Christmas dinner was a splendid affair; perhaps too much food for comfort, but enough variety to satisfy even the most pickiest of eaters. There among the carrots, the potatoes, the parsnips and sprouts were the runner beans grown and harvested just a few months ago and then frozen into submission before being thawed out, heated up and served on a plate.
A few years ago, it seemed as though the humble runner bean was going the way of many once-popular vegetables.
People's tastes change, and the likes of White Apollo, Wisley Magic and Celebration looked destined to be beans grown and eaten only by dedicated gardeners who know that if you want the best beans and the best taste, you have to grow your own.
But the humble bean is making a comeback, which is fitting when you consider that it has always been one of the easiest veg to cultivate and one of the heaviest cropping. You don't have to grow them in symmetrical rows; an old dustbin filled with the right growing medium can house anything up to a dozen plants. And the beauty of that is that you can position the container where the conditions best suit the crop.
The runner bean truly is a winner. It's also a lover of muck, the more the merrier. Give a runner bean plenty of well-rotted manure around its roots and it will live up to its name and romp away in next to no time. It's partly this ability to shoot out of the starting-blocks like an Olympic sprinter that made the runner bean so popular in the first place. It might not be to everyone's taste when it comes out of the pan, but it's worth growing it just to see it go. And some of its speed seems to have been passed on to certain gardeners who plant the seeds well before winter has given way to spring. Unfortunately, it can be a risky business – the runner bean may fall victim to a late frost and all those weeks of sowing, germinating and offering TLC will have been wasted. So, with a bit of patience, it's possible to sow a bit later and still have a bumper crop. June 1 has long been considered as the make-or-break date.
Planted outdoors before that and that threat of frost is always there; planted after that, and they are usually guaranteed to survive to fruition.
I use the dustbin method (with a number of drainage holes knocked in the base and sides). Placed in a sunny, sheltered spot, the bean seeds are planted three inches below the soil surface and with a good two-to-three feet of growing medium below them. It's a mixture of compost from the garden, well-rotted manure and with a six-inch layer on top of shop-bought compost.
They go out in the second week in May, and because they are cocooned in their container, they can be covered with horticultural fleece or even newspaper should the weatherman hint of an overnight frost.
Watering is vital to success. Not only are runner beans greedy for food, they also have a thirst like a rugby team let loose in a brewery. So, regular watering is essential.
The seeds will germinate and grow at an incredible rate – I keep them reaching for the sky by tying them to bamboo canes (eight-foot tall) pushed down the sides of the bin and then wired together at the top.
The beans are worth growing just for their colourful flowers, and regular cropping of the fruits will encourage a bigger and better harvest. And when all the beans have been eaten fresh or frozen ready to become part of the Christmas festivities, compost the foliage and use the spent compost from the bin to dig into beds and borders.
This year's bean seeds are sitting comfortably in their packets in a frosty-free spot, ready to be unveiled to the world in May. I'll be growing Achievement and Moonlight, a white-flowering variety which produces stringless beans.
Definitely worth trying.
YP MAG 1/1/11