Textbooks and seed
catalogues sing the praises of French beans as
a garden crop, but in Britain it is the runner
bean which reigns supreme. For us the French bean
is a stand-in crop until the long pods of the
scarlet runners are ready, but in Europe it is
the haricot vert which is queen throughout the
summer. France, however, is only its adopted home
– the plant is a native of S. America. The
French bean is a half hardy annual which cannot
stand frost. It likes warm conditions and hates
heavy clay, and it is decorative enough to be
grown in the flower garden. The standard varieties
are bushy plants with 4-6in (10-15cm) green pods
following the white, pink or red flowers. There
are variations – you can buy purple- and
yellow-podded typed as well as climbing varieties
which may grow as tall as runner beans. In recent
years there have been many introductions and also
new ideas about spacing – today the recommendation
is to plant the seeds much more closely than the
older textbooks advise.
Points to watch for: Never plant before the recommended
time – seed will rot in cold and wet soil.
Expected germination time: 7-14 days
Approximate number per ounce: 60
Amount required for a 10ft row: ½ oz (15g)
Expected yield from a 10ft row (Bush varieties):
Expected yield from a 10ft row (Climbing varieties):
Life expectancy of stored seed: 2 years.
Approximate time between sowing and picking: 8-12
Ease of cultivation: Easy
· French beans will succeed in any soil
provided it is neither very heavy nor acid. Lime,
if necessary, in winter.
· Pick a reasonably sunny spot which is
sheltered from high winds. The site should not
have been used for beans last year. Dig in autumn
and add compost or well-rotted manure. Prepare
the seed bed about 2 weeks before sowing –
apply a general-purpose fertilizer such as Growmore
at this time.
Sow 4in (10cm) between seeds 2in (5cm) deep, with
18in (45cm) between rows.
· For an early crop sow a quick-maturing
variety in early May. If you want to pick beans
before the end of June then you will have to grow
the plants under cloches. Put the cloches in position
in early March and sow the seeds in the soil beneath
them in early or mid April. Remove the cloches
in late May.
· The maincrop is sown during May. Successional
sowings up to the end of June will provide pods
until early October.
· For a late autumn crop sow in July and
cover the plants with cloches in mid September.
Sowing time: Mid May to June; Can be sown in April
under cloches or cold frames, and up to mid July.
Picking time: Usually July to mid October; less
usually from the end of June to the end of October.
Looking after the crop
· Protect seedlings from slugs and hoe
regularly to keep weeds down during the early
stages of the crop’s life.
· Support the plants with short twigs or
pea sticks to prevent them from toppling over.
Use twiggy branches or plastic netting for climbing
· Spraying the flowers is not necessary
in order to ensure that they will set properly.
Moisture at the roots, however, is essential to
ensure maximum pod development and a long cropping
period. Water copiously and regularly if the weather
turns dry during or after the flowering period.
· Mulch around the stems in June. Once
the pods have all been harvested, feed the plants
with a liquid fertilizer. In this way a second
crop can be obtained – smaller, of course,
but very welcome.
· Begin picking when the pods are about
4in (10cm) long. A pod is ready if it snaps easily
when bent and before the tell-tale bulges of maturity
appear along its length. Pick several times a
week to prevent any pods maturing – you
can then expect to continue cropping for 5-7 weeks.
Take care not to loosen the plants when harvesting
– hold the stems as you tug away the pods,
or play safe and use a pair of scissors.
· Dried beans (haricots) are obtained by
leaving the pods on the plant until the turn straw-coloured,
and then hang the plants indoors to dry. when
the pods are brittle and have begun to split,
shell the beans and dry them of a sheet of paper
for several days. Store the haricot beans in an
Most French bean varieties grow as compact bushes
12-18in (30-45cm) high. There are a few, however,
which are climbers and will clamber up supports
to a height of 6 or 7 ft (180-210cm).
Green varieties – Flat-pod and Pencil-pod
These make up the most popular group, with scores
of old and new varieties. The well-established
ones are generally Flat-podded or ‘English’
varieties – flat, rather wide and with a
tendency to become stringy as they mature. The
Pencil-podded types are usually stringless.
The Prince: Aptly named – the most popular
of all French bean varieties. It is a dwarf-growing
Flat-pod which is recommended for exhibition.
Masterpiece: Another old favourite Flat-pod –
suitable for early sowing. An excellent general-purpose
bean, say the experts.
Canadian Wonder: A heavy cropping Flat-pod –
once popular but no longer to be found in many
Tendergreen: Perhaps the most popular of all the
Pencil-podded types, and justly so. Early, stringless,
excellent for freezing and prolific.
Loch Ness: A stringless Pencil-pod which will
withstand colder conditions than other varieties.
Cordon: Another tough variety which survives under
conditions which would damage the old favourites.
A stringless Pencil-pod which gives high yield
– a successor to Glamis.
Flair: This Pencil-pod has the reputation of being
the earliest French bean.
Pros-Gitana: A truly continental bean –
round, narrow and stringless.
Phoenix Claudia: The Pencil-pod which is recommended
for sandy soil and very early sowing.
Remus: Something different – a Pencil-pod
which bears its pods well above the leaves. Very
tender – can be eaten raw.
Chevrier Vert: The most popular haricot variety,
which you will find in some but not all catalogues.
You can cook them at the flageolet stage or allow
them to dry as cream-coloured haricot beans.
Blue Lake: The most popular climbing variety,
its 5ft (150cm) stems producing a plentiful supply
of white-seeded Pencil-pods. Beans can be dried
Garrafaloro: Another climbing variety, but the
pods are different – this plant produces
9in (22cm) long Flat-pods. Flavour described as
‘distinctive’ and ‘unusual’.
Coloured varieties – Yellow Waxpod, Purple
Coloured pods have an obvious novelty value, but
they also have practical advantages. The pods
can be easily seen at picking time and the stringless
Yellow Waxpods have an excellent flavour.
Mont D’Or (yellow): The 6in (15cm) round
pods have a waxy flesh and contain black seeds.
Cook whole – considered by many to be the
best of the Waxpods.
Kinghorn Wax (yellow): A stringless Waxpod renowned
for its flavour. The flesh is creamy yellow.
Royal Burgundy (purple): Quite compact (12in/30cm)
bearing purple Pencil-pods which turn green when
Purple-Podded Climbing (purple): Grows about 5ft
(150cm) high. Decorative with its pendent bunches
of dark purple beans which turn green when cooked.
See runner bean.