Bean Growing Masterclass

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Planting beans

Beautiful beans are stunning, easy-to-grow, and proudly prolific. Let’s discover all you need to know to pick perfect pods every time in our Bean Growing Masterclass!

Types of Beans

Like so many other crops, grow them yourself and you’ll have a huge range of types of beans to choose from – no more boring gsupermarket fare! There are yellow wax beans, stunning purple beans borne on purple-tinged vines, and a whole host of splodged, splattered or speckled pods that’ll really jazz things up in the garden. And because beans are ridiculously easy to preserve by freezing, drying or canning, you can enjoy your favorite beans, year round.

You’ve got green beans, also known as string beans, snap beans, French, fine or filet beans – you name it! The pods are harvested young, before the beans inside have swollen, and while they still have that pleasing snap to them. They are quite tolerant of hot weather, so are great for growing in warmer regions.

Runner beans
Beans are incredibly productive and super useful in the kitchen

Then there are the flat or romano beans, including runner beans – ideal for slicing up and cooked as a steaming hot accompaniment to just about any meal. These beans tend to yield even more than your regular green beans because the pods are generally bigger and heavier. They produce better than green beans in cooler summers but can struggle to produce a crop in really hot weather. Along with sensationally speckled borlotti or French horticultural beans, these beans can be picked young to enjoy whole, left to swell for shelling, or dried to store and use over the colder months.

I sometimes wonder if there’s just too much choice! If you’re struggling to decide what to grow, start by narrowing down the options to these RHS Award of Garden Merit winners. These often tender, stringless beans are very much the crème de la crème of all beans!

RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) Winners

RHS AGM bean varieties
These award-winning bean varieties are well worth seeking out

Climbing vs Dwarf Beans

I’m a massive fan of climbing beans. Not only do they add valuable height and interest to the garden, the bees love the flowers too, especially my favourite bean of all, the runner bean.

The real selling point for climbers is how little space they take up versus the sheer abundance of what’s produced. Because these vines grow up and not out they can really help you to pack a lot into your garden, whether they’re grown up a teepee structure, a vegetable arch you can walk beneath, or as a magnificent wall of beans.

Climbing beans flower for ages, yielding a steady succession of beans through to the autumn so long as you keep picking them.

Dwarf beans on the other hand can mature really quickly, but they produce their pods over a much, much shorter period. This is great news if you garden in an area with a short growing season, or if you want a harvest for processing all at once. You’ll need to make regular repeat sowings if you want more of a continuous harvest.

Dwarf beans in containers
Quick-growing dwarf beans are well suited to growing in containers

The way I see it, the biggest appeal of dwarf beans is that they need minimal, if any, support. Just sow them, water them, and as soon as two months later you’ve got some beans to pick with very little extra input from you.

Where To Grow Beans

Beans germinate incredibly quickly, within a matter of days – it’s as if they just can’t wait to get up and at it! Grow them in rich soil to give your plants a rocket boost. Any rich organic matter will help improve your soil for beans – garden compost would be great, for example. Or you could dig a compost trench where the beans will grow the autumn or winter before planting: dig down to a depth of around a foot, refill the trench most of the way up with compostable materials like kitchen scraps, then cap it off with the excavated soil. This will rot down and settle back over the next few months, leaving a really moist, nutrient-dense cushion of goodness for roots to grow down into.

It's also important that beans get plenty of sunshine to fuel their rapid growth – at least six hours a day. That said, if you suffer blisteringly hot summers then a shadier spot may suit them nicely at the height of summer.

Sowing Beans

In an ideal world it’s best to sow beans direct against the supports or in their final growing positions because they don’t really like their roots to be disturbed when transplanting. However, you can get a head start and avoid slugs, frosts and poor weather by sowing your beans into plug trays of multi-purpose compost. Push the seeds in to around an inch (3cm) deep, cover them over, and water them.

Sowing beans
Beans can be sown direct where they are to grow, but there's no harm in sowing a few extras under cover - just in case!

Before planting, acclimatise your beans to outdoor conditions by leaving them outside for increasingly longer over a period of about a week. Once any danger of frosts has passed, you’ll have the absolute joy of getting them planted!

Sow or plant your beans 6-8in (15-20cm) apart. You can help direct the growth of runner or green beans towards supports to begin with. Once they’ve got a grip they can pull themselves up, but I like to help them along their way by twirling them around the supports until they’ve figured out what they’re up to. They’ll get there, but we all appreciate a helping hand from time to time, right?

To sow direct, push seeds down into the enriched soil to a depth of around an inch (3cm), and spaced 6-8in (15-20cm) apart. Just to be on the safe side, it’s prudent to sow a couple of extras into pots in case you need to plug any gaps at a later date. Give your beans a really good drink to wake them up and set them on their way. Optionally, cover sown beans with plastic bottles with the bottom cut out to warm the soil and act as mini greenhouses until the seedlings push through.

Bush beans
Quick-growing bush beans make excellent succession crops to fit in after an earlier one

One of the great advantages of bush beans is their super-speedy turnaround, which makes them very useful for squeezing in here and there as gaps appear over the course of the summer – they’re great succession crops. If you’re sowing mid-season after a previous crop, give the soil a boost by tickling in a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer before sowing.

To sow dwarf beans, mark out rows just over a foot (35cm) apart. Space the seeds 5in (12cm) or so apart along the rows, dibbing a little planting hole for each bean with your finger, popping it in, then covering over. After a thorough water, it’s a matter of days before the seedlings start pushing through.

Dwarf beans can also be sown into pots or troughs of multi-purpose compost, making them a great choice for patios, balconies, or even a windowsill.

Beans are among the very easiest seeds to save, and I love being able to come full circle on the growing cycle like this.

Supporting Beans

Dwarf beans don’t need supporting, but if your garden is in an exposed location or you get torrential, hammering downpours you can help your plants by banking up the soil against the base of the stems with a hoe, kind of like earthing up potatoes. It will provide a bit of extra support and make them less likely to flop over and get damaged.

Climbing beans, on the other hand, do need proper supports. I love my bean arches because they add real beauty to the garden and it makes the beans a lot easier to pick – many will just hang down. The arches were a bit of an investment, but you can create a similar effect for a lot less by tying stock fencing or cattle panels to upright supports. Just hammer in the uprights so they’re nice and sturdy, then roll out and tie on your mesh.

Bean vines
Direct beans towards their supports to begin with and they'll soon get the idea and begin to climb

A-frame supports are the traditional option, while a teepee of canes or hazel poles offers a more compact solution that’s less likely to catch the wind and get damaged. I reckon bean teepees look magnificent too!

You could also try growing beans up plastic netting or individual string supports, or against trellis – basically anything those searching vines can grab a hold of.

Growing Beans

With your beans planted, it’s just a matter of weeks before climbing types reach the top of their supports. Help them to thrive by watering regularly in dry weather. Beans are really thirsty plants, so if the soil’s dry give them a good, deep watering. If the plants are allowed to dry out the leaves will also become crispy and prone to disease. Mulching around plants can also help to retain vital soil moisture.

Keep the area around beans free of weeds. Hand weed or use a hoe to reach between rows of dwarf beans.

Once vining beans reach the top of their supports, I like to remove the very top of the stems – literally just cut off the top few inches of growth. Not only will this stop beans from becoming a tangled mess, it encourages the plants to produce more side shoots and growth further down – which means more flowers, and more beans!

When foliage lower down gets increasingly crowded out or shaded by newer growth up top you may find the lower leaves turn yellow as they no longer get as much light as they’d like. As they die off, pick them off and compost them.

Watering beans
Keep beans well-watered, especially in hot weather

Beans like it warm, but in very hot weather above about 90ºF (32ºC) they can start to struggle and really slow down. Watering helps, but if you experience blisteringly hot summers you may find it easier to split your bean season, planting in early spring to enjoy before it gets too hot, then making another sowing of quick-growing dwarf beans towards the end of summer to give harvests into the autumn.

One reason I love runner beans is that they’ve got some of the prettiest blooms of all beans. Lots of flowers means lots of pods, but if you find you’re not getting many runner beans this is likely due to a lack of pollinators. The simple solution is to include many more nectar-rich, vegetable garden-friendly flowers among your crops. I love alyssum, French marigolds, nasturtium and cosmos to add a splash of colour and a buzz of bees.

Black Bean Aphids

Beans are really prone to black bean aphids, or blackfly. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that they rarely become a major issue, and aphids are an excellent food source for so many of the good guys from beneficial bugs to insectivorous birds.

I just leave black bean aphids for the ladybirds, which inevitably rock up to feast on these sap suckers and bring them back under control. If you do have a large population of aphids though, just blast them off with a strong jet of water – they’ll quickly perish down on the ground.

Black bean aphids
Don't panic if you see black bean aphids - in an organic garden, pest predators will be along to deal with the problem shortly

Other potential pests include whitefly, spider mites and leaf rollers. These pests rarely cause an issue, but if you do find them beginning to spiral out of control you could go in with something like neem oil, a naturally occurring pesticide with a strong garlic-sulfur smell that serves to repel pests. Or try other strong-smelling essential oils – for example peppermint or rosemary – mixed in water with a few drops of natural soap to help the oils bind to the water and create a spray-ready solution.

Older plants may get bean rust towards the end of their lifecycle. Cut off any diseased leaves to slow its spread and to keep plants healthy for as long as possible.

Harvesting Beans to Keep the Pods Coming

Beans are famously prolific, but that all depends on one thing: keeping on top of picking those perfect pods. Any plant’s goal is to reproduce by forming viable seeds. Picking pods before they have a chance to do that compels plants to keep on producing more flowers, and more pods.

One of my best memories is gathering up beans with my grandad. I was given a bucket and told: go pick. To me it was such an honour to be able to pick them – sort of like a treasure hunt! It’s early memories like this that sealed a lifetime love of growing.

Podding beans
At the end of the season you can let pods dry on the plant then harvest the beans inside

Harvest pods young when they are at their most tender and before you can see the beans starting to swell inside. At this stage the whole pods may be eaten. Beans can swell really, really quickly, so I like to inspect plants literally every day, scanning the walls of my supports, back and forth, moving from the base to the top, so that every possible bean is spotted and picked. Purple or yellow-podded beans can be a lot easier to spot, so you’re less likely to miss any.

Even if you do nothing more than pick them to compost them, do it! It’ll keep plants going so they don’t just sputter to a halt. Or give your excess to neighbors and friends – they’ll love you for those tasty pods I’m sure of it! And, of course, remember that you can always freeze or can any excess – what better prospect than your own beans steamed up in the middle of a chilly winter?

Flat-podded varieties can be left to grow on so the beans inside swell for shelling. But don’t leave them too long or else they’ll mature so much that plants will think they’ve done their job and stop producing.

Then at the end of the season leave the pods to mature and begin drying on the plant for winter-storing whole beans, though you may need to finish drying them inside. Some varieties are better for drying than others. You can find a few variety ideas below.

Beans for Drying

Bean varieties for drying
These varieties are superb choices for drying

Harvest beans for drying on a dry day once the pods are nicely shriveled and crisp. Lay them out into trays to continue drying out for at least another week or two. Store in airtight jars in a dark, cool place.

I’m so looking forward to enjoying my beans. Let me know in the comments what beans you’re growing this season!

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