Hope, I think, is one of the least logical but most prevalent characteristics of our species, and perhaps no group of humans is a more suitable poster child for hope than farmers and gardeners. No good argument can be made for why many of us, especially those with other career options, persist year after year as weather, plant diseases, weedy competitors, and animal pests from tiny to tall make failures of most or all of our crops, while we sit back and say “oh well, there’s always next year.”
It’s even more inexplicable that when next year comes, we don’t just gingerly dip a toe in the soil and grudgingly head back to our fields. No, at the first sign of spring, we dive in headfirst with the same crazed enthusiasm as every prior year. Like children, we joyfully place the seeds, thrill again at the first sprout and blossom, and brag about our harvest as if we’d just won a shopping spree at a seed store. This year, we just know it will all turn out perfectly.
My insanely hopeful inner farmer therefore declared that beans would be 2012’s crop of perfection at Valentine Hill Farm. By now, I’d mostly mastered tomatoes, gotten a handle on the cucumber/squash family via dumb luck, and grown bushels of brag-worthy snow peas. Now it was time to optimize the beany members of the legume family.
It wasn’t like I was new to beans, but I never seemed to grow enough of them to meet demand. I had found a tasty bush bean mix with great yields, but its germination rates were fickle, and in dry years, the pods had squishy hollow ends. In wet summers, the plants attracted fungal disease.
So for once, I bought plenty of seed, and this time, I added a hardy pole bean variety to the bush beans to increase my odds of success. A neighborhood beekeeper gifted us with a free hive, ensuring that the bean flowers would have ready on-site pollinators. My soil, after years of adding organic matter, was the right kind of crumbly. Spring temperatures were ideal. What could possibly go wrong?
Sure enough, the baby bean plants were beautiful for a few weeks. Then trouble arrived in the form of persistent nibbling evidence—bare stems sticking up in the air with leaves cleanly chewed off. I traced the damage to the latest generation of baby rabbits, which were somehow squeezing under three layers of critter-deterrent fencing to get their free dinner when we weren’t looking.
By then, the heat and drought were in full swing, so I rallied with enough irrigation to help the beans regrow their leaves and keep their roots. But then I noticed that the perfect pink blossoms weren’t making any effort to turn into bean pods. I learned the sad reason from my fellow farmers, who also weren’t bringing any beans to market: when the temperatures get too hot, bean plants won’t make beans, no matter how many bees are around to pollinate the flowers.
In the end, it was neither heat nor drought that did me in. The death knell for Operation Perfect Bean was a small green beetle with black dots all over its back. I had seen this bug in previous seasons, but had agreed to ignore it as long as it ignored my plants. The insect field guide revealed that my returning guest was the spotted cucumber beetle, which despite its name, is just as happy to eat any other crops, especially, it seemed, beans.
The bush beans were the first to go. I held out hope that maybe the pole bean leaves weren’t tasty enough to mess with, but the reprieve was fleeting. Before long, several hundred row-feet of carefully tended bean plants were skeletal remnants of their former selves.
But are we defeated? Not in the least. Now, with hoop houses becoming common and research showing that many crops do well at really low temperatures, we no longer have to hope for next year. The farmers’ new mantra? “Oh well, there’s always fall.”