Back in February, we purchased our first runner bean seeds – the Armstrong variety – from Sutton Seeds and sowed them in some simple compost from B&Q in the middle of April, two seeds to a small pot. We kept them in the house on a window sill for a little while and all of the beans germinated, absolutely fantastic! Once they had grown up a little, we stuck them outside in our mini-greenhouse to harden off for a week, slowly progressing them staying outside during the night too. At the same time I sowed some extra seeds as backup just in case the hardened plants failed when planted. It’s so important to do this as there is a chance they will go into shock when planted out after being indoors to germinate and initially grow. Plus it’s vital they get planted out after the last frost of the year as they will die.
But before they got planted out, some work needed to be done to the ground. We had dug over the plot in November and waited for the ground to be worked on by the worms, but knowing how much goodness beans need in the ground, and their requirement for water; we decided to use a trench method.
Mid February, we dug two trenches, circular and just over a foot in depth. We marked out the circle as around 1 metre wide using string before digging. You can see the two trenches in the photo; once dug, over the coming weeks, we filled the trenches with our waste leftovers. These were vegetable peelings and the like, no meat or cooked food. You can also add newspaper but we don’t read newspapers! The whole point is that over time, the food waste will breakdown and with the newspaper add nutrition and help the drainage of the soil. Occasionally, we added some soil from around the edges to help the peelings decay but also watered the trench if the weather was very dry, much like people do with compost bins.
Mid April the trenches were filled with all sorts and covered up with the surrounding soil and it was time to build our two wigwams. We went for wigwams rather than long rows simply to be different and creative! We bought our bamboo canes from a shop called ESK in Hastings, but they had to be long canes, around 8ft at least, ours were about 10ft long.
I pushed ten canes into the ground, evenly spread around the circle, each one at least a foot deep and I tied them together at the top using some twine. I then tied them to each other around waist height too then started a network of diagonals between each one using the string. It’s useful to provide lots of possible paths for the runners plus all the string adds strength to the structure – it will eventually hold a lot of weight and windy weather might cause problems.
Mid May, we thought the worst of the frost risk was over and our beans had been hardened off sufficiently, so we planted out our bean plants. Each cane had one plant, planted just to the side of the cane although some people suggest just inside the cane structure. At the same time, on the other side of the cane, I stuck in a bean seed into the ground. That makes doubly sure that something will grow. At this stage, we only used one wigwam for runners at this stage; I stuck some purple dwarf bean seeds in the ground around the second wigwam.
I took great care in planting the runner beans, you don’t want to damage the ‘runner’ at the top of the plant. I dug a fairly big hole for each plant next to the cane, stuck a big handful of compost in the ground and half a scoop of chicken poo pellets. Once planted, I twisted a runner up the cane in a clockwise direction as far as it would go to encourage it. Beans love having support to help them grow. Over the coming weeks, if any would come loose, I would encourage them towards the cane or the string supports.
A couple of weeks later and the runner beans had started to climb well, however those naughty pigeons had started to peck the base of the bean plants. I wasn’t too worried as I knew there were other seeds planted in the ground and spare plants I had waiting at home to go in to fill in any gaps. The end of May was quite a dry period, so it was important to keep the beans watered until well established as their roots wouldn’t yet be down to the trench.
Fast forward to the third week of June and the beans were plentiful, the seedlings had poked up their heads and started climbing and the extra plants I had grown I put in the gaps and were doing well.
Another week later and you can see the runner bean wigwam is towering over a now fast-growing plot. Lots of flowers and the runners to the top. At this point any runners that reached the top, I pinched off the very top of the runner to encourage extra growth below. At this point, we also occasionally used Tomorite when watering. Beans need lots of water too so we made sure every couple of days we watered the beans in the hottest weather.
By the end of June, the flowers were setting well and producing small beans. It helped planting a flowering bush next to the beans to encourage bees to visit the area. Some people struggle to get their flowers to set (e.g. be pollinated and the flowers convert to beans) and their flowers just fall off. Some people spray the flowers with water to keep them moist rather than drying off and falling, and to aid pollination, sugar water can be sprayed onto the flowers. However we didn’t do anything like that as they seem to be doing just fine on their own.
Early July and the runner bean wigwam has exploded into flower and small runners are forming everywhere; we had our first pick!
It’s important to keep on top of picking the beans, fortunately they can be stored by freezing them, but the more you pick, the more that will come. Smaller beans don’t have large beans growing inside the pods which some people dislike, so it’s worth picking them small and only freezing the smaller ones too (5-7 inches long) I used this opportunity to sow a second lot of runner beans around the other wigwam. That wigwam currently has the purple dwarf beans growing around them; they don’t need much support as they don’t grow particularly high like the runners. Thus their wigwam will be a perfect place for the second set of beans, fingers crossed they come up!
We love runner beans, the supermarket beans are really quite disgusting in comparison to the real deal, picked and cooked on the same day. Ground preparation seems to have helped, composting material in the trenches below the wigwams in the preceding months and keeping on top of watering.. Using a mixture of seeds straight in the ground and hardened plants has ensured a successful set of plants. Lucky us!