Beans are a delicious and reliable vegetable that can keep on giving, writes Justin Newcombe.
For many of us bean plants are immortalised quite early on in life through the classic fairytale, Jack and the Beanstalk. It is no wonder this versatile veg was chosen as the deliverer of happiness and good fortune: you could indeed argue that it is the beanstalk that is the true hero of the story.
Beans are, quite simply, a wonder food. Acting as a staple in many food cultures, they are a diverse, nutritionally complex vegetable that can be dried and kept for use in the winter months as well as eaten fresh from the vine during the growing season.
Now is the perfect time to capitalise on this generous crop. In warmer areas beans can be grown from seeds directly into the garden. Alternatively you can raise them in trays which allows you the option of having them under cover at night, thereby keeping them warm and protecting them from slugs and snails.
As with all vegetable exploits the list of dos and don'ts is exhaustive. Probably the most important thing to remember with beans is that because they are part of the legume family they are nitrogen-fixers. This means that they will need to come after roots or alliums in your planting cycle.
They are light feeders but still benefit from some well-rotted manure and lime added to the bed about a month prior to planting. If you've left it all to the last minute I can vouch for the "just chuck it all in at the time of planting" method as well. This seems to work for me most years.
As is fairly standard with edible crops, choose a sunny, well drained site. Climbing beans require a sturdy support to grow up and this should be erected at the time of planting. Make sure it is well secured in the ground. There is nothing more disappointing than watching your mature bean vines being ripped from the ground during a freak weather episode.
Like our friendly tomatoes, there are bean types for all occasions. Take your pick from dwarfs, runners (aka climbing) or drying varieties. Dwarfs tend to crop eight to 10 weeks from sowing and then produce for about three weeks thereafter, whereas runners will take 10 to 12 weeks to crop but will do so for at least eight weeks if you treat them well.
Additionally, some runners are perennials and will re-sprout the following year. At the end of summer these plants can be cut off at ground level and left to winter-over or lifted and stored for replanting the following spring.
The most well-known example of this type is the Scarlet Runner with its distinctive flowers. Drying types can be either bush or climbing and are ready to harvest when the pods have matured and dried off on the vine. They can then be shelled and stored for later use. Cannellini and borlotti are popular examples.
All beans need a steady supply of moisture, so mulching your plants is recommended. They do not need extra fertilising once you have planted them, although some people like to sprinkle a little potash around them to encourage flowering.
Our favoured beans at the moment are mostly heritage varieties that we save at the end of each summer. Some years ago we bought a packet of Rainbow Mix Beans from Koanga Gardens which contained a collection of climbers including Purple Pod, Blue Lake and Market.
With different maturing times this selection ensures beans over an extended period. Between ourselves and other gardening friends we have kept that one packet going for several years now - at no extra cost to ourselves. That's what I call magic.