WHERE TO start? The variety of beans grown in Portugal is vast. Some are grown to be eaten fresh, often referred to as green beans or as string beans. Others are grown to be dried and can be stored for many years.
For my money, fresh beans are the best choice, mainly because dried beans are always readily available in the shops at a good price. Beans you have grown yourself then dried are not noticeably tastier than shop-bought beans, whereas homegrown fresh beans are far superior to those available in the shops.
If you want to grow a bean variety for drying, buy ordinary dry beans in the market and plant once the weather warms up. I often ask the vendors the best time of year to sow and they are invariably happy to give advice. You need to look after them in the same way as green beans (see below), only instead of picking at an immature stage, leave the beans to swell on the plant. Once the beans look mature, cut right down on watering and allow the whole plant to dry to a crisp in the summer sun. Pick the pods before they explode, remove the beans and store in a dry place.
There are infinite varieties of green beans and not all of them are green. Some are dwarf growing and need little or no support. Some grow to six feet or more and need stout frames to support them. I have grown all varieties with good success. The only caution I would give is to avoid runner beans. In the UK, runner beans are the best producers, giving kilo upon kilo of beans at the end of the summer. Unless you live in a particularly cool spot, they will invariably disappoint here. Most other types out-produce them by a huge margin, especially the climbers.
• Sow green beans when the soil warms up. Some years, this can be as early as mid March, in other years as late as May. They need to be sown in moist warm soil. I tend to plant one lot in April or May and do a second sowing in mid July. In a good year, this can provide fresh beans for six months or more, at a time when they can cost as much as three euros a kilo in the shops!
• Space dwarf varieties about 15cm apart in wide blocks. Climbing varieties need to be spaced in a double row a little further apart.
• The soil needs to be reasonably fertile to quite a deep level. Lots of organic matter will hold in the moisture.
• Once the beans emerge (usually takes about a week), keep them weed free and moist, but not drenched.
• After two to three weeks, once they are looking sturdy and growing vigorously, you can increase the watering – they really can be thirsty plants.
• After about three months, they should have flowered and have some beans ready for picking. Don’t allow the beans to become too mature, they should be picked before the beans begin to swell – the beans taste superior and the plant remains productive for longer.
• When there are beans on the plants, you can water them almost continuously. They adore lots of moisture and will remain productive for longer.
Fresh beans can be boiled or steamed, but don’t overcook them. Once cooked, they can be eaten with butter, olive oil or as they are. They can be used in a stir-fry or cooled and eaten in mixed vegetable salads. During times of plenty, they can be cooked with potatoes and salsa, then liquidised and mixed with a little olive oil, salt and pepper to make a tasty vitamin-rich soup.
• If you have any gardening nightmares or successes to share, email me at [email protected]. Write Virtual Vegetables in the subject column so that the message isn’t mistaken for spam and binned!