Peas and beans are plants that can take time, and often a lot of cajoling, to get going. But once they’re off there’s no stopping them. Most people start their legumes indoors in pots as they won’t germinate in the spring cold, get killed by late frosts and are ambrosia to snails and slugs.
I prefer to direct-sow mine, waiting until it’s warm enough and then being vigilant on slug control. I find the beans establish faster, growing stronger and healthier than those ‘forced’ indoors, getting past their vulnerable stage quicker. I don’t have enough windowsills inside my tiny cottage (and I don’t have a greenhouse), but even if I did I think I’d still direct-sow. It’s easier, cleaner, and takes no time at all. You might need to do a couple of sowings if there’s a very late frost. But seeds are cheap. Propagating kit, carpet cleaning, time and greenhouses are not. And slugs and snails are no strangers to greenhouses anyway.
Luckily, most beans and peas climb upwards, so make ideal crops for small plots, raised beds and even pots. But think carefully where you’ll plant them as they will shade other plants on their northern side. This can be tricky if you stick rigidly to a rotation plan, but I’ve found beans don’t mind being planted in the same place every year… As long as the soil has been pre-prepared with rich compost dug in, thickly mulched, and the plants regularly fed and watered. I’ve direct-sown my runner beans in the most north-easterly raised bed again this year, so they don’t shadow any of the other beds, and I couldn’t be happier with their progress so far…
You need sturdy frames for climbing beans, and these need to be set up BEFORE you plant the beans. En mass, beans get very heavy and also catch the wind like a sail on a windy day. Even on just a 4 foot set of 8, I fix my bean poles to two sturdy end posts, supporting a top bar, tying the bean poles to this with twine AND a few tightened plastic ties (the sparrows love to nibble off the twine for their nests). I then tie in a couple of diagonal poles to give even more stability.
I also direct sow peas. Again, waiting until it’s warm pays off. Another thing to look out for, it seems, is that some suppliers stocks might be dodgier than others. I tried several sowings of one packet of peas that never showed any signs of life. A different supplier, and every single seed sent up healthy shoots within 10 days. Most peas also need support, but as they are lower growing it doesn’t usually have to be as robust (unless your plot is particularly windy). Large dry twiggy hedge clippings work well, or netting… I had fun this year with some left over basket-making willow… I carefully put these in AFTER the peas had sprouted.
Now, 2 months after sowing, these willows are heavy with sugar-snap peas. We’ve been enjoying them in stirfries, salads, side-dishes, pastas, on their own… As the novelty begins to wear thin, it’s always good to get out the freezer bags before they get too big and save them for a day when you’ll appreciate them again.
Of course, some legumes are pretty good left to go to seed and dried. Some legumes don’t need support and are happy to sprawl. If you’re short on space you could try the ‘three sisters’ method of planting companion crops together. Sweetcorn, beans and squashes are meant to be good bedfellows but, after a bit of research with fellow UK gardeners, I decided on a more climate-appropriate 2.5 family… sweetcorn and Borlotti beans (for drying) and just one courgette off to the side. They seem pretty happy… but I’ve staked my sweetcorn, just in case the beans get any funny ideas!
Have you tried growing beans between, or even up, other plants?