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Posted on Tue, Apr 5, 2011 : 5:50 a.m.

The Magic of Pole Beans: These legumes take up little space and enrich the soil in a small garden

By Jim and Janice Leach

JimJack.jpg

"Gardens are Magic."

Janice Leach | Contributor

Jan and I were thrilled to participate this year in FestiFools, a short parade of large puppets held the first weekend of April in downtown Ann Arbor. It was spectacularly fun, despite the rain, wind and hail. We chose Jack and the Beanstalk as our theme because, once we thought about it, Jack is our role model.

As I remember the story, Jack had already grown tired of mowing his lawn, so he acquired a cow to do it for him. As much as Jack and his mother appreciated the milk, Jack found cleaning up after the cow to be as much work as cutting his grass.

Jack knew the Cow had to go... but not too much more about what came next. Luckily, on the way to market, he met a backyard gardener who shared with him the wonder of pole beans. Pole beans are great for small gardens like Jack's because they grow up (and up and up) and so don't require a lot of ground space.

And because they're legumes, pole beans also perform that other kind of magic that improves the soil. Beans and peas absorb nitrogen from the air and change it into a form that plants can use. Yup, pole beans are pretty amazing.

The story had a few other minor details — like a giant and stolen treasure and a castle in the clouds — but we're mostly thrilled by Jack's commitment to starting a garden with nothing more than a handful of bean seeds. (If you want to read a version of the story that includes the parts I overlook, check out this one).

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"Grow Your Own Magic"

Jim Leach | Contributor

We honored Jack with a 10-foot puppet made of wire coat hangers and paper mâché... and by giving out little packets of "Magic Beans," or their nearest equivalent, that is, Kentucky Pole Beans.

Plant your bean seeds when all fear of frost is gone — which the experts say around here is mid-May! (Since the last frost day is all about averages and the percentage of risk, monitor the weather and decide when you are ready to take the chance!)

If you can't wait that long, try starting them inside but be prepared for them to start climbing almost as soon as they break through the soil... which unlike the story will take a bit longer than overnight.

Once in the garden, your bean stalks will be happiest if you provide them some kind of support since, like Jack's magic ones, pole beans will try to reach up to the clouds. Any trellis will do for your first attempt.

We used various things over the years including an old wooden stepladder, but nowadays, we use three bamboo poles about 10 feet long that we lash together at the top into a very elongated pyramid.

We've acquired a fancy cast finial for the point, but all you really need is some twine to tie them together. We also usually thread some twine in between the poles to give the tendrils something to grab onto.

Keep the plants moist but not wet, especially during the germinating stage. Water them if the weather is too dry.

Pick the pods after they develop beans but before they get too big in order to get them while they're tender. For delicious beans, steam them lightly and don't over cook them. In fact, I like to crunch on a few as I work in the garden.

And the last step is to take a picture of your vine and send it to us!

We cannot be sure that Jack lived happily ever after, but we do know he had a great gardening season. We wish the same to you!

Janice and Jim Leach garden a backyard plot in downtown Ann Arbor and tend the website 20 Minute Garden.