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Beans – French and Runner

French bean – Phaseolus vulgaris

Runner bean – Phaseolus coccineus

Soy bean – Glycine max

Summer beans are a big subject! We also look at borlotti beans (Phaseolus v, Cranberry Group), a variety of common bean first bred in Colombia as the cargamanto, and sometimes called ‘cranberry bean’.

Another variation is the Lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), also called butter and Madagascar bean. These beans are slightly larger than runners and super tasty, but they need a little more warmth than the other beans here.

All are legumes, in the plant family Fabaceae. Mostly they are grown for pods, through summer and into early autumn.

Some plants are dwarf and some climb, with bean pods of varied colour, shape and length. Many are suitable for ripening to dry, and we can then shell the seeds to eat as nutritious food in winter and beyond.

15th October – drying pods in the greenhouse; borlotti at the back, dry Czar in front, and more recently picked plants also at the back
As the spring cabbage is finishing in May, I am ready to transplant French beans from the modules
After shelling the borlotti beans and Czar runner beans, they finish their drying process on a sunny windowsill in October

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: 55–70
  • Best climate is temperate to warm and not too dry, especially for climbing beans.

They are all sensitive to frost so the harvest period is midsummer to early autumn, around three months. During this time you can easily have a surplus of pods.

Harvests of mature pods for dry beans happen through the autumn, and in wet autumns they may not be totally dry.

All harvests need to finish before the first frost.

Why grow them

Flavour is a big motivation for growing your own, plus the regularity and abundance of harvests over a long period. Bean pods gathered and eaten on the same day have a crunchy texture, while yellow pods are slightly waxy.

Soy beans are delicious harvested in a green pod, with soft yellow beans inside, of superb flavour. Their harvest period is late summer, and the harvest is called edamame. Soy beans’ Latin name was chosen by Linnaeus, from the Greek ‘glykys’ which means sweet.

  • Shelled beans taste amazing too, for starters when you pick them to eat as fresh beans in early autumn. They are creamy and full of flavour, without any dressing or sauce. Especially the white Phaseolus, Czar.

Then, as long as they are fully dry before you put them in a jar, they store for many months, and have considerably more flavour than bought beans.

Suitable for containers?

The best type for containers is any dwarf French bean, just one per pot – pick carefully to keep it cropping over a long period.

There is a dwarf runner bean variety, Hestia, which sprawls a bit but does work for containers. Give it a little support, say 60 cm/2 ft sticks, otherwise beans at ground level may be eaten by slugs.

Conditions for success

As much as they need warmth to grow well, they also need sufficient moisture. When I lived in France, and we had a warm October when I could give plenty of water to the bean plants, they were some of the best of the year. They don’t like fierce heat, just warmth.

  • Grow under cover for early harvests, for example with a transplant of dwarf French beans, three to four weeks before your normal outside transplant date. Ensure to remove these plants by midsummer, when it may be too hot for successful growth and at risk from red spider mite.
21st April – a new planting of French beans, with some six-month-old garlic
21st May – a new planting of Cobra beans on strings
By 6th June there’s significant growth; see freshly transplanted cucumber and basil that have replaced the salad plants

High temperatures are detrimental to runner beans, which do not set well in hot summer weather, such as above 30 °C/86 °F by day. Night temperatures not going below about 18 °C/ 64°F also result in flowers not setting.

Not setting means that flowers appear and then simply drop off before becoming beans. It’s sometimes claimed that this is from a lack of moisture in the air or a lack of insects, but it’s from too much heat, together with too little moisture at the roots.

Climbing beans also do not like too much wind, as you can see from the photo below, taken during a windy summer.

30th July – climbing beans looking a little worse for wear after some serious wind in July; the wind came from the right, which is southwest, our prevailing wind
Mid-August, with soy beans closest to camera and teepees plus rows of climbing beans at the back; the teepees resisted winds better than the rows – see below


There are green, yellow, and purple pods to choose from. Some are flat and some round. Some have white seeds and others are coloured – check out suppliers of heritage varieties such as Real Seeds in the UK. I give just a few examples here.

French beans – dwarf

They are easy to grow, not least because you don’t need to give any support. However, they grow heavy with pods and risk falling over, sometimes with the main stem snapping at ground level in a sudden high wind. This is terminal and very frustrating!

Dwarf bean plants crop earlier than climbing ones but finish earlier too.

  • I enjoy success with Cupidon and Safari (green pods), Orinoco and Sonesta (yellow pods), Purple Queen and Purple Teepee (purple pods).  Yellow pods keep their colour in cooking and purple ones lose it. There are many other varieties to try.
Orinoco – yellow dwarf beans; seed saved for three years now
Purple Queen – a dwarf French bean
Safari – with beans thinner than Cupidon

French beans – climbing

Your investment in a support structure is repaid by not needing to bend so much when harvesting. Plants also crop for a longer period than dwarf varieties, so one sowing, of Cobra for example, can feed you for two months or more.

A good strategy is to start the year with a few dwarf beans, then follow with a slightly later sowing of climbing beans. Sow the dwarf beans in mid-April under cover, and the climbing beans in late May, either under cover or outside.

  • Try Cobra for green pods, Neckargold and Golden Gate for yellow pods, and Cosse Violette for purple pods.
  • Standard borlotti beans grow a lovely harvest, either for pods or dry beans; there are also dwarf varieties.
12th August – climbing French bean Cobra at Lower Farm; the garden was quite sheltered which helped, and these have cropped for a month already
Golden Gate climbing beans – producing huge harvests by late July
In the polytunnel with cucumber, basil and Cobra beans cropping well – at this stage I stopped picking two plants to allow some pods to dry for seed

Runner or pole beans

These crop heavily and for a long period. In my part of England, they are a staple of many gardens from just one sowing, for bean pods all summer.

They can also be grown for dry seed, and the variety I recommend highly here (Czar) is white flowering and white seeded. Once you find some seeds and succeed a harvest, you will appreciate why I recommend them: for the amazing flavour. Summer and autumn need to be warm enough to enable both growing and maturing to dry.

  • Scarlet Emperor and Enorma grow large green pods over many weeks.
  • For dry beans, Czar grows lovely white ones, and also works for picking green pods.
  • I hear from several gardeners that their harvests are now less good from certain varieties of runner beans which they have grown for many years, while they keep buying new seed from the same seed company. See below for my tips on saving your own seed, which is less easy for runners than French beans.
The Czar runner bean has been left unpicked, as the seeds will be dried
An abundance of Borlotti beans; however, they are still unripe in late August, after a cool summer

Soy beans

Grow these as for dwarf French beans – they need warmth and are killed by frost. Harvests in my temperate climate are small but feel worthwhile, thanks to the excellent flavour.

In a warm summer, the pods can dry enough for shelling beans – see below.

I have limited experience of varieties – in the UK, Green Shell is common and grows well. Siverka is bred for cooler conditions and produced less well for me.

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


Use a sharp knife or trowel to cut stems at ground level or just below, leaving most roots in the ground. There won’t be many nitrogen nodules by this stage because bean plants use most of them to grow themselves.

When we grow these plants for bean harvests, they are close to the end of their lives by the time we remove them. At this stage, they make no new nodules.

When clearing plants in autumn, rather than during the summer, I like to spread the annual dose of compost before any transplants. Soil is fed and protected through winter, and you don’t then need to spread new compost in spring, before new plantings.

Follow with

Early plantings of dwarf beans finish by late summer, allowing time to grow brassicas for autumn and spring harvests, as well as salads, herbs and fennel. Soy beans may also finish by early autumn – then transplant brassica salads or spring cabbage.

Climbing beans need a whole summer to grow. Remove plants as soon as you have the final harvest, then transplant salads for harvest through winter and spring.

Another option, that goes against most rotation theory, is to transplant broad beans in late autumn. Or sow mustard as a cover crop/green manure.

After dwarf beans finished, we transplanted Pak Choi in this bed on 9th September; now, on 18th October, you can also see multisown spring onions on the right and broccoli for spring on the left
13th December – two months after salad plants were transplanted on 13th October, following removal of climbing beans
13th December – two weeks after transplanting broad beans into a bed previously inhabited by climbing beans throughout the summer