Oh my goodness I love french beans. Green, purple or yellow. Tender and crunchy. Juicy with the tiny bite of the immature bean seed! I think french beans might be my favourite vegetable. Except for chard that is, and sugar snaps peas, and courgettes. And there’s a time and a place for squash and carrots too. OK scratch that, I don’t have a favourite but beans are amazing and just so, well, beany.
Beans are really easy to grow and are a good choice if you have limited space. Climbers especially as they go up rather than sideways. A big pot of french or runner beans will give you a good few pickings of pods for fairly little trouble. Also, green beans fresh from a shop are usually quite expensive so its a good value for space crop – something that add an extra dose of smug to taste.
May is the perfect time to sow beans if you haven’t already.
Types of beans
Beans are divided in my head into green beans, where you eat the pod plus young bean and drying beans, where you eat just the beans. You get varieties that are better for each purpose but most you can do both with. The term green here is for young rather than the colour green. Green beans can be any which colour.
A more ‘proper division’ is into the actual biological types of bean. In the UK most beans are either french beans (Phaseolus Vulagaris) or Runner beans (Phaseus coccineus). Broad beans (Vicia Faba) make an appearance too but they are sown in autumn or spring and are a whole different kettle of, um, bean.
We mainly grow french beans to eat as green beans (also called snap beans, string beans) because they are just so tasty and tender. I can eat them pretty much indefinitely, the way other weird people eat sweets.
Runner beans, with their big flat pods are more trad allotment fare and are great for bulk but personally I’d rate the taste as mediocre rather than astounding. Controversial I know. The growing method is pretty much identical though so feel free to ignore my bias and grow either, or both.
The final decision for growers is bush beans vs climbing beans. I choose climbers every time. Anything to raise my crops out of the reach of pests is a winner and these do it themselves! In general bush beans are often a bit quicker to mature but with both you are looking at around 2 months from sowing to harvesting your first pods. And once you’ve harvested your first pods, you’ll keep harvesting over and over and over until you drown in beans.
How many to grow
It is basically impossible to grow too many beans. They freeze really well if you have spare freezer space or you can just eat them constantly as they ripen for the whole of August and September.
If you get fed up of eating your green beans you can just leave them on the vine to turn into dry storage beans. We pick the pods before the frost, leave to dry and then store in jars. I’d estimate that each plant will give you around 20 pods (but I’ll do a proper count and update that in the autumn). Most plants give you 5ish beans per pod. So do some maths to work out how many plants you should grow. Although if you pick more beans, then the plants makes more in response…
If you wanted to growing beans as a protein source then it’s worth noting that the protein is in the bean not the pod so you’d want to be leaving them to ripen rather than eating them all up green.
How to grow beans
Beans can be sown straight out into the ground but we find the snails adore them (more than the slugs do actually). We also have pea and bean weevil on our allotment which decimate any little legumes. Its a slow and nibbly death, one I wouldn’t choose for anyone. We don’t seem to have mice but you may also find outdoor sown beans are a donation to your local mouse population. So we sow in modules inside.
This year I’m experimenting with coir fibre which is a peat alternative. I’ve been using it as a seed compost or mixing it with veg compost to make potting soil. It comes in little compressed blocks which are really fun to expand (video coming soon!). This is from coco and coir blocks. Seems ok so far…
I usually put two beans in each module (or three if its really old seed) and sow a few cm deep. Once sown they need to be kept moist and warm – if its wet but cold they go mushy and rot instead of growing. They should come up in a week or two.
We harden off and plant out when the little ‘beanlings’ are around 15 cm tall and have around 4 leaves. Wait until all risk of frost is past; my facebook veg groups are currently full off tragic posts of frost, shriveled leaves and bean grief.
We find beans don’t like having their roots disturbed so transplant gently and carefully. Two bean plants to a support works well, with 15cm between supports. Where both beans in our pair germinate we just let those two little plants stay friends for life as they twine up a single cane or string. We usually make an A-frame type support with bamboo for the main structure and twine for each beans to climb. It needs to be sturdy though and we have had ours blow over when we’ve rushed it.
After planting out we mulch if we have it. Then we water if its dry and we wait for the beanstalks to grow.
This years beans
We are growing a load of different beans this year. Here is a quick tour:
These are a beige/brown seeded french bean. They have lovely purple flowers (each bean flower turns into a bean- cheers bees!) and deep purple pods that turn green when you cook them. We’ve tried quite a few purple beans over the years and our favourites are this one and ‘Blauhilde’. Some beans get stringy pods as they get big but both of these varieties are quite forgiving if you don’t have time to pick them as regularly as you’d like.
The other great thing about both these beans is that the dried beans are delicious, really nutty in flavour and creamy in texture. We are only growing Cosse Violet this year because we didn’t have any Blauhilde left. Any beans you dry for storage can be used as seeds next year. The downside of this is that you might eat them all up.
This is a new one for us this year and is meant to be buttery and good for eating fresh or drying.
It’s from the real seed company, as are the rest on this page. It’s a great company with loads of amazing heritage seeds to try. Well worth a look if you haven’t seen their site before. The lazy beans are a really weird and round. I have to admit, it was entirely the name that sold it to me. Any thing in the gardening that implies less work or shortcuts is a seller.
We did these for the first time last year from seeds from my mother in law. They are Greek runner bean that is grown for its mega-seeds rather than its pods. Growing protein is a constant challenge and something I’m always looking for idea on. We’ve always been a bit disappointed by how little dried bean you get from a bean harvest. This changes things. It grew well and the seeds are massive. Plus they are tasty, so this year we are going again!
Yard long beans
I traveled/worked in china for a few months back in 2010. And yes, all you naysayers, I did get there overland (you can read about my epic overland journey here if you want). There was a lot of amazing food on that trip. I’ve gone off in a reverie just thinking about it! Ah the fruit and veg was so amazing. I have a particularly lovely memory of swimming in a river surrounded by floating pomelos. Anyway, one extra great thing about southern china was the massively long beans. As we’ve established, I love beans. Now a normal bean is what 12 cm long? The beans in china were just as juicy and tender but up to a metre long. To me that is alike one of those massive Toblerones they try to sell to everyone at Christmas.
Long story short, we are trying to grow some this year. They like heat so will be residing inside rather than out. Also they are bush beans which is like dinner laid out for pests so I’m keeping them on a shelf. I can’t imagine what mutant monsters the snails would grow into if they ate whole yards of bean.
Maybe that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, go and plant some beans!