Saved by the rain
by Derek Onley
Rain in late February saved the runner beans. A combination of meagre
rainfall and record temperatures over the summer caused them to panic
and fearing imminent death, they raced to produce seeds. They
succeeded in their reproductive endeavours but the result from a
gourmet point of view was almost inedible: short, tough, seed-filled
pods. In other cases the flowers fell off with no bean in sight. Had
it been early in the season or the weather dull, wet and dreary, you
could have blamed this on the lack of bees, but this year the bumble
bees were out in force; the cause was lack of water.
This need for water was recognized very soon after the introduction of
runner beans into Europe from the Americas in the 17th century. The
plant was first grown in the manor house for its decorative flowers.
Unless you lived in southern Spain where the Moors left a fine legacy
of irrigation channels, watering was a big task involving wooden
barrels, carts and horses, donkeys, recalcitrant mules and oxen - best
avoided at all costs.
Runner beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow. Just remember
to water them, soak them in fact, a couple of times if the weather
turns dry in January or February. Or you can save yourself the trouble
by growing them in humus-rich soil and mulching them heavily. If you
do mulch, however, do so only after the soil has warmed up and the
beans are climbing well and showing the first flower buds, for slugs
love the cool damp conditions under mulch and the succulent new bean
Runner beans are perennials and will grow up from the rootstock each
year around Blueskin Bay, as long as you do not live in a very frosty
spot. Even then there are always a few plants that succumb to cold,
damp and rot, and need replacing every year. They are easy to grow
from seed and you can let a few pods dry out on the vines. There will
always be a few pods that you missed, hanging there in the most
obvious of places after the plants have died down in May. If you do
grow your beans in the same place every year make sure you feed them
very well. Pile compost around them once they have started climbing
and toss on seaweed. Early on in the season you will have to watch out
for slugs eating the new shoots. These new perennial shoots are much
smaller and thinner than plants grown from seed and in a slow spring
they take ages to get going fast enough to outrun the slugs. I usually
grow my beans in a different place after a couple of years on the
basis that it helps prevent depletion of the soil and build up of bugs
Saucers of beer are the traditional traps for slugs and snails though
I have never been that convinced that they work and somehow rarely
remember to save enough anyway. Better to go out at night with a
torch, look under any mulch in the daytime or leave out bits of wood
for them to hide under. Avid organic and conservation minded gardeners
in the UK transport their unwanted slugs and snails to "friendlier
habitats", where they can play their part in the ecosystem by becoming
prey for thrushes, hedgehogs and shrews. Unscrupulous New Zealanders
have been known to throw them into the neighbours' garden.
Last year's advice for what to plant in March is still at
Briefly, this is the month to plant onion seeds to grow over winter
and transplant early next spring. The first of the Broad Beans can be
sown in the last few weeks of the month. You can still plant seeds and
plants of faster growing greens such as
leafy Lettuce, Mesclun mixes, Rocket and Spinach, take a chance on
Spring Onions and plants of Broccoli, Cauliflower and Cabbage.
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