Bountiful Beans and Peas
by Stacey Wiebe
Spring is on the way! The days are getting longer and the air is warmer. You can feel Mother Nature waking up from a restful winter. Here at White Owl Farm, our thoughts turn to calves and goat kids, preparations for seeding crops, and seedlings for the garden.
Next to livestock, my favourite thing on the farm is my garden. Beginning in February, I start to get anxious to get seeds in the ground, even though we are three and half months away from planting anything! Perhaps my two most loved plants are peas and beans for a number of reasons: they fix nitrogen into the garden, they are really easy to grow, they come in so many different varieties, and my kids eat them like they are going out of style.
How do peas and beans fix nitrogen in the garden soil, you ask? Well, they belong to the legume family. Plants in this family (peas, beans, alfalfa, lentils, sweet peas, vetch, lupines, peanuts, to name a few) take nitrogen gas (which makes up 79% of our atmosphere, but is in an unusable state for plants and animals and can only be used when converted to nitrates, nitrites, or ammonia), hydrogen, and energy, and convert the nitrogen into ammonia, thereby “fixing” the gaseous nitrogen into a usable source for the plant. In order to do this, the plant must have an enzyme called nitrogenase. Nitrogenase is not oxygen tolerant, so the plant creates nodules around its roots as a place for the nitrogenase to be protected. These nodules have the nitrogenase inside, with oxygen-absorbing molecules around it. The plant is continuously growing new nodules by releasing chemical attractants into the soil to attract bacteria that are also carrying nitrogenase. When these bacteria infect the root of a legume, the plant responds by growing a nodule around it and allowing the bacteria to multiply.1 If you have ever dug up a pea plant at the end of the year, before it browns, you will see these nodules on the roots of the plants. As a cattle producer, legumes are important to me in the pasture. Plants use the fixed nitrogen to make proteins, which are then consumed by my grazing cattle. The protein helps my calves grow and produce beef. If I have an animal that dies, bacteria will break down that animal and return the nitrogen to the soil and release some back into the air. This is also important to me, because we exist in a cyclical relationship with our Earth. What we take, we must give back.
Beans are one of the most important domesticated legumes in the world because of their protein, fibre, and complex carbohydrates. They were first domesticated in Peru and Mexico between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.2 Today, beans that are grown in home gardens come in hybrid varieties and heirloom varieties. The main difference between the two is that hybrid varieties are crossbred from two plants to gain desirable characteristics. Because of this, saved seed will not always germinate true to the parent plant from last year. You will have plants with a number of characteristics, instead of being uniform. Heirloom varieties will germinate true to the plant from last year, if the seed is saved. Heirlooms and hybrids have their place in the garden and I will outline some of my chosen varieties from each group. First up is Kentucky Blue, which is a hybrid variety, developed from the Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake beans. The Kentucky Blue is a pole bean, which means it needs support to grow, as it is a vine and likes to grow upwards. I have found this one works well in my garden in east central Saskatchewan. It gives me many beans and is a vigorous plant with a 65-day maturity so it is good for relay planting. I consider this the workhorse of my beans. I pickle these, freeze them for winter, and steam them and add butter and salt for fresh eating. For my next “must have” in the garden, I like the Comtesse de Chambourd filet bean. Filet beans are small and thin. Typically the pods are 4” and the beans inside are very small. They are good for pickling. The Comtesse is also a bush bean. The plants do not need support and grow like a compact bush, which makes them good for containers and small spaces. Another plus is that the pods are just so tender and flavourful and so cute! This bean is an heirloom, having been traced back to the 1800s, and you can save the seed. The best (and easiest) way to save the bean seed for next year is to just leave some pods on the plant and let them dry down in the garden. The final bean I love is Canadian Wonder. This is a red kidney bean for drying, but can also be eaten as a snap bean when young. It is also an heirloom variety. Dry beans are the kind that are saved for winter to make into chili, or baked beans, or to add to soups and stews. To dry them, just leave the pods on the plants until they are brown and hard. The seeds of dry beans come in many, many colours and shapes and sizes, and I usually grow three or so in my garden and then mix the seeds all together in a jar so I can look at them all winter.
Peas are one of the oldest known domesticated plants in the world. Evidence suggests they were domesticated around 11,000 years ago in places such as Iran and Turkmenistan. Like beans, they are a good source of protein and complex carbohydrates.3 Peas are a staple in my farm garden. The best shelling pea I have ever grown is Homesteader (also known as Lincoln Homesteader). It is an heirloom variety so the seeds can be saved, if you can convince your kids to leave some on the plant (which I cannot!) This variety requires support as they can grow tall and the plant is usually FULL of peas. They also do well in relay planting. This pea is the best in my opinion for fresh eating on raids to the garden, or for freezing. The other variety of shelling pea I grow is Large Manitoba. This one is a bush plant, so it does not need support. It produces larger pods, with more peas per pod than Homesteader, but I do not think they taste as good as Homesteader. However, the seeds can be saved for next year and this variety does well in raised beds. My family also loves snap peas, which are the peas you eat with the shell on them. The peas are usually small and the shells are thin and the whole thing is just oh so good. I plant Sweet Jade, which is a variety bred in Saskatchewan, so I know it will perform here. This plant is medium tall, so I always give it some support. It is also semi-leafless, which makes finding the pea pods much easier.
Peas and beans are a good way to get your kids into gardening (if they want to). My kids, aged 7 and 9, plant their own garden plots every spring with one or more kinds of peas and beans. The plants are easy to distinguish from weeds, since the leaves of both plants are very distinctive and quite large when they emerge. The seeds do not need to be started indoors and transplanted, which can be daunting for some kids, and they can be planted early and come up quickly so kids can see a reward for their efforts. Peas and beans can be eaten right from the garden, or kids can be taught how to shell peas for freezing or shell dry beans for storage. My family has had some good conversations around a bowl of peas that need to be shelled, and often afterwards we throw the shells at each other in “Pea Fights,” which results in a lot of laughter and the dogs get involved and there’s just general mayhem. My family likes peas steamed with butter and salt added for fresh eating and of course frozen for winter. I also add frozen peas to casseroles, spaghetti with tomato sauce, salads, and soups.
The recipe I have included works well for allowing kids to help in the kitchen. I let mine put the beans, garlic, seeds, and dill in the jars, while I do the parts that require the stove and hot liquid. The best beans for pickling are either filet beans or another kind of eating bean. Dry beans do not work well for pickling.
3 lbs (1.4 kg) green beans
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
4 tbsp pickling salt
5 medium cloves garlic
5 tsp (10g) dill seed (not dill weed)
sprigs of dill weed
Prepare a boiling water bath and five regular-mouth pint jars. Place lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the pickles.
Wash and trim beans so that they fit in the jar. If you have particularly long beans, cut them in half. Combine vinegar, water, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. While the pickling liquid heats, pack the beans into the jars, leaving 1/2 inch for headspace. To each jar, add 1 clove of garlic, 1 tsp dill seeds, and a few dill sprigs.
Slowly pour the hot brine over the beans, leaving 1/2 inch for headspace. After all the jars are full, use a wooden chopstick to work the air bubbles out of the jars. Check the headspace again and add more brine if necessary.
Wipe the rims, apply lids and rings and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Let pickles sit for at least one week before eating.
Stacey Wiebe lives one hour north of Yorkton, SK, where she farms organically on White Owl Farm with her partner Dale Maier. They have been certified organic since 2018. Together they raise organic beef cattle and goats, as well as cereal and oilseed crops. They also have two children, aged 7 and 9. Stacey and Dale are passionate about ecologically minded farming. They are members of The Farmers’ Table (see the display ad on page 9 of the 28.6 March/April issue of the WHOLifE Journal).