The humble runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) is one of the nation’s best-loved and most widely grown vegetables. As a fantastic source of vitamin C, folic acid and fibre, and one of your five a day, it’s worth trying to grow runner beans.
Believed to originate in the tropical uplands of Central America, King Charles I’s gardener reportedly introduced them to our shores.
English Runner beans are typically consumed when they’re immature and tender as older beans are too fibrous for consumption.
As an easy to grow vegetable, runner beans always produce a plentiful harvest which can be used in a variety of dishes. Let’s explore how to grow runner beans!
Interesting runner bean facts!
We’ve been growing runner beans for at least 2,000 years!
They Are Packed With Fibre, folic acid, and vitamin C.
Like so many vegetables, runner beans can be pickled.
Runner beans are believed to have been brought to the British Isles by John Tradescant, who was gardener to Charles I.
In the 1969 Oxford Book of Food Plants the Runner bean is described as, “by far the most popular green bean in Britain”.
When planning to grow runner beans, the first element to consider is the. Runner beans thrive in a rich deep, fertile soil in full sun.
Traditionally, you’d prepare the soil by digging a bean trench, usually a metre long by half a metre deep. This is particularly effective if your soil is poor as you can use the trench to improve the soil with organic matter.
However, it’s not essential as other digging methods are fine.
Whether you dig a trench or not, a few weeks before planting, you’ll need to loosen the soil with a fork. Next, scatter well-rotted manure or home-made compost and mix with the soil. Leave the soil to settle for at least two weeks before planting.
Runner beans need ample soil moisture, so give them a thorough soaking once a week in hot spells. Don’t allow the soil to dry out as this will impact your crop.
Runner bean varieties
There are plenty of runner bean varieties, most of which grow well. If you’re looking to grow runner beans, the RHS recommends:
‘White Lady’ AGM
A top-quality bean with fleshy, smooth, stringless pods.
This is a new dwarf runner bean, ideal for containers, only growing to about 45cm (18in), but still producing high quality, delicious beans. As it is short it can be netted against bird attack.
‘St George’ AGM
A heavy cropping, semi-stringless bean, with bi-coloured red and white flowers.
‘White Apollo’ AGM
The long, smooth fleshy pods crop over a long season and are excellent quality.
Planting runner beans
As runner beans are not fully hardy, you need to protect them from frosts.
If you’re starting grow runner beans from seeds, then you’ll need to germinate indoors from around mid-April as the conditions will be warm enough to ensure growth. As a plant with long roots, it’s important to sow in deep containers to ensure roots can fully form.
Sow runner beans into toilet roll holders and place into a container. Fill the container with compost, lightly water and slightly compress to eliminate any air pockets. Place the bean around 5 cm from the top and cover with compost. Place the container in a light, warm place to aid germination.
You can start to grow runner beans outdoors from seed but will have to wait until the middle of May when conditions are warmer and there’s no frost.
How to nurture runner beans
Regardless of whether you’re planting seeds or seedlings in your veg patch, plant double rows spaced around 60 cm apart. Each row should be about 5 cm deep and seeds/seedlings should be placed 15 cm apart.
You’ll want to feed runner beans with a general liquid fertiliser each time you water them. As the first flowers appear, switch to a tomato fertiliser but mix it at half the manufacturer’s recommended rate.
Make sure the soil at the base of the plants isn’t allowed to dry out at any point, to ensure that the plant produces pods after flowering. As a tropical plant, they thrive in warm and damp conditions.
Cover the soil in mulch as this will keep the plants fed and lock in moisture while preventing weeds from growing.
As you grow runner beans, they will continue to climb higher. Traditionally, we’ve used bamboo canes to build a teepee which supports the plant as it grows up. Regardless of the material you use, it important that you provide your runner beans with tall stakes to grow up.
As your plants grow, it’s best to pinch out the growth points as they reach the top of the poles, otherwise, they will keep growing taller. By pinching, the plant’s stops growing upwards and focuses instead on making flowers, which in turn become the beans.
Each plant should produce a plentiful yield of beans. You can extend your harvest by planting rows every two weeks or so. This way plants will produce fruit at different times.
As a semi-hardy plant, runner beans plants will continue to produce crop right up to the first frosts. It’s not uncommon to be picking beans in late September.
Harvesting runner beans
When the beans at least 25 cm in length and are a light green colour, they are ready to be picked. Curly pods taste just as good as straight ones. You may also grow uneven pods, but don’t worry they taste great too.
If you leave them too long then they’ll turn dark green and the beans inside will start to be visible. At this stage, the beans are well past their best and should be removed.
You should pick regularly to prevent any pods reaching maturity as once this happens plants will stop flowering and no more pods will form. If you pick regularly, plants will crop for eight weeks or more.
If you plan to grow runner beans next year, then you can leave a few pods to mature for next years seeds.
How to store fresh runner beans
Runner beans can be stored in a variety of ways and so can have quite a long life.
They stay fresh in the salad draw of a refrigerator for 4 or 5 days. Always use the oldest beans first and if they are soft, put them in cold water as they will crisp up.
Runner beans freeze well. Simply slice and blanch in boiling water for a few minutes. Next, dunk them in ice-cold water. Bag in portions and freeze. They’ll last between 3 and 6 months.
The beans within the pod can be used like Haricot beans in soups and stews or as a vegetable. Dry in an airy warm place, remove the beans and store them in an airtight container. You can then use them to make pickle or chutney.
Common pests and problems
Growing any vegetable involves managing pests and diseases. It’s no different when you grow runner beans. Thankfully, it’s easy to deal with most of these issues.
Slugs and snails
Feeding on young seedlings, slugs and snails are easy to identify as you’ll notice slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves. Luckily, it’s easy to stop slugs and snails in their tracks by using sawdust, eggshell barriers or beer traps.
Black bean aphid
Sap-sucking aphids will disfigure plants and cause stunting to leaves and stems. You’ll need to catch them when small and squash them.
Young leaves turn brown and some will fall off. Those that survive have brown markings on them with a yellow “halo” type outer edge. Stems may also have brown spots on them.
Your only course of action is to remove affected plants and re-sow with new seeds from a different source. Thankfully, as this affects very young plants, you should still have plenty of time to restart.
This occurs mainly in cold conditions and on soil that is badly drained, this combination will weaken the roots and make them vulnerable to soil-borne fungi. The only method to prevent this is to ensure good drainage.
Very few beans
As the most common problem, a lack of beans is often caused by either moisture deficiency or poor pollination.
Before sowing, feed the soil with plenty of organic matter such as well-rotted manure, as this will add moisture and nutrient retention. Encourage bees to pollinate plants by growing in a sheltered site.