Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky gardening’

Carrying Moonbeans Home in a Jar

Weckpotten

In the year 1944, World War II was still raging in both Europe and the Pacific. The blockbuster movie of the year was Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby. This movie was nominated for ten Oscars, of which it won seven, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Song, among others. The song, sung by Crosby and a boys choir, was “Swinging on a Star,” a catchy tune about growing up and striving to better oneself. It was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke and has been recorded many times since then by a star-studded list of singers, including Shari Lewis (and her puppets), Burl Ives, Frank Sinatra, and others. The whimsical lyrics include stars, moonbeams, a mule, a pig, and a fish. You can watch the version performed in a scene from the movie at this YouTube link.

In that same year, the woman many of us would later lovingly call Mammaw was a young woman of only 30, but had already been married 12 years and had had four of her five children, one of whom is my father. It is not hard at all to imagine her back then joyfully humming that tune while tending her garden to feed her growing family. I have no doubt that she harvested White Half Runner beans that year by the bushel, as she did for many, many years to come.

Throughout my childhood and for many years afterward, I can remember going to visit Mammaw every so often. We lived in the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky, and she lived in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, so it took several hours to get to her house. The time it took to get there dropped considerably each time they opened a new stretch of the Mountain Parkway, but the degree to which we would step back in time never seemed to change at all. Although modernity has slowly crept into the region, in many ways Appalachia remains a place untouched by time. Among the timeless traditions still practiced in that region is that of planting by the moon.

For those who don’t know, planting by the moon has nothing to do with planting by moonlight at night. It has everything to do with planting different kinds of crops during different phases of the lunar cycle, and not planting anything at all during some phases. According to this tradition, beans should be planted while the moon is waxing from a quarter moon to a full moon. Before then or after then are bad times to plant beans. Mammaw adhered to this tradition religiously. She always had terrific crops.

Whenever we would arrive at her house, Mammaw would have a feast well underway, with the warm smells of home cooking wafting throughout her house and spilling out onto the stoop as she greeted us at the door. She would welcome us with open arms and, without fail, apologize for not having much to offer us in the way of food. We would always go home stuffed. The menu would vary a little with the seasons, but some things were constants: we would always have chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Other vegetables would come and go, depending on the season, as would the variety of desserts that she would inevitably bring out after everyone had completely gorged themselves. We could always count on the fact that she would have grown the potatoes and green beans in her garden. The potatoes would keep for many months in a root cellar; the beans had to be eaten fresh or canned for later consumption. Mammaw would can enough beans each year to last her until the next season. In good years, she would have plenty to give away, so on more than one occasion we would have jars of yummy-looking green beans accompanying us on the ride home. As the sun would slip behind the mountains, the moon and the stars would come out, and my sister and I would drift off in the back seat, probably humming some tune or other about the moon or stars or both, only to wake up as we pulled into the driveway at home.

I still remember Mammaw’s green beans as the best I have ever tasted. Imagine my delight when I was looking for heirloom seed varieties and found an online source of what are in all likelihood the same beans that she used to grow! Allow me to digress for a moment in order to connect the dots.

Mammaw was a woman of Appalachia, through and through. In most of my memories, she lived in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, sometimes in Morgan County, sometimes in Magoffin County. I have been told that she also lived for a time in nearby Elliott County. Her family had been in Kentucky for generations, having first settled in the region before Kentucky was a state — in fact, before the United States had achieved independence. Along her paternal line, six generations of McGuires before her were either born or died (or both) in Kentucky. The first of these was her fourth great grandfather, James Felix McGuire, who was born in Ireland and was killed on August 19, 1782, in the last battle of the American Revolution, while serving under the command of Lt. Col. Daniel Boone at what is now Big Blue Lick State Park.

Among the surnames found in Mammaw’s family history is a maternal line usually spelled Nickel, but sometimes spelled with two L’s, as Nickell. In my own genealogy research, I have found numerous Nickel/Nickell cousins, and am still adding to the list. So far, all the ones I have found are in Morgan County, although I have found relatives and ancestors with other surnames in Elliott County, which borders on Morgan.

Now, back to the beans…

I frequently explore the Internet in pursuit of new ideas for my garden. Recently, I stumbled across the site for the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc (SMAC). Among the goals of this non-profit organization located in Berea, Kentucky, is the identification and preservation of heirloom varieties from Appalachia. I just about dropped my iPad when I found that two of the varieties of White Half Runner beans they have are the Nickel Bean, from the Nickel family of Morgan County, and the Nickell Bean, from the Nickell family of Elliott County!! At first, I assumed that it was a single variety and that one of the ones listed was a typo. However, after exchanging some emails with the organization’s President, Dr. Bill Best, I came to understand that they actually have two different varieties, although they do not always have both available at the same time. I can’t help but suspect that the two are very closely related, and that the beans Mammaw grew were from one variety or the other. Mountain people most definitely share with one another and help each other out, so sharing bean seeds with neighbors and relatives would be a very natural thing to do.

For this year, SMAC has the two-L Nickell bean, from Elliott County. I ordered mine and they arrived this week! It’s tempting to rush out and plant them right now. However, since I live in Central Florida now, instead of Central Kentucky, now is not a good time. Needless to say, these will have a special place in my fall garden as soon as the time is right.

Speaking of timing, in memory of Mammaw, I should check the moon phases for the best time to plant these beans, just as she did for season after season and would have done today if she were still alive. If I do this right, I will harvest enough to can some. Only then will I be able to give some to my grandchildren so that they can carry their own moonbeans home in a jar.


Credit:

The picture at the topic of this post is from Wikimedia Commons. Source: Teunie at nl.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D.

Advertisements

The Cowpea Project

Making the transition from Kentucky gardening to Florida gardening has presented a number of challenges for me, but has introduced some opportunities as well. In some cases, situations bring both challenge and opportunity. One such example is known simply as “summer.”

In my memory of growing up around gardens in Kentucky, the most critical dates to be concerned with were the last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall. There were certain vegetables that could be planted before the last frost, and others that had to wait. Some could take a light frost, whereas others couldn’t withstand any frost at all. The entire spring planting sequence could be planned out around these basic facts. As for the first frost date in the fall, the key thing to keep in mind was that certain crops had to be in the ground early enough to allow them to mature and be harvested before a killing frost would wipe them out. In either case, whether spring or fall, cold weather was the thing that had to be scheduled around.

When I first started gardening in Florida, I thought I could take what I knew about the seasons and simply extend the planting dates in either direction from the hottest time of the year. That is, I thought I could simply plant things a few weeks earlier in the spring, and I could expect things to continue growing a few weeks longer in the fall. Since the hottest days here are about the same as the hottest days in Kentucky, I didn’t give much thought to having to make major adjustments in my summer gardening routines. Granted, it stays hot much, much longer here than it does in Kentucky, but it very rarely breaks 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so what could possibly go wrong?

I know, I know. Famous last words.

The thought that never occurred to me was that there is a point each spring when it becomes too late to plant summer vegetables. That point in time also coincides with a period in which it is still too early to plant late-season vegetables. That leaves a significant stretch of time from about the middle of May to the end of August during which you simply don’t bother planting any of the things I always thought of as summer vegetables.

So, what do you do with all that down time? Many gardeners here simply take the summer off, much as gardeners in Kentucky take the winters off. However, since I’m still having so much fun getting back into gardening, I decided to see what options were available to me. For the summer of 2012, I decided to embark upon a new adventure, growing one of the few things able to thrive here if planted this time of year. As it turns out, I have never grown this crop before, so it will be a learning experience for me. I have dubbed this adventure “The Cowpea Project.”

20120530-221319.jpg
Until recently, I had never even heard the term “cowpea.” I had, however, heard of black eyed peas, which happen to be the most well known type of cowpea. The terms “southern pea” and “field pea” are interchangeable with the term “cowpea,” and seem to be preferred in some regions, but I was not familiar with these terms either. To be precise, cowpeas are beans that just happen to resemble peas when growing in their pods, and if harvested dry, the correct term is “pulse” instead of “vegetable,” but this is a blog, not a term paper, so I will dispense with formalities. In researching them over the past few weeks, I have encountered the word “cowpea” more often than southern or field peas, especially in academic literature and in seed catalogs, so I have adopted that name and will stick with it in my writing.

The little bit of research I have done has really opened my eyes to a world of vegetables I never knew existed. Oddly enough, it is one of the oldest vegetables known to man, having been domesticated about the same time as pearl millet and sorghum, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 thousand years ago. It is generally agreed that it was domesticated in Africa, most likely in the area now known as Niger, so it should be no surprise that it grows well in hot weather, and is even able to withstand some drought conditions.

Each variety of cowpea belongs to one of four subspecies of a single species, Vigna unguiculata. I have not been able to determine how many varieties there are, but I can say that so far I have run across a few dozen, a least. These varieties differ in a number of characteristics, including taste, texture, bean color, eye color, pod color, plant size, and days to harvest. To provide a reasonable cross-section, I have settled on five varieties to try this summer:

  • California Blackeye 46 — This variety is said to produce a heavy yield of light green pods with creamy-white beans sporting black eyes. This is the variety shown growing in the picture above.
  • Pinkeye Purplehull — As the name suggests, the beans in this variety have pink eyes and grow in distinctive purple hulls. Some have suggested that this variety is among the tastiest of cowpeas. I planted these about a week behind the blackeyes. You can see their progress in the next picture below.
  • Mississippi Silver — This is a relatively new variety, developed by Mississippi State University in 1965 to be resistant to a couple of plant diseases common in the south (fusarium wilt and root knot nematode). It is one of many varieties known as “crowder” peas, so called because they are literally crowded together in the pod. The hulls of this variety are silver, hence the name.
  • Red Ripper — The Red Ripper is a much older variety, believed to have originated in the 1850s in North Carolina. This variety is reported to provide heavy yields, even in hot and dry summer conditions. It is often planted as a forage crop, but is also reported to be good to eat. Unlike the others I selected, this variety grows as a vine and will do best if I provide it with some support.
  • SaDandy — This is an old heirloom variety of cream pea developed for the south. The beans are white and said to have a smoother, creamier taste than blackeyed peas.

20120530-231815.jpg

I planted the first two varieties above in small sections of one of my raised beds over the past couple weeks. I planted the other three varieties directly in the ground this past weekend. Even though they are planted in-ground, I still used intensive planting techniques. The Mississippi Silver and Red Ripper are planted in short, wide rows, using the available space in the same way I would if planting in a raised bed. That is, instead of planting a single row strung out in a line across the garden, I planted a triple row of Mississippi Silver and a quad row of Red Ripper. The difference between the two is simply a matter of the space I had to work with.

20120531-002008.jpg

20120531-002024.jpg

The space I had available for the SaDandy was more square shaped, so I planted those in a block configuration.

20120531-010914.jpg

The final step in planting anything in my garden is a sprinkle with cayenne pepper. Without this step, I run the risk of coming back to find freshly dug holes where my seeds were once planted. Squirrels allegedly have a strong dislike for capsaicin, the ingredient that makes hot peppers so hot. By sprinkling it on freshly planted areas, the hope is that the squirrels will go elsewhere to do their digging, mischief-making, or whatever it is squirrels do to entertain themselves.

20120531-014106.jpg

There is one more hot-climate legume that I’m lumping in with this project, although it is not a cowpea: pigeon peas. Unlike the cowpea, pigeon peas were domesticated in India. Their ability to thrive in hot weather is one of the few traits they actually share with cowpeas. They take considerably longer to mature (the variety I bought takes “only” 120 to 140 days), they grow as a shrub instead of a vine, they need considerably more spacing, and in frost-free areas, they actually live for four or five years. I am hoping to get mine planted this weekend. I’ll be reporting on the progress of my pigeon peas along with the cowpeas.