The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
August 29, 2012
The weather has remained mild and wet for most of August, producing an abundant harvest of beans. In our Williamsburg garden we are growing eleven different varieties this season. The planting is fitting in that of all the vegetables discovered in the New World, the bean met with the most enthusiastic approval by English gardeners.
It acquired its common name from its similarity to the Old World bean, known to the English as the broad bean and to the Italians as the fava bean. Thomas Hariot, botanist for the 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina, explained: “Called by us beans, because in greatness and partly in shape they are like to the beans in England, saving they are flatter, of more divers colours, and some pied [speckled].”
When they were first introduced to England, they were a rare delicacy as observed by John Parkinson, apothecary to James I, who wrote in 1629 that these beans were found “ofterner on rich mens tables.” They were quickly disseminated throughout the population and by 1683, John Worlidge was able to record “that within the memory of man they were a great rarity, although now a common delicate food.”
Native Americans apparently used the bean only as a dry legume, not as a snap or string bean. The green bean was developed in Europe and then returned to America as observed by Andriaen van der Donck in “A Description of the New Netherlands” (1656), written in present day New York: “Before the arrival of the Netherlanders, the Indians raised beans of various kinds and colours, but generally too coarse to be eaten green, or to be pickled.”
18th-century green beans came almost exclusively from pole or runner varieties and one of the most popular was called the White Dutch, known as the Caseknife bean today. It is a flat, podded bean and by modern standards a tough podded, stringy bean that must be picked
whilst small and tender.
We employ several methods of trellising pole and runner beans which will be explained in our next conversation.
The method of planting, tending and harvesting beans is explained in full in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners. (Rodale Press)