Colorado History

Why Is Dr. Tomato Full of Beans?

These heritage beans will grow well in Denver.
These heritage beans will grow well in Denver. Chad Chisholm
They’ve produced every year. Whether the season sees droughts, floods or May ice storms, the heirloom Anasazi bean plants invariably creep four or five feet up their trellises, blooming with bright red-and-white flowers that lead to enormous bean pods by harvest.

Ron Katz waits until late September or early October, depending on the year’s conditions, then pulls the dried pods off the plants and harvests the beans for both consumption and preservation.

He acquired his heirloom Anasazi beans on a chance trip to Mesa Verde National Park. “About forty years ago, my wife, son and I were camping in the Four Corners area, and we decided to go into the park one afternoon,” Katz recalls. “Even though it was summer, there was barely anyone around.”

But one individual who was there planted the seeds of a new direction for Katz. “There was this park ranger who had been struck by lightning numerous times and was a true character,” he recalls. “He was well known in the area, greeted us, and offered to tour the park with us. After we explored numerous cliff dwellings, he stayed on with us for hours. He was so passionate about our experience.”

And he added to that experience with what today would be an illegal act, even a federal crime: The ranger took Katz and his family to a building where park employees had gathered materials from recent excavations. “He said they are constantly discovering new graves, ceremonial grounds, dwellings, pottery, etcetera, and that they had just unearthed a clay pot with a cache of beans perfectly preserved,” Katz remembers.

The ranger referenced the finding quite casually, then offered some of the beans to Katz. “I nearly pissed my pants,” he says. “There were these beans that could be anywhere from 800 to 2,000 years old, and I could ‘help myself’ to the stash!”

Katz, a second-generation gardener who grew vegetables as a hobby, stuffed his pocket with beans. “I asked him if he thought they would grow,” he says. “He shrugged and that was it.”

Not exactly. Today Katz is known as “Dr. Tomato” throughout Denver’s gardening community; back in the 1980s, when the Denver Botanic Gardens had plots available for rent, he started tomato beds there that really took off.
“My tomato strains did great,” he says. “I had a spot right next to the entrance. Soon, other gardeners would start asking me questions about sick plants, and I was then referred to as ‘Dr. Tomato.’ I started signing in and out of my garden spot as Dr. Tomato. After five years, I realized no one knew my real name.”
Ron and Joanne Katz at their pop-up garden. - JULIE BIELENBERG
Ron and Joanne Katz at their pop-up garden.
Julie Bielenberg

It could just as easily have been “Dr. Bean.” By the time he got his Botanic Gardens spot, Katz was already growing the Anasazi beans outside of his brick bungalow with great success. But he didn’t try them at the Gardens. “There wasn’t enough room,” he explains. “They’re climbing beans.”

When the Katz family moved to Hilltop in 1993, he had all the room he needed for the beans — four times as much space. In a greenhouse attached to the house, he could start growing produce year-round. But the beans were his best crop each year, far out-performing Dr. Tomato’s legendary fruit at the DBG. Katz continued to tend his plot there through the ’90s, somehow also finding time to run the business he’d founded in 1993 and continues to operate, Denver Screen Print & Embroidery.

Today the heirloom beans are highly valued, just as they were in the days of the Anasazi. “Even before the agricultural revolution, there is this demonstration and evidence of the importance of beans in the diet — essential protein for the hunters, gatherers and nomads,” Katz notes. And now he can share them with Denver’s eager urban gardeners.

Under Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act, passed in 2012, Katz has turned his beans into a cash crop. On Sundays from late spring through mid-fall, his wife, Joann, and a neighbor operate one of Denver’s largest pop-up farmers’ stands, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bellaire Street. Among other things, they sell the heirloom beans, packaged by the dozens. The beans can be sown in Denver dirt, then harvested and dried for years of hearty crockpot meals (try them stewed with bacon and chiles) or hipster decor. Regardless, they’re going to produce.

“We get a lot more hail, extremes in hot and cold, and seemingly less summer afternoon rain showers,” Katz says of Denver weather patterns compared to those of southwestern Colorado, “but the beans adapt and thrive.”
Katz’s neighbor recently returned to Mesa Verde with a handful of his Anasazi beans; a ranger blessed them in the Balcony House cliff dwelling. The neighbor then brought them back to Denver and planted them by their relatives in Katz’s Hilltop garden. The plants are already creeping up the trellises, promising another bountiful harvest.

Want to start your own cash crop?

Get Inspired: The Denver Botanic Gardens has a reference garden where you can get educated on heirlooms. “The Sacred Earth Garden at York Street features bush beans. For more varieties and pole beans, at our Chatfield Farms location, crop rotation techniques are used to grow a variety of bush beans,” notes Brien Darby, Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturist.

Get Sexy: “Beans are the perfect flowers, scientifically. They have both male and female organs and can self-pollinate,” adds Darby. “They like it hot, and one plant can produce upwards of two dozen pods, and there are numerous beans in each pod.”

Get Selective: Around the globe, there are over 1,000 varieties of beans. For Denver conditions, investigate dry beans: annuals grown specifically for the beans in the pod. (Unlike those of other plants, these pods are not to be consumed.) Common Colorado bean crops include pinto (the majority of Colorado-grown dry beans), kidney, navy, northern and, of course, Anasazi, which are grown primarily in the southwest corner of the state. On the Internet, you can find Anasazi beans from numerous growers under their trendier label, Christmas beans.

Get to Hilltop: For the biggest and best Anasazi beans, visit the Hilltop market. Katz’s beans are three times larger than what you can find online. Size does matter: Maybe that’s what makes them so magical.
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