Last updated Feburary 2018
Growing, protecting and support
Really easy to grow, runner beans (sometimes called scarlet runner beans) are a legume which means the roots help fix nitrogen in the soil, so are doubly good for gardeners.
As with most veg, runner beans (Phaselous coccineus) do best in well-drained fertile soils in open, not shaded, sites. In dry spells, remember to water, especially at flowering time. Being insect pollinated, make sure they can get to the flowers too. Frost is a problem because runner beans are half-hardy, so don’t sow or transplant outdoors too early and be ready with the garden fleece to protect them from chillier nights.
Harvest around 14 weeks after sowing – sow indoors (use deep pots or toilet roll inners) onwards to transplant outside once frosts have finished in your area. Sow outside from May onwards. Sow at 10-20 day intervals to ensure a succession over the summer. Also pick young pods regularly to extend the cropping period.
Should be cooked, although a raw one occasionally probably won’t affect your stomach. Can be frozen or salted for winter storage. Perfect as a vegetable dish, or added warm to salads.
Spacing and pest protection
We like to soak our beans first for 12-24 hours in some water – just to check they are all likely to germinate, and to get them going.
Then sow in a well manured (for water retention) trench. Some people dig a bean trench in winter and gradually bury kitchen waste in it that will have rotted down by sowing/planting time.
Sow seeds about 5cm (2in) deep, and 15cm (6in) apart. Rows should be about 60cm (24in) apart.
A temporary covering of garden fleece will foil any birds, and provides some protection from cold winds and low night temperatures early in the year. Slugs can be a problem, so use your preferred slug control method. We have tried out Growing Success Advanced slug pellets (from B & Q or Harrod Horticultural) that are not meant to be harmful to anything else – with a little success, but we still need to hand pick slugs and snails at dawn and dusk, especially in wet weather.
Most need support, although there are some shorter ones that don’t need staking, and could be grown in a container.
Make a wigwam of garden canes or similar, tying the tops together before pushing the bases into the ground to provide one cane per plant. Or you could make the traditional double row of canes, with each pair crossed at the top and a horizontal cane to hold them all in position, but this requires more work tying it all together and is tricky if you’re short. There’s nothing to stop you making supports to suit your height rather than the plants, and this means you’ll be able to reach at harvest time too.
There are also various functional and more decorative ready-made pea and bean supports, plus cane rings to make the traditional bamboo wigwam a bit easier, from various companies including Agriframes, Harrod Horticultural, and Suttons Seeds.
Nip off the growing point of each plant once it reaches the top of its support.
Which variety to grow?
Stringless types mean less kitchen preparation, and some runner bean cultivars crop more heavily than others. Regarding flavour – that’s a personal choice, so take notes for future reference.
Most have red flowers, a few have white, and Painted Lady and Summer Medley are two with a mix of red and white, which is quite pretty for near the house or the focal point for a flower bed. There are even dwarf varieties for patio or balcony pots. Who says veg has to be banished to a plot at the end of the garden?
Short varieties – no need for staking
Great for containers – but you might have to pinch out the growing points if the plants start to grow taller than you want. You have more choice when buying seed, but might find plants on sale ready to harden off and plant up too.
45cm (18in): ‘Hestia’
50cm (20in): ‘Millionnaire’
50cm (20in): ‘Jackpot’
60cm (24in): ‘Pickwick’
For the full range of short cultivars on sale as plants and seeds from a particular online supplier, search each website for ‘dwarf runner bean’ or ‘patio runner bean’ to reveal seeds and plants (plants will probably only be available in spring). There is also a new (for 2018) cross between a French and runner bean to look out for, called ‘Jackpot’. Try Suttons Seeds or Thompson and Morgan.
There are loads of these – the strings aren’t that big a problem as they’re easy enough to pull off.
Climbers – stringless
Include ‘Armstrong’, ‘Firestorm’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘Kelvedon’, ‘Lady Di’, ‘Polestar’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Tenderstar’.