I can’t remember a time when there weren’t Italian beans growing in the garden. When I was young, we lived next door to my grandmother, and one of my first memories of being in the garden was weaving in and out of the tall vines, pretending that I was in a special forest all my own. I remember reaching up and picking some of the beans and eating them raw....they were crisp and sweet and I loved them. I plant Italian beans (known as Romano beans) every year, not just for what I harvest, but for the connection I feel with the Earth, the seasons, my history and the cycle of life.
I always plant on or around Easter, not for any religious reason but because Easter is always celebrated after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. My grandmother always advised planting in accordance with the moon’s phases, and this seems the easiest way to remember. She directed that, after the ground was prepared and the holes made to just the right depth with your index finger, you should drop three beans into each hole: one for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (obviously it was she who was religious!) She also cautioned to never plant when you were in your menses, though this has long since not been an issue.
Once the seeds are in the ground, it’s only a few weeks before the magic begins. Slowly, so slowly, but with determination, the bean pushes up, lifting the heavy mound above it to peak out and reach the light. They emerge at different rates but they almost all seem to make it. As they begin their journey upward, they grab tightly onto the stakes provided for them, always twisting counterclockwise. I’ve never quite been able to explain why this happens, although anecdotally it seems to be the case in everyone’s garden.
The weeks go by and the vine grows, sending out shoots and new leaves in all directions but always moving upward. Small white flowers appear, and from these, slivers of green emerge. The beans are here! They grow quickly and snap off happily between your fingers when you think they are the right size to eat. They are sweet and delicious and a gift from the earth.
It goes on like this for a few months, but soon the bean begins to look different. Instead of the nubile, firm green bean, the pod is now a bit lumpy, with bean seeds inside. The plant has realized that it must reproduce if it is to survive for another generation. The beans are still edible but their flesh is a little tougher; they cling much more tenaciously to the vine and begin to turn from a verdant green to a dry yellow. They have entered their next cycle. When left undisturbed, the pods begin to turn paper-thin and dry, and protrude with the bean seeds inside. The vines, still anchored tightly to the stakes, begin losing their leaves and abandoning any chance of a new lease on life. Now is the time to carefully snip the bean pods from the vine and store them in a cool, dark place until spring of next year, when you break open their protective shroud and start the process all over again.
I have now taught my grandchildren how to plant these same Romano Beans, as I did before them, my mother before me, and my grandmother before her.
Norene Ambrose is a grandmother, mother, aunt, and gardener. She lives with her dog Penny in California and strives to appreciate the beauty in each day.