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RUNNER  BEAN  (Phaseolus coccineus) & Runner / French Bean Cross

Runner beans originate in the areas at high altitude of Central and Northern South America. They were cultivated in Mexico in ancient native American civilisations, and brought back to Europe by the Spanish in the 16 th Century. Not only are they very colourful climbers, but they crop over quite a long period.

Runner beans are actually perennial plants but are usually grown as annuals to avoid over-wintering plants. It is technically possible to cut down, lift and pot up the Runner bean plants for over-wintering in a greenhouse, but it is not worth the effort.

While they are frost tender, they seem to be slightly hardier than French beans.

Runner beans require pollination to set the flowers.

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.

Runner beans require support to cling on to and to twine up, as they can easily grow up to 2.5 m in a good Summer. Traditionally, long canes are arranged in the form of a wigwam and seeds or plants are set out at the foot of each cane.

Alternatively, use pea netting hung between strong posts at 1m centres.

The ground should be well prepared with plenty of humus rich material to provide a moisture reservoir in dry weather. The ground should be fairly fertile, even though Runner beans fix atmospheric nitrogen.

Sow seeds in individual pots in a greenhouse in May for the earliest Runner beans. Remember that Runner beans grow very tall, very quickly when started indoors and can become difficult to handle if you start them too early in pots.They should then be planted out in their final positions after all danger of frost has passed.

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!!

For sowing the seeds directly in the ground, sow at 5 cm deep at 20 cm apart, either at the base of the wigwam or in a trench. Protect seeds against mice and voles by physical barriers or dip the seeds in paraffin before sowing.

Protect the young seedlings from slugs and snails with your chosen treatment. Keep them well watered in dry weather.


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.

Poor setting of flowers. Beans do not seem to develop even though there are loads of flowers. The cause could be cold conditions or dry soil. Water the ground well in dry conditions.

The whole pods are best picked young, before they become stringy. It is best to pick the pods when they are about 20 cm long. Runner beans are so prolific that it is not wasting the crop by picking them young. Indeed, it only encourages the plant to produce more bean pods. Each plant should produce at least 0.5 kg of bean pods.

One problem with Runner bean varieties that grow shorter bean pods than the traditional 30 cm or more, is the difficulty in deciding when they are still tender and string-less and ready to pick.

Storage. If you do not manage to eat all the beans when young, you can leave the pods to mature on the plant and then separate out the individual mature beans to cook, freeze or dry.

Remember that even when the beans are frozen in a freezer bag, they can dry out if stored for some time in the freezer. It is best to treat them as if they were dried beans and soak them overnight before cooking them.

Suggested varieties of tall Runner beans.

White Lady. White flowers and a very heavy crop proved by independent trials.

Red Flame.  Red flowers and a heavy crop proved by independent trials.

Polestar. Astonishingly good compared with traditional varieties, with red flowers followed by long string-less beans produced freely into November if weather is good.

Painted Lady. Pretty Bi-coloured flowers followed by shortish pods.

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.

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.

Suggested varieties of dwarf Runner beans.

Pickwick. A modern string-less variety with 20 cm pods on 45 cm high plants. Yields are much less than the tall varieties. You could grow these up pea sticks.