Romano beans

I’ve always loved them. Long, broad, and flat, Romano beans look like  professionally ironed versions of their string bean cousins. They were called “Italian beans” when I was growing up, only available frozen and always on a hit and miss basis. They’re still hard to find fresh, except for a few weeks in late July and early August when they briefly put in an appearance at gourmet groceries and farmers markets and are immediately snapped up. As they should be: they’re delicious and versatile and can be charred, grilled, sautéed, boiled, overcooked without losing they’re taste and texture, or just eaten raw right off the vine. I try to grow vegetables that are at their best picked fresh: arugula, cherry tomatoes, baby lettuces, and haricot verts. This year, with some trepidation, I decided to try my hand at Romano beans. Surely they must be hard to grow; why else would they be in such short supply?  But each of the caplet-sized rose pink Hart’s seeds I pushed an inch or two into the soil in mid May has shot up to form ten-inch-high bushes, dangling beautifully formed pale green beans. And they keep on coming. Several weeks of side dishes are hidden away in the tangle of leaves and pods that have commandeered a corner of the vegetable garden.

Here’s an easy and delicious recipe from Bon Appétit for grilling Romanos (or any string bean) followed by an appreciation of the vegetable by Mary Oliver.

4 Servings
½ garlic clove, grated
½ lemon (peel and all), sliced, seeds removed, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Romano beans, trimmed
½ pound fresh mozzarella, coarsely torn
½ cup torn fresh basil leaves

Step 1
Prepare a grill for medium-high — or heat up a grill pan. Toss garlic, lemon, lemon juice, and 3 Tbsp. oil in a small bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper. Toss beans on a baking sheet with a little oil; season with salt and pepper. Grill until lightly charred on 1 side and crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a platter.
Step 2
Top beans with mozzarella, drizzle with dressing, and scatter basil over. (Dressing can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.)

by Mary Oliver

They’re not like peaches or squash.
Plumpness isn’t for them. They like
being lean, as if for the narrow
path. The beans themselves sit qui-
etly inside their green pods. In-
stinctively one picks with care,
never tearing down the fine vine,
never not noticing their crisp bod-
ies, or feeling their willingness for
the pot, for the fire.

I have thought sometimes that
something―I can’t name it―
watches as I walk the rows, accept-
ing the gift of their lives to assist

I know what you think: this is fool-
ishness. They’re only vegetables.
Even the blossoms with which they
begin are small and pale, hardly sig-
nificant. Our hands, or minds, our
feet hold more intelligence. With
this I have no quarrel.

But, what about virtue?


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On the forest floor

When I’m hot and tired after working in the garden, I’ll walk up into the woods to commune with the ferns and moss that carpet the forest floor. Cool and fresh-looking on even the most oppressive days, they exude a zen-like calm. Perhaps that’s because they’ve survived on earth for so long, with some estimates putting them at nearly 300 million years old. Their secret?  Ferns and moss are self-sufficient. They don’t rely on roots for their water and nutrients, instead absorbing both directly through their leaves and rhizoids. They’re unlike other plants, too, in that they reproduce by releasing spores into the air. A single cell surrounded by a thick membrane, a spore contains both male and female reproductive organs which allows the plant to essentially clone itself.  Recently, I’ve noticed how these most mysterious and ancient of living things are spreading a little farther every year, colonizing wide swaths of shady undergrowth.  I suspect they’ll outlast us all.  I hope so. I can’t think of a better ending to the Anthropocene than a world carpeted in their luminous green beauty.

Here’s a poem by David Waggoner, whose work shows the influence of his teacher and mentor Theodore Roethke, that takes us into the heart of the subject.

On the Forest Floor

By David Waggoner

In this green shade, over the leaves and rubble
Of the fallen and still falling, over branches
And tangles of tree roots, over whole stones
And whole nurse logs, beneath the arches
Of ferns and the grottoes of deadfalls,
The moss has spread and deepened an underworld.

You kneel here naturally, and the air around you
Yields to your touch like moss, as the moss itself
Will yield to snow and ice through winter
To return as what it was,
And the green air you breathe is yielding to rain
Softer than moss, suspended like a cloud.

And moss – the only living substance here
For which a speck of sky after the death
Of a leaf is not an oracular emptiness –
The cold before the cold –
Has no need to fall. It was born fallen
And live in its own light, by its own light.

The closer you look at it, the more it changes
To the landscapes of the earth,
The yet-to-be and the dead and the newly risen
Merged into rootless lives whose entrances,
Like your lost eyes, become what enters them,
Where all that endures is your bewilderment.

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Bleeding hearts

Intricate as origami, among the first plants in the garden to flower every spring, bleeding hearts are as cheery and old-fashioned as hand-made valentines.  They seem to appear, fully formed, overnight. Their sprays of blossoms — each a heart-shaped pouch dangling a tiny white fan — float like Japanese lanterns above luminous fern-like foliage. Cultivated bleeding hearts, members of the poppy Continue reading

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Eulogy for a willow

It’s been on its way out for years, scattering branches and bark the way an elderly woman might start shedding her possessions.  A decade ago, the tree was sheared nearly in half when a high wind rampaged through the Berkshires, leaving a tangled mass of shattered branches and willow wands on the front lawn.  What remained, looked lopsided and off-balance, an amputee with a phantom limb. We thought of taking the rest of the tree down then, but something in me couldn’t let it go.  Planted when our farmhouse went up almost 100 years ago, the tree seemed the spirit of the place somehow. Hummingbirds built their nests in its branches every summer.  Flying squirrels took up residence in one of its decaying knotholes. But in Continue reading

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Breaking into blossom

We’re still seesawing between seasons in the Berkshires, the temperatures sometimes swinging 40 degrees in a single day. But there’s a red haze in the underbrush and a thickening in the upper branches of the trees. The brook roars day and night, its banks overrun with snowmelt and spring thaws. The fields remain brown and beaten down by winter, stalks sticking up out of the ground like the spokes of collapsed umbrellas. But something’s in the air — that Continue reading

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This is the time of year when a flowering plant can seem like a miracle. Cut flowers just don’t cut it. Kept alive through refrigeration, there’s too often a funereal feeling about them. The heady scent of lilies, the bright smile of Gerbera daisies can’t mask the truth that you’re looking at something that’s been knifed and has only days to live. An orchid on the other hand, even the $20 moth variety sold by the hundreds at Whole Foods, can last for months. (Which is quite a bargain considering that, at the height of Orchidelirium in Europe in the 1800s, a single orchid plant could go for thousands of dollars.) Continue reading

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It’s been cold, and it’s getting colder.  The first sub-zero temperatures of the year will swoop in this weekend — the kind of cold that’s beyond any given degree or wind chill factor.  Cold that becomes an adversary, slapping your face so hard when you venture outside that your eyes water. Cold that turns your breath to smoke and your ears to burning cinders.  This is Dr. Zhivago cold, only without the snow-swept vistas and tinkling ice Continue reading

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The Great Conjunction

In a year that had so little to look forward to, it promised to be a once-in-a-millennium celestial spectacle. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest worlds in our solar system, would appear almost as one in the night sky. And not just any night sky: the event would take place on the Winter Solstice. The combined planets would form a star so bright that many believed it was the one the wise men had followed to the city of Bethlehem two Continue reading

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Daylight Saving Time

It gets dark a little earlier every afternoon now. The shift accelerated a few weeks ago when we turned the clocks back. Our house, tucked into a rise on the side a long hill, falls into shadow even sooner than for our neighbors up the road.  The sun snags on the top of the tree line some time after 4 o’clock most afternoons and then collapses like a spent balloon, brightness bleeding out into the Continue reading

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It’s time to come inside.  Time to put the gardens to bed and stow the flower pots and outdoor furniture away. I’ve already disassembled the tomato supports (with dozens of green laggards still  clinging to the vines) and harvested the last of the arugula and lettuce. Except for the oaks and beech trees, most of the leaves have fallen, and the mountain — hidden for so many months behind the foliage — emerges from the mist, an enormous Continue reading

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The pear thief

I looked up from weeding the vegetable beds a few weeks back to see that half the pears on our espaliered pear trees that we’d trained against the side of the barn were gone.  Branches that had been drooping with fruit just the day before had been stripped bare, a bountiful harvest of Bartlett pears vanishing into thin air overnight. Occasionally, in the past, we’d find a half-eaten, partially ripened pear on the ground under the trees, the work of the chipmunks who’ll try anything once, even the eggplant I discovered, still on its vine, covered in disgruntled t0othmarks. But the pear theft was more like a heist, a clean, professional sweep of the goods with no sign of the culprit or how the sting was pulled off.  Interestingly, though, only the Bartlett pears were stolen.  Our tree of Asian pears was left untouched. Continue reading

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Blue hydrangea


In late August, hydrangeas take center stage in the Berkshires. And in a summer with so little live music, dance, or theater, they’re putting on a welcome show. Our “Pinky Winky” paniculatas are exploding in the back garden, setting off rockets of deep rust and white surrounded by bursts of tiny sparklers. On a drive through town as dusk descends, the hooped skirts of a row of Annabelles — snow white and otherworldly in the fading Continue reading

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The garden has always been a place of refuge, but it seems especially so this summer. To be able to walk out, unmasked, across the dew-laden grass in the early morning to pick raspberries is to know peace.  The news alerts come by way of the blue jays hectoring a squirrel in the hemlocks. Though our social lives remain meager, never has nature seemed more bountiful. The tomato vines and espaliered pear trees droop with ripening fruit. Overnight, the tightly packed pale beige raspberry buds swelled and softened. About the size of Continue reading

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Scattered blossoms

The rain has left a trail of rose and peony petals across the lawn —fresh and fragrant — as though just strewn by a flower girl at a wedding. It’s always heartbreaking to see these first fragile blooms of summer scatter to the ground.  We waited so long for their arrival, checking daily through the long, chilly spring for signs of progress. Then one morning we turned Continue reading

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