Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Full of Beans

It’s all in a name. Scarlet runner beans, it turns out, are runners.

Somebody gave me some seeds this spring and I tried starting them in little pots under lights, with a vague idea of having transplants that would later climb up something in the garden and be bright and colorful. Boy, did they climb – all over the fluorescent lights and up into the chains — would have climbed the Sears Tower if I hadn’t kept whacking at them repeatedly while my basil seeds had yet to put on their first set of true leaves.

I have now removed the runner beans to a pot outdoors where they have a  tuteur to climb. I will watch them closely to see make sure they don’t overrun the nearby hydrangeas.

It’s now much more clear to me how some people use scarlet runner beans to shade greenhouses. By July — especially after an unnaturally hot spring like the one we’ve been having – a row of runner beans planted in the ground outside the wall of a glass house would grow into vines that easily would out-shade shade cloth. They’d also cover an ugly fence or shed, as long as they have something to twine around. Plus bright red flowers beloved of butterflies and hummingbirds and edible pods. Such a deal!

But I have also been reminded why beans are best direct-seeded in the garden once the soil has warmed up (not a problem this year). They need space. They don’t like cool spring soil, but once they get warm and get going they really go. So it’s essential to provide a support – a trellis, a fence, a pyramid of sturdy poles – to support those heavy vines, which is why they are often called “pole beans.” But even the more compact bush type beans can use a cage.

Beans are pretty tolerant, but they do best if the soil is loose and enriched with compost. They need full sun and steady moisture, especially when they’re producing pods.

From sprout to fully mature seed that can be dried for winter beans takes a long season, so here in the Midwest gardeners tend to focus on green beans – also called snap beans – which are varieties grown for the immature pods. Many varieties have been developed to be “stringless,” so you can skip the chore (traditionally performed by small children sitting on the porch steps) of snapping the end of each pod and pulling away the tough fiber that runs along its length.

Apart from the standard reliable green bean varieties such as ‘Blue Lake’ and ‘Kentucky Wonder,’ there are slender filet beans, Asian mile-long beans (an exaggeration; they top out at about a foot), yellow wax beans, even purple beans. (Sadly, these turn green when you cook them. Pick little pods really young, though, and toss them raw and purple in a salad for a dinner-party sensation.)

Many green bean varieties will continue producing pods for several weeks if you keep up with the picking. But that’s important: If pods stay on the plant long enough to convince it that its reproductive mission is complete, it will quit making new pods.

Beans have the virtue of being legumes, which means they have the ability to pull nitrogen from the air and release it to enrich the soil. They are a good thing to rotate into a spot where you have grown something hungry like tomatoes or eggplants the previous year. And since they are unrelated to the tomatoes, peppers and potatoes of the nightshade family, they don’t support the same soil-borne diseases.

Beans are native to the Americas and the cultivated varieties we know probably descended from runner beans over thousands of years of domestication.

Green beans run out of steam in midsummer, neatly making way for fall crops. But in the meantime, they are one of the easiest and most enjoyable of vegetables to grow. Young pods are tender and sweet enough to munch  right there in the garden. If you have too many, you can pickle them. If you get behind in your picking and some pods are tough, you can julienne them (oh, those clever and thrifty French). If you let scarlet runner beans go to seed you can share the seeds with a friend. Just remind her that “runner” means they run.