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An urg FAQ by Alan Gould

(originally published on www.nugget.demon.co.uk)

A review of beans commonly grown for human consumption in UK gardens. Sprouting beans, tropical beans and peas are not included in this FAQ. Cultural notes are intended to be a general guide only as they vary from garden to garden and area to area.

The main types of beans grown in UK gardens are Broad Beans, Runner Beans and climbing or dwarf French Beans, plus some lesser known types. Garden beans can be either hardy or tender. They can be eaten in the pods or as seeds used fresh, dried or frozen. Most are grown as annuals. Some varieties are used for green manuring. They are popular both with the gardener and the cook and they are among the more reliable and rewarding vegetable crops grown.

BROAD (or Fava) BEAN - Vicia faba - a leguminous vetch (introduced 1729)

Broad beans are hardy plants which will withstand cold weather and are not fussy about soil conditions providing it is in good heart. Some varieties of broad bean are suitable for overwinter growing. Overwintering can give an earlier crop and leave the growing space available for spring sowing, so it is of interest to commercial growers. The general opinion is that beans grown that way are less productive and less tender than spring sown ones, though they often have larger pods. There are 50-60 varieties of Broad Bean available, the two main types being Longpods and the broader, flatter Windsors. Some catalogues offer Czar broad bean as Butter Beans, but those are truly Phaseolus lunatus, a tender plant from Madagascar whose bean has a quite different flavour.

Spring sown broad beans can be started in individual polypots or seed trays from the end of January onwards then put out as soon as the ground can be made ready. Or they can be sown direct into the ground from late February. Plants will need staking because a good crop of pods can make them top heavy. When the plants are about 30-36 ins. tall the tops should be pinched out to encourage side shoots and to deter blackfly. Broad beans grown in fertile soil should not need extra manuring, they make a good rotational crop to follow brassicas and precede roots or salads. Their roots carry nitrogenous nodules and can be left in the ground as an organic fertiliser to feed the next crop.

Very young broad beans can be eaten in the pod. They should be picked early enough to prevent the bean skins from becoming tough. Broad bean tops are edible but are often unpalatable. Seeds can be dried and used later, or frozen fresh immediately after picking. The Windsor bean seed goes dark when dried and is used as a base for 'Brown Windsor' soup.

Recipe: Tomatoes stuffed with Broad Beans

- Quick, easy and more-ish: Boil and drain Broad Beans. Scoop out large tomatoes. Fry the contents with oil and garlic. Pulp the beans, tomato contents, salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Fill the tomato cases and bake at 195 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes.

(SCARLET) RUNNER (or String) BEAN - Leguminosae Phaseolus coccineus (syn P.multiflorus)

Runner beans can be grown outside or under cover, but they should be regarded as half-hardy and they do well in greenhouses and polytunnels. They are mostly climbing plants but some dwarf varieties have been introduced. Runner bean pods grow in a variety of green colours, and seeds can be white, green or purple. Their bright red flowers are always an attraction and give them their name 'Scarlet' runners. A number of stringless varieties are now available, but older types are regarded as having generally better pod quality and will be stringless anyway if picked young before the seed begin to harden in the pods. Early picking encourages more beans to form and does not result in a loss of crop.

Runner beans can be sown under cover in April or outside in May or even later. It is best not to push them on too early because even if they begin well the beans can often fail to germinate until the weather is really warm. The plants need to be in good fertile soil and not allowed to dry out if the weather is dry. They are often grown up 8 ft. canes tied at the top in rows or 'wigwam' fashion. The frame needs to be made strong enough to withstand a full crop on a wet and windy day. If they are pinched out when they reach the top of the canes, they will send out side-shoots lower down and help to balance the weight. Greenhouse beans grow well up strings, but need to be pinched out before they begin to obscure the light from the roof. Runners are usually a healthy plant, any blackfly seen are often a sign of overfeeding or underwatering.

Runners are almost always eaten in the pod, older seed can be saved for growing future crops. They are best eaten as soon as they are picked. Young pods can be eaten raw and make a very good addition to a salad. For storage, pick young beans, top, tail and slice them immediately then freeze them laid flat in freezer bags. If they are dealt with as soon as they are picked, blanching will not be necessary. Defrosted runners need very little cooking, just bring them up to the boil for a few seconds. About 45-50 varieties of Runner Beans are available, the oldest variety is the still popular 'Painted Lady' first grown in UK in 1633.

Recipe: Chinese style stir fry vegetables

A tasty treat: Chop tender runner or french bean pods with mushrooms, carrots, beansprouts, celery, broccoli, peppers etc. Stir fry with sesame oil, salt, ground ginger soy sauce and cornflour for 3 minutes. Serve fresh.

FRENCH (or Green) BEAN - Leguminosae Phaseolus humilis; lunatus; vulgaris etc.

French beans are the largest family of garden beans. They are grown both as climbing (Pole) beans and as dwarf beans. About forty climbing varieties and sixty dwarf varieties are available in all. Pods can be round (called 'Bobbie' beans) or flat and can come in a variety of colours from pale yellow through green to purple, the seeds often following the colour of the pods. They are grown for eating in the pod or for the seeds, fresh or dried. Pods can be frozen in the same way as runner beans. Seed can be saved for re-growing.

French bean varieties can include the succulent Flageolet; Snap; Haricot; Kidney; Navy; Borlotti; Dutch; Bobbie and others. Quite a number of other tender and tropical varieties are better known in shops than in gardens, though they can be grown in UK with some protection.

French bean plants are generally less tender than runner beans, but should still be thought of as half-hardy. Most varieties will grow well outside given a good summer, but all will do better inside. Cultivation of French Beans is much the same as for Runner Beans, but they usually demand a little less growing space per plant and can begin their picking season earlier. Pods should be picked regularly and when still young.

Kidney beans and other bean seed saved for eating should be soaked overnight and cooked for an hour or more. Boiling the beans in two stages can help to prevent digestive problems arising from eating beans.

Recipe: Red Kidney bean salad

A colourful and nourishing dish: Marinate well cooked kidney beans with fennel, chopped onion, chopped walnuts, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper for two hours. Serve topped with parsley.
Some less well known beans worth considering:

FIELD BEAN - Vicia faba: (Brown, Dutch, Daffa, Tic and Foul bean)

This very versatile bean deserves a much higher place in terms of gardening popularity than it has. It can be eaten as a pod if picked when tiny, later at the forming up stage the fresh pale green seeds are like a larger version of the Flagelot (Chevrier Vert etc.). They harden to an excellent using and keeping brown bean if left on the plant.

It is called Field Bean because its main use is by farmers who grow it for both the bean fodder and for the dried haulms which can be used for feeding, bedding and a nitrogenous green manure, an asset also used by gardeners. Sow and grow field beans in the same way as broad bean. They are undemanding plants and very productive if regularly picked.


The Pea Bean is an old favourite trying to make a come-back. As its name suggests it is a cross between a pea and a french bean, both climbers. It grows very much as a runner bean and is a little later cropping and more tender than a climbing french bean. They can be shelled and used like peas in the earlier stage, or left to harden to an interesting black and white piebald seed.


By urg group consensus these are made from Haricot Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris - (also called Navy Beans, fifty-seveners and shirtlifters). Haricots can be grown as tender or half-hardy plants for use as home-made baked beans. Tins and tomato sauce are grown separately.

Recipe: Baked beans - on toast

Tender varieties:

Several popular culinary beans can be grown without heat in a greenhouse, either for interest or for use. In April/May try sowing a few seeds from the jars in the pantry of Black-eye; Butter; Borlotti; Haricot; Soya; Lima; Pinto and Black beans.

*!*!* HEALTH WARNING *!*!* - one bean NOT to grow - for eating anyway: CASTOR OIL BEAN - The seed of the Castor Oil Plant Ricinus communis is poisonous and should not be used for human consumption. Note: Fatsia japonica is also sometimes called Castor Oil Plant.


Suffolk Herbs; Kings Seeds; Chiltern Seeds: Thos. Etty; The Organic Catalogue; Marshall's Seeds.
Details from urg FAQ on Suppliers and References or obtain a Copy by email


The Bean Book (etc.) by Rose Elliot - Fontana; Friends of the Earth
Cookbook by Veronica Sekules - Penguin Books; Alternative Cookery by
Liza Bruce & Nicholas Barker - Tandem; Why Vegan by Kath Clements - GMP. Enquiries about this FAQ welcome in uk.rec.gardening or to Alan Gould

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