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Jack's Got Nothing On My Beanstalks
Member Name: sandemp
Advantages: Easy to grow, attractive, lots of pods, taste great, adds nutrients to soil
Disadvantages: Searching for new uses for the beans
Runner beans are quite possibly the easiest vegetable to grow, although technically speaking they are fruit rather than vegetables (being the seed pods rather than leaves, stalks or roots), and as they grow so quickly they are also an ideal plant to grow with a child, with the added bonus that their flowers are quite pretty and very attractive to bees. There are many different varieties of runner bean available, all of which have different advantages and disadvantages. Some of the heritage varieties, while relatively expensive and not particularly resistant to disease, produce the more flavoursome pods, while other varieties are self-setting, or early or have more unusual flower colours. Of all the different varieties I tried last year, my absolute favourite was the Celebration, which is a very early, predominantly self-setting variety with salmon pink flowers and masses of pods over a long growing season.
Preparation for growing runner beans depends greatly on whether you are going to be growing them in beds or pots, under cover or not. If you are growing them in the ground (so to speak), then they appreciate a bed that has been dug over with well rotted organic matter, that will aid water retention. The best time to do this is a few weeks before you plan to sow or plant them, at the end of February/beginning of March. If you are planning to grow your runner beans in pots or reusable bags then I would recommend adding water retention crystals to your compost as the one real requirement of runner beans is lots and lots of water. You will also need to supply support for growing plants as they can easily grow up to 2m tall. Personally, I favour the wigwam method of support, where several bamboo canes are tied together to form a circular frame, but other methods include tying string horizontally between two bamboo canes at various levels, or a pea and bean net or even a trellis. When considering where to place your runner beans there are a couple of aspects to consider. Firstly they do best with full sunlight, although they will tolerate partial shade, then as they grow to a great height they will shade a considerable area (which some plants love, lettuce especially dislikes the hot summer sun). Finally you have to consider whether your structure will be affected by the wind, one of my wigwams was blown over last year and I lost a few plants.
Runner beans can either be sown directly into the ground, started indoors in peat pots or even in toilet roll inners. I would recommend that if you are starting the seeds in pots you use the kind that will simply rot in the ground, as runner beans do not like their roots being disturbed. If starting inside I would sow the seeds a couple of weeks before your last frost date, so around the start of May, so that your plants are a good size by the time the weather is ready for them to go out. You can sow your seeds outside at about the same time and if you are using a wigwam then I would suggest planting a couple of seeds about an inch below the surface at the base of each cane. Many sources recommend thinning these plants out as the sprout to one per cane, but I've had excellent results allowing both plants to grow. If you're sowing the seeds under the cover of a cloche or poly-tunnel, then you can sow them a couple of weeks earlier. For cropping over a longer season you could do what I do and combine indoor and outdoor sowing, with an extra indoor sowing at the end of June, which gave me a continuous supply of fresh beans from the middle of July until the end of September.
This year I'm sticking to the Celebration variety as they gave me the best results and am mostly growing them in specific bean and pea bags. I sowed my first seeds about a month ago, half indoors and half out, with the indoor seeds being a mini-science project with my two year old son. There is no need to soak the beans before sowing, and in fact this can make them susceptible to disease called halo blight. We simply secured some cling film to the bottom of toilet roll inners (making sure to add a couple of holes for drainage), half filled with compost, added a bean (checking that it was smooth and undamaged), filled to the top with compost and then watered. We then checked whether the compost was damp or dry each day and watered if necessary and the beans germinated within a week. As runner beans grow so quickly, they had their first set of true leaves a day or so later and the second a few days after this and then we hardened them up by putting them outside during the day and bringing them in at night for a few days before planting them out into a bean bag.
The second set of seeds were planted directly into a bag and these took a lot longer to grow, only showing their sprouts after a full month (but we have had horrible weather) and these plants are now only just getting ready to produce their second sets of true leaves, while those started indoors are racing ahead. I would recommend finding a way to protect emerging bean seedlings from slugs, as they really do love the tender stems and leaves and can devastate a bean bed over night (which is another reason that I'm growing in bags this year). Runner beans are also very frost tender, with even a slight frost causing irreparable damage, so keep an eye on the weather forecast for the first few weeks and don't be tempted to try sowing too early (unless under cover).
Once established and growing, runner beans need very little care, you will need to keep the area they are growing in clear of weeds, pinch out the growing tips as they reach the top of the supports and provide them with plenty of water (especially as they begin to flower), but until harvesting that's about it. They really don't need feeding and once established are relatively disease and pest free. As the runner beans grow they will twist themselves around the provided supports, producing large (and in my opinion attractive), broad leaves that taper to a point. The flowers form in groups on spurs, are very similar to pea and sweet pea flowers and very attractive to bees. The flowers on the Celebration variety are a beautiful pink colour and very decorative, personally I think they deserve a place at the back of any flower bed and also look beautiful growing over an arch. Other varieties of runner bean will produce red flowers, while yet others produce white, but from last years experience the delicate pink of the Celebration is simply the prettiest.
While some varieties require bees for pollination, Celebration is predominantly self-setting, meaning that they can pollinate themselves. This means that if for some reason bees have decided that your garden is a no go area you will still get a good crop. As the flowers die back you will notice tiny little bean pods forming and these quickly grow into the delicious, fleshy pods that will delight any table. Runner beans should be harvested regularly, starting at the bottom of the plant, while the beans are still tender. If beans are left on the plant for too long then they will become tough and stringy and the plant itself will think it's done it's job and stop producing flowers and therefore more pods. From a total of six Celebration beanstalks, I must have harvested at least 25lb of runner beans, which considering how much they sell for in supermarkets (£1.99/lb) means that I saved a small fortune.
When cooking your freshly harvested runner beans, the quicker you can get them from plant to saucepan, the better they taste. Personally I simply top, tail and slice them before adding to boiling water or steaming and they tasted wonderful. However, by the middle of the season, I have to admit that we were starting to get just a little bit bored with runner beans, so we were eating half and then preparing the other half for storage (what we hadn't given away). Runner beans can easily be frozen, by simply blanching in boiling water, refreshing in ice cold water, patting dry and placing in the freezer a single layer of a baking sheet (lined with cling film). Once they are frozen you can bag them up in individual portions, which you can then label. You can also use spare runner beans in a chutney or relish, or you can pickle them in brine.
Once the first frost of winter hits the beans will start dying back and this is when the really clever part of growing beans comes into play. As members of the legume family, runner beans are able to produce their own nitrogen and then fix this into the soil via nodes in their root system. So rather than simply pulling them up, I cut off the stalks at ground level, putting these into my compost bin and then dig the roots into the soil (with the compost if grown in bags) as a natural way of revitalising the soil ready for leafy winter vegetables. Last winter I grew winter kale in the area previously occupied by the beans, and it did wonderfully without any additional fertiliser. Beans (and peas) have been used in this way as part of crop rotation for hundreds of years now and because of the way they improve the soil I would recommend growing them in a different place each year, simply to add to soil quality. (And if you are growing lots of different types of vegetable then it's likely that you are rotating crops anyway).
If you have space in your garden or room for a pea/bean bag on a patio or balcony then I really can't recommend runner beans enough. They are easy to grow and make a great plant for even young children to get involved in, both the foliage and flowers are attractive, they provide an enormous amount of fresh vegetables and as a bonus they also add nutrients to soil. What is there not to love, so go buy some seeds now (I do recommend the Celebration variety), because even if you start now, there's plenty of time for you to get a bumper harvest.
Summary: An attractive and easy vegetable to grow, that not only tastes good but improves your soil