To bean or not to bean

French beans, runner beans, pole beans, and many other varieties are mostly easy to grow using vegan organic methods, and are very productive of fresh green pods. What is not always appreciated is that they can also provide quantities of tasty nutritious shelled beans, which can be used fresh or dried for storage, and are a traditional basis of many winter recipes. Broad beans and peas can also be dried using the same methods.

The information given in this article relates mainly to the UK but with appropriate variation would also apply to other regions of the world.

Growing techniques

Runner beans at Hardwicke. Photo: Stephane Groleau

We are not going to go into too much detail about the actual cultivation methods but some basic points are worth making; if you are unfamiliar with growing beans then consult a good handbook.

To grow your crop vegan-organically you just need reasonable soil with a good content of vegetable matter worked in, plenty of moisture, and an occasional boost with plant food. Beans do need fertile soil, well dug if it’s at all heavy, but so long as plenty of moisture is available at the roots then large amounts of compost will not be needed every year.

It’s helpful to start the plants in small pots and only put them in the growing situation when the soil has warmed up about early June; mulching will be beneficial once they are growing well. If planting direct into the ground, make sure the soil has warmed up, as runners in particular will not germinate in cool soil. Although runners are usually started from seed they are not annuals and the roots of the plants can be carefully lifted at the end of the season; stored over winter in a cool dry place these roots can be re-planted when the danger of frost has passed and they will grow again.

Although beans are included in standard crop rotations, many people grow runners in the same place year after year. One problem this might encourage is anthracnose, which is a form of rot. In fact, the roots of runners and maybe other varieties are said to produce an enzyme, which assists growth, so using the same site each year may be an advantage; you can thus decide to rotate them or not as you wish.

The techniques of drying

It’s possible to grow just to produce shelled beans, or, more usefully, to produce both green pods and shelled beans from the same crop.

When the plants start cropping, pick the young pods regularly in the usual way, for eating as a green vegetable; then in about mid-August you can decide how many plants you wish to use to produce your shelled beans. The point is that once the seeds in the pods reach maturity, the flower-producing mechanism switches off, so no more pods will form. If you want to produce mostly beans for drying then take just a few of the early green pods.

So for shelled beans simply let the pods develop, not forgetting to feed and water. With most varieties, the young green seeds can be shelled out and cooked like peas; these are flageolets, and some catalogues sell especially suitable varieties.

To dry beans for storage it’s preferable to let the pods dry out in place on the plant. The skins go brown and brittle in autumn and when the pods begin to split then it’s time to pick and shell them. Keep a close eye on the crop at this stage as the beans may spill onto the ground.

If the pods are not dry by the end of October and the weather stays wet it is possible to pull up whole plants and hang them up in a shed to complete drying, or pick the pods in bunches and spread them on cardboard fruit boxes in a dry place which is reasonably warm. If drying beans indoors in boxes there is always a risk of mould and rot, so inspect them frequently and discard any that become soft and wet. A through flow of air assists drying, whichever drying method is used.

Broad beans and peas are treated in the same way, except that the green pods of peas are not eaten, the whole crop being left to dry. You will have to decide yourself whether or not it is worthwhile growing peas to dry; usually there is only enough of a crop to provide fresh green peas for the summer table!

Storage

Before the shelled beans are stored they must feel very hard to the touch and if this is not the case then spread them out on cardboard fruit boxes, again in a warm dry place, for a few more weeks. Drying in the sun or an oven is not recommended.

Store the produce in a dry place in paper bags or cardboard boxes. It’s necessary to check from time to time for signs of mould growth and throw any mouldy ones away. Mould indicates incomplete drying or damp storage.

Cooking

As mentioned, the green flageolets can be cooked like fresh peas. Home-grown dried beans will usually require less cooking time than shop-bought ones, so some experimentation will be needed. Soak then for at least eight hours in plenty of cold water, then drain and replace the soak water. Boil well for at least ten minutes, as natural toxins can be present (this also applies to shop-bought ones) then simmer until they are cooked.

Test the beans often during cooking and when they are soft to bite, then they’re done. The degree of dryness will affect the cooking time. As for the differences in flavour between the different varieties, well, despite what the catalogues say, it’s just a matter of taste: some folk prefer one type, some favour another.

If you are in doubt about the suitability of any produce for the table, then don’t use it. Seek advice if need be.

What varieties should we grow?

Broad beans at Hardwicke. Photo: Stephane Groleau

There is a bewildering choice available. The runner bean varieties are all worthwhile: you can try the white seeded, or the red flowered ones, which give vivid dark red beans. Mergoles/Desiree is a good white variety as is White Knight. Red Knight is a favoured scarlet type and Painted Lady is multicoloured, pink and white.

Climbing varieties of French beans are usually more productive than the bush types. Borlotti and Blue Lake are good. The Italian ‘Meraviglia di Venicia’ gives very tasty small black beans and also deliciously crisp, flat yellow pods. This one, however, does need a good summer if grown outside the southern counties of the UK. It should do well in any of the warmer temperate regions of the world.

All the bush types can be used. Bush types are usually not so good as climbers for drying in situ, as the beans tend to straggle on the ground where they soon become wet and fail to dry properly; they are also prone to being attacked by slugs and snails.

Soya beans aren’t a good choice. They used to be difficult to grow in the UK and much of Europe. Soya normally needs a certain day-length to pollinate properly, being a subtropical species; attempts to grow it in northern areas have generally failed. New varieties have been introduced that are claimed to be suitable for growing in the UK. It is advisable to start the seeds off in individual modules. Soya produces a huge number of small pods, with usually around three small soya beans per pod. This isn’t a problem for farmers who use a combine harvester, but for amateur growers, they require a lot of shelling time. Most other types of beans have much larger beans and many more beans per pod, making shelling less of a chore.

The butter bean sold dried and canned is a form of Lima Bean, but will not grow in the UK. White-seeded runners do give similar big beans, especially Czar, although the taste is not the same as the true butter bean.

Saving seeds

You can grow your future crops from the beans you have saved, in which case select mature healthy seeds from vigorous plants and store them in a cool dry place. Bean seeds will usually grow true to type year after year but where two varieties grow closely together then cross-pollination may occur. This is not necessarily a problem – you just get your own personal brand of bean which may be even better than its parents.

If you really want to avoid any chance of cross-pollination then it is possible to carefully place a small brown paper bag over a cluster of flower heads just as they are forming; leave this in place until the flowers are well open and then remove it. Use this technique with several flower heads to ensure plenty of good seed. The bag keeps out pollinating bees.

Buying seeds

Beans and Herbs www.beansandherbs.co.uk all of their seeds are organic. The seeds that they grow on their own load are grown vegan organically, but they do buy some varieties in which are unlikely to be grown vegan organically. Heirloom beans are available.

The Real Seed Catalogue www.realseeds.co.uk has lots of info about saving seeds.

This article was originally VON information sheet Num 2. Last update: 2016.