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Container Culture: The Romantic Potential of Beans

I know you, I walked with you once upon a bean
I know you, I walked with you once upon a bean

Watch the California Matters episode about UC Santa Cruz Farm, a pioneering, organic farm that's benefiting an entire community.

I went to Disneyland last week, where I possibly developed an unhealthy addiction to the Magic Kingdom. Please understand this is very out of character for me. True, I've always walked away from a trip to Disneyland pleasantly surprised, but always maintained an arm's length of ironic detachment. This trip was supposed to be no different. "Going to Disneyland today," I tweeted. "Gonna find all the hidden Mein Kampfs!" (To be fair, Disney was also responsible for its share of anti-Nazi propaganda, including the short featuring a beleaguered Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi.)

I expected to be removed from the situation, but instead, I ate up every ounce of heart swelling joy Disneyland had to offer. By the end of the trip, I was so ridiculously transfixed by wonder that I actually considered buying an annual pass. Me, who ranks among her favorite terms the phrase, "commodity fetishism." What happened?

Maybe it's because adulthood makes it increasingly difficult to find anything truly "magical." To prove my point: I just now put "magical" instinctually in quotation marks. By the same turn, when you do find something that holds that magic, it is all the more surprising. And while I held off on buying an annual pass to Disneyland this time, I drove home with a firm commitment to try and find more magic in things, as increasingly difficult as that feat is as time goes on.

The next day, I interviewed Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo bean growers up north, and found some of that magic in, of all places, a conversation about beans.

"I think beans are romantic," Sando told me. "Think of Jack and the Beanstalk. You just throw them in the ground and they sprout up. Then you can put them in your pocket and go to Istanbul and do the same thing."

Sando's own story is in and of itself a kind of fairytale. "I was 40, having financial issues, working at Target and thinking I was a screw up. I had a garden for food for myself, thinking, as long as I had a garden I'd be okay. You feel like you're producing something when you have a garden."

Sando says it's when he gave up that things started to fall into place for him. "I started taking my beans to the farmers' market, and one day Thomas Keller from French Laundry found my stand and loved my heirloom beans." Take that, song about beans that highlights their flatulent potential.

From there, things took off for Sando. Rancho Gordo has been featured in the pages of Bon Apetit, Sunset, and Chow, among others. Saveur Magazine even put them on their heavily-prized Saveur 100 list. Rancho Gordo is now opening up a store in San Francisco's Ferry Building, a haven for foodies. So I guess you could call Sando's story, a ferry tale. Ugh, someone punch me.

Sando's adoration for the legume might sound curious. None are the times I've heard someone emphatically declare, "I want to start a garden so I can grow beans!" Roses, yes. Eggplants, yes. Tomatoes, definitely yes. In fact, Sando got hooked on beans by accident because he was growing tomatoes and planted beans for the sake of crop rotation. But there's good reason why people should embrace beans.

For one, beans are a nitrogen-fixing crop, which means they are one of the few plants out there that will actually put nitrogen into the soil instead of taking it out. Nitrogen is important for healthy plant foliage and is usually in short supply. So, if you plant a crop of beans, you are enriching your existing soil so you can plant again using that same soil. Also, because beans don't produce large fruits, their sunlight requirements aren't as demanding. Their root systems are shallow so they don't require deep (expensive) pots.

As far as practicality it concerned, for container growers, you have two choices, bush beans and pole beans. Bush beans grow faster and don't require a trellis, but pole beans, although slower growers, have more consistent yields throughout the season. Plus because pole beans are vertical growers, they are ideal for small spaces. Here's my favorite way to make a trellis on the cheap. The National Gardening Association has a good primer on the details of basic bean varieties, but whichever you choose, start beans from seed, as beans are not very happy as transplants.

But apart from that science, fresh beans are delicious. "You don't think of dried beans as being fresh," says Sando, "but it's the same thing with pasta. You can tell the difference." And while a container garden doesn't have the space for a big dried bean yield, many beans you can eat at all stages, from the bean itself, to the pod. You can even cook up the flower. Sando recommends growing runner beans because they are guaranteed to be tasty in all these stages. He recommends looking to Diana Kennedy-- known as the "Julia Child of Mexico" (and also the mentor for Loteria Grill's Jim Shaw), for inspiration on how to cook bean flowers.

Read Sando's book, The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower's Guide. Look hard for the magic in things without the protective shield of ironic detachment. And -- I'm not saying go to Disneyland, but they do have a surprising amount of rainbow chard in their landscaping. Coincidence?

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