Want to grow plants that produce lots to eat, are ornamental and grow well in cool microclimates? Try runner beans. You can eat the young pods as a green bean (a.k.a. snap bean or string bean) or you can harvest older pods when the beans have formed inside them, shell out the beans to cook and eat, or harvest mature, dry beans later. The flowers are big and bright, attract hummingbirds and are also edible.
Young Runner Beans in the Author's Garden with spring cabbage, and the flowers Cineraria (right rear) and Malcolmia maritima (in front).
This bean (Phaseolus coccineus) is a Central American native, and a different species than other garden beans. Its name means “red-flowered bean,” though there are varieties with pink-and-white or white flowers. Its native home is in tropical uplands, which gives it an ability to produce where summer days, and summer nights, are cool. This trait makes it well adapted to much of the Bay Area.
For a food crop, choose from varieties listed among vegetables rather than those sold among the ornamentals. The flowers will be just as pretty, but the pod and bean production is likely to be greater.
The most common varieties have bright red flowers with beans speckled purple and black. The white-flowered variety has pure white beans.
Runner beans are popular in Britain and Canada, where they are most likely to be eaten as green beans. The dry beans are popular in many parts of Europe; the white beans, which are especially popular in Spain and Greece, are sometimes called gigantes. The red-flowered variety is grown in mountainous parts of Japan and used both for its green pods and its dry beans.
Growing Runner Beans
Plant runner bean seeds directly in your garden in April or May. Plant three seeds at the foot of a 6-foot pole, or set seeds 3 to 4 inches apart along a trellis. As with all beans, for best germination, plant on edge, with the flat side down.
An ideal trellis for climbing beans will be sturdy, 6 feet tall and roughly 4 feet wide with uprights every few inches for the plants to twine on. An excellent material for making it is a fencing called hog wire, which has openings that measure 2 inches by 4 inches. Beans will also climb a chain-link fence. Just be sure the trellis openings are large enough for the stems of the twining beans; chicken wire won’t do as the openings are too small. If you have room, you could grow climbing beans on a bean “teepee”: Set several tall poles in a circle and fasten them together at the top.
Snails may damage the young plants. You can use row cover to protect your seedlings, or cover them at night with a quart yogurt container or similar cover. Later in the season, hunt for snails on the plants and remove any you find.
Remove the dead vines before the following spring, but spare any that seem still flexible, as they may be still alive and ready to sprout new leaves in April of next year.
Eating Runner Beans
Eat the green pods when they are about ½- to ¾-inch wide. Wider pods become unpleasantly fibrous (the length of pods will vary and is not important). Use them as you would any green bean. They have a fine, sweet, bean-y flavor.
You can shell the not-yet-hardened beans out of larger pods to cook them, or let the pods ripen on the plants until they are dry and crisp and the beans are hard and dry. (Once you let any pods mature dry beans, the plant will make fewer new pods, so it is best to wait until late in the season before you let some pods ripen and form dry beans.) You can store the mature, dry beans to use later or for replanting.
These big, fat beans are delicious in soup or chili. They can be used wherever dry beans (including dry favas) are called for.
I often use equal amounts of the big runner beans and a similarly colored small bean together in a recipe.
Other Ideas for Cooking with Runner Beans
Small Green Pods: Roll them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at 450 degrees for about 17 minutes, or until they have brown but not black areas.
Dry Beans: A traditional use for gigante (white runner) beans is to marinate the cooked beans in a savory vinaigrette or in tomato sauce. In a less-traditional option, a friend uses the dark-seeded runner beans to make a vegan snack by boiling them until nearly tender, then reducing the amount of water and adding sweet sherry and soy sauce, plus ample chopped fresh ginger; then boiling again until they are tender. Refrigerate marinated or flavor-infused beans.