Climbing beans offer delicious beauty

Runner beans offer a cottage-garden look, abundant crop

In The Garden

April 18, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Sun Staff

I love multi-tasking, especially in plants. Plants that do two or three things at once hold special places in both my heart and my garden. Like climbing beans, which are marvelous multi-taskers.

"Climbing beans are a two-fer," observes Jo-Anne Van den Berg Ohms, president of John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds in Bantam, Conn. "You get quite a show and many produce delicious fruits."

Of course, some are all show. For example, hyacinth beans (Dolichos lablab) have gorgeous burgundy vines, big green leaves, mauve flowers, and purple pods, yet the pods, while edible, are not palatable. But others offer three-fer and four-fer possibilities.

"Scarlet Runner beans are very versatile. You can use the young beans like a green snap," says Leanne Gensch, horticulturist at Vermont Bean Seed Co. in Randolph, Wis. "And when they're a little older, you can use them like a shell bean. And they have a lovely [edible] bloom that also attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds."

Beautiful pods, flowers

Climbing beans (Phaseolus coccineus), also known as runner beans or pole beans, are members of the pea family (Fabaceae) and thus are nitrogen-setting legumes. While they can be perennial in their native Mexico, here in Maryland, they are (like most vegetables) annuals.

Covered with wads of sweet-pea-like blooms, they make lovely ornamentals. Depending on variety, flowers range from buttermilk to scarlet, pink, lavender, mauve, and the bi-colored fire-engine red and white of heirloom 'Painted Lady' runner beans and more. Apricot Runners sport clusters of pale coral blooms while 'Sunset Runner' is salmon-pink. Blue Lake pole bean flowers are mauvey-white and 'Kwintus' are white with a yellow center.

"I think 'Emerite' is the prettiest," says Lance Frazon, Mr. Seed Guy ("We don't have titles here") at John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. "The flower is rose pink."

But the beautiful bloom is only one of the designing charms of climbing beans. Some also have pretty beans. Purple Podded Runner produces fistfuls of purple beans that contrast beautifully with the green leaves and blanch to bright green when cooked, while Romano Burro D'Ingegnoli has pale butter-colored beans.

"And the Kwintus bean is a really pretty lime green," says Frazon. "They're wide and flat like Romano but they stay nice and tender even as they get up in size."

Climbing beans can froth along the tops of fences for a cottage garden look, or they can create a screen or horticultural wall hanging on a trellis. Trained up a freestanding support, they can act as a garden focal point or punctuate the end of a bed.

"You're creating an architectural look," Ohms says, "that is equally beautiful in a flower bed or the vegetable garden." Also, because climbers generally produce far more beans in a season than bush varieties, they are also an efficient use of production space.

"You get a lot more bang for your buck with climbing beans," notes Frazon. "With bush beans, there is a definite life term. They will stop producing after so many days. But pole beans keep producing until frost, especially if you keep picking."

A single tepee with about eight to 10 bean plants will provide a family of four with plenty for both fresh and freezing from about mid-July to frost.


Beans are very easy to grow. Sow seed in warm ground (about 55 degrees F -- early to mid-May here). Bean inoculant, available in most garden centers and catalogues, increases plant size and yields but is not critical for healthy growth. Climbing beans, which range in height from 6 to 10 feet, are great for kids because you can almost see them grow hour by hour. Their rapid growth also means you need to get supports in early.

"Put your tepee or trellis in as soon as the beans poke through the ground," Frazon advises.

Having supports in place rather than jamming them in the ground later prevents damage to roots and vines. Make sure you can easily reach the tops of the supports for both picking and training.

"Training [vines] gives more even coverage and prevents one area from getting too dense and choking itself," notes Ohms.

"The biggest thing is to keep them picked," says Gensch. "The more you pick, the more flowers you'll have. If you let the seed start to swell, production slows down to almost nothing."


Vermont Bean Seed Co.

334 W. Stroud St.

Randolph, WI 53956


Pinetree Garden Seeds

P.O. Box 300

New Gloucester, ME 04260


Select Seeds

180 Stickney Hill Rd.

Union, CT 06076-4617


John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

23 Tulip Dr.

P.O. Box 638

Bantam, CT 06750-0638


www.kitchengardenseeds. com

The Cook's Garden

P.O. Box 535

Londonderry, VT 05148


W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Warminster, PA 18974


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