Thursday, June 5, 2008

Saving Bean Seed

Bean seed is easy to save--you need only dry them in the pods and then take them out. By saving seed you can gradually improve your crop if you save the seeds from the most vigorous, earliest-yielding plants. This intervention is called selecting seed. And so over the winter I dry the previous year's bean crop, some for seed and most for eating. The easiest way for me to do this is to gather the plants whole in bunches, tie them together, and hang them upside down on strings running a little below and parallel to the rafters in the barn. Today I took some of the seed beans out of the pods that had been drying all winter, and put them in jars. I will plant them within a few days. The rest I will get out of the pods for eating, but not until mid-June or so. These were dry beans I grew last year, and they are among the varieties that over nearly 30 years I've settled on as the best in terms of earliness, yield, and taste. The growing season on the island for beans starts late. Usually it's safe to plant soybeans and snap beans in the last week of May, when the ground temperature gets into the 50s. Dry beans require ground temperature in the 60s, which usually doesn't occur here until the weather turns warmer, usually during the first ten days of June. It's not frost that puts an end to the growing season for beans, but the rains that usually come in the third or fourth week of September and which, if the beans are left out in them, will mildew them and spread disease which will make them spot and wilt on the vine and over-winter poorly. Frost doesn't usually occur here until after mid-October, although for the last few years there's not been one until early November. Today I took the seeds from the pods in my usual way, by shaking a couple of dry plants at a time with the pods attached, and banging them to the insides of a clean garbage can. The pods shatter, the beans drop to the bottom of the can (along with some chaff and an occasional half-pod), and then after a few bunches are shaken, I turn the can over and pour the beans and chaff into the overturned lid of the can, pick out the few rotten ones, and then in a wind I drop the beans from the lid back into the can, while the wind blows the chaff away. Usually I repeat this a couple of times till the beans are clear, then I put them into bottles, labeled, for saving or planting. Bean seed can be saved for about three years before germination drops more than you'd like it to. I saved the following varieties of dry bean which I will grade from A to F. Light red kidney (good for chile and soup): Vigor B, Earliness B, Taste B, ease of shelling, A, yield A. Black coco (good for chile and black bean soup; also a good shell bean; plump and round): Vigor A, Earliness A, Taste B, ease of shelling B, yield C. Montcalm red kidney (good for chile): Vigor A, Earliness C, Taste A, ease of shelling C, yield B. Tiger's Eye (chile, soup): Vigor C, Earliness C, Taste A, ease of shelling C, yield C. Red Mexican: vigor B, earliness C, taste C, ease of shelling A, yield A. In other years I've been very pleased with the following varieties, which I still grow in some years: Jacob's Cattle, Ireland Creek Annie, Dot Yellow Eye, Flash (shell bean). I've grown many other varieties but overall they didn't please me as much as these. Soups, chiles, stews featuring dry beans soaked overnight can be made in large amounts and frozen in small batches for eating without much added prep time. The more home-grown organic ingredients, the better the taste--and there is some health benefit, to say nothing of the pleasure of growing your own food!

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