Some night this week, the first frost will set in and the growing season will be over. The garden had a lot of successes this year. From a small container, I produced 4 sugar baby watermelons. Never mind that a squirrel got one of them, or that another never grew past the size of a pool ball. For Zone 6, I'd call any watermelon a success. The last one was still out there in early October, growing away, six inches across.
The dinosaur kale came in thick and dark green. We grew lots of tomatoes, in all shapes and sizes, even in a year where tomatoes were slow going. And the carrots are still coming up, thickening away under the soil.
But the biggest success this year goes, hands down, to the asparagus beans. When I first sowed the seeds back in April, I thought of them as an experiment. I'd bought them at the hardware store on a whim, not from a fancy seed catalogue. When the shoots started to twist and climb, their leaves were nothing remarkable; quite thin compared to the other pole beans I'd planted. And their flowers, arriving in June, barely resembled flowers at all.
Then I spotted some ants on the ends of the long, stick like buds. With each return to the plants, I would find those ants again, crawling just around the flowers. If you look closely in the photo above, you can see an ant nestled between the two flower buds on the right. I became suspicious that these plants were ant pollinated, and indeed they are. The plants must put out attractors that invite the ants to come visit their flowers.
Once the flowers are pollinated, the thin beans begin to form at the tip of the bud, pushing the dried-up flowers outward, as seen on the left part of the photo above.
But the beans weren't just attracting the pollinators: they were also drawing in curious neighbors. When we got our first crop in early July, we were out of town. The beans grow fast, thickening and lengthening with each passing day. When full length, they look like garlic scapes, or more imaginatively, garter snakes. No one could make heads or tails of these strange vegetables we were growing. My neighbor took a photo of his baby next to the bean, and showed it to me when we got back: the bean was longer than the baby. The beans became a conversation piece with my neighbors.
Apart from the beans, getting to know our neighbors has been the highlight of the garden this year. I've gotten to know the kids living in the building next door -- their personalities, likes and dislikes. We've been invited to kids' birthday parties, including one themed "ballerinas and drummers" and another themed "medieval times."
The hockey stick, duck-shaped watering can and big pink ball littered around the raised beds are all artifacts of the childrens' time spent in the garden. The kids would often want to help me harvest my bounty, particularly the funny shaped asparagus beans. A full batch would find us picking around two dozen beans, alongside a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes.
The kids were always disappointed when the picking came to an end. "Are you sure you don't need me to help you harvest anything else?" the six-year-old girl downstairs would implore. But the end did come -- no more beans to harvest that day, and soon, no more garden for six months to come. We'll just have to start again next year. Asparagus beans are already on my list.
Stir fried Asparagus Beans
1/2 pound asparagus beans AKA chinese long beans (around two dozen beans)
2 tablespoons butter or safflower oil
Pinch chili pepper flakes
2 tablespoons diced shallots
1 tablespoon freshly minced ginger
1 tablespoon freshly minced garlic
2 tablespoons vegetable stock
1-2 teaspoons honey
1-2 tablespoons (toasted) sesame oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
Cut the asparagus beans into 1-inch long pieces. Heat up the oil under medium-high heat, ideally in a wok, and add the red pepper flakes. Add the shallots and cook for a few minutes, until beginning to brown. Add the ginger and garlic, cook for 1 minute. Add the beans and cook for a few minutes until starting to brown and soften. Add the vegetable stock, and keep tossing the beans until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the honey, sesame oil, salt and pepper and toss to coat. At the last minute, add the sesame seeds, and serve on rice.