The three common varieties of beans grown in the UK are French Beans (as bush or pole varieties), Broad Beans (all bush varieties) and Runner Beans (almost all pole varieties). There are other kinds, like Soy Beans or Lima Beans, but those are not reliable in Britain.
Beans can also be distinguished by their uses in the kitchen: Green Beans are pods containing immature beans that are cooked, Flageolet or Shelled Beans are fresh beans without the pods that are cooked, and Dried Beans are cooked after they have been removed from the pods and dried for storage.
All beans have one thing in common: as long as you pick the young pods, the plant will continue to flower and produce more pods. However, if you leave even a few pods on the plant to fully mature, the plant will stop flowering and won’t produce any more beans. This means you will have to pick the beans every second day throughout the season if you wish to keep harvesting, even if you cannot use all of the beans. It is not a crime to discard some of the harvest on the compost heap in order to keep your plants going!
Keep all beans well-watered to ensure flowers will keep forming.
The Scarlet Runner Bean is still by far the most popular bean in the UK. ‘Scarlet Emperor’ and ‘Painted Lady’ are the most well-known varieties and produce a heavy crop of up to 60 lb per 10 ft double row.
The flowers are usually red, except for ‘Painted Lady‘ (red and white) and some rare varieties with white (‘Mergoles‘) and pink (‘Sunset‘) flowers.
Runner beans need well-drained soil, and do not like acidic conditions. Add lime to the ground in the winter before planting if necessary.
- Sowing time outdoors: Mid-May to Late June
- Sowing time indoors: Late April, transplant outdoors Late May/Early June
Loosely tie young plants to the supports, after which they will climb naturally. You can use poles or taught strings, even wire or plastic mesh, as long as it will support the weight of the grown plant. Runner beans will grow up to 3 m in height, to limit this you can snip off the growing tips when they have reached the end of their supports.
- Picking time: Mid-July to Late October or until first frost.
Remember to make sure you don’t leave any pods to mature, or your plant will stop flowering. Surplus pods can be frozen very well: wash and trim young pods and slice them into chunks. Blanch for 2 minutes, cool immediately and freeze in bags or containers. They will keep for 12 months.
French Beans are available as bush or climbing varieties. Among the most popular bush varieties – also known as dwarf beans – are ‘Delinel‘, ‘Speedy‘ and ‘Mascotte‘. Yellow dwarf beans (‘Sonesta‘, ‘Concador‘) are also known as wax beans and have an excellent taste. Purple varieties exist also (‘Purple Tepee‘, ‘Amethyst‘). A special mention should be made for Borlotto beans, which have red-and-white speckled pods.
French Climbing Beans are more popular in continental Europe than Runner Beans. One of the best-known varieties is ‘Cobra‘. The only purple climbing variety we know of in Europe is called ‘Blauhilde‘. There are also yellow (‘Monte Gusto‘) and speckled Borlotto varieties (‘Firetongue‘).
- Sowing time: under protection in April, without protection in May and June
- Picking time: From July to Mid-October
Protect seedlings from slugs and keep the bed weed-free. Water regularly! Just like Runner Beans, the plants will stop flowering if you leave pods to mature, so make sure you pick regularly for your harvest to last 5-7 weeks.
To freeze fresh beans, blanch for 2 minutes (cut pods) to 3 minutes (whole pods), cool immediately and freeze in bags or containers. Use within 12 months.
Broad Beans are a common and popular staple in the UK. Varieties include ‘Imperial Green Longpod‘, ‘Masterpiece Longpod‘ and ‘Green Windsor‘. The plants grow about 4 ft tall, a popular dwarf variety is ‘The Sutton‘.
- Sowing time: Late February to Mid-May in monthly intervals
- Picking time: June to October for succeeding plantings
Some form of support will be necessary for tall varieties, a stout stake will do. Pinch off the the top 3 in. of stem as soon as the first beans start to form, this will help to keep blackfly under control.
Leaving the pods to reach their maximum size will produce large and tough beans. It is better to harvest them young. The very first pickings at 2-3 in. long can be treated like French Beans and cooked whole. For shelling pick the pods when the beans have started to show through the pod but before the scar on the shelled beans has become discoloured. Cook the shelled beans for about 10 minutes before serving.
By the way: the upper leaves of the plant can be cooked like spinach.