Dysfunctional family, Belly Acre style

One of the nice things about gardening is that you get to define your own reality, within limits. By that I mean that, because there are so many variables at work, it’s difficult to apply absolute rules with certainty. Often you can’t be sure whether what you did differently caused the different results, or whether it was something else that made the difference. And even if you repeat the experiment and your theory appears sound, it’s difficult to know for sure the same results would apply in all conditions.

The result is that contradictory advice abounds. For instance, I’ve been told the primary reason for growing half-runner green beans is that “you don’t need to stake ’em.” (In fact, I recall that was the reason my father originally started growing them, over 50 years ago, on the plot that I now garden as Belly Acre Farm.) But recently, I found a source that said, always trellis (which is the uptown way of saying “stake ’em”) half-runners just as you do runner beans.

I tried putting up a simple pole and twine support system for some of my beans this year, both pole beans and half runners. They both seemed to produce better than they had in previous years, but I can’t tell if the support made the difference. But both were pretty much done by mid-July, a few weeks earlier than previous years. Was that because of hotter weather, more bean beetles, or the trellising?

I’m thinking of switching to bush beans.

I also continued experimenting with variations on the Three Sisters approach, which is planting corn, beans, and squash together. When I first read of this approach years ago, I was intrigued. There’s a nice spiritual overlay to this native American approach, in which the three sisters cooperate to help each other — the corn provides support for the bean, which adds nitrogen to feed the corn, while the squash shades the ground and helps control weeds under the other two. The theory sounds so harmonious and easy, it just had to be true.

But when I tried the pure system according to the best instructions I could find, the squash died, the beans were stunted, and the corn(which was supposed to be planted first according to the instructions) finished and the brown stalks fell over before the beans got big. Last year I tried different varieties, but things didn’t work any better.

This year I tried an easier variation — I planted the corn and beans together in the same row, with squash and melons (a close relative) nearby. On one end of the patch I ran out of corn seeds and finished out with sunflowers.

In the various test plots around my garden, I’ve observed the following results:

  • Different varieties of pole beans and corn do not seem to make a difference. I harvested the Obsession corn and watched the stalks die and collapse before the Kwintus pole beans got well started, just as previous generations of Silver Queen, Golden Queen, and Kentucky Wonder had behaved.
  • Corn planted at the same time as beans doesn’t get started soon enough. The beans overpowered the young corn, resulting in stunted plants that never got beyond a foot or two tall. That part of the corn field looked like a scale model of a pine forest overrun by kudzu — and produced about the same amount of corn as the pine forest.
  • Sunflowers do not like beans. Their broad leaves sheltered out the beans and helped protect the Mexican bean beetles from our prying eyes and pinching fingers. The sunflowers are now about 8 feet tall. The beans, stunted and stripped of their puny leaves by the beetles, died a week or so ago.
  • Melons may be related to squash, but they grow too vigorously to substitute for squash in Three Sisters arrangements. They have overtaken and drowned out both beans and corn.
  • Mexican bean beetles don’t normally bother corn, but apparently they can be retrained, if there are bean vines twining around the stalks.

Because the Three Sisters can’t seem to get along, I’ve adopted a new strategy. Just as incompatible human siblings stagger their visits home, I’m giving each sister her own time in the garden. Where I planted beans at the beginning of the season, yesterday I pulled out the exhausted vines. In their place, I’m planting late season corn. Next year, I’ll put squash there.

With each sister having her undisturbed time in the garden, I’m hoping they’ll all be happier.

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