So, back in August, when the first raised beds in my new potager were filled with soil, I sorted through my leftover seeds for things that might have a chance to mature before our first expected frost (Oct. 10). Obviously, I picked turnips, spinach, mesclun, kale, lettuce, and radishes. I debated, and then finally seeded some “Little Finger ” carrots and my favorite “Royal Burgundy” beans.
I knew it was risky seeding beans so late, but “Royal Burgundy”is a good variety for cooler soils, and we might just squeeze in 54 frost-free days, so I seeded two 6′ rows. I rationalized my decision also by the fact that as a legume, beans help fix nitrogen in the soil which would help any crop I grow in that bed next year, even if I didn’t have any beans to harvest.
I was delighted when the beans quickly germinated, and soon grew, developing one pair of leaves after another, and obtaining a reasonable height. By then it was mid-September, but a very warm month, and I had high hopes for a crop. I harvested bunch after bunch of radishes, and the other crops seemed to be faring well. I was patting myself on the back.
We had no rain, but I faithfully watered my crops, and was gratified when the beans began to bloom. Yes, the days were getting shorter and the nights a bit cooler, but the forecast for frost kept being pushed further and further into the future.
And the beans continued to produce blooms. Not just a few blooms, but bouquets of bloom. I regret that I didn’t take photos. I should have, because as an experienced gardener, I recognized that the number of blooms per plant was unusual. Each new flower seemed to be a brighter purple than the last. I saw it. I remarked on it, but it didn’t register in my brain as quickly as it should have. Part of me says it was because I was so busy shoveling all those tons of soil; part of me says it is because my brain is getting old, but for some reason it just didn’t “click.”
Eventually, maybe two weeks into this blooming phenomenon, I realized what was happening. The seed packet said 54 days to maturity, but that is optimum conditions…..warming soils, increasing sunshine, and most of all, lots of bee activity for pollination. My poor beans were experiencing cooler soils, decreasing daylight, and most importantly, few, if any bees. The increasing number of flowers and increased color intensity was my frustrated bean plants’ attempt to attract a pollinator. I kept a closer watch. No bees. We have very few honeybees anymore, and the native bees have already sealed their cells in anticipation of winter.
Scientists have recently discovered that when a caterpillar is placed on a plant, the plant actually shudders and has a chemical reaction….something like a human’s adrenalin rush and “fight or flight” response, except a plant can neither flee or fight. That set me to thinking. If that is true, and I have little reason to doubt the results of their research, then do plants giggle and feel satisfied when a bee pushes into their flower, wiggles and collects a bit of pollen while depositing a bit of pollen from the last flower they visited?
And if no bees come to visit their beautiful blossoms, do they feel sexually frustrated and get grumpy? I began to see my bean plants in a new light, with a mixture of guilt and sympathy. Was it cruel to have planted them so late in the season, when there were no bees to make them giggle? Meanwhile the days grew shorter. I seriously thought of hand-pollinating the flowers, but a quick count….40 blooms or more per plant and 8 plants per 6″ of row. twelve feet of row, well you can do the math. I didn’t have the time to pollinate every flower, and yet, wasn’t it my responsibility, since I chose to give them life so late in the season, to give them as happy a life experience as I could? Guilt kept growing, and finally I decided I should attempt to pollinate at least one or two flowers per plant. And so I did, with a Q-tip and soft murmurs of love.
The days grew shorter, and we had no rain, but I watered. Soon, miraculously, tiny beans began to appear. At first just an eyelash here and there, but quickly growing to 1″ infant beans. I could almost see my bean plants swelling with pride. I know I was proud of them, and thankfully, I could feel my guilt lessening.
And then, I left for Arizona to visit family. And when I returned, the bean plants were all blackened with frost. I wept. I know; I am weird. I don’t blame you for saying at this point, “Wow! She is weird.” But, maybe there are a few of you who are nodding, and saying, “I know how she feels.” I am sad that the tiny beans never made it to maturity, but I am happy that maybe those bean plants had a moment of joy. However, I vow that in the future, I will make more responsible planting decisions. I just can’t handle the guilt.