In our household, runner beans are the vegetable equivalent of sockeye salmon, another abundant species that fills up Alaska freezers every year.
I started growing cold-hardy runner beans after learning that pole beans need a lot of summer heat and wouldn’t produce well in our garden. Bush beans would do well, but I wanted a climbing variety to train on a rustic, homemade trellis.
I learned about runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from a Master Gardener friend who grows them ornamentally. Looking at the varieties in the Territorial Seed catalog, I was impressed by their vigorous growth (8-10 feet tall!) and colorful blossoms. They even tolerate a light frost!
Runner beans are an annual feature in our garden. They give us massive floral displays all summer and copious amounts of homegrown beans to harvest for winter meals.
Many gardeners who grow runner beans spurn eating them because the texture is coarser than a typical snap bean. I think runners have great bean flavor and the sturdy pods hold up better in the freezer. I harvest them after the pods grow nice and long but before they toughen up.
For beauty’s sake, my favorites are the St. George and Sunset varieties but I’m always looking for unusual ones that I haven’t tried yet!
Growing and harvesting tips
I clipped this excellent 2009 article on growing runner beans from Vegetable Gardener magazine and re-read it almost every year. It has interesting factoids and detailed instructions for growing them. One important point is that you need bees in your garden to pollinate the bean flowers. I notice that our runner beans don’t get adequately pollinated until the raspberry canes nearby are blooming.
The article above points out that you can eat runner beans in three stages – snap, shell, and dried. Due to our short season and rainy fall, we almost always eat runners as snap beans. One year I hit the jackpot and harvested shell beans. We enjoyed the large, mottled purple beans simmered in a pot with fresh sage, water, and a glug of oil. I’m still waiting for that to happen again!
I grow bush beans for fresh eating and runner beans for freezing. Unlike other vegetables, I notice no difference if I don’t blanch runners before freezing them. I just wash, cut, and divvy them up in meal-size portions. They preserve well in vacuum-sealed freezer bags. I typically add the frozen beans to stews and pasta dishes near the end of cooking.