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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans

by Chris Burns
Just like snow flakes, you'll never find two that look exactly alike,  attesting to Nature's infinite variety of expression!
Have you ever seen these beautiful beans for sale at any market?  Would you even know what they were if I didn't tell you?  Don't they look like some kind of 'Magic Bean' that Jack of 'The Beanstalk' fame might have planted?  If you haven't guessed by now, I'll tell you. They're Scarlet Runner Beans and they're called that for two good reasons.  One, they have the most intensely scarlet red flowers, and Two, they 'run' up any pole, tree, fence or trellis that happens to be close to where they are growing.  If you've never grown them then maybe it's time to consider giving them a place in your garden.

I've grown them many times before, but up until recently I always considered them to be strictly 'ornamental'.  Don't know why!  Perhaps it's because they were described that way in the catalog from which I ordered my first seeds.  As you can see in the pictures posted with this article, they add exquisite beauty to any garden patch. It wasn't until 2011 that I sampled them as cooked, dried beans and discovered their beauty is only rivaled by their delicious flavor!
Scarlet Runners vining up the bamboo trellis. We grew a 70-foot row last year and are doubling it in the 2013 season.
These beauties grow steadily to a dramatic height of 10-12 feet (or more) and need a sturdy trellis of some sort to support the weight of their generous profusion of bean pods (we used bamboo poles tied to a wire pulled taught between t-posts). For those who enjoy attracting pollinators to your garden, you'll likely find (as we did) that the flowers regularly attract hummingbirds and many beneficial insects. (If you have cats, best not to grow the runners as we've heard sad tales of hummingbirds being caught and killed by those furry, domestic predators).

Bean-trellis made with bamboo poles wired to a cable.
Scarlet Runner Beans will grow in a greenhouse too. Just be sure to leave enough vents open to allow pollinators to come and go.
Plant beans 4"-6" apart and 1"- deep. Soil can be course and should stay moist but not too wet as seeds germinate. Often we will pre-sprout the seeds by keeping them between wet towels for several days till they germinate. Be very careful when planting as the sprouts are fragile.
The pods are deliciously sweet when they are young and tender (about 3-4 inches long).  So sweet, in fact that it was the first thing our two teen-age garden-helpers would seek out and munch on whenever they came to the gardens.

Bean pod-loving teens!
If it's mainly green beans that you're looking for though, it's probably best to grow another variety like 'Blue Lake' or 'Contender' which provide you with more of a volume at each picking.  These Scarlet Runners tend to produce pods steadily over a longer season but they become tough and stringy if they aren't picked on the small side.  The reason they probably aren't grown commercially for dried beans is that they must be hand-picked. At the Sharing Gardens we've turned this limitation into an asset as the weekly bean-picking was a task that folks with back and knee-issues could accomplish easily standing up. After a few days laid out on screens in the greenhouse the husks were dry enough to split open easily by hand. This was a task that many volunteers (share-givers), who weren't able to do more strenuous tasks,  found fun and relaxing; it also provided an opportunity to sit in the shade and chat with new found friends.

Pods, any bigger than this and they're too tough to eat green.
If it's dried beans you want, don't pick the pods until they are evenly tan and dry. If picked too green, beans won't store well, nor will they be viable for planting next year's crop. Once the frost hits, beans will no longer ripen much more. Pull up the whole vine and let the beans finish ripening in a green-house or warm, dry place before picking them off the vines. When they are as dry as they're going to get, shell these partially ripe beans and use them first as they won't store as well as fully cured beans.

These beautiful beans are rather large --about the size of a fat Lima bean-- and therefore yield enough to make a pot of soup-beans in a short time. If you're serious about growing your own protein-source, Scarlet Runners make an excellent choice.
Harvest beans once their pods are tan and dry. OSU-students shelling Scarlet Runner Beans.

Shelling beans from their pods is a fun activity for all! Jim and Adri shelling kidney beans.
But the best kept secret of all is just how delicious the dried beans are. They have a mild flavor and, unlike Fava beans, their skin is thin (not even noticeable) and they have a velvety texture.

A bamboo tipi provides a trellis for beans and beautifully frames our garden helpers.
Recipe: To cook these beans for eating, soak them over night just like you would any other, with about 1/3 beans to 2/3 water in a stainless or cast iron pot.  Pour off the water the next day; rinse the beans with fresh water and put them back in the pot. Add fresh water until the level is about 2-3 inches over the beans.  Don't add any salt because it won't allow the beans to absorb the water as they cook and they'll never soften.  I like to cook them on the woodstove in the winter.   These beans stay very firm when they're finished cooking but can be easily mashed and used as refries, or made into a hearty chile with tomatoes, onions, peppers and Mexican spices.  I cook up a large pot at a time and, once rinsed and cooled, I pack them into smaller zip-lock bags which I stack in the freezer to add to stir-fried kale and leeks with potatoes all winter long. Instant dinner!

Be creative! Sometimes just a plain ole' bowl of beans with olive oil, soy sauce, finely chopped onions and grated cheese is all you need to get you in the mood to go outside and brave the winter elements.

Such beauty!
Anyway, if you want to enjoy these wonderful and versatile garden gems, the time to plant is coming up soon! (late May or first week of June in our region)  If any of our local readers need seed  please let us know and we'll get you started, and you can save your own for next year.  Happy Gardening!

To see other "How To" articles, go to our new and improved site: http://thesharinggardens.blogspot.com/


auntiez said...

Hurray for you! I too began growing scarlet runner beans as ornamentals. I LOVED letting some dry on the vine so I could see the beautiful beans and carry the shiney smooth things in my pockets! Their loveliness just made me smile. Then several years ago in an effort to eat more legumes I decided to try them--OH mY GoSH! I prefer the dried beans to fresh and use them for everything I've ever used other beans for including chili, humus, bean loaf & as extra protein in soups, salads and stir fries. Right now I'm eating a bowl of dried cooked runners with a drizzle of olive oil and splash of soy sauce-just delightful.

For the past 3 years I've grown Sunset Runner Beans because I prefer their lovely pink flowers and save seed beans every year. Here in Eastern Washington State runner beans produce longer and better than other varieties because I can plant them sooner.


Helene said...

I cannot get my scarlet runner beans to germinate. They are 2 years old. I would thought they would still be viable over a 2 year period. I've tried them in the greenhouse, and direct seeded. Any tips would be most appreciated! Thanks!

ShareInJoy said...

Hi Helene - You're right. Bean seeds that have been stored properly (not too warm, or moist) should last five or more years. Whenever we start Scarlet Runners, we put them between layers of moist cloth or paper towels. After 5-10 days of being kept moist, most of the beans that are going to sprout will have begun. Plant them gently, about an inch deep and keep the soil moist till they come up to the surface. Good luck with them. Beans also like warm soil and won't survive being nipped by frost so we usually put the sprouted beans in the soil about 10 days before last frost date for our area. Llyn and Chris - Sharing Gardens

Abster said...

Thank you for sharing this! My sister and I received some free dried scarlet runner beans from a local brew shop that also has some hydroponic plants. This was really informative and just what I was looking for! I have another question though. I have read others say to keeping picking the pods to promote continuous bean growth. If I do this, am I still able to dry the beans out still in the pod if they are off the vine? Or does the drying only properly work if the pods are left on the vine? This may seem silly but I'm new to harvesting beans for drying in my garden. Thanks in advance!
- Abby

ShareInJoy said...

Hi Abby - thanks for your question! You are right that, if you are harvesting beans green, for fresh-eating, that picking them will stimulate more to ripen. But if you are saving beans for drying, you need to leave them on as long as possible. Wait until they are tan and dry before harvesting. Don't save beans that aren't all the way ripe/dry. Even cooked, they never soften and are unpleasant to eat. P.S., we added some more pics to the post above - March 9, 2017. You might wish to review for some clarification...

Abster said...

Thank you!!!