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Organic Gardening:

How to grow organic Runner beans


Runner beans were originally brought to the UK for use as an ornamental

Runner beans (Pole beans)

Phaseolus coccineus

Family: Leguminosae (Group 7)

If you are growing a dwarf type, use the method for French beans

Did you know that runner beans were brought to the UK as an ornamental? You need to live in the Southern part of the country to grow them, but if you are, they are well worth growing.

Because they like very fertile soil and plenty of moisture around the roots, runners are traditionally grown in a previously prepared trench 60cm (2') wide x 20cm (8") deep, dug in Autumn and filled with the vegetable waste from the winter kitchen, or whatever organic matter is available. Ideal pH is 6-7.

The best site is warm and sheltered. As most are climbers, runners are often grown up a fence, cane wigwam or net supported on a bamboo or wooden frame (plastic supports are not suitable, as beans will not grip plastic-coated netting etc.).

Usually grown in double rows 60cm (2') apart, with plants 15cm (6") apart in the rows. Highest yield is reached at a density of 20 plants/sq metre (2 plants/sq ft).

Support methods: wigwams made of bamboo canes (up to 8 per wigwam), double rows of 250cm (8') bamboo (of which 30cm (1') is pushed into the ground). Canes should be spaced at a maximum of 60cm (2') apart in the row. Alternate plants may be grown up string held down by wire eyelets or e.g. tent pegs, tied to the cross piece. Guy ropes may be needed to give additional support. Also, as this method provides ideal perches for birds, bird scarers will be needed (or a cat).

Dwarf varieties require no support, but are less productive. The tall varieties may be pinched out at 45cm (18") and kept short. Again, crops will be reduced, and likely to get rather dirty, especially in wet weather.

Tools list
If you are going to grow your beans in a bed or up a wigwam, it is best to prepare the ground in advance: if possible, dig the hole in autumn and put all the compostable material you can find over the winter into it (shredded newspaper, vegetable peel, annual weeds, bought in manure), then fill it in again just before sowing. Erect your support framework before sowing the seed.

Sow late April under cloches, or mid-May to early June direct. Push one seed into the ground to about 5cm (2") deep a little to one side of the support. Sow another seed the same distance from the support on the other side. If you put a sweet pea seed into the same hole as each bean, you will get a decorative bonus which will also be attractive to bees. Attracting more bees will usually increase the set of the crop by pollinating the flowers, although some varieties of runner bean are self-pollinating. Continue in this way, sowing two beans (and sweet peas), one either side of each support.

Water well, and make sure the ground is kept reasonably moist until most of the plants are showing. Check the area every few days until you can clearly tell the beans and sweet peas from the weeds. Help the beans and peas to find their supports (tie young plants loosely to the bamboo, after which they will climb naturally), and remove all the weeds once or twice a week. Seed can also be started off in pots indoors in early May and transplanted at the end of May.

Unless the weather is extremely dry, there is no need to water again until the first green flower buds appear, and again when they are fully open. From then on water at a rate of 10 litres (2 gallons) per square yard/metre twice a week. Mulch well after watering to keep the roots moist.

Harvest July-October when pods reach 15-20cm (6-8"), but before the beans start to swell for best yield. Cut the beans off by the stalk, just above the tip of the bean. Do not pull the beans off, or you will damage the plants. Harvest every day or two: once beans are allowed to mature, flower production will stop. Also, older beans are stringy and unpalatable, particularly in heritage varieties (although the beans themselves will be tasty, even after the pods are impossible to eat). Runner beans also dry well and make a very tasty addition to soups and stews in winter months (see cooking page for how to use dried beans).

Recommended varieties

Painted Lady Heritage Good for screening, decorative, purple seeds
Polestar Stringless Heavy yields, top quality
Desirée Stringless White seeds, good for freezing
Lady Di Stringless My favourite, long slender pods
Red Rum Stringless Recommended by Bob Flowerdew for enormous (5x) yields
Hammonds Dwarf Scarlet Dwarf Early, crops well
Pickwick Dwarf Strong, bushy plants

If you're interested in healthy food, you may also be interested in our sister site, The Health Site, Your Online Health Channel.

Article ©2004 Frann Leach. All rights reserved.

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