French beans are easy to grow and highly nutritious. These beans provide a plentiful crop throughout the summer. Supermarket bought varieties are inevitably the green pencil shaped, French beans, but there are so many more interesting ones to choose from when growing your own. Depending on the variety, you can eat them fresh when young as whole pods, as fresh beans when half-ripe, known as flageolets, or matured and dried haricot beans. The flowers are ornamental too.
There are 2 types of French beans. Dwarf and climbing. Within these types, there are flat podded, pencil shaped or curly beans with either green, yellow, purple or multi-coloured parts. Climbing varieties known as pole beans, include ‘Algarve’ with stringless straight flat parts, yellow ‘Golden Gate’ and the gorgeous Italian variety ‘Borlotto Lingua Di Fuoco’, with long green pods striped red. Dwarf beans include early cropping ‘Sonesta’ AGM with waxy bright yellow pods and ‘Purple Teepee’ with pretty magenta flowers and decorative purple pods, although these turn green when cooked.
Despite the name, French beans are originally from South America so are not frost hardy. They like a warm, sunny spot, with well-drained soil full stop. As legumes, French beans fix nitrogen into the soil in their roots. Legumes are one group of vegetables rotated around the vegetable garden on a 3 or 4 year cycle, which helps prevent the build-up of soil borne pests and diseases. Brassicas are traditionally planted in the same ground after legumes, taking advantage of the nutritionally rich soil.
To prepare the planting area, dig in some well-rotted organic matter or manure. This will add nutrients, aid moisture retention and improve the soil structure and drainage. Alternatively, create a big trench approximately 90 centimeters wide and 60 centimeters deep, fork over at the base to a drainage, add well-rotted organic matter and replace the soil.
Sewing and Supports
Direct sow French beans outdoors between mid-May and mid-June for crops through the autumn. Sow successionally at 2 week intervals. Do not start bean seeds when it is cold and wet as they will not get off to a great start. It is a good idea to pre-warm the soil by covering with cloches for a month in advance.
Climbing beans will need supports. To avoid disturbing the plants once they are growing, it is good to erect the supports before seed sowing and this also means seed spacing is set up in advance. Use a double row of 2.4 metre tall bamboo canes, giving you a final height of 1.8 meters once pushed into the ground. Or choose Hazel rods for a more rustic look, and these are less slippery for the beans to climb. Allow 45 centimeters between the 2 rows and space each cane, 25 centimeters apart in each row, slope in at the top and place a row of horizontal canes along the top and tidy’s in with twine. Or make wigwams, using five 2.4m canes with 25 centimeters spacing between canes at the base and tie together at the top. Once you have erected the supports use a dibber to sow each bean seed 5 centimeters deep at the base of each cane and water well.
Dwarf beans grow to around 45 centimeters tall and our best planted in blocks to provide support from neighbouring plants. You can add lines of string between canes around the sides of the square to stop plants flopping over. Sow dwarf bean seeds 2.5 centimeters deep with 15 centimeters spacing.
You can start French beans off by sowing them in pots indoors between late April-early May. This is a good idea in cold areas. Even if you direct sow the beans, it is handy to sow a few extra ones in doors to fill any gaps if the outdoor ones fail to germinate. Sow each been seed 5 centimeters deep in an 8 centimeter pot of multi-purpose compost. Water these and put on a sunny window sill until they germinate. Harden off in the cold frame before planting out, gradually increasing the ventilation. If you don’t have a cold frame, place outdoors in the first week, bringing in at night and leave out all the time the following week. Plant out when approximately 8 centimeters tall, usually around late May. Plant climbing varieties at the base of each cane and tie loosely to the cane with twine. Plant dwarf plants in blocks with a 15 centimeters spacing. If a long cold spell occurs after planting covered with fleece.
Aftercare and Harvesting
Once they are growing, water before flower initiation only if wilting. Once flower initiation starts water them well to increase flower intensity, as this provides higher yields. A mulch around the plants helps moisture retention. Keep weed free by hoeing regularly.
Harvest dwarf varieties from the end of July to late September and climbers from August through to September. Both types may go on later depending on the weather. Start picking the pods when approximately 10 centimeters long. They are ready when the pods snap with these. Hence the name snap beans. If you pick frequently they will produce crops for a few weeks. Careful how you pick them, you can use scissors to make it easier. If possible, pick early in the morning when the pods are cooler. Store them in the fridge to extend their life.
Potential Pests And Diseases
Slugs and snails are a problem, particularly on seedlings. Use wildlife friendly slug pellets or other means of slug control. Pigeons can be a nuisance eating seedlings leaves and pods. So cover with bird proof netting. Aphids could be an issue on stem tips and leaves, sucking sap and potentially spreading viruses. Squash with fingers or spray with SB Invigorator, which has no harvest interval (you could harvest and eat crops anytime after spraying). Choose disease resistant varieties to avoid the potential for being anthracnose, halo blight or bean yellow mosaic virus. Many varieties, including ‘Ferrari’, ‘Sonesta’, ‘Nomad’ and ’Eva’ have disease resistance.
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Dwarf French bean ‘Purple Teepee’: purple pods held above the foliage for easy harvest and less damage from soil-splash. Stringless and tender with excellent flavour. Attractive mauve flowers.
Climbing French bean, ‘Borlotto Lingua Di Fuoco’. A classic of Italy known as ‘Fire Tongue’ beans. Bright red-mottled pods which can be used fresh, or left to mature and shelled for use as flageolet beans.
Algarve (flat) (AGM 1993) early variety with high yields of straight, flat, green stringless pods. Weather tolerant, it performs well under varying conditions. Available from www.dobies.co.uk
cv. Cobra. (PBR) (round) (AGM 2000). An early variety with a high quality bean and with a long harvesting period that is popular with amateur growers. Excellent flavour. This variety produces long, round pods which remain very straight.
Goldfield. A high quality variety producing flat yellow pods. Goldfield has a good plant vigour and a long harvest period with stringless pods that are 26-28cm in length and 25mm in width.
Hunter – a white seeded, flat podded variety best suited to early and maincrop production. Hunter is a high-yielding variety with pods 25cm x 20mm in size.
Montano – a pencil podded, white seeded type, producing dark green pods 15cm x 12mm in size, and virtually stringless. A very productive variety that is recommended highly being disease resistant.
Dwarf French Beans
cv. Hildora. A bright yellow-podded dwarf bean, that produces high yields of 16cm long, stright pencil-podded beans. Very popular for veg box schemes. Has some disease resistance.
cv. Stanley (AGM 2010). One of the heaviest cropping dwarf beans. Long, straight, green rounded pods produced over a long period.