Runner beans, also known by their botanical name of Phaseolus coccineus, are tender perennials that originate from Mexico and South America. Runner beans are deservedly popular in the UK; these easy to grow vegetables are both decorative and productive.
Both dwarf runner bean varieties and tall climbing runner bean varieties are available – check the label before buying seeds or plants to determine how tall they will grow. Many dwarf runner beans are self-supporting and can be grown in deep pots or planted in the ground, whereas tall climbing runner beans will grow up to a minimum of 2m (6.5ft) tall and are best grown directly in the soil. The smallest dwarf runner beans won’t need any support; however, there are some varieties of dwarf runners that do grow a little taller and these plants will need a short wigwam or some twiggy sticks for support
In contrast, all tall climbing runner bean plants require substantial support frames that are strong enough to hold full-sized runner bean plants, along with the weight of their harvest and are robust enough to hold the beans and plants, whilst withstanding high winds and storms. We think of summer weather as being relaxing and calm, but at times the weather can be surprisingly stormy – just an afternoon of windy weather will destroy an inadequate runner bean support frame. Runner bean plants can act like a sail in a storm. I’ve seen runner bean plants be blown with such force that the plants’ roots have been blown right out of the soil! Don’t make the mistake of installing a substandard strength wigwam or frame for your runner beans. Runner bean support frames can be made ahead of time. Before you sow runner bean seeds or plant out your runner bean plants, your runner bean plants’ support frame must be installed and in place.
I’ve used bamboo canes, tall hazel poles, and other tall straight branches as supports for my runner bean plants. When choosing bean poles, collect or buy the tallest supports that you can find! Don’t forget, that you’ll need to insert the cane into the soil. In order for the pole to be firmly anchored you will lose a significant proportion of the height of your support. Use only rounded supports, for example hazel or bamboo poles. Never be tempted to use square timber stakes or batons as a frame for your runner bean plants to climb; runner beans are happiest entwining themselves around smooth rounded poles but they will also climb twine. If you’re using twine, to avoid disappointment use the strongest twine. There is nothing more annoying that twine snapping and dropping your plants on the ground.
Runner beans are available to purchase as seeds or plants – try your local garden centre or search for online retailers and mail order suppliers. Plants tend to be significantly more expensive than seeds and the range of cultivars that are sold as plants is very limited – often just one or two varieties will be on offer. If you’re buying runner bean plants, remember that runner beans are popular plants and early shoppers enjoy a wider choice. However, runner beans are incredibly easy to grow from seed – I’d encourage you to sow your own seeds. Choosing to grow runner bean plants from seed will significantly widen the choice of the cultivars you can grow. Why not try growing runner bean varieties that produce red, white, pink, or red and white bicoloured flowers?
In the UK, runner beans are usually sown outdoors from the end of May until the middle of June. Runner bean seeds can be started off undercover, but unless you’re sowing dwarf cultivars (which can be started off early without any problems) this can become difficult, as the plants grow rapidly and will need a wigwam or similar structure to climb or else they will quickly become a tangled jumble that are impossible to separate! The tendrils of runner bean plants usually need to be gently twirled around their support poles once or twice until they get started climbing – then they will be off! There’s no need to tie runner bean plants in, these are very low-maintenance plants!
You don’t need a greenhouse or any fancy equipment to grow runner beans. I garden in the South of England; I sow my first runner bean seeds outside in around the middle of May, (late spring) and I’ll also happily sow runner bean seeds in June. Runner bean seeds can be sown from the middle of April (inside a glasshouse) to the beginning of July, but these are tender plants – do ensure your seedlings are protected from cold weather. When I lived in Scotland, where temperatures were cooler and summer arrived a little later; I planted my runner bean seeds outdoors in June.
Runner beans are tender perennials that are killed by frosts – please don’t be tempted to plant out your runner beans plants before all risk of frost has passed. In the UK, the date for the last frost varies according to the location. Usually, by the time we’ve reached the 1st June, most UK gardeners can relax and won’t need to worry about any frosts in summertime, but the last frost date can be earlier in more Southerly areas, and gardeners in more Northerly locations will have to wait until the middle of June. If you’ve sown your plants early or cold weather is forecast, protect your plants with an old net curtain or some fleece.
Runner beans grow best in a soil which has a pH of 6.5. These plants need sunshine and the simply will not grow in the shade. Plant runner beans in your brightest, sunniest location, where your plants can bask in the sunshine. Choose a sheltered spot, away from the prevailing wind. Runner beans are naturally deep rooted plants that are best grown in the soil rather than planted in pots or containers. Although, I must say that it is wise to start your runner bean plants off in pots to protect your seedlings from slugs and snails. The plants don’t need to stay in containers for long – sow your runner bean seeds in tall containers of homemade compost or a good quality peat-free compost and plant out before your plants show any interest in climbing. Water your runner bean plants in well and then mulch around your runner beans with homemade garden compost. Remember to protect your plants from slugs and snails.
Runner beans thrive in fertile moisture-retentive soils. To improve the water holding capacity of the soil, runner bean enthusiasts often dig a runner bean trench in autumn and fill the trench with shredded newspaper, cardboard, vegetable peelings, and other natural, compostable materials before sowing runner bean plants seeds outside from the middle of May or planting out runner bean plants June. This method will help to make the soil in that area more water retentive and will provide extra nutrients, too. Mulching the area with homemade garden compost is also be very beneficial for runner bean plants. For successful runner bean growing it’s vital to water runner bean plants at least twice a week in dry weather. This is wise at all times, but regular irrigation is absolutely imperative whilst runner bean plants are in bloom. Be generous with your watering – why not set up a water butt to help you collect rainwater for your plants?
Harvest runner beans regularly. Pick every day if you can – the more beans you pick – the more beans your runner bean plants will produce. Never leave full-size runner bean pods in place on your plants to harvest another day. If you’re going away on holiday, ask if a neighbour or friend will come and harvest and water your beans. Even if you cannot eat all of the beans your plants produce, pick all those that are ready to be harvested. Once a bean pod is allowed to develop full size beans, the plant’s production will rapidly slow down or will soon stop altogether. Why not give your left over beans to your neighbours, a local food bank, or freeze them? Runner beans make delicious steamed vegetables, but these tasty beans can be used in a wide variety of dishes from salads, stir fries, curries, lasagna, pickles, and chutneys.
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