Peas and Beans

Short version:

As legumes they are a good crop to plant before brassicas in crop rotation. They can be sown generally March to July in successional sowings to provide a long and bountiful harvest. Depending on the variety they do well in part shade to full sun but with support can grow to around 6ft in order to reach extra sunlight. This height makes them an efficient use of space in small gardens.  

Legume family

Most of the legumes are pod producing plants that harbour nitrogen fixing bacteria in nodes in their roots. These bacteria convert nitrogen into nitrates, which is the form necessary for assimilation of nitrogen into plants. Nitrogen is a necessary component of protein molecules which, I assume, is why peas and beans are a good source of vegetable protein. It has been said that legumes are good for crop rotation due to these high levels of nitrates. However, most of the nitrogen will be in the plant structure so in order to benefit from this, after the plants have finished producing, they should be chopped down and buried back within the soil to decompose.

I am often enthusiastically recommending growing peas and beans to any poor soul who stumbles across my path. There are several reasons:

They’re productive and tasty

You need to pick varieties that you like, though the catch 22 is, how would you know if you like them until you’ve grown them and eaten them?

Please excuse the round courgette plonked on top. This is one day’s harvest from about 15 plants. At this peak time we were collecting this amount every other day.

Out of the beans I would recommend ones with edible pods, like runner beans and French beans. The long pods, especially runner beans, means that each pod provides a larger amount of food in the growing space and for your effort. I’ve grown a few varieties of runner beans and they generally taste the same so I would just say find a string less one and if unsure if a pod is ready, pick the pods early as opposed to late. Picked early they’re sweet and tender but you may not be getting as much food out of it as you potentially could have. Picked too late the pods are fibrous and the beans are floury, and therefore, worthless. I think there’s more of a variety in taste in French beans and I would recommend ‘Blue Lake.’ If anyone has any varieties (for any legumes) they’d recommend, feel free to drop them in the comments. Reviews are always appreciated.

As much as I like shelled peas, if you’re looking to get as much food, as easily as possible then sugar snap peas are the way forward. Mangetout are not bad for more food per pod, but they go very quickly from too small to too chubby with tasteless peas and fibrous shells. Sugar snaps still have tasty peas when the pods are ready to burst. The case may be a bit tough, but then they become no different to shelled peas.

If you want extra food out of your peas, the young shoots and leaves (the much paler green ones) are tasty in salads and stir fries.

They’re good for vertical gardening

You will get a decently long harvest from both beans and peas if you keep picking the pods. Once a plant has some fully developed seeds it’s happy to give up the ghost. They can also be planted in succession to provide food for longer, but I think this is something for people with a large garden or those that are well organised.

These sugar snap peas are not quite ready yet. You can see runner bean leaves all around as they were planted about a month after so that they could take over as the sugar snaps were dying. In reality the sugar snaps became over run by the runners very early on and were probably less productive because of it.

In a small garden you can grow vertical plants on all sides. This can cover unsightly fences or provide a privacy screen and means that you grow more food in a smaller space. I love that they have a small footprint and so take up little space. With their height, even if they start in part shade, they can always grow higher rapidly to make the best of their circumstances. So they also utilise garden space better. Runner beans can still do very well in part shade. Peas need full sun.

Runner beans and French beans will wind around a cane with little coaxing. Peas, however, have tightly curling tendrils and don’t do well with thick supports like trellises.

Pea and bean netting is very cheap and you can wrap this around some bamboo canes, giving you a much larger area of support and very thin strands for the tendrils to curl around.

They’re easy

They have nice big seeds that are easy to handle. You can sow them indoors in early spring. I suggest one or two seeds in individual pots or in loo roll tubes. You can sow them in situ in warmer weather. I still recommend in the pots though if you want to avoid the mice getting your seeds or slugs and snails devouring seedlings. They grow so fast and you don’t have to wait a long season for a harvest.

They have a very long sowing period. Check the back of your particular pack for instructions but most will fall somewhere between April and July. Generally peas need an earlier sowing than beans but if you’re a bit late with sowing you can always aim for pea shoots if you think the pods won’t mature before the cold weather hits.

They’re cheap

A large pack of seeds is very cheap, and they are so easy to grow that it is rarely worth buying plug plants. Each seed will provide a large plant that provides many pods. In addition, it is easy to harvest seeds from current plants for the following year. Peas and beans tend to self-pollinate and so tend to remain true to the parent plant. Of course, there can be variation within a variety. Here follows my anecdotal warning. Back in the early days of flat renting I had a small outdoor space. I grew mangetout and they were prolific and tasty. In the first year, there were a couple of shorter, less appetising looking pods that I figured wouldn’t make good eating and were best left to grow seeds. Those seeds were taken and grown the following year. Again, I only saved the most unworthy pods for seeds. Four years of growing the same mangetout from its seeds I wondered why on earth I was growing this mangetout. All the pods were short and stubby. Some of the pods only housed one pea! The plants didn’t last very long. They were pathetic. It was only after I’d thrown away all the plants and vowed never to bother with mangetout again that I realised that it could be because I had bred them that way. Maybe I had encouraged this trait of very small pods. I also didn’t know back then that you needed to keep picking in order to keep the plant producing. So, whilst it is possible to collect seeds you do need to question whether it’s worth the effort.   

Runner beans can be perennial in milder areas. I have left runner bean plants in the soil when I was too lazy busy to pull them out. I was surprised when the dead looking stems sprouted shoots and leaves the next spring. This gives an early harvest the following year for free!

These runner beans started sprouting leaves and flowers from old stems early April. In the bottom left you can see the old brown stems with little growth.

If you haven’t grown them before I hope this has inspired you to give it a go. You don’t need much space. The picture above was from an old place which was a front paved ‘yard’ with this north facing fence. Despite that you can see them encroaching on the bike shed on the right. I would also swear that freshly picked peas and beans taste so much better than the ones bought in shops…. and of course… there’s no packaging or food miles!

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