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Runner beans

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Introduction

Quintessentially British, runner beans are one of the easiest of all vegetables to grow. To many people summer is incomplete without them.

Sow

Sow seeds of runner beans from late May to the end of June 5cm (2in) deep and 23cm (9in) apart.

Alternatively, for an earlier crop, sow the beans in 10cm (4in) pots at the end of April indoors and plant out at the end of May 23cm (9in) apart.

The traditional method of growing is to sow a double row with the two rows 45cm (18in) apart; this makes supporting the plants easier.

Grow

Runner beans need a support to climb up. The traditional method is to grow them individually up inwardly sloping 2.4m (8ft) tall bamboo canes tied near their top to a horizontal cane. If you slope the bamboo canes so that they meet in the middle and tie them here so that the ends of the canes extend beyond the row you will find picking is easier and the yield is usually better.

When growing in beds and borders a wigwam of canes takes up less room and helps produce an ornamental feature.

Loosely tie the plants to their supports after planting; after that they will climb naturally.

Remove the growing point once the plants reach the top of their support.

Keep an eye out for slugs and blackfly that may attack the plants.

Flower set

Runner beans sometimes fail to set and there are a number of causes - and a number of solutions.

Ensuring the soil is constantly moist and doesn't dry out is the first key to success; mulch the soil in June. Misting the foliage and flowers regularly - especially during hot, dry weather - will increase humidity around the flowers and help improve flower set.

Flower set is better in alkaline, chalky soils. If your soil is neutral or acidic it pays to water with hydrated lime.

Another way to improve flower set is to pinch out the growing tips of the plants when they are 15cm (6in) high. The flowers formed on the resulting sideshoots usually set better.

If you regularly have problems it would be worth growing pink- or white-flowered cultivars, such as 'Painted Lady' or 'Mergoles', which usually set pods more easily.

More on problems with runner bean flower set

Harvest

Start harvesting when the pods are 15-20cm (6-8in) long and certainly before the beans inside begin to swell.

It is vital that you pick regularly to prevent any pods reaching maturity; once this happens plants will stop flowering and no more pods will be set. If you pick regularly, plants will crop for up to eight weeks or more.

Varieties

‘White Apollo’ AGM: The long, smooth fleshy pods crop over a long season and are excellent quality.

‘St George’ AGM: A heavy cropping, semi-stringless bean, with bi-coloured red and white flowers.

‘Hestia’: This is a new dwarf runner bean, ideal for containers, only growing to about 45cm (18in), but still producing high quality, delicious beans. As it is short it can be netted against bird attack.

Problems

Aphids: Most vegetables suffer from aphid attack sometime during the year. Damage is mostly noticeable in early summer and you will see colonies of green or black aphids at the tips of plants. They suck sap from leaves and stems and excrete a sticky substance called honeydew, which then often attracts black sooty moulds to grow. In most cases the damage can be tolerated.

Remedy: Use your finger and thumb to squash aphid colonies. In most cases you won’t need to spray, but you could use pyrethrum, plant or fish oils or thiacloprid.

More information on aphids

Slugs and snails: Feed on the young seedlings. You’ll see the tell-tale slime trail of slugs and snails on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.

Remedy: There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers and copper tape. Experiment, as you may find some more successful than others. Traditional slug pellets contain metaldehyde, which harm other wildlife, pets and young children if eaten in quantity. Slug pellets of powders based on aluminium sulphate or ferric phosphate are less toxic.

More information on slugs

More information on snails
 

No/ very few beans: This is one of the most common problems with runner beans and is usually caused by lack of moisture and/or poor pollination by insects.

Remedy: Plant or sow runner beans into soil that has had plenty of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure added the previous autumn, as this will aid moisture and nutrient retention around the roots. Plant in a sheltered site as this will encourage bees to visit and pollinate the plants.

More information on pod failure

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  • Sow runner beans indoors to get an earlier crop
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