Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Runner Beans

Three towers of runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) stand as showy exclamation points against the northern edge of my garden. The oldest tower is on its third year, because, in our climate, runner beans are perennial. The plants form underground tubers from which new vines spring each year. So far, the older the plants are, the more vigorous they’ve been in my garden.

The three-year-old tower is a mix of various dark-colored beans, mostly solid black. Most of the original beans were from a bag of Rancho Gordo Ayocote Negro, a couple from a bag of Ayocote Amarillo, and some purple-splotched beans were brought to me from Greece by a friend. All the vines on this tower have lipstick red flowers and the hummingbirds claim the tower as territory, zipping over the space in aerial combat. Last year, this tower alone gave us almost five pounds of beans, beans which were soups and stews through our winter.

The dark-seeded tower blooming right now.
The dark-seeded tower in October or so of last year.

The second tower in my garden is planted with white runner beans that my same friend brought me from Greece. The beans this tower produces are huge and creamy, delightful in soups, purees, or marinated. The large white flowers are lovely and elegant. The plants are less exuberant growers than the dark seeded varieties and stay mostly politely on their trellis, loaded with pods. Last year, this tower gave me three pounds of huge, dove-like white beans.

Early bean set on the white seeded tower.

I harvest the beans of both towers as the pods dry up. I shuck the beans and let them dry further on plates or trays. However, in the moist air of our city, it is hard for me to get the large beans completely dried out, so last season, I stopped trying. Instead, after letting them dry for a couple weeks on plates, though they weren't completely shatter-dry, I bagged them in freezer ziplocks, one pound per bag, and put them in the chest freezer. This winter, the beans I stored this way cooked so quickly, much quicker and more evenly than completely dried beans, and were stunningly delicious.

The third tower of runner beans used to be planted with the same mix of seeds as the first tower. However, after munching on young runners to eat as green beans in the last couple years and enjoying them as much or more than common green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), I decided to grow a variety specifically focused on pod rather than seed production. I chose British Pop, a genetic mix from Adaptive Seeds, because I liked that it would provide a nice mix of colored flowers and the pods looked promising. This tower has been incredible productive of long, tender bods that have been in piles of dishes so far this summer: blistered with soy and chile, slivered and sautéed with corn, steamed with garlic butter, blanched in salade nicoise, and so on.

Perfect eating size of British Pop—this is when they are juiciest, most flavorful, and still very tender but crunchy.

This British Pop is too mature to eat as a pod bean unless it is stewed slowly. It will be tough and the beans will be starchy. At this stage, save them for dried beans or harvest just before dried stage for shelly beans.

In my previous southern Californian garden, I stuck mostly to common beans, P. vulgaris. The green beans and dried beans of vulgaris varieties were very productive and liked the heat and could tolerate some drought. There, runner beans, P. coccineus, always struggled to get going for me, and when they did grow, it was usually too hot for them to set many pods. But here in San Francisco, the vulgaris varieties grow okay but not great. There’s less heat, less searing sun, and the cloud forest loving P. coccineus do much better. Plus, they’re loads prettier and bring the hummingbirds.