Scarlet runner bean
Scarlet runner beans can be eaten pod and all when young, or, later, stored as dry beans, says TINO CARNEVALE
My grandfather loved growing his towering scarlet runner beans, probably because he was a big fan of the English Victorian gardening style. His shed would be clearly visible one week then resemble a lost temple from an adventure movie the next. These huge climbing vines can literally blot out the sun if you are six years old.
The vines are beautiful to behold at full extension, covered in masses of scarlet flowers set against vibrant green foliage. They make an effective seasonal screen and are truly magical when used to create a secret garden. Then, of course, they give you lots of delicious beans to eat.
Scarlet runners are sometimes called seven-year beans, which as you may have guessed means they are perennial. I have had plants kicking on into their third and fourth years still producing well, but they return the biggest crops in the first year after sowing, so put in new plants annually if you want bucketloads of beans.
The beans originate in Central America, so one could be forgiven for thinking they enjoy a hot climate, but these are mountain folk, designed for cool, high altitudes. They grow best in cool temperate climates and struggle in warm to hot areas. Even here
in Tasmania, where they usually grow well, an extended hot, dry spell can turn a vigorous, healthy plant into a shrivelled mess. While most vegies prefer a northern aspect, I have found that they benefit from being on a sunny southern slope where conditions are cooler, or a cool spot on the south side of a building.
These plants love a fertile, free-draining soil so incorporate plenty of compost into your bed. If drainage is particularly poor, plant in raised mounds of pure compost.
Did I mention that these are big plants? Climbing 3m or more, they need a serious support frame. This took me a few years to come to grips with. My first year, I grew them up a few stakes, the second was over a screen, and now I just let them ramble over the whole chicken shed!
I have seen punnets of scarlet runner seedlings for sale, but I don’t believe they are the best option. Bean seedlings detest root disturbance, so I recommend sowing seed directly in the soil where you want to grow them. Soil temperature needs to be about 12°C to initiate germination.
They are best planted from spring, or mid-spring in late frost areas (they hate frost). Soaking seed in lukewarm water overnight speeds up germination. I plant 2–3 seeds per hole, 3–4cm deep, at the base of each stake, or about 15cm apart at the base of a trellis, then thin out to one plant per hole, removing the least vigorous. Water well after sowing then don’t give them another drink until shoots appear.
growing & harvesting
Pods fail to form when the overnight temperatures are consistently above 15°C. If this is the case, get out your hose in the evening and spray some water over them. This cools them down and allows them to set their fruit, and if it’s that hot you might want to give yourself a splash, too.
Start harvesting beans as soon as they appear, even if they are small. Beans love to be harvested often – it keeps them in production – so pick regularly and you can expect about three months of cropping. This is one of my favourite snacky plants when I’m gardening, a testimony to their productivity considering there’s enough for the table after snacking on them all day.
Scarlet runner beans can be harvested in three main stages: eat them pod and all when the beans are young, soft and sweet, and also when they have just filled out and developed a satisfying crunch, but before they get stringy and dry. Thirdly, at the end of the season when the older pods have dried, they can be shelled and stored to be eaten throughout winter or saved for replanting the following year.
However you serve them, these delicious beans are as prolific and consistent with their fruit as they are with their beauty.
CLOCKWISE FROM MAIN Scarlet runner beans need to be supported by a solid structure; large, colourful beans can be harvested for about three months; the flowers are a beautiful scarlet colour.