The Pole Bean Teepee
Updated: Mar 28
I read a Facebook post this past spring about creating a lush and living hideaway for children using a pole bean teepee. Memories came flooding in, and I laughed out loud. Back when my three kids were small, before the proliferation of the internet, I read about the same thing in a gardening magazine.
I had spent many happy hours as a child playing outside, building miniature structures made of rocks and branches. They were just big enough to squeeze into and made me feel like a self-sufficient pioneer, and at the same time as snug and safe as a little papoose. Building a pole-bean teepee seemed the perfect way to blend earth and imagination for my kids.
In early May while the kids were in school, I entered the woods and searched for the perfect poles. It seemed wrong to hack off limbs of a living tree, and it was not an easy task to find fallen branches that would work. After several excursions, I succeeded in rounding up a dozen appropriate boughs.
My husband tilled the garden soil in late May, and I symmetrically placed one end of each pole in the large circle I had mapped out in a corner of the empty garden. I tied the top ends of the towering limbs together with twine, stood back to survey the skeleton of my project, and deemed it good.
The dark, rich soil may have been bare but it was not barren. I sowed bean seeds in a circle at the base of the wooden poles, leaving a small, unplanted section for a doorway. Adding my own touch, I planted flower seeds on either side of a currently unseen walkway that would connect the lawn to the structure. In my mind’s eye I saw a flower-lined path beckoning toward the entrance of an enchanted escape.
When summer vacation began, both older boys quickly lost interest in the project. They had nothing invested in the design or building of the structure, and both were too busy roaming the countryside and mucking in the nearby shallow ponds. Water and mud, fish and frogs, and especially turtles and newts occupied their time. Immobile, slow-growing entities such as plants climbing up branches no longer merited their attention.
Since they were no longer interested in the teepee, I decided to give the structure a princess touch for my young daughter. I bought long multicolored streamers and tied them to the very top. They sparkled in the sun as they fluttered in the breeze, appearing to be joyful living beings.
I also had the brilliant idea of placing a thick layer of grass clippings inside as a soft covering for the dirt. I wanted a clean, cushiony floor for lounging. My daughter and I raked the softest parts of the freshly mown lawn and we carted several wheelbarrow loads of green clippings and dumped them inside the circle of the still mostly naked teepee. We spread the grass out and lay down on the thick carpet and luxuriated in its softness, looking up at the clouds and smiling at each other. We imagined our heads surrounded by dangling beans and greenness.
Slowly the bean plants began to climb and the walkway edges took form. I trekked out to the garden everyday to check their progress.
Despite being an experienced gardener, in my zest to form a welcoming floral-lined path, I had neglected to take into account how big those tiny cosmos, zinnia and larkspur seeds would become. The path became nearly impassable because the plants invaded the walk. I convinced myself this made the whole fantasy even more exciting because now the entrance was almost invisible. Arriving at the doorway would be like working ones way through a jungle before unexpectedly coming upon the hidden entrance.
Summer grew busy, and we went on our annual camping trip. When we returned, we saw the twining bean plants had grown high enough and thick enough to cover the bones of the structure. My daughter invited the boys to attend our much-anticipated grand entrance. Down the flowery jungle path we trekked, fighting our way through the encroaching vegetation. We located the low, small entrance, and bending down on hands and knees, crossed the threshold of the magical portal into our secret bower.
It was shady, just as I had anticipated. Not only was it shady, it was quite dark. The layer of grass clippings had become damp, compacted, and mildewed. Not only was it unpleasant to sit on, there was no air circulation, and the musty air hung thick and heavy.
I tried to accentuate the positive. At least we could pluck some dangling fresh beans before departing. At the time, I did not know Japanese Beetles love pole bean plants. And the Japanese beetles were especially prolific that year.
Picking a handful of dangling beans from the ceiling disturbed the beetles. Frenzied activity ensued, both ours and the bugs. They entangled themselves in our hair and clothes, with their sharp, raspy claws clinging to our bare skin. We erratically flapped and flailed our arms. I shrieked, everyone scrambled, and we poured out of that teepee like rats from a burning barn.
A bit ago, I asked my grown daughter if she remembered the pole bean teepee. A dreamy smile sprouted on her face and her eyes glowed, which surprised me because it did not mesh with what I remembered as an epic failure. I asked her what her most vivid memories were. She did not mention Japanese beetles. She spoke of gathering grass and lying on its softness, of the structure rising from the center of the garden, tall and green, and of the streamers on top, sparkling in the sun.