A diversity of beans. I grew all these varieties in the garden last year. Top row, left to right: Coco Bicolour, Nun's Belly Button, Early Warwick.
Middle row: Purple Queen, Purple Prince, Mrs Fortune's.
Bottom row: Spagna Bianco, Vermont Cranberry, Caseknife.
Beans are a joyous thing to grow. They make such a big fanfare when they emerge from the ground. Huge fat fleshy cotyledons which don't look like leaves at all. And then a slightly prehistoric appearance as the true leaves unfold from inside. You can't miss 'em. And neither can the slugs, unfortunately.
I'm having serious problems with the slugs at the moment, as a lot of other Brits probably are. We've had a lot of alternating heavy rain and bright sunshine, which has brought the plants (and weeds) on a treat. Lots of fresh new growth = gastropod party time. After a drawn-out and very dry spring season, a dousing of rain has suddenly brought them all out of hibernation and they are hungry. All my breeding projects are under assault. Ulluco, razed at ground level every time a shoot emerges. I've lost my entire crop of onions, which included some rare and hard-to-get varieties, and it's too late to start again. Nurtured since January, wiped out in a single night.
Young bean plants are very vulnerable when first planted out. Some snails like to work their way up the stem stripping off the outer layer, and then pointlessly chomp through a leaf stalk so the whole leaf falls off. Other times the slimy little sods don't bother with all that and just shin up the bamboo cane to mangle the leaves directly.
I've been planting out loads of beans this week and I'm doing my best to keep them alive. I have had to sow a few replacements, but hopefully if we have a few days of dry weather the survivors will get properly established and the slugs will cease to bother them. I've collected rather more beans than I've got room to grow but I'm managing to find space for most of them, and the rest can wait till next year.
French beans in Rootrainers. The emerging seedling is Poletschka (thanks Celia) which grows from amazingly beautiful indigo-black glossy seeds ... and the pink stems beside it belong to Jo's Purple Podded, an ongoing breeding project distributed by the Irish Seed Savers Association.
Most of the varieties I'm growing are climbers. I don't grow very many dwarf beans because of the slug problem ... the low-slung pods are easy pickings for them. I also find the yields very poor for the amount of space they take up and they often give back barely a handful more beans than I sowed to start with. But there are some interesting varieties which don't have any equivalent among the climbing types, so I make an exception for those.
Two new dwarfs I'm trying this year are Black Valentine, a variety from the 1850s with small but pretty black kidney beans, and Comtesse de Chambord with even smaller shiny white beans. Indeed Comtesse de Chambord is something very different, as it's what's known as a rice bean ... the white beans are tiny enough and elongated enough to look a bit like rice grains (pudding rice, anyway). Actually they aren't quite that small but they're pretty tiny as beans go. They're reputed to have an excellent flavour but they're not grown commercially because their tiny size and delicate plants make them uneconomic. So if you want them you have to grow your own. I got my seeds from Association Kokopelli.
Newly emerged seedlings of Comtesse de Chambord, which look a bit like little bug-eyed monsters while they still have their yellow cotyledons. They grow into small, delicate plants of a very bright green and the pods can be used for green beans or left for shelling.
By way of contrast, these are the emerging seedlings of a supersize Australian climbing variety called Purple Giant. This one is mainly grown for its purple pods and the seeds are flat and fairly small. With the weather being so clement they've grown rapidly in the last few days but I can't plant them out yet because I don't have any tall enough poles. I can only buy bamboo canes of a maximum of 7ft because anything bigger than that won't fit in my car. I'm having to borrow some extra-long poles from my neighbour. He has a bigger car.
Purple Giant emerges. The one on the right is more strongly purple than all its siblings, though otherwise it looks true to type.
I'm always on the lookout for natural variations and mutations in beans, because breeding them the same way I do peas is not convenient ... the anatomy of the flowers makes them incredibly difficult to hand-pollinate. However, some of the most dramatic variations are no use for breeding because they're not genetic.
That includes the curious phenomenon of occasional bean colour reversal, or "day for night" to give it a more romantic name, where (for example) a batch of tan beans with purple markings has the occasional purple bean with tan markings. Many heirloom varieties seem to display this trait. Last year I picked out all the "day for night" beans from a batch of Mrs Fortune's and sowed them separately. The result was exactly the same as if I'd sown any normal Mrs Fortune's beans, i.e. the usual colour and a few with reversed colours. Afterwards I spoke to a couple of other bloggers who had had the same experience, picking out the reversed beans from other varieties only to find they grew into the same plants regardless. So something other than genes much be responsible for the colour reversal, but what? Moisture levels inside the pods and exposure to light and air during harvest might be factors, but in all honesty I've no idea.
More bean diversity. Top row, left to right: Jo's Purple Podded, Black Valentine, Lazy Housewife.
Middle row: Canadian Wonder, Dog Bean, Poletschka.
Bottom row: Pea Bean, Kew Blue, San Antonio.