Climbing peas and beans are some of my favourite crops in the vegetable garden, they are the ones that epitomise Summer with their attractive flowers and lush growth. There is something 'active' about them with their reaching, coiling and climbing as they grow skywards and cover their supports.The good news about growing peas and beans is that it is relatively easy. Peas are hardy plants and can be started off early in the season and will be happy in most gardens. Runner beans won't like cold and exposed sites but are generally very reliable while French beans need a warm site but will produce huge crops of beans if conditions are right.
Sowing peas or beans is a delight with their large and easy to handle (and sometimes very beautiful) seeds, they really are an ideal beginners garden crop.
Seeds usually germinate very easily and produce large and vigourous young plants which tend to outgrow attacks by slugs or snails. The tall plants also produce their crop off the ground which keeps the harvest out of the away from slimy marauders and makes picking easy from a standing position.
Provided the plants are given adequate support they will produce over 6ft of leafy growth and transform and empty area into a vibrant green focus point with the promise of many weeks of harvest.
Climbing Supports All climbing peas and beans will need support so you will need to either use a ready made support or build one yourself. Supports can be as simple or elaborate as you like, you just need to remember that beans will scoot easily up a pole by twining their way around it but peas will also need lateral support.
French or runner beans are traditionally trained on bamboo wigmams as above which are a quick, easy and attractive support. The canes can be tied together or easily fixed using a plastic cane joiner, typically 8 - 10 poles are used to make the wigwam. Beans will grow higher than 6 ft but will be difficult for most people to harvest, it sounds obvious but only make your supports as high as you can comfortably reach.
Both beans will also climb lengths of twine which is handy if growing in a polytunnel; my garden is a little cool to be guaranteed a crop of French beans so I grow them indoors to be on the safe side. Bury a length of twine under your bean seed or seedling and tie the other end to the crop bar or support wire above, the beans will coil around and climb the twine.
For longer bean rows you can press your bamboo poles into service again to build a frame as illustrated in the photo. Tie the canes at the top with garden twine or soft tie, the process can be a bit fiddly but you can cobble it together pretty quickly.
If you live in an exposed area and want a more solid structure you can sink a fence post at either end of the row (or at 8ft intervals if you want a longer row) to hold a 2" x 2" ridge pole. This makes tying the bamboos on much easier as you have a solid centre pole and will help you sleep easier on gusty nights!
Peas will need lateral as well as vertical supports as they have a different growth habit. You can still use wigwam supports but you will need to weave twine or twigs around the poles to help the peas along. I like to use a square section support mesh on a purpose built 'A' frame because I just move it around the garden from year to year with my crop rotation and don't need to build it every year.
Whatever method you choose to support your peas make sure you leave enough space between the rows or they will grow into each other making them difficult to harvest. I guess I am lucky to have a large garden but I space my 'A' frames at least a metre apart. As we'll cover later you need to keep picking peas (and beans) to keep the vines productive so you don't want to encourage a tangled mess where pods go unnoticed.
With all climbers it is a good idea to get your supports in place before you plant or sow but this is especially true for peas as if they allowed to flop on the ground they never produce as well as those that were able to climb straight away.
There is a lot of chat about the ability of the legume family (peas and beans) to produce their own nitrogen from the air and while this is true it can also lead to the incorrect assumption that they do not need a very fertile soil.
As you probably know peas and beans host beneficial bacteria in nodules on their roots which 'fix' atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plant can use. It would follow that you would not have to add nitrogen rich fertilizers if the plant can make its own but this is not necessarily the case.
I think a reasonable estimate would be that that a pea or bean plant can make 50% of its own nitrogen but we also need to take the size and expected yield from the plant into account. A climbing legume plant going full tilt produces masses of green foliage, will grow over 6ft and be expected to continually produce crop for up to 10 weeks.
As is the case with any plant with high expectations (tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes etc...) they need a lot of feed to achieve all that bushy green growth and it is nitrogen that makes this possible. Even if the plant can cover 50% of its own needs the amount of growth required means the other 50% needed from the soil is still quite large.
I don't want to depress you but this also debunks the old wives tale that peas and beans leave nitrogen in the soil for following crops. The nitrogen produced by the plant is required for growth and ends up in the leaves and pods of the plant rather than the roots so the traces left in the soil when the plant is spent will be small.
The traditional method for growing French or runner beans is to dig a trench in early Spring and fill with manure and/or garden compost. I have never been organised enough to do this and usually end up spreading well rotted manure and seaweed on the soil surface in February and let the worms get on with it. Research has shown that adding well rotted farmyard manure when preparing the soil can increase yield by over 50%. If you are unable to get your hands on manure use garden compost (or Envirogrind) and mix in Seafeed seaweed and poultry manure pellets at a rate of approx 50g per plant.
I also use seaweed as a mulch between my frames or poles to keep weeds down which also helps feed the crops as it breaks down.
French Beans Contrary to their name French beans originally come from central and South America so are more suited to a warm climate. Ideally you will need a warm and sheltered South facing garden to be successful, gardens in cooler more Northerly parts of the British Isles may not be suitable (unless the Summer is exceptionally warm). If your site is not suitable French beans are an excellent crop for a greenhouse or polytunnel (this is what I do). You can also try a low growing dwarf bean if wind exposure is a problem for the climbing varieties.
French beans won't grow if soil temperatures are below 20˚C so even if sowing in a greenhouse you should wait until mid May. If conditions are warm enough seeds should germinate easily and produce fast growing and vigourous seedlings. I tend to grow the excellent bright green 'Cobra' most years but there are plenty of varieties to choose from with purple, yellow or speckled pods and seeds; try Borlotto Lingus di Fuoco for the most multi coloured bean which can be used fresh or dried and stored.
Seeds are spaced with 30cm between plants and 50cm between rows. If sowing around a wigwam support you can sow 2-3 seeds around each cane with approx 8 canes per wigwam. When the seeds germinate you may need to help any with a poor sense of direction towards the pole but most usually find their way up easily.
Runner Beans Runner beans are hardier than French beans so are more suited to our Summers, they need a lot more moisture than their French cousins so regular watering is important in dry conditions. As you may know my garden is located in the North West of Ireland where Summers are damp and cool (that's putting it mildly) and I still mange excellent crops most years. If you have a dry Southerly garden it can be a good idea to sow in July for an Autumn crop; late season crops require less watering and pod set will be better on cooler nights.
I like to grow 'Enorma' and harvest young as large beans will be stringy, if you want a stringless variety with heavy crops Lady Di is a good choice. Sowing distances and method are the same as for French beans with 30cm between plants or 50cm between rows or the same wigwam type cane supports.
Peas Peas are a bit of a pet of mine, I love the foliage, the delicate flowers and the elegant 'Art Nouveau' tendrils used to climb the support. Oh, and I also like the peas....
Unlike the tender beans above peas are more hardy plants and can be sown outside in late March/early May with a second sowing in late May. I prefer to get them in early as you are more likely to avoid the common pea troubles, powdery mildew and pea moth caterpillars prevalent from July onwards. Early sowing are not advisable on poorly drained sites or if mice are a problem as they can dig up and eat the seeds without leaving a trace!
Peas can be also sown indoors in modules for planting out later if conditions outside are unsuitable or to produce a very early crop. I see it commonly recommended to sow in lengths of household guttering which produce a long compost sausage of pea plants to be planted out in one go. I haven't tried this myself but it looks like it could be a bit of fun to do.
I usually sow peas 5cm apart along a row, staggering then either side of the mesh. I notice in Charles Dowding's (excellent) book 'Organic Gardening' that he sows in groups of 3 spaced 15cm apart to leave room for the roots to grow and to make harvesting easier, I'm too late to try this now but will give it a go next year, it sounds like a good idea.
Harvesting Peas and Beans The most important thing about harvesting peas and beans is that you have to keep doing it. If the peas or beans are allowed to ripen in the pod the plants will see their job of producing seed as done, stop producing and die back.
The process of keeping your plants productive can be difficult as depending on the type of support your use there can be many pods hidden in the foliage.
To harvest peas grasp the pod in your hand with one finger on the calyx (the bit that looks like Peter Pan's hat) and the other on the top of the pea pod. Push through your two fingers with your thumb to nip the pea from the vine. Avoid too much tugging as vines are easily damaged or you may pull it from the support. This method takes a bit of practice to get right but makes you look like a pro when you visit friends allotments or gardens so worth perfecting.
If you are sending your children out to pick peas (I have learned this the hard way) it is a good idea to give them a small pair of scissors instead or the next time you see your beloved peas they will look like they have (just about) survived a small, localised hurricane.
Beans are harvested using much the same method but can be a little more difficult to find on the vine unless you grow the yellow or purple varieties. If you are going on holidays and have no one to pick your bean crop you should remove all the beans (even immature) from the vines. This practice (best done in early August) is known as 'pod stripping' and will help you reap a bumper harvest when you return.
That's it, I hope you have found this article helpful. Please remember we are always available for any help and advice you might need and can be easily contacted by phone, email or live chat on the main Quickcrop website. Happy growing!