Humble and hugely nutritious, the classic runner beans have been a roast dinner staple for years. One of the easiest veggies to grow, they take up little room at the allotment and give you a bumper harvest when ready.
Where did runner beans come from?
Runner beans aren’t native to the UK. They’re natives of the high-altitude areas of South America and were introduced to our shores back in the 17th century by King Charles the First gardener, John Tradescant. Back then, they weren’t grown for their edible pods but rather their pretty flowers.
Over time they adapted to the climate and began producing pods which some brave people discovered were edible. Then, through breeding and experimentation, the modern-day runner bean plant came to life producing longer pods and a higher crop yield than its ancestors.
Pollination, pests and runner bean production
These days there are loads of varieties of runner bean to choose from – they have unique colours, differing flavours and a choice of pod length. What’s even better is that some of them are self-pollinating, so no bees necessary.
Some self-pollinating varieties include:
Moonlight – will produce a good yield of smooth, non-stringy beans.
Enorma – super long pods, as the name suggests.
Firelight – featuring scarlet flowers and a huge crop of sweet, string-free pods.
Sowing and growing your beans is easy. For an early crop, start them inside or in a greenhouse from April and then plant out the seedlings after about three weeks in late May. Alternatively, plant them directly outside in June when things have warmed up enough and there’s no danger of frost.
Each plant only needs around 40cm of space around it (they grow up, not so much out), so get a good bean frame for support, tie in new stems and pinch out the tips once it reaches the top to encourage bushier growth. Water well once they flower too – growing beans and pods is thirsty work.
Pests are a problem with runner beans. The main ones are snails and slugs – they can munch away quite happily in the early hours while you sleep and decimate your crop. Protect your younger runner bean plants with plastic bottle collars, and put straw around the base of larger ones as they get stronger – slugs hate the crispy and dry feel of it.
Another familiar irritation with runner beans is Aphids. These green or black flies can damage the growth of the plant by smothering new stems and feeding off the sap. There are chemical fixes, but most will lose their grip with a good blast of soapy water. You could also encourage natural predators such as ladybirds and hoverflies by planting flowers they like nearby.
Cooking and steaming ideas
Once your runner beans are all grown and ready to eat, there are loads of ways to enjoy your bumper crop outside of your classic Sunday roast. Have a good look online and in your cookbooks for options to try, but here are a few interesting choices:
This fresh pesto is simple and easy to make with some beans, garlic, parmesan, pine nuts, lemon juice and olive oil. Whizz it all up with some seasoning to taste and mix it in with your favourite pasta – perfect!
A classic French vegetable dish that is ideal for using up bumper harvests of beans. Just fry up some onions, add your beans, a tin of tomatoes and a bunch of herbs and seasoning, then let it simmer until thick.
Spicy bean pickle
Perfect for a cheese board or buffet, this recipe from Delia Smith is top-notch.
Can I freeze runner beans?
Runner beans freeze well and keep for up to six months. The key to keeping them colourful and tasting good is to blanch them in boiling water for three minutes before freezing.
Wash your beans well, then top and tail them.
Cut them up into nice 2cm diamond slices.
Heat a pan of water until it hits a rolling boil, then add the cut-up beans.
Boil for three minutes and then plunge them into ice-cold water.
Let them cool completely, then line them up on a baking sheet so they’re not touching.
Place the sheet in the freezer.
Once frozen, transfer to a and return to the freezer
Freezing the beans this way prevents any clumping or sticking together, so it’s easier to get the portion you’d like.
What’s the best way to cook runner beans?
The best way to cook runner beans is a matter of opinion. We suggest you explore a few recipes until you find your favourite, but you should avoid eating them raw as they contain low levels of toxins which are removed in the cooking process.
When to pick runner beans?
Pods are ready to pluck when they’re nearly full length, have an easy snap and have pale beans within. Snip off the pods (don’t pull), and they’re good to cook.
Remember: the more you pick, the more pods the plant will produce. If you leave them on there too long after ripening, you won’t get repeat flowers or further bean production.
Are runner beans good for you?
Definitely – they’re low fat, high in fibre and have loads of vitamins, minerals and protein. Plus, just 80g of runner beans make one of your five a day.
Runner beans are one of the easiest crops to grow, and you get a huge harvest for very little work, so make some room at the allotment or veg patch and let the germination, pollination and cooking of your healthy and nutritious runner beans commence.
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