing, and simple of winter season meals.

There has been a learning curve, though: one year Himself harvested half the cannellini beans to freeze as green beans: that was a big uh-oh! This year the cannellini Lingot, supposedly a bush cannellini planted in rows, grew to become a trailing climber more suited to pole bean culture. They got in with the sweet potato vines and together romped all over about a quarter of the garden. It was such a tangle that the fall planting of cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, which as you know is tall, was completely engulfed.

While the beans were still in full-on growth, the surprise snow arrived, more or less coinciding with a planned six-day absence on the mainland. I learned the hard way that cold weather is not going to help cannellini bean culture and harvest. Now I know that all the plants should have been immediately uprooted and hung upside down by their roots in a dry place to cure.

Thinking it was more important to get out the sweet potatoes, I did that first. I then harvested the beanpods, some of which by now were decidedly schmutzy. I shelled them out anyhow; while I lost under-ripe ones, there is still a respectable yield of ‘Lingot.’

I have also learned several ways to thresh dry beans. YouTube videos display peoples’ clever little homemade threshing devices, books describe various methods, and antique bean threshers may be found. One simple method is to place all the dried beanpods inside a burlap or synthetic-weave fed bag and hang it up somewhere. Whack the bag with a stick until the pods have cracked open and released the beans. Then cut a small corner off the sack and let the beans fall out into a bucket, leaving the frass inside.


The December 15 meeting of Homegrown is cancelled due to the holidays.