Monday, May 23, 2011

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Supreme beans

Rancho Gordo's heirloom dried beans turn up on some of the swellest tables in the Bay Area, from Manresa to the French Laundry. With evocative names like 'Eye of the Goat' and 'Sangre de Toro' (bull's blood), these splotched and speckled beans have made Napa's Rancho Gordo, the distributor and online retailer, into a million-dollar business.

Now for the news flash: You can grow these beans at home. Many of Rancho Gordo's customers may not realize that they can buy a pound of 'Good Mother Stollard' beans, save a dozen and cook the rest. Planted in warm ground in late spring or early summer, the saved beans will sprout, grow like mad (remember Jack's bean stalk?) and produce a modest crop suitable for soup and for bragging rights in the neighborhood.

"In Napa, I've planted as late as July 1, and those plants caught up with the ones I planted in late April," says Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo founder and author of the new "Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Growing" Guide. "June is safe for everybody."

Planting heirloom bean seeds (see Resources) ensures that you can save some of your harvest as seed for the following year. Hybrids do not "come true," meaning that if you save their seeds for replanting, the next generation may not look like the parents. What's more, heirlooms provide the satisfaction of knowing you are perpetuating beans with long histories and often deep cultural significance but little commercial utility. Heirlooms may not produce the yield or have the disease resistance that commercial growers require, but they endure in communities because of their superior taste.

And Sando insists that growing heirlooms successfully takes no special soil, skill or attentiveness.

"You can almost just stick the seed in unprepared ground and prepare to be amazed," says the merchant, who grew some of his own supply initially but now contracts with growers in the United States and Mexico for his inventory.

But you will need sun, so choose a site that gets six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Beans prefer a very slightly acidic soil (pH of 6.0 to 6.8); an inexpensive soil-testing kit from a nursery or hardware store can give you a reasonably accurate pH reading. If your soil is too acidic, dig in some dolomitic lime. If too alkaline, add some compost or composted manure. Avoid adding too much nitrogen, however, or your plants will produce mostly leaves and not much crop.

Some heirloom beans are bush types that don't require support; others are tall-growing pole beans that want to clamber up a trellis, tepee or fence. Sando says that his Mexican growers never use supports, even for pole beans, and that his own trials showed no advantage to trellising pole types. If you have enough room, says Sando, you can simply let them sprawl. If your garden space is more limited, or if you would rather it look a little more as if Martha Stewart lived there, provide some support (see "How to make a trellis").

Beans germinate slowly, if at all, in cold ground, so wait until the soil temperature warms to at least 60 degrees. A soil temperature of 80 degrees is even better for germination. Plant the seeds about an inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart. Provide moderate water - about an inch a week, depending on weather - and watch for bean beetles. Hand-pick any you see. Floating row covers can provide some protection for bush beans.