Beans - good, bad and ugly

A row of red-flowered runner, or string, beans is a familiar sight in a British veg garden.  In a good year they can be hugely productive and give you a green vegetable through the whole of the summer.


If I grow runner beans then I usually go for a standard variety such as Scarlet Emperor.  It's windy up here in the hills so I generally avoid wigwams of hazel or bamboo and construct a stouter structure using agricultural fence posts and stock netting.  To be honest, though, I'm not a great fan of runner beans.  It is said that the British are the only people who eat them, instead of growing them for their flowers.  Unless eaten young they can be tough and stringy.  They can throw a massive crop at you so that you get a glut.

One way of using up the excess is runner bean chutney , but there are limits to the amount of this I'd want to eat.  Salting is another way to preserve runner beans and I have tried it in the past but it's so tedious I'd rather buy frozen beans from the supermarket.  An alternative low-resource idea is to dry the beans for use in the winter.  Ideally the late summer weather should ripen the beans in their pods and you come along and harvest them just before they fall.  In practice this is a risky strategy and if the weather is wet you will find the beans going mouldy and maybe even germinating in the pods.  If this is likely to happen then it is a good idea to pull up the whole plant and hang it up somewhere dry and airy, like a shed or barn.  Beware mice and rats at this stage!  It is possible to dry beans indoors, perhaps using very gentle heat from a stove but good ventilation is important, to stop moulds developing.  When the drying process is complete the beans will have shrunk significantly and become very hard. The runner bean that I like to dry is Czar .  This produces white flowers and a large white 'butterbean' seed.  This is a vital ingredient for a winter bean casserole, a meal that cooks for half a Sunday on or in a slow stove whilst you are out gardening.  The beans get just soft enough to soak up the flavours from the meat (maybe a cheap shoulder cut) and the herbs and spices, garlic for sure and maybe a touch of smoked paprika.  Proper Job!

Bean seeds contain high concentrations of the proteins known as lectins.  These substances can have very bad effects on your digestion and immune system.  When using bean seeds it is good advice to soak them overnight in water and then boil in fresh water for a long period.  Incidentally, potatoes are another food source that is high in lectins.   There is a strand of nutritional thought that recommends that we go back to a diet enjoyed by humans before agriculture, the paleo diet, because this is seen as being 'natural'.  Such a diet would cut out processed foods, particularly sugars, and increase the amount of fat we consume - a hunter-gatherer diet.  The consumption of carbohydrate in grains (and beans) is not seen as a good thing because our gut is not well adapted to digest them.

Fortunately the seed catalogues carry plenty of alternatives to the standard runner bean.  If you insist in growing runners then a variety such as Hunter will give less a stringless green bean.  Or you could try growing some of the French climbing beans that are also stringless. 


My favourite climber is the Borlotti. This can be grown as an early crop in the polytunnel and a later crop outdoors.  They can be eaten green but also dry really well and cook up well in a stew.


Alternatively have a look at the dwarf beans that are available.


 These are stringless and can be grown in succession throughout the summer and into early autumn.  They can also work well under cover to give an early crop.


Crop rotation

Beans are part of the legume group of plants that fix nitrogen from the air into soil.  Nitrogen is one of the most important elements for healthy leafy growth.   In 4 course crop rotations legumes (and the onion family of plants) are planted after the brassicas (cabbages) and before the potatoes and other crops break.  Legumes can make good use of any manure applied in the autumn or winter before you grow them.