Text Madison Moulton
For many home cooks, the term ‘green beans’ doesn’t go beyond the steamed pods that accompany a roast for Sunday lunch. However, gardeners know there is more to beans than this basic dish. There are hundreds of bean varieties, each with their own varieties and quirks. Runner beans, a type of bean, are versatile in flavour, fun to experiment with in the kitchen, and easy to grow. And it may be a cliché, but in this case it’s absolutely true – you really can’t compare the taste of a store-bought runner bean with one straight from your veggie patch!
Runner bean varieties There are two types of beans that home gardeners often encounter – bush beans and runner or pole beans. Bush beans grow on bushes and produce pods much faster, while runner beans need to be supported and produce more beans per plant. The common runner bean varieties found in South Africa (‘Lazy Housewife’ and ‘Witsa’) are reminiscent of the classic green bean, but there are many more weird and wonderful varieties to try out:
‘Lazy Housewife’: Supposedly named for its slower growth rate, this bean variety is one of the most popular in South Africa. The plant produces white flowers that are followed by flat, fleshy medium-sized pods that are completely stringless.
‘Witsa’: This proudly South African variety was developed by the Horticultural Research Institute. Produced first in the 1950s, it was almost lost a few years ago when the only farmer producing this variety passed away. A strong effort from nationwide seed producers saved this bean and it now stands as a South African staple. High-yielding, blight resistant and tolerant of low water conditions, this variety is a must for any South African gardener.
‘Rattlesnake’: Identified by its purple streaks, ‘Rattlesnake’ beans are perfect for drought-prone, hot, humid environments. When cooked, the beans have a delicious nutty flavour. Their purple streaks also disappear during the cooking process – a fun kitchen magic trick.
‘Blue Peter’: ‘Blue Peter’ is a beloved purple heirloom variety that is quite rare – count yourself lucky if you can get your hands on some. It is not only grown for the delicious beans, which turn a deep green when cooked, but also for the ornamental value of the plant. The purple hue of the beans extends to the leaves and stems, giving this plant a handsome purple glow.
‘Cosse Violette’: Another purple bean variety, ‘Cosse Violette’ is often hailed as the best purple variety for its incredibly high yield and intense flavour. It also has one of the longest growing seasons of all the varieties, perfect for big families or avid bean lovers.
‘Green Noodle’/’Yard Long’: ‘Yard Long’ beans may not actually reach a yard in length, but they are still quite substantial, measuring about 50cm long. They are delicious eaten as a snack on their own or snapped into sections and thrown into a stir-fry.
Planting and care of runner beans
Runner beans are planted from September up until early January. They should be planted in full sun in soil enriched with compost, to retain moisture. Place your supports (bamboo stalks or trellises) before planting, and ensure they are secure. Fully-grown bean plants can reach up to 2m tall (sometimes more) and weigh a lot when producing, so the supports should be able to handle a fully-grown plant. Sow seeds in rows directly into the ground, 2cm deep and close to the base of the supports. Runner beans will also grow well in containers provided they receive enough moisture. Stagger your planting time in two-week intervals to provide a consistent harvest throughout the season. Once planted, compact the soil gently to ensure the seeds are completely covered, and water thoroughly.
Young plants can be weak and vulnerable to the elements. Protect early shoots from strong winds or tie them to the supports. Keep the soil moist throughout the growing season and mulch often. The more water the plants receive while growing, the juicier and tastier the beans will be. Keep the bed or container free of weeds and apply an occasional liquid fertiliser. The stalks can quickly become unruly – pinch off the growth once it reaches the top of the support, and quickly intervene if any stalks become tangled.
Harvesting runner beans
Most runner bean varieties will be ready to harvest in 9 – 12 weeks. Don’t leave harvesting too late; the earlier the beans are picked, the better the flavour (and if the beans are left on the stalk for too long, the plant will slow production or stop altogether). Pick your beans as often as possible to encourage more growth – every second day if possible. Whip out your recipe books and get ready to use your mountains of beans a few nights a week, or freeze them or share with your neighbours.
Panda’s tips on growing runner beans
Johan du Preez from Starke Ayres is a wellknown personality in the gardening industry, affectionally known as Panda. He has a passion for growing food and is a master in the kitchen.
Check out his tips for growing runner beans:
- Plant in rich soil that is well-drained and contains plenty of organic matter to retain moisture. You can add Hydrocache for better water retention.
- Use a balanced fertiliser like Nutrifeed every 2 weeks to keep the plants well fed.
- Plant alongside marigolds, lovage, petunias, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce. These companions grow well together and help each other out with pests and diseases.
- Get stakes or other support in place before planting runner beans. Any frames or trellis need to be sturdy enough to support these lanky beans, which grow to well in excess of 2m tall and will become extremely heavy when laden with pods.
- When the runners reach the top of the trellis, pinch out the tops (this means cutting off the very tip). This will encourage the plant to send out more shoots and beans below.
- Pick pods young, before they get stringy.
- Leaf-eating beetles can turn the leaves into confetti overnight. You can control that with the Kombat range of pesticides.
- Starke Ayres ‘Lazy Housewife’ is a runner bean with flat green pods with an excellent flavour. For a bush bean, Starke Ayres ‘Star 2000’ is a high-yielding bean with tasty, dark green stringless pods.