Beans are hugely popular vegetables, and a row of climbing beans is a common summer sight in gardens all across the UK. There are two main kinds of bean, ‘French’ (sometimes known as ‘pole’) beans, and runner beans. Both are available either as climbing or bush varieties, so there is almost sure to be a bean out there that will be perfect for your garden. Growing beans is easy, and well worth it!
French beans are either round, or somewhat flat. Either way they’re easy to grow and delicious to eat. Runner beans tend to be much larger but need very similar growing conditions.
A common misconception about beans and other legumes (such as peas) is that as they ‘fix’ their own nitrogen into the soil there’s no need to provide them with very much in the way of nutrients. While this is true, fixing nitrogen costs energy and the plants can’t do it when they’re just getting started. If you want the current generation to be robust and healthy, and your harvest as large as possible, you need to feed them.
Beans of all kinds like rich, well drained but water-retentive soil, and runners especially benefit from being sited right on top of a trench filled with compost. Not only will that support their growth through the season, it ensures that they will have enough water. Remember, dry plants means no beans.
Even though beans have tough skins, resist the temptation to soak them before sowing or you risk spreading disease before they’re even up and about. Beans are a summer crop and shouldn’t be sown outside until the earth has warmed and all danger of frost is past. Sowing beans in biodegradable pots is another way of extending the season as you can start them earlier; the whole thing gets planted out, with little or no disturbance to the root system – vital, as beans hate having their roots disturbed.
Slugs and snails love young beans, so give them some protection. If they are damaged by predators they’ll be way behind undamaged plants, both in timing and harvest. A bottle cloche (copper tape applied to a ring cut from a plastic bottle) placed around the plant and pushed into the earth, will keep slugs out until the plants are big enough to grow away from any damage. It will also help stop mice digging up the seeds.
Bush (or ‘dwarf’) varieties are sometimes tall enough to need support, especially if grown under cover. Be careful to give each plant plenty of room, or grey mould will zip through the patch faster than you can believe. Good air circulation is key to preventing mould, and you ignore this at your peril – especially as, in the shelter of a polytunnel, it can so easily spread to other crops. Growing climbers in a ‘tepee’, where the supporting poles are all tied together at the top, means a bunching growth habit and this will almost certainly lead to mould. Give them space to breathe!
Climbing beans should have a strong, secure and clean (try not to use old, mouldy bamboo canes) support, and this should be put in place immediately after planting out the seedlings. If you wait much longer, you’ll be disturbing the developing root system, and if the supports are in place beforehand it’s much more difficult to plant. Supporting canes should be positioned so that the growing plant will find them easily, and secure enough to withstand high wind later in the year, when the entire structure is loaded with vegetation. A diagonal crosspiece or two, securely fastened to the uprights, is well worth adding in exposed areas.
When watering beans, try not to allow the leaves to get wet. Rain is one thing – striding through rows of wet beans is another and can easily contribute to the spread of diseases such as halo blight.
Climbing beans will often reach the tops of the supporting poles and then launch themselves into space. Try to nip out the growing tips before they reach the top. This slows upward growth and promotes the growth of side shoots lower down.
Beans will continue to produce right up until frost kills them, but only if you keep them picked. The more you pick, the more beans you will get. Beans of all kinds freeze well, so if you find you’re getting more than you can eat, process a few pounds and you can enjoy them in the middle of winter. Some varieties of beans are also good when dried.
Bush varieties mature slightly ahead of their climbing cousins and you can use this to extend the total harvest, and even more so if you grow them in a polytunnel. They are also less likely to suffer from slug damage under cover.
French beans are self-pollinating, making them one of the easiest of all vegetables for seed-saving. Runner beans will cross with other runners, and unless you can isolate them under cover they are likely to cross with all the other runners in the neighbourhood.
Climbing French beans:
The ‘heritage’ seed variety ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ is amazing and should be grown everywhere. It’s incredibly prolific, and not only makes a wonderful ‘green’ bean but is also excellent as a home-dried pulse for adding to soups and stews. These are rare seeds, but were available from Real Seeds last year and hopefully will be again in 2012.