French beans, grown in Peru from 6,000 BC, were introduced to Europe during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. They subsequently became known as ‘French’ beans as new strains were mostly imported from France in the early days.
An easy and prolific legume, they are a truly delicious when fresh and young. If for some reason you forget to pick them, all is not lost. They will mature into flageolet beans and then into haricot beans for dyring and storing. As they do a triple act they are aptly known in China as sandomame or the ‘three times bean’. These fast-growing animals need warm conditions.
French bean types
The two main types are climbing and bush. The climbing varieties will cling and can be grown up supports in the same way as runner beans. The dwarf types make low bushes which have the advantage of fitting neatly under cloches in cooler areas.
To add to the fun, consider unusual colours – red, purple yellow and flecked as well as the usual green. There are types with pretty purple, lilac or white flowers. The beans come flat or pencil-shaped. Modern cultivars are usually string-less.
Cooking French Beans
When tiny, French bean can be lightly steamed and served hot with butter and herbs, or cold with dressings. As they mature they can be stewed in the Greek way with onions and tomatoes.
Flageolet beans are shelled, cooked and eaten like peas, but they take longer to cook.
Dried haricot beans are soaked overnight and simmered slowly until tender for stews, soups and bean salads.
Soil and situation
Choose a sunny and sheltered site. For good results don’t attempt to grow them before the soil has reached 13°C (55°F). They like a light and fertile soil, near neutral (PH7).
Sowing and planting
Sow in late spring, having warmed the soil if necessary covering with polythene for a couple of weeks. French beans are usually sown in staggered double rows for extra warmth. There should be at least 60 cm (24 in) in between rows for ease of picking.
Make parallel drills 5 cm (2 in) deep and station – sow two seeds, scar downwards, every 1 5 cm (6 in) for early crops and 23 cm (9 in) for main crops. Sow a few extras as the germination rate of French beans is only 75 per cent. For a continuous supply, sow a few seeds every two or three weeks until July.
Climbing French beans are self-twining and will scramble up twiggy pea sticks, netting, a pole or even up sweetcorn. The bush types are earthed up to the first set of leaves to give them extra support. Protect against slugs birds and mice. Keep the plants moist and well mulched. Water copiously when in flower.
French beans will continue to produce if you keep gathering the beans when young. They are ready when they snap off. Flageolet beans have to be caught at the intermediate stage, when the seeds are quite small and still bright green.
For haricot beans, pick each pod as it ripens. If the weather turns cold, pull out the entire plant at the end of the season and hang it out to dry in an airy place. Shell haricots when the skins are dry and crackly. Dry the beans further for a couple of days in a sunny room or in the airing cupboard and store in airtight jars.
Most common are slugs and aphids. Anthracnose and halo blight can occur as well as foot rots.