The Madness of Bean Picking

May 19, 2007

The Madness of Bean Picking

¿Como esta frijoles? (How you bean?) I bean better, thank you. It’s the middle of May and the first planting of beans is in full production mode. At the very beginning of the harvest, the vines are skimpy and the beans are easy to spot dangling in the sunshine. It makes for an easy pick early in the morning every other day. But then the vines become more vigorous and the beans more clued in. Now every morning the challenge is to pick with the sun low on the horizon to silhouette the more stealthy beans that are hoping to hide and be able to grow to maturity; but we persist.

True haricot verts need to be picked at just the right stage: after they develop flavor and sweetness, but before they thicken and become muscular. With haricot verts, it is not about length and girth; it is about muscularity and maturity. A French gardener of the family describes it as a process of disciplining the vines. My mother says it is about the discipline of the picker. Everyday, rain or shine, at the same time so that no more than 24 hours have gone by since the last pick. Each vine is searched, and as the vines grow and side branches develop, the pick is slowed. As the vines reach the top of the trellis and fall over to create a second layer of leaves, it becomes a jungle, and the pick is slowed even further. My mother says this is when the mentally weak pickers fall by the wayside because this is when the bean dreams begin.

The beans, desperate to grow to maturity to propagate, become sly and crafty in their hiding techniques. The picker must pick one side of the row, turn the corner and pick the opposite side. The process is becoming even slower because it must be thorough. If a vine is allowed beans grown to maturity, the vine will stop producing flowers. No flowers, no beans.

No one now likes to pick beans. It is easier when there are two of you spotting and picking from opposite sides. But picking partners are harder to come by. The children start claiming things like the end of semester exams to avoid coming out to help. My husband is always finding more urgent chores that usually require time on the tractor. It becomes very lonely. No one but another bean picker really understands the danger. My mother says when the bean dreams become nightmares, stop the pick and let the vines propagate; to take it further is to flirt with madness.

But it is still only May and the second and third plantings are only starting to creep up the trellises. My husband found me in the bean rows on the verge of weeping because of an attack by caterpillars that had stripped 3 feet of trellis of bean vines. He became very stern and said “if you are going to lose control, walk away and go cry among the flowers, don’t show weakness in front of the vegetables.” I believe now he has the makings of a good bean picker.

Along with beans, the squashes are flourishing. The Buttersticks have been the biggest surprise of the spring. We have never tasted a better squash. The cucumbers are getting serious and we have come under an insurgency attack of tomato hornworms. They are monstrous, but we have organized a surge and are going after them, plant by plant among the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. We are confident we will prevail. No cut and run down here on our hard scrabble farm.

If you are ever dissatisfied with any of our produce, please let us know.

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