Paradise Lost

The amazing frost-tolerant green bean of my youth.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY RUSSELL THORNTON

When I was a lad of seven, I got my first garden plot. It wasn’t by choice. My father had decided it was time for me to start contributing to the family larder. This was in late August, 1945, after the war had ended. We lived in National City, a suburb of San Diego, my father having fallen in love with the area when he was stationed nearby as a Marine. (He and Mom were both natives of Nebraska.)

Being the child of a farming family, my dad decided to build a wall of heavy-duty planks at the bottom of the slope at our new home. Once that was finished, he had a couple of truckloads of topsoil brought in and backfilled the area. Then he bought a dozen or so wheelbarrels full of manure from an old man who came through the neighborhood in his pickup around once a week selling the stuff. He mixed that in with the soil, and we soon had our garden. He built a picket fence around the area and then assigned me a plot about 12 feet wide and 20 feet long.

“Oh, well, that’s farming for you, son. Strange about that bean plant of yours, though.”

“You get to grow the corn and beans,” he told me one bright, sunny Southern California morning. “Corn to the north so it doesn’t shade the sun. I know it’s late in the year for these crops, but it never freezes here, not like in Nebraska, so we should be OK for a fall crop. We’ll plant bush beans—I don’t have time this year to build support for pole beans. OK?”

“OK,” I answered, as if I had a choice.

I spent the better part of the next day turning the soil with Dad’s, for me, way-oversized shovel. Next I created furrows with his oversized hoe and, under his supervision, planted three rows of corn and three rows of bush beans, and watered them in. Even though I hadn’t been too keen on the project, I soon found myself enjoying the task. It must’ve been my farmer gene kicking in.

I then watched in awe as the plants sprouted and grew, put out flowers and tassels, and, with monthly applications of steer manure and daily applications of mothering and encouragement, began to set fruit. A miracle, for sure.

About mid-October, a freak cold front began to move into our area, pushed down into our neck of the woods by an aberrant polar jet stream. I didn’t think too much about it—I had never heard of a jet stream.

That night it got really cold, so much that my mother cranked on our gas-powered floor furnace, something she seldom did even in winter. My sister and I put on our winter pajamas and, after our usual bickering, went to bed. Next morning, after I had eaten break-fast, done my chores, and bundled up, I left for school. Stepping outside, I noticed a light glaze over everything. Worried, I walked slowly down the slick porch steps, holding onto the handrail, and tiptoed over to the garden. The bean patch looked a little stiff, but the sun was coming up, so I figured they would be all right. My friends and I then headed off to school, enjoying the sheen on the road, houses, and plants, and the smoky haze that emitted from our mouths.

The sun was clear and bright by the time school was out, so I hurried home to check the garden. I had not expected anything like what I found. The corn had withstood the chill well enough, but the 30 or so carefully tended, watered, fertilized, and over-mothered bean plants were completely wilted. Some of the leaves, stems, and pods had turned to mush.

Except for one. Toward the middle of the patch, one of the bean plants, about three feet tall and wide, stood proud and cheerful as if nothing had happened. I didn’t know enough about genes and DNA—at the time not many people did—so I just figured it was somehow tougher than all the rest. I stared at the rest of my devastated bean crop, bewildered. Finally, at my mother’s insistence, I went into the house, a new kind of sadness in my heart.

Later that evening, after my father had come home, we surveyed the garden. We’d lost all our summer vegetables: the pump-kins, summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, and zucchini. The corn seemed to have survived, along with the rhubarb, carrots, radishes, and—oh, yeah—my one poor, lonely little bean plant.

“Kind of a freaky thing if you ask me,” my dad said, his hand on my shoulder. “It’s not supposed to freeze here, especially this time of year, but that’s farming for you, son. Nothing we can do now. We’ll let things sit, and dig them under next week or later, when they’ve dried some. Strange about that bean plant of yours, though. Anyway, it’s supposed to freeze again tonight. That’ll probably be the end for it.”

Much to my dismay, it did freeze again that night, but the following day a warm front moved in. Soon we were back in our typical southern California weather, around 72° daytime and 60° at night. Miraculously, my bean plant had persisted through the second frost and into the warm weather. I named it Molly after a girl I liked at school, who was a pretty tough kid for a girl.

My mom and I harvested what beans there were and she cooked them that night. A week later, my dad and I spaded the perished plants under, everything but the cornstalks and winter crops—including Molly, my solitary, surviving bean plant.

“It’s not going to do much more, son,” Dad said as he dug her under. I turned away, not wanting my father to see his boy crying. “No sense messing with it. We’ll plant some more next year, OK?”

“OK, Dad,” I answered, unable to look at him or to where Molly lay, some of her still-green leaves and stems protruding above the dirt, waving in the wind as if to say we did a big wrong burying her alive.

It was paradise lost. Had I known at the time what I know now, I would have let all its beans mature and then dried them, saving the seeds for future generations. Through my ignorance—and, yes, my father’s and mother’s, too—we lost our key to fame, fortune, and all that stuff. Frost-tolerant bean plants? Who knew how much cold Molly could have taken? Can you imagine what she could have done for our hungry world? Whatever aberrant gene caused the mutation might one day have been transferred to other plants with our present technology. Summer squash, tomatoes, and other stuff might now grow in fall and winter climates!

Now, 70 years later, when I begin my spring garden, I often think about that episode. And I lament. I have hoped every gardening season since that something similar would again happen to me. I constantly scrutinize not only my garden for something similar, but also those plants I grow in my nursery business and almost every plant I see everywhere—but, alas, nothing. There are thousands more varieties and hybrids of plants growing in the fields and selling at the market than when I was a kid, but no frost-free bean plants or other summer-vegetables-turned-winter crops that I know of to help feed the world.

Paradise lost. To everyone.


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