Bountiful Beans, Part I: Runner Beans
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
As the summer sun rises over the garden, sweeping away the last vestige of the cool morning, the air fills with the buzz of bees and the melodies of the morning birds. Hummingbirds perch on fence wires, preening and settling their feathers before heading to their favorite breakfast: the runner bean blossoms. Among all the blooms in our summer garden, the brilliant scarlet of the runner beans stands out as one of our favorites.
Because saving seed is one of the fundamental goals on our homestead, the beans chosen to become part of our summer garden are selected from three different Latin name groups. While all beans are self-pollinated, our busy pollinating friends—bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies—could cause cross contamination if the beans are of the same species. We grow three distinct groups: common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), and yard long beans (Vigna unguiculata). True to their name, the runner beans are among the most vigorous vines in the garden, quickly overtaking their black locust trellises and eagerly twining around everything else in reach. We were first drawn to runners because of their vibrant blooms, and for several years we grew the traditional scarlet runner beans. As we found how much we enjoyed their flavor, we began seeking an alternative that would retain its tenderness longer on the vine. We settled on Lady Di runners from Territorial Seed Company because of their traditional scarlet blooms and their slow transition from a green bean to a tough-podded dry bean. (Note: When they turn “tough,” what they are actually doing is transitioning to a seed bean, ready to be planted the following year. Since the Lady Di beans are slower to toughen, it is important to mark the seed cluster early in the season so it has adequate time to mature.)
Runner beans prefer milder temperatures than their common bean counterparts and won’t set fruit during the heat of summer. This means that they provide some of the earliest and latest green beans in our garden. We plant the Lady Di runners as soon as we are past the last spring frosts and the ground has warmed enough for the sprouts to stand a fighting chance against slugs. If the sprouts don’t have enough warmth to take off, slugs or earwigs will inevitably get them before they begin to climb. This is one area in which runner beans have an advantage, because their cotyledons (the primary seed leaves) remain underground at germination.
Even if the stems do get eaten off—and some of them always will—they may reemerge, unlike a common bean, whose cotyledons are above the ground surface. After the blooms begin to set fruit, the long racemes will develop many beans simultaneously, with a plethora of blooms forming on each cluster.
During the fullest swing of bean season, I check the runner beans once every two days to catch them at their peak. The five minutes spent in studying the towers of shimmering red and green is (almost) never a chore, and yields a handful, or basketful, of velvety beans.
Most of the runner beans are eaten fresh throughout the summer months and into the fall. Because they thrive in cool weather, they continue to produce even after a light frost. If there are more beans than we can use, they are canned to bring summer’s flavor to a winter evening or blanched and dried to be used in soups. Canning is a high energy input process and so isn’t our preferred method of preservation. However, the extra input is worthwhile for a few specific products, one of which is a few batches of green beans. When we open a jar, we remember the tower of blossoms buzzing with bumble bees and hummingbirds and we look forward to another summer of runner beans.