Are Those Peas or Beans?

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Cow Peas and FriendsThe cowpeas are starting to fill out but it’s hard to get a good picture of them in the midst of so much garden diversity. They are there, right in the middle of the lower half of this shot, but they are surrounded by California poppies in the front, marigolds to the left, some perennial kale on the right, and flanked by one of my ‘Principe Borghese’ tomato plants. There are very few monoculture section in the garden this year!

Because of the extended record drought in California, now in it’s third year, I am trying a lot of cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) which are supposed to be more drought tolerant than regular beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are closely related so I hope they will fill the same spot in the kitchen and the garden. Some of the members of the genus Vigna used to be classified as Phaseolus, but apparently the two turned out to have a different biochemistry. A true pea would be a member of the Pisum genus. All three are part of the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family. What that mostly means to me is they are a good source of protein and they contribute nitrogen to the soil around them.

Wikipedia calls cowpeas “one of the most important food legume crops in the semiarid tropics… A drought-tolerant and warm-weather crop, cowpeas are well-adapted to the drier regions of the tropics, where other food legumes do not perform well.” Global warming hasn’t made Northern California part of the tropics–yet–but we have plenty of drought and hopefully enough warm weather to make at least some of the cow pea varieties happy. So far I am trying a nice-looking black and white ‘Tohono O’odham’ cowpea, ‘Peking Black’ cowpeas from my friend at Thyme Square Gardens, and ‘Monkey Tail,’ ‘California Blackeyed’ and ‘Red Ripper’ from Baker Creek.

Runner MagicNot that I am giving up on my fascination with perennial runner beans. This year, even after the unusually dry winter, they are back better than ever, flowering and setting pods on 8′ vines. The new ‘Sunset Runner’ has a peach blush on its flowers that has won me over, though I haven’t tasted any of the beans it makes yet. I like the idea of adding one or two runner bean plants to each of the fruit tree guilds in the front garden. That will give the other members of the guild a reliable nitrogen source and in years to come the beans won’t  climb the fruit trees and try to take over until the fruit harvest is already done. (In my plans, at least.) The largest patch of runner beans was under sown with carrots early in the year to help break up the clay, make good use of the space, and to provide some shade for the re-sprouting young beans. They also have Borage, squash, and sunchokes as companions happily growing in and around them.

Rattler BloomsAnd, of course, I broke down and tried a few new varieties of regular snap beans even though it’s another drought year. I got some ‘New Mexico Cave’ beans in a seed trade and planted half a dozen or so of them as a trial. I also got a handful of ‘Rattlesnake’ beans in a seed swap at the local Urban Farmers Coop and couldn’t resist trying them. I especially love their beautiful purple flowers and can’t wait to see the mottled pods they make. So far the most vigorous growers have been the patch of ‘Cargomanto’ beans I put in very early in the back garden. They were supposed to be 30″ tall, but I stopped measuring around 7′. They do not appear to have the drought tolerance vegetables are going to need around here this year though and I’m still waiting to see what their flowers and beans will look like. The site where I ordered them calls them a “Heat Loving Rare Heirloom” and suggests planting them where the sun gets to the stem of the plant. I wonder if our cool nights that the runner beans seems to love so much are a bit too cool for our new friends from Columbia? Of course, as these are the same folks who told me the plants were going to be 30″ tall, maybe we better watch closely and see what happens. Right now our evening lows are just barely warm enough to ripen tomatoes, 55 to 57 degrees. Next week is predicted to be much warmer, so I’ll get out the watering can and the camera and let you know how they do.

My Shady Gardening Plans

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NettlesThis ever-expanding patch of nettles is growing in my back garden in the ‘dappled shade’ that it supposedly likes. My husband swears he won’t be eating it because we don’t really know what it is, since it just turned up there, in the middle of what was once a lawn. But they look like nettles, they certainly sting like nettles, and they grow right where nettles are supposed to grow, so I’m making them into a cream soup. Just as soon as I can figure out when the right time to harvest nettles happens to be.

In the front garden, in what I hope is a patch of roughly 75% shade, I fall-planted half a dozen goldenseal rhizomes. I haven’t seen them yet this year, but I hope to. From the description on, it sounds like they’ll be hard to miss, “The flowering stem, which is pushed up early in the spring, is from 6 to 12 inches high, erect, cylindrical, hairy, with downward-pointing hairs, especially above, surrounded at the base with a few short, brown scales.” They aren’t strictly edible, but I think they’ll be a fun medicinal addition to the garden if we can get them started. The challenge may be figuring out exactly what “75% shade” is. Does that mean a spot that is in the shade 75% of the day? Or does it mean a spot that receives 8+ hours of sunlight through leaves or lathe or whatever that blocks 75% of that light?

Catalina SpinachOver the winter I tried spinach in a spot that only gets the late afternoon sun, and it clearly wasn’t enough. The spinach plants are still there, but they are tiny. Nothing like their relatives planted 15′ away in the sun–which are delicious! They are Catalina spinach, my favorite variety to grow at home. They not only grew, they happily made new leaves as we picked them all winter long. The other green I seeded into a shady patch is Good King Henry. Still waiting for it to come up this year. For the warm months, I’m planning to do a patch of greens in lighter shade. I’m going to include spinach, mixed in with chard, kale, lettuce and sorrel.

I’ve heard a lot of conflicting things about runner beans and shade, though everyone seems to agree that they do not like to flower or produce beans in the heat. I am going to start a few plants early in a container tucked up alongside the house where it will stay warm. That should give them a chance to germinated and get going while the ground is still cool. Then, if they are unhappy, I can move the container to provide more or less light, as long as I am smart about how I trellis.

Sugar Daddy PeasThis year I am also going to keep the snap peas going with additional plantings where they will get afternoon shade through the summer. I don’t want to go to extreme efforts to eat them out of season, but I’m curious to see how long we can keep them happy with a nice tall crop of something to their northern side.

Other suggestions I’ve had for the sun challenged areas of my garden include chives, radishes, Asian greens, sorrel, nasturtiums and currants. Do you have something that grows well for you in less-than-perfect light conditions? Let us know about it and we’ll consider it for our light trial experiments this year.