Garden Blog

The Allure and History of Appalachian Beans

The Allure and History of Appalachian Beans

It happens to even the best gardeners. After a long, hot summer season we give up on weeding and watering and only go out to the garden occasionally to grab tomatoes and peppers. By September the grass in the pathways gets high and our perfectly planned gardens start dying back. This happened to me last summer. As the weeks passed, my sense of failure grew. But when October came the days were cool again and the weeds were less ferocious. One cool morning I wandered into the garden and looked sadly at what had been my green bean trellis archway. Life had not allowed me the time to harvest and can the amazing bounty of beans that I had grown. Instead, I had spent the summer and fall in Zoom meetings and stressing over work assignments.


Just before I was going to start tearing down the old vines and bringing them to the compost pile, I noticed hundreds of long, brown pods full of seeds. To my surprise, these weren’t just any seeds, they were beans! They looked just like any dried bean you would see at the grocery store. I tore the pods off the vines and set them aside. With each new pod that I added to the pile, I was reminded that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved by the garden. She gives to me even when I am neglectful, and when I am at my most disconnected she is still making gifts for me.

I brought my beans inside, removing the pods and laying the seeds out to dry. When I looked at my little hill of beans I saw a chance to start again next year. It was like the beans were saying to me “each of us is a new chance”. Each new season gives us gardens another chance to grow food and save seeds! 


What I didn’t realize as I carefully dried and packed away my beans was that I was participating in a long tradition of Appalachian woman seed savers. Families in these mountains have been saving seeds for hundreds of years and even developing unique seed varieties specially adapted to our unpredictable climate. 


Western North Carolina has a rich agricultural history, especially when it comes to beans. WNC is the epicenter of a very special type of bean called greasy beans. Legendary seed saver Bill Best, who grew up in Haywood County, North Carolina, posits in his book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste that some of the varieties unique to our region are descendants of varieties grown by indigenous tribes. He believes beans were gifted to European newcomers or brought as a dowry when an indigenous woman and a settler were married. Unique bean types have been saved, traded, and treasured in Appalachian farming communities for hundreds of years. 

Greasy beans get their name because their pods are smooth instead of fuzzy. They appear to be “greasy” even before they are cooked. They are typically pole or vining beans that are incredibly productive. They are considered ready to pick when the pods are still tender but the seeds have started to develop and show through as bumps. Their seeds tend to be closer together in the pod than other green beans. Some are in the “cut short” style, meaning that their seeds are so close together that they become squared off as they push up against each other or even bust out of the pod. Most greasy bean varieties do need to be “unzipped” by removing the tough string along the seam before cooking. This is perhaps the reason why they have not gained popularity in industrial markets. But the little bit of extra work is well worth it for the flavor!


Because greasy beans are often eaten with both the pod and the seed, they provide more nutrition than either a dried bean or a typical green bean. They are a great source of both protein and fiber as well as an array of vitamins and minerals. They are highly prized at local farmers' markets and seed swaps and often fetch a higher price than other beans. Bill Best describes how many Applachian families cooked beans, including greasy beans: 


“Green beans with corn bread, onions and butter have made a complete meal for many mountain people over the past 250 years. When eaten fresh green beans are typically cooked with a cured piece of pork in a pot on top of a wood, electric or gas stove. They may be served twice in the same day and left on the stove to serve the following day, and for two or more days longer becoming better each time they are reheated. Potatoes may be added to the pot as well, depending on the tradition of the family.” 

 

There are several well-known greasy bean varieties, including Margaret Best Greasy. This variety was stewarded by Bill Best’s mother, Margaret. He believes his family has been stewarding bean varieties since the Revolutionary War, when his ancestors moved to Haywood County. This high-yielding bean has short pods that are tightly packed with seeds in the traditional cut short style.


Margaret Best tended several gardens on their small, self-sufficient farm. She also canned vegetables, preserved meat, and made the children’s clothes out of cotton feed sacks. It was Margaret who instilled the love of beans in her eldest son Bill, and in 1963 started his collection by giving him some of her seeds, which she got from her mother, and from cousins and acquaintances, she’d trade with at family reunions or church meetings.


One of the largest of all the greasy varieties is called Lazy Wife, originally from Madison Count, North Carolina, because the gardeners (who were traditionally the women of the family) could wait longer to harvest and get more food per harvest. Thick, fleshy, and stringless, the pods remain tender until the beans are quite large. A great shelling bean as well.


These two varieties are just the beginning when it comes to greasy beans. There are dozens of known varieties and probably many more that are known only to the families that steward them. Greasy beans are unique to the Appalachians, their unique flavor, abundant growth and local adaptation make them an excellent survival food.


Greasy beans grow like a typical pole bean and are nitrogen fixers like all plants in the legume family. This means that they can create nitrogen in the soil themselves, actually leaving the soil better than they found it. Even though the nitrogen they fix is not immediately available for them- it will make your next crop in that bed very happy. 


Pole beans need a trellis and will grow throughout the season until the first frost. This means that they can provide a huge amount of food on a relatively small footprint and can create a decorative element to the garden if they grow up over an archway. To grow greasy beans, wait until the threat of frost has passed, which is the second week of May here in Asheville, and plant them half an inch to an inch deep just below your trellis system. Keep them well watered until the seedlings have several leaves and begin vining. Begin to harvest when the pods are still tender and beginning to fill in with seeds. Harvesting will prompt the plant to create more flowers and pods so it’s best to harvest frequently. 


These beans have been bred for generations to thrive in our wet and unpredictable mountain climate. Growing them is one way to connect, not just with the land and our food but with the people who lived and worked on this land for generations before us. Now is the perfect time to plant your greasy beans and reap a harvest of Appalachian tradition. 


I will be planting my greasy beans under my archway trellis and picking them frequently this summer. Zoom meetings, social media, and reading about the troubles of the world can wait a few minutes. With a little work and little luck, later this summer I’ll put a pot of beans on the stove and bake some cornbread. And when the end of the summer comes, I’ll leave a few pods to dry for next year’s crop, this time intentionally. I invite you to do the same. This is one small way we can connect with the land we are living on and the people who tended it before us.

Written by Beatrice Nathan