If you're leafing through the latest seed catalogues looking at all the different types and varieties of bean on offer, you may be having difficulty choosing which will meet your needs and suit your garden conditions. We have several excellent articles on GrowVeg.com about beans, for instance extolling the virtues of Beans for Drying, Yard-Long Beans and Broad Beans - but for me, the staple bean in my garden is the dwarf French bean, aka dwarf green beans.
Growing Dwarf French Beans
Dwarf French beans grow to maturity in the blink of an eye, so they're great for those of us with relatively short growing seasons. They do need warmth though, so to ensure they get off to the best start I sow the beans individually in modules or paper pots under cover to give them the protection and temperatures they need and to protect them from slugs and mice. They can then be planted out once they have their true leaves and have been hardened off.
French beans hate cold soil, so to warm it up I lay down a sheet of clear plastic several weeks before planting. This has the dual benefit of encouraging a rash of weed seedlings to germinate – they can then be hoed off, leaving you with clean soil to plant into.
Once the beans are planted out, it's essential to make sure the beans don't get caught by unexpectedly cold weather (they need temperatures of at least 12 degrees C/54 degrees Fahrenheit to grow) but due to their short stature it's easy to pop a cold frame or row cover over the little plants.
Pigeons can strip seedlings bare, so growing dwarf French beans under netting while they're young is a sensible precaution.
Make several successive sowings to ensure a long harvesting season. Dwarf French beans are actually faster to begin producing pods than the climbing versions, so even if you prefer to mainly grow climbing beans it's worth putting in a row of dwarf beans for an earlier crop.
Like most vegetables, they thrive in fertile, moisture-retentive yet well-drained soil, but they will fix their own nitrogen and rarely need any supplemental fertiliser – an occasional foliar feed of seaweed and regular mulches of grass clippings is sufficient.
As they're so diminutive, sturdy supports aren't needed, so DIY skills and materials aren't necessary for a successful crop. If the beans are trailing on the ground, push a twiggy stick into the soil next to each plant to give it something to lean on. It's also a good idea to grow dwarf French beans in blocks rather than rows, as the close spacing means that the plants will support their neighbours to some extent and help to keep the beans aloft.
High-Yielding and Delicious Dwarf Beans
While climbing French beans tend to produce the highest yields, their shorter relatives can be very prolific too.
Harvesting every two or three days is essential to keep the plants producing new pods, and each plant can keep producing for several weeks. To avoid becoming well and truly sick of your delicious homegrown beans, stick them in the freezer instead. The usual advice is to blanch them first, but I'm very lazy in the kitchen and I have to admit that I don't bother. Perhaps my palate isn't very sophisticated, but I've never noticed a difference in taste between blanched and non-blanched frozen beans (the same goes for peas).
To keep things interesting, why not try purple podded varieties, which also have attractive purple flowers, or yellow ‘waxpod' varieties. The colour unfortunately drains from purple beans when they're cooked (which does however provide an excellent guide showing when they're ready to eat!), but yellow ones retain their cheerful colouring.
If they do get away from you and the pods begin to dry out on the plants, don't despair – the semi-mature beans can be shelled and eaten, or you can dry the beans fully to store for winter use.
Wind-Resistant Dwarf Beans
The number one most important factor for me though, is the size of dwarf bean plants. Not their spread – climbing beans could take up less space on the garden floor – but their height.
Climbing French beans can reach more than 2.4m/8ft in height, but the dwarf varieties are less than 45cm/18in. My garden is on an exposed hillside facing directly into the prevailing wind, so any plants that grow there need to be able to cope with being bashed about in the all-too-frequent gales.
Taller vegetables get torn to shreds, and supports can end up strewn across the garden, but my dwarf French beans are easily sheltered by a row of nasturtiums clinging to a mesh fence that's little more than knee high.
When dreaming about what type of beans to grow next year, by all means try out climbing beans, broad beans, yard-long beans or any other type that takes your fancy – but don't forget about the humble dwarf beans which, for the minimum of effort, will reward you with an early crop followed by a summer of plenty.
By Ann Marie Hendry.