Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Get Creative Growing Runner Beans

Runner beans are beans that grow on vining plants.  Usually runner beans are grown for dried beans instead of fresh green beans (though most runner beans can be eaten as fresh green beans when they are small and immature.)

Our two favourite varieties of runner bean are Scarlet Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and Rattlesnake Bean.  We like Scarlet Runners best because they are very productive, covered in a profusion of small red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and have a delicate, sweet-nutty flavour.  The Rattlesnake Bean is also productive, though the vines don't grow quite as tall as Scarlet Runners will.  The flowers are paler, but also lovely.  The beans, if picked young, have that true green bean flavour that you might remember from childhood.  As dried beans, I found them unremarkable, though they do make a good addition to a cold bean salad.

Runner beans prefer to be planted in warm soil, so you have plenty of time in zones 7 and below to plan how you'd like to plant your runner beans.  

If you have children or grandchildren, you might like to plant the beans around a bean tepee.  Just be sure to leave an opening for the kids to enter.  Rattlesnake beans are perfect for the bean tepee as their colourful, twisted pods are fascinating to young (and old) eyes!  I didn't make the base of ours quite wide enough when I did this.  I recommend a diameter of about 10 feet.  Push poles into the soil, lean them together at the top center and bind well with twine.  You can reinforce with twine around the midsection, too.  Runner beans snake up vertically and do not need horizontal lines to grab onto, but plants like peas would.

Bean tepee filling in.

Bean tepee filled in.
 For something that doesn't take up a great deal of space, but gives an amazing yield; try growing runner beans up a single pole with multiple vertical lines running down to the ground from the center.  We use the shepherd's hook my brother made for me and all our other siblings for this every summer.  It's 7' high, impossible to uproot, and creates a visually appealing living statuary in the garden.  From 2' square of soil at its base, where the beans are planted, we yielded a bushel of beans last year!  We attached guide lines from the top of the pole to the soil in a circle for the beans to climb to the top.  At the top we ran twine to the corner of the garage.  The beans made it all the way to the corner by the end of the season!  That's about 20 feet!  I've heard of other people running twine from their house to the soil and creating a living wall that cooled the home and blocked bright sunlight in the summer months that would otherwise warm the house a great deal.  Imagine a wall of beans and scarlet flowers!

Scarlet Runner Beans growing up a 7' shepherd's hook and across twine.  

Note the size of the beans; the candle lantern is about 16" long from top to bottom.   

Here's a tip for removing the beans from the pods:  put the beans, once they are completely dry, on a tarp or in a burlap bag and walk on them!  That's A LOT easier than what I've done in the past, which left my hands cramped and my back sore!  

At the end of the season, don't yank the plants from the soil.  Instead, cut them off at the soil line and leave the roots to rot in the ground.  Beans are nitrogen fixers, meaning they pull nitrogen out of the air and convert it into food for plants.  Nodules, small bumps, will appear on the roots of beans and other nitrogen fixers (clovers and peas et.al.).  To let that nitrogen be available the following growing season, let those roots stay in the ground where the nitrogen will remain available for the next plants.  


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