It’s Earth Week, and late April is the perfect time to start planning your garden!
This year, consider planting heirloom bean and tomato varieties which, according to author and farmer Bill Best, are a more sustainable gardening option and are also an important element of Kentucky’s history and agricultural tradition.
In his new book, Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving Bill Best provides an evocative exploration of the seed saver’s art and the practice of sustainable agriculture. Writing with Dobree Adams, Best shares tips for planting and growing beans and describes his family’s favorite varieties for the table. Featuring interviews with many people who have worked to preserve heirloom varieties, this book vividly documents the social relevance of the rituals of sowing, cultivating, eating, saving, and sharing.
In this excerpt from Kentucky Heirloom Seeds, Bill Best gives his top tips for planting, growing, and saving heirloom beans and tomatoes:
Practical Tips for Growing and Saving
We gardeners and farmers love to sit around and tell tales about our successes and sometimes our failures. We are always talking about something we tried this year that worked well, or maybe it didn’t. This is what makes gardening and farming so fascinating and challenging. Every piece of land is different, with different soil and a different orientation to the sun. So what works just great for me may not work so well for someone else. Then, of course, there is always old-man weather. No two years are ever the same. And once gardening has skipped a generation, it is unfortunately necessary to start from scratch: knowledge passed on for hundreds of years has to be relearned, accompanied by trial and error.
The best thing to do is make good notes every year: what you planted, when you planted it, how it grew, what the harvest was, and of course, how it tasted! Here, I offer a few practical tips from my perspective.
Author Bill Best with “Leather Britches” (Dried Beans)
With beans, it is good to know that a few things have happened in the last few decades that have forced traditional practices to change. Traditionally, cornfield beans have been planted with corn so the cornstalks could provide the “poles” for the bean to climb. But with the advent of modern hybrid varieties, the cornstalks are too weak to support the bean vines. At best, hybrid cornstalks, both sweet and field, can support only one or two ears of corn and will collapse under the weight of bean vines. Therefore, most people who are serious about growing climbing heirloom beans use poles or a trellis to support the bean vines, or they grow them on heirloom varieties of corn such as Hickory Cane. Trellises should be only as high as you can reach without using a ladder to pick the beans.
Another way to support bean vines is to construct a bean tower made from a stout pole with a bicycle tire rim on top. Strings are attached around the perimeter of the wheel and then attached to the bean vines on the ground. These bean towers need to be at least ten feet tall. You can use a stepladder to reach the beans growing higher than your head. Bean towers are an excellent way to save seeds and “get a start” if you have only half a dozen or so seeds. The tower, allowing for ample vine growth, makes it possible for the maximum number of pods to form and to produce the most seeds from the smallest number of plants.
Cornfield beans need to be planted at a rate of two seeds per eighteen inches. The two seeds help each other break through the soil at germination and then “spread their wings” as side branches quickly develop on the main stem. Virtually all modern seed companies give bad advice when they promote the sowing of bean seeds at a rate of every two inches or so. Mechanical planting devices also space them far too close together. Of course, commercial seed companies are in the business of selling seeds, not promoting good vine growth or growing quality beans.
Once the beans mature on the vines, it is important to save the seeds at the appropriate time; otherwise, the seeds can be damaged by weather conditions. If the weather is clear and dry at the time of maturity, the bean pods can be left on the vines for several days until the pods become dry, at which point they must be removed from the vines. If it is rainy when the bean pods mature, it is best to remove the pods and spread them out in a dry area to complete the drying process. A greenhouse or high tunnel works well, assuming the pods are spread out on plastic on the ground or placed on greenhouse benches covered with bedsheets or some other cloth.
Beans and Tomatoes growing in the field (Dobree Adams)
Drying can also be accomplished by spreading the pods over the floor of any dry room in the house or barn. The most important thing is to prevent the pods from getting wet during the drying process, as the seeds will sprout or mold within the hull. If this happens, the seeds will never sprout in the ground and won’t be good to eat either, even as dry beans.
After the seeds have become dry, shelled out, and hard to the touch, it is important to remove the disfigured or insect-damaged seeds from the batch. If some seeds are a different color than the others, these seeds can be planted separately the following year to see if they breed true. If they do, then you might have discovered your own bean variety. This is the process by which we have developed thousands of varieties of heirloom beans.
To achieve good production with a minimum of rot and sunscalding, tomatoes need to be staked or trellised. It is also possible to use cages made from concrete reinforcing wire, fencing wire, or any other wire that can withstand considerable weight. This gets the tomatoes off the ground and provides plenty of shade to pre- vent sunscald of the ripening fruit.
Tomato seeds can be saved in several ways. One of the traditional methods is to let the tomato ripen completely, even to the point of beginning to rot, and then remove the seeds with a spoon and spread them on a piece of cloth or paper to dry. Some people spread them out on a paper towel, let them dry, and then plant the paper towel and seeds together in potting or germinating soil.
Heirloom red tomatoes are high in acid and are pleasing to a lot of people. Best’s favorite red tomato is the Zeke Dishman, a very large and tasty tomato that often weighs over two pounds. It was developed by Zeke Dishman of Windy in Wayne County over several decades.
A far better way to save tomato seeds is to use the fermentation process. The tomatoes are allowed to overripen to the point of beginning to rot and then quartered or cut up so that the seed cavities can be scooped out and put in a bucket or some other container. You can do this with one tomato or with many, depending on the number of seeds you want to save. The tomatoes are then stirred one or more times per day for three or more days until the mixture is soupy. Fungal growth will appear on top of the mixture as fermentation takes place, but that is no problem. During stirring, the seeds dislodge from the gel and sink to the bottom of the container. Water is then poured into the mixture, allowing the pulp and the bad seeds to rise to the top and ow over the side of the container. The good seeds sink to the bottom. Once the water becomes clear, pour what’s left in the bucket into a finely meshed strainer. Only the seeds will remain in the strainer. Then spread the seeds out on a at surface, such as a slick paper plate, to let them dry. My own preference is to spread the seeds on wax paper and put it under a slow-moving fan until the seeds are dry, which usually takes no more than twenty-four hours. Once the seeds are dry, you can scrape them o the paper with your finger and separate any that might be stuck together. I then put the seeds in a tightly sealed plastic bag, dated and labeled, and store the bag at room temperature, making sure it is not in direct sunlight or in a hot part of the room. Using this method, I have had good luck germinating tomato seeds saved for up to ten years.
When sowing tomato seeds, it is important not to plant them too deep—half an inch is adequate. Keep the soil mixture warm and moist but not wet. Most tomato seeds germinate within four to seven days. They need a lot of sunlight at this early stage to prevent the plants from becoming elongated and weak. Commercial full-spectrum grow lights placed close to the germinating plants work best for producing early transplants. The plants should be ready to transplant within six to eight weeks. As soon as suckers appear on the plants, break them to below the first bloom clusters, which will now mature much earlier. Suckering also keeps most of the foliage off the ground, helping to prevent disease.
Bill Best, professor emeritus from Berea College, is a Madison County, Kentucky, farmer and one of the charter members of the Lexington Farmers’ Market. Widely known as a saver, collector, and grower of heirloom beans and tomatoes, he is the author of Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia.
Dobree Adams is primarily known in the region as a fiber artist and photographer. She gardens and farms on a river bottom of the Kentucky north of Frankfort.
For more on growing, eating, and saving heirloom varieties, you can purchase Kentucky Heirloom Seeds HERE.