Growing My Food

How to Start Growing Your Own Food Cheaply and Easily

How to Grow Beans (French Beans, Fine Beans, Bush Beans, and Runner Beans)

I am a huge fan of beans, and most especially French beans aka fine beans (bit of misnomer as many are imported to the UK form Kenya these days!). I think I was at least 12 years old before I’d ever eaten a French bean, as we never had them at home. It took a very rare occurrence of eating ‘tea’ at someone else’s house to try them for the first time, and even though they were out of a tin, I fell in love immediately. The texture and taste was like a fine, non-hairy version of runner beans, which I was never a big fan of due to their hairiness. I never understood why people always harvested their runner beans so late i.e. when they’re longer than 6″ and hairy. Why not harvest them young at 4-6″ and enjoy a hairless, sweeter, and finer texture?

Anyway, French beans are delicious but never grow too gigantic like runner beans either in length of beanpods or in the height of the plant. Runner beans can reach 12′ under optimal conditions, but French beans would barely make 6-7′ max. depending on the variety. I even grew a yellow-podded dwarf bush variety last year, as I had a random gap next to some potatoes, so I just put the beans in there and they were INCREDIBLY productive – they only grow to about 2′ tall at the most.

I think that is one of the best things about beans, their productivity is immense for the amount of space they take up. Obviously, the climbing varieties will give you more return per square foot, but the dwarf or bush types can be put in almost as ‘space fillers’ like I did with the yellow ones last year. And the more you pick them, the more they produce. The main other difference between bush beans and climbing beans is that bush beans only crop for about a month or so, whereas you can get a longer cropping time from climbing beans.

So beans are well worthwhile, whether you choose bush beans, climbing beans, any kind of French beans (fine beans), or the traditional crop of many an English garden – runner beans. You can even grow Borlotti beans in the UK, if you are in a warmer area. I have grown Borlotti for two years running, and they are absolutely exceptional in flavour and colour. I am in East Anglia, where it is much warmer and drier than many other areas, and we have a long frost-free season, so it makes sense that they grow so well here.

My boys, shelling dried beans from their pods (variety was Coco Sophie, a flat French bean, also delicious!)

How to Sow and Grow Beans – Methods

(If you are looking for broad beans, aka fava beans, please see my other post here as they are quite different)

FOR EARLY HARVEST (JULY/AUGUST) When wanting an early crop, I always start off my beans in modules in my greenhouse or on a windowsill in my house in April or May. BE CAREFUL WITH FROST… I thank God I waited so late to plant them out last year, as a wicked late frost around 15/16th May caught most of the UK gardeners out and wrecked a lot of beans that didn’t have copious amounts of fleece to protect them. My dad lost at least 80% of the bean plants he’d put into his allotment, but luckily he had more sown in modules at home which he was able to put in to replace the damaged ones. Check your 10-day weather forecast and check your frost dates to see when it’s likely you’ll be able to plant them outside or sow direct.

Sowing in modules is a bit funny because beans grow fast and deeper than you’d think, so it’s good to get root-trainers or extra deep pots. You could even use toilet rolls filled with compost. Sow 2 beans per module and cover with 1.5-2 inches of soil. Pick the best one and plant out when they have 4+ leaves. Check your seed packet or variety to know the spacing as they will vary depending on what kind of bean it is and individual variety too.

Runner beans and climbing French beans (any kind of climbing bean) will need a structure to support them e.g. wigwams made of bamboo canes or an A-frame structure like ours, with netting. If you’re growing runner beans, they will need up to 12′ poles. so be warned! French beans need more like 6′. Dwarf/bush beans don’t need any support usually, although if you have a windy site then some sturdy twigs pushed in near the plants will stop them getting battered by strong winds.

FOR SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER HARVEST Sow direct in your garden or allotment in June or July. The latest is typically July in the southern half of the UK, but if you’ve got a protected site or have a late frost date (check frost dates here) then you may be able to get away with early August too. Check the packet or variety for spacings, which will typically be 8-10″ apart in a row.

If you want to enjoy the longest duration of beans to harvest, plant different varieties starting from indoors in April and sow a short row every 2-3 weeks so you can enjoy continual harvesting. Remember that broad beans aka fava beans are quite different and I have written about them separately here.

How to Store Beans After Harvesting

Beans are versatile enough to be able to store in many different ways. If you are harvesting fresh beans in season, you can:

  • eat them straight away
  • slice them diagonally, blanche in boiling water for 3min, and then dunk in iced water and freeze
  • slice diagonally and freeze without blanching (doesn’t work as well)
  • salt them (old fashioned and not sure if necessary with access to a freezer)
  • keep them in the fridge for about a week
  • DRYING BEANS leave them on the plants to dry out in September to November (as long as it’s not too wet in your area)… see more below:
A selection of dried beans we harvested in 2020 – borlotti, white beans were Coco Sophie and French Beans for cannellini style dried beans, and black ‘Cobra’ French beans

How to Dry Beans for Storage

Drying beans is as easy as leaving them on the plant to dry out in September onwards. Do not water them if you want to save them by drying! The weather needs to be mostly dry and it’s good if it’s a bit windy as well. If there is a lot of rain forecast or you live in a particularly wet area, pick the pods and dry them spread on mesh/wire trays (like your oven shelves or a cake wire airer) or crates in an airy/windy place. You could even take whole plants and hang them under a porch roof or verandah or garden shed to dry out more completely.

Weighing our dried beans before and after podding

When the pods feel like they’ll crack if you squeeze them, take some beans out and try to press your nail into the bean. The bean is dry enough when it feels very hard and your nail can’t make a dent in it. Store in an airtight container – I use glass Kilner jars (like Mason jars) with the rubber seal and a metal clasp. They will keep for at least a year this way, and under the best conditions about 3 yrs. I sowed this year’s beans from last year’s harvested and stored beans in this exact method and it works very well!

The first harvest of dried French beans we did in 2020 (white cannellini style dried beans, black Cobra french beans, Coco Sophie flat beans, and my absolute favourite – Borlotti beans)

Best of luck and do let me know how you get on with your beans!


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