Grow Like Magic
Sky High Beans
by Kate Tvelia Athearn
We Island farmers are a friendly sort. We love to share our bounty and trade insider secrets. But like many small communities, we can get a little set in our ways, perhaps dismissive of new people or ideas. We learn many of our lessons the hard way—losing money, or crops, or animals, and then we become attached to the lessons we learn.
So when my husband and I first met our friend, John Zarba (not a farmer, and at the time, an off- Islander), and he told us about a type of green bean we hadn’t previously encountered, we didn’t pay much attention. He continued to spin tales about magical vines that would grow all summer and produce fruit up to a foot in length, still as tender as the fledgling haricots verts perched on the produce shelves in specialty markets.
Years of green bean frustration made us skeptical of John’s fabled beans. Our beans always got tough and dry after a very short harvest window. We thought he must grow some strain of genetically engineered plant, and use plenty of chemical fertilizers. But then he told us they were an old world heirloom variety that originally came to this country with his Sicilian immigrant grandparents in the early 1900s, and that he had been growing them every year since he was 11 years old, with the same fantastic result. Intrigued by their history, and by the idea of never spending money on seeds again, we decided to give them a try.
The initial green bean planting involved much more than the usual hoeing and sowing. Under John’s direction, my husband used the tractor to lift locust posts and set them in a series of teepee formations reaching at least 12 feet high. Twine crisscrossed the structures to provide support for the vines, as they grew taller and heavier with the weight
of the beans. I was bursting with questions: Why did the posts have to be so high? Why so many plants? How will we know when to pick them? Will collecting the seeds be as much of a production as this?
Not wanting to be rude to my new friend, I hinted vaguely at my misgivings. He just smiled and said, “You’ll see.” His calm confidence assured me, along with his meticulous measuring and placing. It became clear that John was deeply devoted to these beans, and that he was going to do everything in his power to make sure their new home was suitable to their needs and gave them every chance for success. Plus, my husband was having fun on the tractor, so I swallowed further criticism and let them work.
Defying our cynicism and previous experience, the beans grew as promised. By midsummer we had skyscraper-like beanstalks, boasting fruit of gigantic proportions. Their vertical habit made them easier to pick, and provided a bit of much needed shade while harvesting. Their size made them so much more rewarding to pick than the beans we had grown in the past—they quickly filled up the harvest basket, and just a few of them would make a snack satisfying enough to sustain a farmer through afternoon chores. As the weeks crept on, the beans grew longer, and still remained tender and juicy and delicious. They were meaty enough to steam or sauté without overcooking.
Towards the end of the summer, the dried out vines were curling themselves around the top of the posts. There was no question about which seeds to gather, the healthiest plants had grown the tallest, their beans way out of reach of the casual bean harvester. Under a crisp autumn sky, we dragged out a ladder and gathered the dry pods, popping the seeds out, and sealing them in pouches. John instructed us to keep them cool and dry until we were ready to plant them the following spring.
Three years later, we are still under their spell. It isn’t just that we love to eat them. We love the ambitious way they grow, unstoppable until they are towering over the tomato cages and sprawling squash. They remind us to remain hopeful. Farming life will always be hard. Seeds will refuse to sprout, plants will die, and friends will occasionally lead us astray. But if we keep an open mind, and an open heart, we can find little bits of magic along the way.