Plants don’t get much more productive than French beans. The beans hang so heavy on the plants you’d think the stems would collapse, giving you a plentiful harvest from minimal space in your raised vegetable beds. They are also very attractive, offering various flower and bean colours, so you could even incorporate them into your ornamental beds. Bees love the flowers too! French beans are more versatile in the kitchen than runner beans – you can eat them raw, and they don’t get as stringy – and also have the added advantage that they can be grown as dwarf plants as well as climbers.
The versatility of French beans in their cultivation, harvesting and consuming is matched only by the versatility of WoodBlocX raised beds in their style, size, shape and height.
If you have relatively low raised beds, a wigwam of climbing beans is a really pretty way to grow these plants, and once started, they won’t need much attention other than watering and harvesting of the beans. Use six or eight poles tied together at the top – hazel poles are best, but bamboo canes are a fine substitute – and then you’ll have plenty of beans all summer from only about a square metre’s worth of garden space.
However, if your raised beds are more than a foot or two high dwarf beans will be the best option, unless you have a ladder for picking them! These plants are grown in rows and produce plentiful beans as well, but tend to bear them all in one go (climbers give fewer beans at a time but over a longer period), so successional sowing is the best way to avoid gluts.
Bean shapes and colours can generally be split into round or flat pods, in green, white/gold or purple, and all combinations of the above. It’s also worth considering growing borlotti beans, also known as cranberry beans, (‘Lingua di Fuoco 2’ is the best variety) with its beautiful speckled pattern on both pods and beans, which can be left to mature and dry on the plant then stored to make ribollita and other tasty dishes throughout the winter.
All French beans are tender plants, and will suffer in a frost, so sow them in mid-spring in modules or small pots and only plant out once all risk of frost has passed. Two plants per cane of a wigwam is best, or space dwarf beans around 25cm apart each way (check the seed packet, but remember the soil in raised beds is more productive than the ground, so you can squeeze them a little closer together). You may also want to give dwarf beans the support of a small cane just to keep the beans off the soil surface; tie them in as necessary. Another sowing of dwarf beans in late spring and a final one in early to mid-summer will keep the supply going into autumn.
Harvest the beans once they are a suitable size but still young and tender by pulling carefully (hold on to the stem as well) or preferably snipping them off the plant. Left too long they will get tougher; and make sure you don’t miss any, as those that are allowed to develop and dry into seeds will send the signal to the plant to stop producing more. You’ll be able to keep picking climbers all summer, and get a couple of harvests per dwarf plant.