Top tips for growing beans in Dorset
PUBLISHED: 11:55 07 May 2014 | UPDATED: 11:55 07 May 2014
Freshly-picked runner or French beans straight from the garden are deliciously sweet and tender, and are also incredibly easy to grow in the mild Dorset climate
Climbing beans require little effort to produce good yields of pods. Pests and diseases are seldom problematic, and there is a good selection of varieties to suit most tastes. Prized for their tender, fleshy pods, the two most popular types of climbing bean are the runner bean, the first choice among British gardeners, and French beans - which are not French at all!
Both types originated in the New World and eventually found their way to Europe after Christopher Columbus’ voyages of exploration. Climbing beans are frost sensitive and heat loving, and despite their immigrant status, they are well-adapted to growing outdoors during the British summer.
Dwarf versions of both French and runner beans are widely available, though in my opinion the climbing ones are by far the better choice for home gardeners. Not only do they have a longer harvest period, but they can produce higher yields from the same number of plants. They are also easier to pick – the pods are more visible, and harvesting can be done standing up. The only disadvantage is the need to erect some sort of structure to support the plants, but this is not a particularly difficult or expensive to do.
The height of success
Because they are tall growing, climbing beans should be sited in a sheltered spot protected from the wind – otherwise, they can be blown over. The soil should be well drained, well fertilised and worked to a good tilth. This will allow the plants to thrive rather than just survive.
After the soil is prepared, you will need to erect a structure that will support the vines. There are a number of different support systems you can consider, though probably the quickest and cheapest one to construct is a wigwam made from bamboo canes - 1.8 or 2.4 meters long. Use six to eight canes, and space them equidistant from each other in a circle 1.2 to 1.5 meters in diameter. Force the canes firmly into the ground and then tie them together at the top with strong twine. If growing more that one wigwam, leave about a meter spacing between the edges of each – this will give enough room to harvest.
Once the wigwam has been erected, sow three seeds, 4 to 5cm deep, at the base of each cane. If the soil is too cold, the seeds will rot rather than germinate, so sowing should be delayed until the temperature warms up and there is no danger of frost. In Dorset, this will normally be sometime from mid to late May, though it could be later in chilly springs such as the one of 2013. When germination is complete, thin the seedlings down to leave the two strongest at each post.
An earlier crop is possible if you start your plants off under glass - in a greenhouse, conservatory or south facing window. Sow three seeds in pots, 7 to 8cm in diameter, thinning down to the two strongest seedlings after emergence. Sowing can commence as early as the middle of April, and the young plants will be ready to go outside about four to six weeks later. At this point, transplant a pot’s worth of plants next to each cane, watering the soil to settle it around the roots.
As the plants start to grow you need to twist those first vines around the canes to train them upwards. After this initial bit of help, they will begin to climb on their own.
Under no circumstances should the soil be allowed to dry out. Pay particular attention during dry spells, being sure to water the plants regularly once flowering begins.
Pick of the crop
There is a tendency to pick the pods when they are too old and tough - the walls get stringy and the seeds inside start to swell up with starch. This really doesn’t show off the beans at their best. Bigger is not better! Instead pick younger pods every two or three days – not only are they sweet and tender, but the plants will produce bigger yields.
Both French and runner beans are free of pests and diseases, which makes control measures such as spraying unnecessary. The only issue is slugs and snails in the early stages. They will happily devour young plants, but nightly collection trips to the garden will put a stop to that. To prevent problems from developing, rotate your beans by growing them only one year in four in the same part of the garden.
Climbing French beans are distinguished by the shape and colour of their pods; there are green, yellow and purple varieties. Two high yielding varieties are ‘Cobra’ (round podded and green) and ‘Hunter’ (flat and green podded).
When it comes to runner beans the pods are invariably green, so not quite as interesting. There is, however, an extensive choice of varieties, and two worth growing are ‘Aintree’ and ‘White Lady’.
Climbing beans are an easy-to-grow vegetable that gets top marks for convenience and dependability – what more can a vegetable give? n
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About Michael Michaud
Michael and Joy Michaud run Sea Spring Seeds, a Dorset-based company specialising in the production and sale of vegetable seeds and chilli plants. They also breed chillies and have developed several new varieties, including the world’s hottest chilli the Dorset Naga. For more details visit their website seaspringseeds.co.uk.