Adapt Heirloom Seeds to New Growing Environments with Patience and Persistence

Reader Contribution by Cindy Barlowe
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German Immigrant, Polly Schmidt Bean

Thanksgiving, 2020, was not the usual celebration for our family. Due to the pandemic, our group consisted of immediate family, not the typical raucous gathering of family and friends. Nonetheless, it was a special event and as we happily prepared a feast, Richard and I were grateful to share time with our kids. Son Clark, prepared a wild turkey harvested by Son-in-Law Joe, and made rich gravy from the bird’s roasted bone broth. Daughter Kate kept an eye on the oven and Daughter-in-Law Gracelyn made a green bean casserole, using Richard’s mother’s recipe and beans harvested from our garden. As Gracelyn stirred a roux, I shared the recipe’s story.

Hazel, “Tut” Barlowe joined a Book Club in the 1950s and monthly meetings included a meal prepared by the host. One woman was famous for her green bean casserole and despite requests from other members, she refused to divulge her “secret” recipe. The other members discussed the dish and after numerous attempts to recreate it, Tut finally came up with a satisfactory recipe. In honor of GrandMom Tut’s memory, we include the not-so-secret casserole recipe as part of our annual Thanksgiving celebration. The dish is extra special when we use White Mountain Half-Runner beans that grow in our garden from seed passed through my family for at least seven generations.

These beans came to the United States with my German immigrant ancestor, Mary Schmidt, who married William Bean. Born in 1812 and called Polly by family and friends, the young woman probably received seeds from her mother, in hopes she would plant them to grow food for a future family. Heirloom seeds traditionally passed through maternal family lines and when Gracelyn and Clark recently moved to Oregon, I prepared a collection of family seeds for Gracelyn to plant in their new home. It will be interesting to see how the family beans grow in the Pacific Northwest after thriving in the same geographical region of North Carolina for almost two hundred years. Hopefully, they will like their new home, but often, a gardener must practice patience and persistence to adapt immigrant plants to a new growing environment. Such was my experience with Ted’s beans.

I first met Ted Hoilman in 2013 when our mutual friend, Kim Barnhardt, took me to his garden, a magical place nestled in the shadow of his beloved Big Yellow mountain. Ted’s family, multi-generational residents of this rural area, passed saved heirloom seeds to Ted and his garden reflects the mountaineering spirit of his ancestors. After a warm greeting, Ted, a spry septuagenarian with an engaging smile, eagerly led us through rows of thriving plants. As we strolled along, admiring vines that climbed strong stakes and colorful blossoms that attracted a variety of pollinators, Ted talked about his love for the mountain that towers above his home.

Ted Stands in His Garden

At 5540 feet in elevation, Big Yellow’s grassy bald peak is a spectacular expanse that offers breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountain views. According to The Nature Conservancy’s website, https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/big-yellow-mountain/ Big Yellow is “an unusual community type resembling a high elevation pasture.” Every spring, Ted transports his cattle herd to the Bald where the cows graze through summer and help keep underbrush in check. Ted refers to Big Yellow as “his” mountain and when he speaks of it, his voice chokes with emotion. According to Ted, the only time he left his community was when, as a young teenager, his family sent him to work in West Virginia’s coal mines. After a few weeks, engulfed by homesickness, Ted returned to his mountain and vowed never to leave again. Click the link to view an interview with Ted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhhLxXo5lbY

After the garden tour, Ted led us to a wood-framed shed. Reaching into a large storage bin, he pulled out a bag of brightly colored beans. Kim and I gasped at the beautiful seeds and when he saw our delight, Ted offered to share with us. Gratefully, we accepted his generous gifts and looked forward to growing Ted’s beans in our own gardens.

Ted Holds His Landrace Beans

Ted’s beans grow harmoniously and retain individual characteristics, so they defy identification as a true type and exist as landrace plants, ones that grow from genetically diverse heirloom seeds that have grown together for long enough to produce consistent results.  Brilliant red blossoms that attract hummingbirds and yield deep purple beans are characteristic of scarlet runners, but Ted’s beans are much larger than typical scarlet runners. Ditto for the pure white beans that are huge in comparison to most lima varieties. With the bright pinks, brown-speckled beans and the variety of spots and lines that adorn other beans, Ted’s landrace combination is beautiful. And delicious.

Pollinators love Ted’s beans

I first planted Ted’s beans in 2014 and although they germinated well, the plants struggled to survive in unfamiliar soil and a hotter climate than their cool mountain homeland. When I looked at vines that barely reached the top of a four-foot cage and sported small, scattered leaves, pockmarked by insect attack, I remembered how Ted’s beans grew in his garden. With thick leaves, each as big as Ted’s hand, strong vines overpowered supports and reached upward as if they searched for a giant’s kingdom. In my garden, only a handful of beans matured enough to save seed to plant the following year and I carefully selected the best specimens.

Other heirloom plants, including Spanish peppers and Italian tomatoes, required years of patient care and diligent selective seed saving before they thrived in my western North Carolina garden, so I remained hopeful for Ted’s beans. I recalled how Ted’s eyes teared when he described how he felt about leaving his mountain and I knew his beans missed their former home, but each year I set aside a spot for them and successive crops yielded seed more adapted to my garden.

Seven bean seasons later, in 2020, Ted’s beans flourished at Heart & Sole Gardens and yielded handfuls of thick, bottle green six-inch pods. Shelled, there were enough beans to can, share with friends, eat fresh and save seed. Finally, these immigrants adapted to the climate, pests and soil of a new homeland and they now grow as well as they did in their former mountain location.

Whether human or plant, immigrants often struggle in new living situations. In my garden, Ted’s beans serve as humbling example of how patience, persistence and tender care can change adverse conditions into a happy place to live. I look forward to planting Ted’s beans in 2021 and watching them thrive in a place they now call home.

GrandMom Tut’s Not-So-Secret Green Bean Casserole

Our family loves to forage edible wild mushrooms and we rarely purchase supermarket mushrooms. For our Thanksgiving casserole, we substituted Hedgehogs, Hydnum repandum, which were in season and have a delightful crunchy texture, for the canned variety. If you choose to use wild mushrooms, be sure to thoroughly clean and cook before adding to the topping mixture.

Yields 6-8 Servings

Ingredients:

1 quart canned green snap beans, with liquid

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

For the topping:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sliced canned mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted

Directions

1. In a saucepan, heat beans, in canning liquid, until hot.

2.Drain and discard liquid and season beans with salt and pepper.

3. Melt butter over medium high heat in large skillet, sift flour into butter and stir constantly until a thick mixture is formed, about 5 minutes.

4. In a separate saucepan, heat olive oil and briefly cook drained canned mushrooms until slightly browned.

5. Add mushrooms and sour cream to the roux and stir to combine. Cook over low heat until heated through.

6. Place beans in a glass 8” x 12” rectangular baking dish and pour topping over beans.

7. Scatter almonds over top of the casserole and bake in a preheated, 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Serve warm.

Cindy Barlowe gardens 8 acres in North Carolina, where she grows and saves heirloom seeds, while freelance writing, covering the “seedy” side of gardening at Seed Tales.  Connect with Cindy on Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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