French beans are actually from Central and South America and not from France and have been cultivated for some 8000 years. They were introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16 th Century. They form part of the Haricot bean family, and they are all highly nutritious being rich in protein. They also fix atmospheric nitrogen to aid their growth, and this remains on their roots to add a natural fertilizer to the soil. As they come from the warmer regions of Central and south America, they appreciate warmth. While French Beans are not as hardy as Runner Beans in the North of the UK, they can be quicker to reach harvest size and are usually less stringy. They are half-hardy annuals and are frost tender and need warm soil to germinate. Cloche protection would be advisable till all danger of frost is past in June.
Health Benefits. Recent research shows that 1 helping of pulses(peas, beans, lentils etc.,) a day, cuts bad cholesterol by about 5%, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. Pulses contain “sticky” or soluble fibre which attracts the LDL (bad) cholesterol and helps the system to get rid of it.
Pulses can cause flatulence at first, but this problem reduces over time. If soaking dried pulses, throw away the first and second soaking waters and do not use them for cooking.
Dwarf french beans are easier to grow as they do not require staking and reach flowering and harvest size quicker. They are a better choice than climbing French beans as they are easier to be given some protection in exposed locations.
French Bean pods come in several colours such as green, purple, yellow, and even striped, and I think that the yellow pods are the crispest. The pods can also be round or pencil podded, or even flat in section. The pencil podded ones are crisp and stringless, and the best to my taste.
For an early crop sow in April / May in compost filled tubes in heat before transplanting to their final position under cloche protection.
If sowing direct in the soil when it has warmed up, say late May, sow the seeds about 4 cm deep at 8 cm apart. You can sow them in a double row 15 cm apart. The use of cloches will help to get a good start to growth. Pick the whole pods when they are still young for tender beans.
Warning. On no account plant out these sub-tropical plants before the last expected date for frost in your area. This could be mid May for the mildest areas such as Southern coastal areas, and early June in the North of the UK. Even then, provide cloche or fleece protection for the first few weeks as cold nights and winds will cause plant damage. Gardeners are regularly caught out by late frosts occurring during the traditional cold period known as “The Ice Saints”, usually just before mid May. Remember, one night of a late frost will kill your sub-tropical plants!!
Climbing french beans are basically the same as the dwarf varieties, except they need something like pea netting, some 2 m high, to climb up. They also seem to be slightly more tender than the dwarf variety.
Pests and diseases. Take care to protect the emerging shoots against slugs, snails, mice and birds. Consider the use of a metal fine mesh barrier screen to foil mice digging up and eating the newly sown seed. Alternatively, dip the seeds in paraffin before sowing.
Blackfly (black bean aphid) Can be a common pest and easily controlled with an organic insecticide if it appears.
Halo blight. (Pseudomonas phaseolicola). This is a rare bacterial seed borne disease of Runner and especially French beans which produces circular lesions and may cause all the leaves to fall off. Destroy affected plants as there is no cure and before it spreads to other plants.
Suggested varieties of Dwarf French Beans.
Amethyst. Heavy cropper on tall plants with pink flowers and purple pods with a good strong taste.
Stanley. A good crop with mild flavoured pods.
Golddukat. Pale yellow, sweet pods with a mild flavour.
Green Arrow. Good yield of green pods with a mild flavour.
Sonesta. A good crop of yellow pods with a sweet, nutty flavour.
Purple Queen. Good flavour, colourful purple flowers and purple pencil pods, which turn green on cooking.
Golden Teepee. Tender yellow pods of good flavour.
Suggested varieties of Climbing French Beans.
Cobra. Stringless pencil pods produced over a long period and the bonus of a pretty flower. Harvest your beans pods while they are young and tender and are still stringless. You eat the whole young pod after steaming for 5-10 mins.
Alternatively, you can allow the beans inside the pod to mature and harvest them at the end of the season. Do not leave them too long or the mice will have them first!
Storage. French bean pods are best used fresh, but will store for a few days in a fridge crispator.
Runner beans and French beans have now been crossed by UK breeders Tozers, to enable runner beans to do without the need for pollination by bees. This means that they could be grown in greenhouses for an early crop. They would also crop in a poor Summer outside.
The Runner / French bean cross is claimed to be smoother skinned, sweeter and with a less bean-like flavour than Runner beans. Very heavy cropping even in the North of U.K.
Suggested varieties of Runner / French bean cross.
Moonlight. White self-fertile flowers cropping mid-season late August/September.
Firestorm. Red self-fertile flowers cropping August/September. Pods are short, straight and smooth, and at 1.8 m the plant is shorter than most varieties.