What’s the most productive vegetable you can grow for the space you have? Climbing beans of course! Also known as pole beans and runner beans, these guys really encapsulate the glory and abundance of summer. To make sure you grow a fantastic crop of beans, follow my seven steps to success…
1. Best Soil Conditions For Beans
Climbing beans love a sunny spot that receives at least five, and preferably eight, hours of direct sunshine a day. They adore a deliciously moist, fertile soil that keeps these thirsty plants quenched without leaving them sitting in pools of water. The best way to encourage perfect soil is to incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter such as compost before planting. Add a couple of inches (5cm) of compost on top of the soil a few weeks before planting to give it time to settle.
If summers are particularly hot and dry where you garden, consider preparing compost trenches during the winter before planting. Dig out a trench or pit where your beans will be planted, then fill it with kitchen scraps and other compostables before returning the soil on top. As all this organic matter decomposes it will create a rich, water-retentive cushion of goodness for roots to grow down into, and this will really help the plants in hot weather.
2. Sowing Beans Successfully
Climbing beans need warmth to germinate. This is really important, because if you sow too soon your seeds will sulk, or may even rot, and you run the risk of weak seedlings that will set back your bean-fuelled ambitions.
If you’re gardening in a warmer climate you can sow directly when soil temperatures are at least 45ºF (7ºC), and preferably a bit warmer than that. Sowing direct, where plants are to grow, removes the risk of the young plants being disturbed by transplanting and it means there’s one less step in the whole process – just pop in two seeds at each support, cover with an inch (2cm) of soil, water well then, once they’ve germinated, thin to leave the strongest of the two seedlings in place.
In cooler or more temperate climates like mine it’s worth sowing under cover for more reliable germination. Sow into large plugs or small pots. Fill them with potting mix, dib a hole in the middle with your finger, pop in a seed and cover back over. Give them a good water then wait for a week or two for the chunky seedlings to push through. Easy! The young beans can go out once all danger of frost has passed and it’s reliably warmer. They grow really fast, going from seed to planting in as little as three weeks, so there’s no need to sow them earlier than late spring.
3. Best Bean Supports
It's no surprise that to get the most from climbing beans you’ll need to provide strong supports, at least 6 feet (2m) tall. There are several designs of supports to choose from, ranging from long A-frames and T-frames, to teepees, which are very robust in more exposed gardens. A-frames and teepees can easily be made from bamboo canes. I’m very lucky to have metal arches in my garden to grow beans up. They look simply stunning once they’re cloaked in the beans’ lush foliage, covered in flowers and with the beans dangling down from overhead.
Once planted, your beans will easily find their own way onto these supports, but you can always feed the shoots back onto them if they lurch too far off.
Once the beans reach the top of their supports (or in the case of an arch, meet in the middle), it’s time to cut off, or ‘pinch out’ the growing points to stop them climbing any further. This both keeps things neater at the top, and it stops further growth that might distract the vines from flower and pod production.
4. Feeding and Watering Beans
Climbing beans produce masses of foliage and, of course, pods – and all of that requires lots of water. If you have relatively well-drained soil it’s really very hard to overwater these thirsty plants. In the summer I make sure to give my climbing beans a thorough, deep water at least once a week and when it’s really hot, will step up the frequency to at least twice a week or more. Aim the water at the base of the vines and thoroughly soak the soil. Go off and continue watering elsewhere, then come back to the beans to soak them some more. Whereas most vegetables might have, say, a foot or two of leaves to keep hydrated, pole beans have lots of foliage way over head-height to keep quenched, which is why such a thorough job of watering is so important.
If you don’t water enough the foliage may wilt and turn brown and dry, which ultimately weakens the plant and makes it susceptible to disease. Check soil conditions regularly when it’s hot, dry, and windy – just pop a finger into the soil and check how damp it is. If it feels moist below the surface you’re okay, if not – water…quick!
Beans, like other plants in the legume family, work with bacteria in the soil to fix nitrogen at their roots. It’s a clever I’ll-help-you-if-you-help-me relationship, and it means beans rarely need extra feeding. That said, they do still need rich, fertile soil. The organic matter you added before planting will both give plants that extra oomph they need, and improve the water-holding capacity of the soil. If you do find the foliage going a bit anaemic and yellow though, water on a liquid tomato or vegetable feed to give your beans a boost of nutrients to perk them up.
5. Companion Plants For Beans
Bean flowers draw in pollinating insects from far and wide, and they’ll even attract hummingbirds if you’re lucky enough to have those where you live. Nevertheless, you can supercharge pollination by companion planting with plenty of nectar-rich flowers among your vegetables and around your beans. Sweet alyssum, calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums are favorites of mine, and I’d also recommend other pollinator winners like cosmos and zinnias too. Just allow a few spaces throughout the veg garden for these blousy bloomers and watch pollination of all fruiting vegetables shoot up.
6. How to Dodge Slugs and Black Bean Aphids
In my garden there are two main pests to watch out for, at least when it comes to beans. Slugs may nibble at the young plants, which is another good reason to start them off in pots before planting, so they’re a bit bigger and more resilient when they go in the ground. Keep an eye on your beans early on, pick off any slugs you find, and consider setting up slug traps to make a dent in populations.
The other major pest is black bean aphids or blackfly. These tend to congregate on fresh new growth, at the tips of shoots. Inspect foliage every few days and if you spot them, try blasting them off with a strong jet of water. If you have plenty of nectar-rich flowers among your vegetables you’ll find that, in time, natural predators like hoverflies and ladybirds will manage to bring things under control, without you having to resort to pesticides.
Cut off any dead or diseased leaves that you come across. This prevents problems from spreading, improves airflow around the vines, and keeps plants looking nice and tidy.
7. Maximise Your Bean Harvest
Pick your beans – and pick them often! If you pick the beans while they’re still young and tender, the plant will be encouraged to produce more beans because it hasn’t yet fulfilled its goal of maturing viable seed to grow the next generation. Leave the beans to get too big, long and lumpy and there’s a danger that the vines will slow down or even stop altogether.
So check plants regularly – every nook, cranny and underside! It can be tricky to spot them all, but a tip is to grow purple or yellow-podded varieties, which are easier to identify against the foliage.
Are you growing climbing beans for the first time, or have you bean there, done that? Let us know in the comments below!