better beans, tough tomatoes, with prairie road organic seed

hidatsa shield and blue lake poleIF THERESA PODOLL of Prairie Road Organic Seed has her way with your vegetable-garden plan, it will include room for some really good beans, including oldtime ‘Blue Lake Pole’ for fresh eating (she calls it the “gold standard of pole beans”), and prolific, easy dry beans with Native American roots. There will be some really tough tomatoes, too, if your season is challengingly short.

All of it will be grown organically, starting with organically farmed seed, like in her family farm and home garden (below).  

Photos - 0815“Our seed system is brittle,” says Theresa, who farms in Fullerton, North Dakota, on the cusp of Zone 3b and 4a. Not brittle in the way a perfectly dry seed must be to store well over the winter for next season–but brittle as in ecologically and politically fragile, and potentially broken.

We’ve all heard: Years of industry consolidation by a few big corporations has reduced the diversity of seed varieties that remain available to farmers and gardeners. But the bright spot is that it has also produced passionate seed stewards–organic growers and breeders like Prairie Road who look back into history for worthy varieties to revive, and also ahead for the start of new ones, then care for them intimately to keep them strong.

Podoll's East GardenIncluding, in the case of Prairie Road Organic Seed, some truly gorgeous beans with rich stories, and a collection of tomatoes that are somehow happy to produce even in North Dakota.

In our conversation on my public radio show and podcast, I learned about growing pole beans minus the bean poles; how prolific dry beans can be, plus expert planting tips and more. It’s all part of my ongoing seed series (the whole archive is here).

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 12, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


q&a: growing beans and more, with theresa podoll




Q. First I just want to set the scene, Theresa, and get a little bit of history of Prairie Road Organic Seed and the land your family farms. [Above, left to right: Dan, Theresa, David and Ginger Podoll, of Prairie Road.]

A. My husband Dan’s dad [a turkey-breeding specialist with North Dakota State University] bought the farm in 1953, and it’s 480 acres. We are surrounded by a landscape of primarily corn and soybean production. So we’re this little island of diversity in a landscape that is increasingly less diverse, with tree rows being taken out and burned, and no diversity in the cropping system.

Dan’s brother, David, took over the farm in 1975, and it has been certified organic since 1977. The farm currently raises a variety of small grains: buckwheat, millet and oats, which are also well-suited for cover-crop seed. We’ve also grown vegetable seed as contract producers for other garden seed companies since 1997.

The family has always gardened extensively, growing for our own family and also with and for extended family. So feeding ourselves and eating well have always been a priority on the farm.

Q. I hate the expression “a hill of beans”–as in, it doesn’t amount to anything, because as a longtime vegetarian and a lover of beans I cannot imagine life without them. How much of the garden and farm there is beans?

IMG_0520A. We raise about 6 acres of crops a year that are our vegetable-seed plots, and beans would make up about an acre of that. (We have about 30 acres over all dedicated to vegetable-seed production, but it’s in a rotation.)

Dry beans are a fairly risky crop for us in recent years, because of a relatively recent trend of getting fall rains. So the pole beans are particularly attractive to us, because it brings them up off the ground.

3ea64f72ec2abc6cf55ea20acb03038fWe’ve devised a system for growing the pole beans on tall, cool-tolerant sorghum varieties [above], including a variety from China called ‘Red Kaoliang.’ We had to come up with a way to grow them out in the field without having to put up and take down thousands of feet of fence every year.

Q. So instead of a Three Sisters system, maybe this is Two Brothers, with sorghum the other brother to the beans? [Laughter.]

A. Sorghum is related to corn, and very similar. The reason we use it instead of corn—and we do grow varieties of corn here, too—is that it has a narrower leaf, so it provides more sunshine to the beans than corn would.

will catalog and hidatsa red beanQ. Interesting. You have some beauties among the beans in the catalog, Theresa. Where’d they come from?

A. Two of them that are most historic are the ‘Hidatsa Shield Figure’ and ‘Hidatsa Red’ heirloom beans. Both of them originated in North Dakota with the Hidasta tribe, along the Missouri River. In the late 1800s, a man named Oscar Will came to the Dakota Territory, and he set up a seed company in Bismarck, the first North Dakota seed company, called Oscar H. Will and Company. He befriended the Native Americans in the area, who were gardeners, and had extensive holdings of beans, squash and corn. A lot of Will’s varieties originated from seeds they shared with him.

He had extensive trial gardens on the south side of Bismarck. His son George took over the business, and ran it until 1960, and then closed down. We’ve been studying their catalogs and the variety descriptions for both native varieties and what did well here in North Dakota, along with varieties that were bred and released by the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University).

Q. It sounds like a little bit of forensics, and cultural anthropology—fascinating.

A. What historically has done well here, we believe, is a good starting point for finding varieties that will do well now.

Q.  Including good beans—and so what’s your idea of a good bean? In your catalog you call ‘Blue Lake Pole’ the “gold standard for green beans,” so what does it take for a bean to get that praise?

A. All of our seed work started in the garden, and started with the need to put food on our own plates. So taste has always been a primary selection criterion. It has to taste good as well as be productive.

So we use ‘Blue Lake Pole’ for taste because it’s the one that we compare all others to for flavor. We’ve been doing some variety trials, and always say, “How does this taste compared to ‘Blue Lake’”—and not even the bush ‘Blue Lake’ is up to the ‘Blue Lake Pole’ as far as flavor.

Q. I looked it up, and ‘Blue Lake Pole’ is from the 1920s. An oldtimer.

A. The other things we like about it: It’s pencil-straight, so you can load up a pint jar and make pickled green beans easily. They’re just so nice to handle. They bear about 10 days to 2 weeks behind a bush bean, but then bear the rest of the season, until frost.

Q. You also some beans in the catalog that are really more for drying than eating green.

il_570xN.426233843_8mslA. We introduced a new bean called ‘Dakota Bumblebean’ [above].

Q. [Laughter.] ‘Dakota Bumblebean.’

A. Yes, we have a huge diversity of pollinators in our garden—lots of bumblebees—and pollinators like to mix things up. This cross was actually found in our ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ beans, which we grow as one of our staple beans for our own table.

We planted it back just to see what it would do. It was so much fun: the first few generations had a lot of variation, with all these genetic combinations, so you get this fantastic mix of colors and patterns. We decided we had to share that fun around, so the variety would eventually stabilize, showing less and less variation each year as it does. If you were a bean breeder, you could speed up the stabilization by only planting back the desired color or pattern you wanted.

But we decided to embrace the diversity, so we’ve been selecting stock seed with the particular variations we like, and want to make sure that remain in the mix. We decided to go the other way.

Q. You contrarians out there in North Dakota! [Laughter.}

A. Uniformity is not the be-all, end-all. To have a jar of beans that is just this mishmash of every imaginable pattern is really fun.

il_570xN.426235802_m5m1Q. What about the Hidatsa beans for drying?

A. Both the ‘Hidatsa Shield Figure’ and ‘Hidatsa Red’ are extremely productive. ‘Hidatsa Red’ was put in the North Dakota State University variety trials conducted at Carrington, N.D., and it was the top yielder–so ‘Hidatsa Red,’ this historical variety [100 years old this year] outyielding all these commercial dry beans. That’s quite a story.

‘Hidatsa Shield Figure’ is at least twice as big as ‘Hidatsa Red.’ It’s this big, plump bean, so you get up into pounds very quickly.

Q. I know it’s not a precise calculation—but how do you approximate the yield for dry beans in a home-garden situation? How many should I plant?

A.  For dry beans if you had 100 to 125 feet of dry beans in whatever combination you want to grow, you’d have a good amount for the winter [for a family of four who likes beans]. I would say in a decent yield, 50 to 60 feet should provide 15 to 20 pounds of dry beans in a normal year.

Q.  That’s a lot of beans.

A. They’re very productive. I think it’s a very-often overlooked food staple that historically a lot of gardeners really embraced. Unfortunately now it’s been relegated to canned beans at the supermarket. But it’s such a productive and easy thing to grow.

[Read Theresa’s blog post on “The Magic of Dry Beans,” planting, harvesting, and cooking.]

Q. I learned about growing dry beans by accident, from one teepee of ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans years ago that planted for the hummingbird friends. I didn’t take them down till really late—and there was this teepee full of beans drying in their pods.

Speaking of growing beans: What’s the Prairie Road 101 on growing beans?

A. We plant our bean seeds an inch deep and 2-3 inches apart within the row, with both bush beans and pole beans [and rows of bush types 3 feet apart].

The limiting factor would be moisture. You want to make sure they have good moisture when they go to flower, otherwise you won’t have a good bean set at all.

If the temperature gets above 90 degrees you will often see reduced yields, too, where the pollen will die or the flowers will blast, so to speak—just drop off the vine.

Q. Which is true of other things in the vegetable garden, too—if there is some kind of mechanical or environmental problem, things can’t reproduce and fruit effectively. What other bean-growing tips do you want to share?

A. Oftentimes you’ll see recommendations that you inoculate your bean seed with Rhizobia. We don’t need to do that, because the Rhizobia levels are high in our soil because we grow beans on them all the time. But if you’re on new ground, and not sure that you have Rhizobia present—it’s better to be safe.

Q. So get a packet of inoculant.

A. Yes. One package of bean seed will contain about 50 bean seeds in our case, so that would plant about 15 feet of row. For the average family, 30 to 50 feet would be a good amount to provide for fresh eating and then freezing and canning, so if you succession planted bush beans 2 to 3 weeks apart—15 feet of row, and then plant again in about 3 weeks, 15 to 20 feet of row.

What we do instead of succession planting on our farm: We plant bush beans to come in first, and then pole beans come in about 10 days later, and continue to bear. We plant them all at once, and the pole beans take care of the succession.

Q. You will laugh to hear that my succession plantings of bush beans are even less than 5 feet long each—because I’m a one-person household. So you have to figure it out for your family needs.

A. My recommendation is for a family of four—but bean seed will last into the next season, and the season after that, so your packet will really last.

sweet dakota bliss and beet hummusQ. I want to ricochet from beans to beets for a moment—because that’s another vegetable I am mad about that many people don’t appreciate enough. You have a good-looking beet in the catalog.

A. It’s called ‘Sweet Dakota Bliss’ [above], and it’s super-sweet. We just released it in 2013, and began working with it in 2003. We were working with another seed company to do the selection and improvement work; they did the original cross. We were doing the selection work to “true it up” and stabilize the variety.

After years of ongoing selection, in their trials the beet came in second, so they weren’t going to release it. We were heartbroken, so we asked if we could have the beet because they were just going to drop it. So we continued to do the selection work for color, sweetness and flavor—and for nice beet tops. Beets are often touted as a root crop, but are also an excellent salad green. The beet tops can’t be beat.

[Get Theresa’s recipe for beet hummus, above, and bean hummus, too.]

Q. Very funny: The beet greens can’t be beat.

A. I love spinach, and spinach tends to not do well once the temperature gets hot, so we use these beet tops in place of it.

crimson sprinter il_570xN.426228631_3lb1Q. One of the other specialties at Prairie Road is tomatoes, including some I have never seen before. Your tomato collection has an interesting background—how you challenged them to have more disease resistance by creating a “disease nursery.” Tell us about that process.

A. We were working with an older variety called ‘Crimson Sprinter’ [above], and it did not have a lot of disease tolerance. We were working with John Navazio [then senior scientist at Organic Seed Alliance], and he suggested creating this disease nursery, where you plant tomatoes on tomatoes on tomatoes, for years.

Q. No rotation?

A. No. And you don’t remove the dead plant material from year to year—you break all the rules and create this diseased environment. Then you plant your tomatoes in that, so you have the perfect selection environment where you’ll be able to tell right away the ones that do not have any disease tolerance, and the ones that do.

At first it was really slow progress—we didn’t think we were making any. You select the fruits and save them back from the ones that are doing the best.

We didn’t realize how much progress we were making until we brought in some seed of tomatoes we wanted to trial, and the only space we had still available was in our disease nursery. So we planted them there—the acid test. We noticed that they did really poorly, so we knew our varieties [which did better] were making progress.

Septoria is one of the major concerns up here, and early blight.

wisconsin 55 and fargo yellow pearQ. I know them both! I love some of your tomatoes: ‘Fargo Yellow Pear,’ [above right] speaking of something that sounds like it comes from the Dakotas.

A. That one was bred by a plant breeder at the agricultural college here in Fargo. Another is ‘Wisconsin 55′ [above left], which was bred for Northern climates, too. ‘Crimson Sprinter,’ which I mentioned, was bred in Guelph, Ontario. So all of those were particularly well-suited to our conditions.

more about the podolls

MOSES_NPSAS Field Day 2014THE PODOLLS at Prairie Road were named farmers of the year for 2014 by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), and regularly share their knowledge with other organic farmers in various ways: hosting field days (above), lecturing, and more. They have been featured on the Farm Aid website, by the Organic Seed Alliance, and many other organizations for their expertise and generosity.

Their own home garden soil is managed in a no-till style, with thick hay and alfalfa mulch reapplied each year and composting in place, feeding the soil beneath, as seen in their YouTube video, above–a great tip for home vegetable gardeners.

DSC0099940e66a2f9e06Prairie Road Organic Seed sells its seed on the seed-company website. Or visit Theresa Podoll’s blog for articles by her. They also have a seed-packet program for garden centers.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 12, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(All photos courtesy of Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road, and used with permission.)

  1. Mark says:

    Great interview. I got a lot from it. I love that they’re producing a purposely variable bean with the Dakota Bumblebean. And growing pole beans on sorghum is inspired. I may have to try it.

      1. E says:

        Any suggestions on what/how to harvest the sorghum? Have faint childhood memories of fall sorghum harvest, making thick dark syrup.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, I am impressed with spending 10+ years on the genetics of a beet or similar periods on improving a tomato or bean. Love knowing about hands-on seed farmers and “meeting” more of them all the time. Thanks for saying hello.

  2. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Margaret I love this series! There’s so much to learn! I’m going to try some of their cultivars–the Podolls live in an even colder environment than we do. I think their seeds are going to love Southern Vermont (zone 5)! And, the idea of a disease-resistant tomato–awesome!! What cultivars do you plan to grow (tomatoes) this Summer?

  3. Julie Abbott says:

    I love that mulching technique! That soil looks beautiful. I’m going to try that in my little backyard vegetable garden this spring. Thank-you Margaret and Prarie Road, Julie

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tropaeolum. They let it stand in winter to feed the birds (seedheads) after the beans are harvested, and then I expect they compost it (probably through a shredder of some form first, te way cornstalks are harvested in a farm setting and ground up).

  4. Sheila Hillberry says:

    We love the Hidatsa Shield Figure and Hidatsa Red Beans– the flavor is great and they love to grow! Our other favorite native bean is Arikara Yellow. If you haven’t tried it, please do– I guarantee you’ll love it too. Other remarkable Great Plains native seeds we grow are Mandan Sweet Corn (aka red flour corn, but tastes great as a sweet corn), Omaha pumpkin (very prolific with orange dry flesh) and Arikara watermelon (again very prolific– quite seedy and flesh is light pink, but very sweet). My sources were Seed Savers Exchange and the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE who grow their own demonstration garden and sell the seeds they don’t need to keep it going.
    I am very interested in your beets and the “Fargo” tomato. ( We already grow Wisconsin 55) I will visit your web site to see how to order.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sheila. Glad you enjoyed the interview — and love your feedback (and the story about Museum of the Fur Trade!). Hope you enjoy your internet visit to Prairie Road’s catalog.

  5. Qberry Farm says:

    Thank you for the garden mulching video. I do similar but I do not bale but move it directly from the field to the rows. This allows me to do it without machinery and a small mount at a time. When I ran out of rows and the grass stopped growing in the summer heat I had some to trade for the neighbors cows.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Qberry Farm. And I do it by hand here in my much smaller garden, just a couple/few bales, in my trusty red wheelbarrow navigating among the rained beds. :)

  6. Laurie Thomas says:

    Thanks for sharing all the valuable information and video. In the no-till garden do they replant in the same rows every year?

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