I am just about to plant the background scenery staple of every English murder mystery series you have ever seen. The detective heads down to the allotment to interview the witness or find the body, and there behind them is a trellis of runner beans, a mass of green leaves and bright orange red flowers. Just like the villain - you can't escape runner beans in a BBC mystery.
Runner beans are also in just about every pre 1950 European cook book, too, ever since they were introduced from the Americas in the mid 1600's. The English seem to mostly pickle theirs. In colonial USA runner beans were threaded onto string and dried as 'leather britches', which aptly sums up their taste and texture. There is a Spanish dish where the mature seeds are baked long and slowly with pig's cheek, which I haven't tried, and there is an irresistible Greek version with runner beans seeds cooked with tomatoes, garlic and whatever thyme or oregano happens to be on the nearest hillside. Runner bean flowers are edible too, in a 'they look pretty but have no flavour and the texture of wet paper' kind of way.
The chief virtue of runners beans is their beauty and hardiness- they grow fast, and enormous, up to three metres for each vine, and are perennial, dying down in winter and shooting in spring, which leads to their other name '7 Year Beans' as they're short lived perennials, and probably best grown as an annual, which is easy, as if you harvest the seeds from the mature pods hopefully you won't have eaten them all by spring.
There are also white flowered runner beans, and a very rare black one- the white one bloomed in our garden but never set fruit, and the seeds of the back one didn't germinate. There is also said to be a red and white flowered runner bean, too. The leaves are a bright glossy green, and the beans are flat, and green, though there is said to be an ornamental purple variety. The beans can be cooked whole when they are a day or two old, but by day four they have begun to grow leathery, so top and tail them, and by day ten they are tough and enormous so let them mature and use the seeds.
Plant runner beans from now till December - a late frost may knock them back, but they'll recover. Give them something tall to clamber on, or wide, like a fence. They are said not to set beans in the heat, but ours always do, possibly because they are well mulched and get mid afternoon shade. Or possibly I just don't notice when they aren't producing- runner beans always give far more than you need. Does anyone ever eat those thousands of jars of pickled runner beans?
The best fun with runner beans is to make a runner bean tepee. Try it with the kids. Place long tomato stakes, branches, bamboo poles - anything long and light - about half a metre apart around your base, then dig them into the soil deeply enough so they feel stable but sloping together at the top. You can make the top more stable by poking the end of each pole through a large plastic lid or similar. Dig about 30cm clear at the base of each pole, plant three seeds in each spot, then as they grow keep them twined around the poles. Water, mulch and feed often so they grow fast. The tepee should have green walls and red flowers in 10 weeks, beans in 12 weeks, and be the perfect cubby until the first frost. After that you can harvest all the dried beans hanging off the poles, and hope what once was lawn below recovers (it probably will).
Runner beans can also make excellent ''green curtains''. Install a window box (ask your friendly local hardware store for the best prefab one) Plant runner beans in the box, run strings up to the eaves for them to climb on, and by mid summer's heat your room should be dappled greenery, and your window better insulated that a single layer curtain can provide. You also can't pick dinner from your average set of curtains.
But do plant runner beans. They will be beautiful, and need little care, and if you forget to pick them the dried pods will hang from the trellis all winter till you are ready to use them. I still only use runners as green beans when there are no other green beans to be had, but the pink and black speckled seeds are far more tender than any you buy dried or canned, and with a flavour too, of earth and sunlight. Plant now, and see beans run.
This is a good week to:
- Harvest lemons for summer lemon cordial: boil 6 cups water, 2 cups juice, 4 cups sugar, 2 tb citric acid 2 tb tartaric acid; bottle as hot as possible then keep in the fridge. Throw out when it begins to look cloudy. Excellent with iced water or soda water for real lemonade.
- Plant everything. Corn, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, chilli, tomato, a heck of a lot of basil ... whatever calls ''plant me'' at the garden centre.
- Do not be seduced by zucchini. One plant will feed two people if well fed and tended and if you plant another in January as the old one becomes less vigorous and mildewed. I've never managed though to plant less than six zucchini bushes - somehow zucchini lure gardeners into planting far too many, so there are always a few that grow into seed-bearing monsters.
- Water, unless there's been a downpour in the last 72 hours. We are often so grateful for the small showers we don't realise how little moisture is in them.
- Pour a glass of water on each pot plant. If it runs off they need new soil - water can't penetrate. Repot with good potting mix, or if they are small and you are strong, soak the pot plant overnight in a bucket, with the water level not quite up to the top of the pot, then feed lightly.
- Mow lawn weeds but not the grass. Weeds spring up faster than grass, so chop off their heads to keep your lawn neat, but let the grass grow longer for a while, to give the roots stamina for the hot summer to come.