The unbearable lightness of beans

URBAN FARMER: Broad beans can be a pleasure to grow – and eat, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

URBAN FARMER:Broad beans can be a pleasure to grow – and eat, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

I HAVE a theory – to true broad bean lovers, a slightly heretical one – as to why so many GYOers choose to grow this vegetable over other, perhaps more productive kinds. My hunch is this; that for some gardeners, it’s really not so much about enjoying the distinctively earthy flavour of those plump green beans as the pure, green-fingered pleasure to be had in growing and harvesting them.

After all, in terms of ease of cultivation, the broad bean is the perfect vegetable – vigorous, unfussy and dependable, asking only for a rich, fertile soil in a sunny and not too windy spot. It germinates readily, even outdoors in cool conditions, and then grows sturdily and steadily, suppressing weeds and tolerating night-time frosts that would leave most other vegetables a blackened mess.

All that’s really required in terms of maintenance is that you nip out the young growing tips to prevent a possible infestation of aphids. Both its sweetly-scented, pretty flowers (particularly the crimson-flowered types) and its swollen, jade-green pods are things of beauty in their own right, while there is something deeply rewarding in harvesting a heavy bowlful of the latter straight from the garden.


Shelling the beans from their soft, woolly linings is another peculiarly enjoyable mid-summer ritual, as is – eating them? I’m not sure that every gardener does.

If you’re not that keen on the beans, then perhaps take a tip from cookery writers such as Jane Grigson and Nigel Slater, both of whom extol the virtues of cooking and eating the tiny pods whole, when they are no longer than 8cm/3” and perfectly fresh.

Alternatively, poach individual beans in boiling water and serve them in a salad along with crispy lardons (Nigel Slater skins any that are larger than his thumbnail). Both Jane Grigson and Darina Allen also suggest making a flavoursome soup from the pods, as long as they are still tender and unblemished.

In the OPW’s walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn have only recently begun to harvest their crop of broad beans – an RHS award-winning variety called ‘Imperial Green Long Pod’ that’s known for particularly heavy cropping.

“They’re a bit later than usual this year, partly because we direct-sowed them rather than raise them in the glasshouse and also because the cooler weather earlier this summer slowed down growth,”,explains Meeda. “But they’ve still done very well.”

Not being an especial fan of broad beans, she’s far more delighted to have begun harvesting the first of the walled garden’s dwarf French beans – a vigorous, high yielding and early maturing variety called ‘Nautica’ that produces plenty of stringless, pencil-thin pods.

“This was the only bean that we raised in the glasshouse this year, rather than directly sowing it into the ground, and it’s already cropping heavily,” says Meeda. “We’re getting lots of delicious beans from each plant.”

Meanwhile, the walled garden’s climbing French beans (an award-winning variety called ‘Cobra’ that is noted for being both exceptionally high-yielding and flavoursome) still have some way to go before the gardeners can begin harvesting them – quite a difference to last summer’s crop, which were being harvested in bucket-loads twice a week from mid-July.

The same goes for the walled garden’s runner beans, a red-flowering variety called ‘Enorma’ that can produce giant pods of up to 50cm/20” in length but not, by the look of it, for another few weeks. The difference in harvest time is again probably due to this year’s relatively low summer temperatures, as well as the fact that Brian and Meeda decided to direct-sow the seed into the open ground in early May, rather than into modules in the glasshouse in late April as in previous years.

As for the walled garden’s pumpkin plants (the varieties ‘Atlantic Giant’ and ‘Dependable’), the recent spell of hot weather has finally encouraged a huge spurt of late growth, although both Brian and Meeda agree that the plants are still not quite the size the gardeners would expect them to be at this time of year.

Even so, up until early last week the OPW gardeners were still diligently removing any miniscule baby pumpkins that they found forming on the stems.

“The temptation is to leave all of them on the plant, but it doesn’t do any good in the long term,” explains Brian, nipping out the barely-formed fruit both by hand and with a sharp secateurs. “Firstly, if the plant starts producing lots of fruit before it has developed a really decent canopy of leaves, then it won’t be strong enough to produce decent pumpkins.

“Secondly, particularly when it comes to growing giant pumpkins, you don’t want the plant to exhaust all its energy by being over-productive. Having said that, the recent growth spurt has helped things along a lot, so from now on we’ll stop pruning the ‘Dependable’ variety completely. But with ‘Atlantic Giant’, we’ll continue to make sure that each plant only produces one, maybe two, pumpkins at most – that way, they should be a decent size. But given the summer we’ve had so far, I really don’t think they’ll be breaking any records.”

Growing Cooking – unusual ideas for using vegetables: Dermot Carey, the former head gardener of Lissadell, will be sharing his knowledge, tips and passion for growing vegetables at the Source Cookery School in Sligo this Saturday, August 6th, 10-30am-

12.30pm, €15,

The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow outdoors in pots or modules, for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse when summer crops are cleared, for late autumn/early winter crops: Calabrese, Cabbages ‘Greyhound’ and leafy non-hearting spring types, carrots (Nantes types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack (Red Russian), endives, kohl rabi, Swiss chards leaf beets, peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf chicory, leaf chicories (raddicchio), plain leaved and curly parsley and sorrels. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop, possibly to cover with cloches or frames in autumn: beetroot, brocoletto Cima di Rapa, early Nantes type carrots for late autumn cropping, cabbage Greyhound and leafy non-hearting spring types), peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf and leaf chicory, radicchios, endives, salad onions, winter lettuces, kales, radishes, rocket, Swiss chard and leaf beets, summer spinach, summer turnips, Chinese cabbage and other oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, mustards Red Green Frills, Chinese kale (Kailaan), quick maturing salad mixes, parsley, chervil, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Sow fast growing green manures such as buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve soil, lock-up carbon and feed worms (digging them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that won’t be used over winter.

NB Sow in the evenings if possible as germination can sometimes be affected or even prevented by too high a temperature - this applies particularly to lettuce, and also greenhouse sown carrots.

Do: Continue hand-weeding, hoeing, watering. Plant out any well-established, module-raised plants, spray maincrop potatoes against blight, keep glasshouse/polytunnel well-ventilated, feed tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, put up protective netting (Bionet) against carrot fly, cabbage root fly, cabbage white butterfly (inspect for eggs and caterpillars also), provide support for tall plants (beans, peas, tomatoes), protect vulnerable crops against slug/snail damage, continue harvesting/ storing produce.