Whether French or runners, now’s the time to plant these tasty greens

If there’s one veg I’d never be without, it’s green beans. As well as being easy to grow, just a small patch will keep you well supplied for most of the summer – or longer if you extend the season by growing spring and autumn crops under cover.

They are always welcome in the kitchen, too. Green beans go with just about anything from the Sunday roast to midweek pies or pasta. 

And if you have a bumper crop to use up you can pop them in salads or cook them with tomatoes, peppers and aubergines to make ratatouille. Beans are also one of the few green vegetables that kids eat without a battle – and they often enjoy growing their own.

There are two sorts of green beans – French and runners. While the former were always at the posh end of the market, the latter has a rather “flat cap” image, largely because they’ve been such a reliable and productive allotment crop for years.

Runners were old wartime favourites for feeding large families and thrifty housewives bottled them in salt to use in winter. (For those of you born too late to experience this culinary triumph, believe me, you haven’t missed anything.

Think runner bean silage that could give you the thirst of a navvy.) But picked young and tender while they’re stringless, and cooked and eaten straight away, runner beans are simply delicious. 

Both French and runner beans are frost-tender, so sow some seeds now on a warm windowsill indoors. Soak them in tepid water for a couple of hours first, then push one or two seeds into three half-inch pots filled with multipurpose compost. You’ll need 15 to 20 plants for a useful row and double that if you have a family of four. 

After sowing, give each pot a few drops of water if the compost seems dry but avoid watering it again until you see the shoots showing – it’s very easy to overdo it and bean seeds rot easily. 

The plants can stay in the same pots indoors till it’s safe to plant them out, after the last frosts, from mid-May onwards. But if you don’t want the bother of all the above, simply wait until then and plant seeds straight in the garden – either in a veg or salad patch or in a large tub or growing bag on the patio. Sow a few more than you need to allow for losses. 

When you grow climbing varieties the same plants should keep going for most of the summer. Dwarf varieties start cropping sooner but finish around six weeks later, so you’ll need to sow a new row every four weeks or so to keep the kitchen supplied. A lot of people put in a row or two of dwarf beans to start the season early while they are waiting for the climbing varieties to reach cropping size. 

If you want out-of-season crops, it’s worth planting a few dwarf French bean plants in the greenhouse about the end of April, followed by another batch in late summer to keep you supplied in autumn, when outdoor beans are over.

Generally speaking, green beans do best in a reasonably sheltered spot with fertile soil (although French beans need more warmth and shelter than runners and their cropping season is slightly shorter). A real enthusiast will prepare an especially rich trench, filling it with compostable waste during the winter and then covering it with soil six weeks before planting the beans. In containers, just use any good potting compost. 

Climbing beans obviously need something to climb up, so put up some trellis, netting or a traditional row of rustic bean poles before you plant. Dwarf beans don’t usually need any help – if you grow a rather leggy variety simply push a few short twiggy sticks in each side of the row to give slight support. If developing bean pods flop on the ground they’ll be splashed with soil and rot or be attacked by slugs, which spoils the quality.

The secret of tender, tasty beans is to keep the plants growing steadily, so make sure they are watered in dry spells and give them a dose of liquid tomato feed every week or two.

Once beans start cropping, pick them regularly. Leave them and they’ll grow tough and stringy, and big pods set seed, which stops plants from producing new flowers, so there’s a gap in production.

And here’s a tip. When the plants are eventually over, cut them off at the base leaving the roots in the ground. Beans have nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots that release free plant food back into the ground as they break down. So take full advantage of this by growing a leafy crop such as lettuce or cabbage after beans – it will save a bit on fertiliser for your next crop. 

Alan’s front runners

Climbing French

Sultana – long, dark, green and tender beans with stringless, cylindrical pods.

Cobra – slim, pencil-shaped pods. The mauve flowers make this an attractive variety for growing in containers or up trellises.

Hunter – an old favourite with wide, flat, stringless beans. It is a heavy cropper and good for growing under cover.

Dwarf French

Delinel – slim, pencil-shaped beans with outstanding flavour and heavy crops. It has the RHS Award of Garden Merit. 

Sonesta – a heavy cropping but compact variety with yellow beans. It’s good grown under cover.

Purple tepee – purple, cylindrical beans that are easy to pick.


Enorma – a superb exhibition variety that produces very long, straight beans that make for very good eating.

Red Rum – an early cropper that is good in poor summers as it is tolerant to halo blight, a disease brought on by damp.

Painted lady – another old favourite that is good for trellises and tubs and gives a fair crop. 

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