What is it about runner beans that compels the English gardener to grow them?
They have little flavour, and what there is of it is pretty uninteresting. Their rough and hairy texture is not generally sought after in foodstuff, unless you’re an owl or suchlike with a penchant for mice. No matter how carefully you prepare beans for cooking, they still smuggle stringy bits into your mouth that must be bravely swallowed or brashly extracted, depending on the company you’re in.
Yet, like a lemming to the cliff-edge, (that gruesome Disney fabrication – Google “Disney” and “lemming” if you don’t know what I’m talking about), I find myself yet again this spring wrestling with bamboo canes and wiggly bean seedlings. How to arrange them this year to net the best yield without losing the lot to strong winds – or an eye to the cane tips?
I’ve had it with wigwams, where you arrange the canes in a circle, binding them together at the top, Indian fashion. All is well when you blow the whistle for the beans to start growing. They race straight up the sticks happily enough. But as soon as they converge at the top, there’s chaos. The result: a tangled mess, with far too much bean plant to airspace.
Compared to this, the bean tent offers obvious advantages: two parallel rows of poles, inclined to meet at the top. Here you secure a single cane with string to form the ridge. Each plant enjoys more airspace and the whole makes for easier picking. But by the time the early autumn winds pick up, there’s enough plant matter to catch the wind like a sail. Before you know it, the tent is travelling about the garden and felling any other plants in its way.
But this year, I think I’ve cracked it. With a fine collection of weathered bean poles of many different lengths, I have insufficient matching ones to tackle either classic structure, and my hand is forced. Without a clear plan of action, I just shove what sticks I have in the ground, upright in a circle, and plant a seedling at the foot of each. I slip a plant tie around each one and secure it to the nearest stick: a hint as to where it should pledge its allegiance. Standing back to admire my handiwork, and wondering what to do next, it occurs to me that I’ve created a whole new concept: the runner bean’s answer to Stonehenge. It has a cretain timelessness and dignity about it, and it looks pretty well unshiftable. All I need to do now to complete the effect is to find a few shorter sticks and place them across the top of random pairs of canes.
There is ample space for every plant to flourish and for the would-be picker to find the beans. No matted canopy of green to catch the wind. Beanhenge is the perfect solution. All I need do now is await the summer solstice and see which bean lines up with the sunrise. I’m half expecting a posse of druids to turn up. Now, where did I put my woad?