We are moving into winter gardening now, our first killing frost last night, a little over a week before Thanksgiving this year in north central Virginia. November rains settling the dead vegetation had seemed only to encourage the flowers and hardy vegetables that continued to greet us with color and friendly bites to eat; it has been a great year for volunteer cherry tomatoes, and even today I was able to find firm, tasty, bright red gems beneath the wilt of frosted vines.
These November days can feel springlike, and the burst of cold brings punctuation to the warm and moist. It will be warm tomorrow, but it is clearly autumn in the garden. I see that the bean row is done. The stretch of fence along the yard side of the garden all summer held a lush wall of climbing bean vines, the Meece Bean, growing taller than the fence and draping over into cool pleasant caves for bean picking on hot summer days.
Those days of twice daily pickings are gone; in late summer I started gathering only a handful of fresh beans every evening, picking the prime late bloomers to take in for dinner and leaving the rest of the season’s crop to go to seed. It has been weeks, really that the bean plants have been winding down, and several days since I’d checked on the beans at all.
Walking in through the garden gate, I see now that the bean leaves have withered, vines brown wound around fence wire.
But look! The Meese beans have not quit; they are valiantly sending out new leaves and blossoms.
I have a romantic attachment to the Meece bean; it has accompanied me for decades as seed traveling in our seed box from Wisconsin to Ontario to Arizona and most recently to Virginia.
Every place we landed we planted Meece beans, at home and in school gardens, and each year the bean crop awakened in me good memories, memories of gardens past, and memories of our daughters who helped plant, harvest, and eat every crop we planted in our home garden.
But the romance of this bean is greater even than this for me because in one corner of my determined northern heart I have always had a soft spot for things of Kentucky. I bought a banjo in a Chicago music store and played songs from Kentucky. I liked to make cornbread in a cast iron skillet.
And then when I found a partner who harmonized well with those old songs I liked, wouldn’t you know – he was almost from Kentucky.
Mike sometimes told stories about his Kentucky relatives who lived in the Appalachian foothills on the backwaters of the Cumberland River, but we were living in the north country then and his stories blended with all other things Kentucky in my imagination.
One summer though, when our children were little, Mike and I took the girls to visit grandparents in Cincinnati, and we made a day trip south into Kentucky. We piled into his parents’ car for a guided journey to the past, to the hills and hollows where Mike’s stories had been born, and his parents took us to visit cemeteries, old homesteads, general stores, and crossroads, rivers and bridges that were all filled with memories for them, memories which they shared with us.
“Up ahead there,” Mike’s father Harold said as we travelled the road winding through narrow valleys, “is cousin Theodore’s place.” As we came in sight of the homestead, he went on, “Why there’s Theodore right now, on the ladder there, up against that old chimney. Let’s stop and say hello.”
So that was how I met Theodore Meece, an hospitable and charming man in overalls who climbed down the ladder (he’d been pulling vines off the old chimney) and shared his afternoon with us, as well as a handful of string bean seeds that he gave us as we left.
Theodore had a long history there in Pulaski County. Born in 1901, he had married, taught school, raised a family and farmed, and he was almost 100 years old when we stopped by that afternoon in 1990. In his back yard stood an impressive row of climbing beans growing on tipi-like supports. He told us he really didn’t like to eat beans, but he liked growing them to give away, and knowing as I know now how many beans one plant will produce, I can attest that the bean garden in Theodore Meece’s back yard was awesome, even staggering.
Of course, next spring we planted our seeds from Theodore. It was fun to think of “Cousin Theodore” and it was satisfying to be extending the life and range of the Meece Bean. The beans did well in our Wisconsin garden, and we soon stopped growing any other pole beans, happy with the quality of the Meece bean and wanting to keep the seed pure.
Later, when we moved to Canada, we took the seed, and the beans did well in the Toronto Waldorf School garden. Every year I gave beans away, and I saved seed and gave seed away, and always I loved the great green bean taste of the Meece bean,
I’d not had much to do with string beans til I grew the Meece bean, and on first meeting the difficult to chew fibrous string along the seam of the bean pod, I realized why gardeners tended more to stringless varieties of green beans. Stringing was certainly a chore that added time to meal preparation, but the romantic side of me thought of all the people that had strung these beans through the years, and I enjoyed sitting of the front porch with a bowl of beans, maybe a child to help me, and think about Theodore and all the people who grew and saved the bean before I came along and then sat, maybe on the stoop, to string the the beans for supper.
About five years ago, now in Virginia, we began working to create another garden, and of course the Meece beans took their place along a fence for climbing. Some years some things do well in the hard red clay here and others struggle, but the first year the Meece bean grew, and it has grown ever year after year since then. We enjoyed the eating the fresh beans and each year we saved the seed. There was always plenty to share with family and friends and neighbors.
Meese beans are delectable, raw or cooked, prime as tender young beans about two inches long, and still good to eat fresh at about four inches when they start to fill out and begin to make seed. We have yet to try them as a dry bean, but rumor has it they are tasty that way, as well.
Meece green beans, though, there is nothing better. We stir fried them, ate them raw in salads, and steamed them with a touch of (butter, oil, parsley, garlic) — delectable in every way in every meal and never tiresome. Did I mention we had plenty to give away? They really are a good bean.
We acquired the bean in 1990. Theodore, who was born in 1901, had gotten the seed from neighbors Iby and Minnie Snell in Pulaski County, Kentucky. The Snells had procured the bean in the 1930’s during a lengthy work trip in the Arkansas timber. When the Snells got home and went back to farming, they raised and shared beans, and Theodore got seed and added the beans to his farm routine.
We in turn added this prolific and determined high climbing bean to our garden routine, and I have friends who have added the bean to theirs. We tell stories every year of the heights we have to climb to engage in Meece bean harvest.
Last spring Mike and I decided to plant the three sisters in our garden, corn, beans and squash, and because the Meece is the only climbing bean we plant, that was the bean we planted. Poor sweet corn never had a chance. The beans outgrew it, twined around it, and pulled it right to the ground. When we saw what was happening, we made some mild efforts to place climbing poles in the patch, but it was too late. The beans climbed up and over, made it over to the scare crow and climbed up and over that. We had a grand unpickable mat of Meece beans in the garden, no corn, and a few melons and squash that managed to send runners out beyond the beans to fruit in safety on the perimeter of the garden.
This fall I looked to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa for their word on the Meece bean. Our family legend had it that Theodore had donated seed to Seed Savers, but the Seed Savers blog credits a man name John Inabnitt, who included a short history with his donation of the bean seed.
“Theodore first obtained his bean when he settled in Somerset from locals Iby and Minnie Snell. Minnie called it a ‘cornfield bean’ as locals often grew the variety on Hickory Cane corn. This corn variety would grow 12-14 feet tall, and the ears would be used for pickling and roasting whole. The bean was shared between neighbors and passed down through generations of the Snell family, where it is still grown by Minnie’s great-grandson, Gene, who calls it ‘Minnie’ bean in her honor.”
We hadn’t thought of planting field corn in the garden, but next season I hope to get seed for Hickory Cane corn and try the Three Sisters again. This year, the garden fence provided sufficient support for our main crop. I picked all summer long, from both sides of the fence, and so did Mike, and we kept the beans pretty well picked. Not to say overwhelmed, we did feel blessed with the abundance sent forth by this strong, tasty and prolific plant. Picking beans, green among the green, can be trying; the Meece bean enlivens the chore because the perky beans often grow in twos or threes side by side, and they drop off the vine without resistance.
Green bean season is over now and the seeds harvested. As happens every year with Meece beans, we have some seeds to share. I think we’ll put them in out Living Traditional Arts shop — send five dollars with a self-addressed stamped envelope to Living Traditional Arts, 3412 Hamm Road, Barboursville, Virginia 22923, and we’ll send you seed for the Meece bean.