July 30, 2010

Wretched Excess

In our 20-foot-by-65-foot vegetable garden we grow corn, okra, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, winter squash, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, leeks, beets…. and green beans.

I have no argument with the first 15 items on the list. There is nothing so flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are friends with whom to share the bounty or, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can foist the surplus on people who unsuspectingly leave their car windows rolled down in parking lots. We have disposed of zucchini in exactly that fashion on more than one occasion.

But zucchini is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans have pretty much the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.

For reasons I cannot fathom, this year Betty planted two ‘wide rows’ and one ‘standard’ row of green beans, with the idea that we’d freeze what we didn’t immediately eat. She apparently used varieties with names like ‘Maxi-Yield’ and ‘Garden-Glut’ because we began getting green beans at the beginning of July and are now picking – and I promise I am not making this up –five pounds or more of beans from of the garden every day.

The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.

Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer overnight, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.

But then both double rows went into full production. Suddenly, we were spending more than half an hour spent stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. One night this week we processed two double trays and still had green beans left over. Did I mention we are running out of space in our freezer?

Dealing with the excess has required ingenuity. Our town’s food cupboard had only one distribution in July, which didn’t make a dent in the surplus. Thankfully, there’s another this week. At last week’s Wednesday Evening at Elm Bank lecture, we offered green beans as kind of party favors to thank people for coming. This morning, a friend brought us two baskets of blackberries. She left groaning under the unexpected weight of more than five pounds of green beans. Fortunately, she’s a Vegan. Unfortunately, her children are at camp.

The last row of green beans, a standard-width one, was planted late, intended for September production. For the past week I have been guiding runners from the winter squash toward the young plants. With luck, by the time the green bean plants should be flowering, they’ll instead be engulfed by squash leaves. They will not be missed.

There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and early June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This July and August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.

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