Gardeners keen on 1982 as 'year of the bean'

One recent evening -- between Christmas and New Year's Day to be exact -- my wife served up a steaming vegetable stew for supper, with croutons added and covered with melted cheese. One of its principal ingredients was tender green beans. It was delicious.

I recalled this tasty meal the other day when those that have the say in such matters -- the National Garden Bureau to be exact - announced that 1982 is the ''year of the bean.'' Well, why not? If any vegetable deserves a year all to itself, the bean surely does.

Indeed, the bean has many things going for it.

Snap beans have good taste, texture, and color. The same might be said for those beans grown for the edible qualities of the seeds only -- English broad (fava) beans, lima beans, and soybeans.

All beans, in fact, receive high marks from nutritionists (the best substitute for meat in the vegetable kingdom, they say). And if that isn't enough, all beans fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. You might say that they feed us and the soil at one and the same time.

And here's another plus: Beans are one of the easiest crops for the home gardener to grow, possibly because they are not particularly fussy about the type of soil in which they grow. They also are one of the heaviest producers of edible food for the amount of space they take up in the garden. Moreover, some of the bush varieties start producing in as little as 50 days from planting (sow every 10 days for a continuous harvest). While the pole varieties take longer than that, they make up for it by continuing to produce right up to frost.

When early European explorers crossed the Atlantic, they saw what great things beans were doing for the American Indian and quickly took some seed back home. When Columbus discovered beans growing in Cuba, he described them in his diary as ''very different'' from the beans being grown and eaten in Spain at the time.

Snap beans originated in Central America so that French, Italian, and other European varieties that come to us on this side of the Atlantic are merely returning home, you might say.

One of the more recent introductions among snap beans is the bush version of the popular Italian climber, the Romano. We were given some to try out last year and were delighted with both their taste and texture. Particularly impressive is the Italian bean's ability to remain tender even when it is allowed to grow large and mature.

The new dwarf variety (actually it grows 18 to 20 inches tall) of Romano is being marketed under the name, Roma, in many seed catalogs.

Beans -- snap, lima, or soy varieties -- are all frost-tender with one exception. It is called the English broad bean, horse bean, or fava bean and can be sown right along with the early peas just as soon as the frost is out of the soil.

The English broad bean germinates readily and laughs at the cold to a degree that I found surprising. Last fall, I noticed two volunteer favas had sprung up, the result of a small pod missed when the spring-sown favas were harvested, I imagine. In any event, these young favas outlasted even the tough broccoli in my garden when frigid weather arrived.

Too heavy an application of commercial fertilizer seems to have an adverse effect on beans (heavy leafing at the expense of edible pods). Therefore, use only half the amount recommended on the packet of 5-10-10 for vegetables at planting time, but with another light application just as the beans begin to flower.

For my part, I find beans are very responsive to finished compost which is spread one-half to one inch thick over the bed. I seldom bother with an additional feeding when the beans come into flower, although applying a compost tea (compost stirred into water until it is a tealike color) would, no doubt, be beneficial.

When planting pole beans, I dig a shovelful of compost into each hill.

Planting bush beans in broad rows (seeds planted 6 inches apart in every direction) produces bountiful harvests. Even so, I have found that such a massed planting provides the Mexican bean beetle with a hiding place where he is not readily discovered until the damage becomes obvious. To combat the pest, last year I sowed beans in single rows (2 to 3 inches apart), interplanting them with other vegetables. Inspecting a single row of beans is much simpler than a massed bed.

So prolific are beans that even a small bed of them can produce more than the gardener's family can readily consume. We had such a problem last year at the same time that the plum tomatoes were threatening to overwhelm us along with the summer squash.

My wife hit on a great idea by combining all three vegetables together, along with some onions, to make a tasty vegetable stew. We ate this principally as a side dish. But with croutons added and topped with melted cheese, it became a meal in itself.

Whatever was left over after each meal was packaged in meal-sized quantities and placed in the freezer. That post-Christmas meal used up the last of those frozen packages. We hope to freeze a good many more such meals this year -- and the bean plantings will reflect such a policy.

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