Fiona Lawrenson first grew climbing beans when she was 5 years old. " I remember holding the hard, shiny seed with its beautiful black and pink shell, which glistened like a highly polished jewel in my hot, sticky hands"
Dad and I would construct several wigwams with whatever we could find. We were never that well prepared on the care front and some of the structures would look a little unorthodox but that wouldn’t deter us. It was the end result that mattered! I would push the beans in at the base of each pole and wait for the recreation of "Fiona and the Giant Bean Stalk". Well, needless to say, I'm still waiting – but I am not deterred!
My reasons for growing these handsome plants have somewhat changed. I still find the fact that from a tiny seed a giant of 12ft can grow and reproduce in a matter of weeks fascinating.
Gardeners have played upon this fact for generations. The decorative factor that these plants can bring is unmistakable and can transform the humblest of veggi plants with their elegant stems twining their way around their support to display a delicate profusion of flowers followed by a cascade of long, thin beans hanging down like icicles.
Climbing beans are also an excellent source of vitamins such as C, A and B1 and minerals like calcium and iron – all needed to ensure a healthy diet.
In the kitchen, climbing beans can have many uses. Served fresh and young their pods can be eaten raw in salads. They blanch easily, freeze, dry and when pickled make excellent chutney. Whatever the type of bean, they are extremely versatile and no discerning vegetable garden should be seen without them.
French Climbing Beans need to be grown in an open but sheltered location as they can be badly damaged by the wind. The soil should be rich in well rotted organic matter, light in texture with a neutral to slightly acidic pH level and, ideally, should be prepared several months before planting.
Don’t be tempted to sow the seeds early as this will only hinder their growth. They hate cold, wet soils and will not germinate below 12oC, so leave planting until late April/early May in the south and 2 – 3 weeks later in the north. It’s a good idea to warm the soil before sowing by covering the prepared bed with black plastic or a cloche.
Take bamboo canes, about 10 ft long, and arrange into a circle spacing the canes approximately 12"”apart. If you can, push them about 8 – 12” into the ground so that the canes are sturdy and won't topple either in the wind or holding a sturdy crop. Then bring all the canes in at the apex and tie with string to make a wigwam.
Plant 2 seeds, 2” deep and 4” apart, at the base of each cane, water in and cover each seed with an old plastic bottle cut in half to act as a mini cloche. This will just encourage the seed to germinate a little earlier.
As the young plants grow, gently earth up around the stems with soil to give extra support. Mulch around the plants to help retain moisture vital to the plants as they grow and flower.
Give the plants extra watering once the flowers appear, especially during a dry period. Each plant needs approximately 2 gallons twice a week. This will help the pod set and make the beans less stringy. French Beans do tend to have less problems with this than runner beans because they are self-pollinating.
The beans are ready to crop when you can snap a pod cleanly in half. This is usually mid July and carries through until the first frost. Remember to keep picking, as this will encourage the plant to continue flowering and produce a better quality crop. If you stop, the plant stops cropping and runs to seed.
For my money, French Beans are tastier and less problematic than runners as well as having some pretty amazing coloured pods and beans. If you haven't tried them before, then give them a go – you won't be disappointed!
Fiona’s Suggested Varieties: