Crops in Tight Spots: Bean Alley

Use vertical spaces to grow hanging plants that provide nutritious food along with adding beauty to your small outdoor spaces.

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by Unsplash/Pauline Bernard

In the Mediterranean you see wisterias planted on pergolas, their seed pods hanging down over the table. This project has a similar vibe but with pods that you can eat – French or runner beans grown over wires strung between two walls or fences over a narrow alleyway or side return. It makes what could be a dull, forgotten, narrow space into something exotic and jungly that you’ll look forward to walking through. You’ll get flowers, too. Both French and runner beans will climb and look great, but if your passageway is shady, runner beans are a better bet than French, which prefer a sunny site. This alley is fairly narrow, so there is only room for a pot on one side, but if yours is wider why not have a pot either side for a full arch?

When do to

Early to late summer

You will need:

  • A large pot, at least 50cm (20in) in diameter and 50cm (20in) deep, preferably with a built-in reservoir as beans don’t like soil to dry out
  • peat-free, organic, multipurpose compost
  • A couple of handfuls of worm compost or general fertiliser such as Growmore
  • Around 10 runner bean or climbing French bean plants or seeds
  • Vertical supports for the beans to climb up – tall enough to reach the horizontal wires that will make the arch
  • Galvanised wire
  • Screw-in vine eyes if using on wood, screws and Rawlplugs if going into brick
  • Drill (if you have a brick wall) and masonry drill bit
  • Tomato feed

How to do

Place your pot near the fence on the sunniest side of the passageway or wall. Fill the pot with compost almost to the top and mix in the fertiliser. Beans are hungry crops so they need a fertile compost. If starting from seed, sow the beans to the depth of your second knuckle, about 5cm (2in) apart. If using young plants, space them equally. Water well. Give the plants some sort of trellis or cane supports to get started.

What to do next

Once the plants have almost reached the top of the vertical support, fit the wires across the passageway, attaching them to vine eyes either screwed into the fence or into Rawlplugs drilled into brick. Aim to make them high enough that you can still walk underneath when the beans are hanging down, but remember you will have to be able to harvest them. Aim for three or four equally spaced wires about 20cm (8in) apart so you achieve a tunnel effect.

As the beans reach the wires, encourage them along so they are divided between the wires. When you gein to see small beans appear, start to feed the plants every fortnight with tomato feed. Pick the beans before you can see the seeds bulging through the sides and keep picking to encourage the plants to produce more beans — the plants should crop until mid-late autumn if you don’t let them dry out and keep feeding.

Also from Crops in Tight Spots:

Short of outdoor space but want to grow fruit and vegetables? Congratulations. Really, lucky you. Not for you the back-breaking trudge of tending large spaces of land, the weeding, digging and pest vigilance. Gluts? They will mean nothing to you. Instead you can look forward to small but perfectly formed bursts of flavour. Handfuls of fresh leaves, berries and tomatoes, just when you want them, and at arm”s reach. As more of us live in cities with restricted outside spaces, growing food becomes all the more important, not just for the delicious results, but as a mindful way to connect us to the seasons and to nature. Full of tried-and-tested, fool-proof crop ideas exclusively tailored for containers, raised beds and small gardens, Crops in Tight Spots guarantees vegetable growing success for even the most newbie of gardeners and limited of spaces.

Reprinted with permission from Crops in Tight Spots: Grow Amazing Fruit and Vegetables Wherever You Live by Alex Mitchell and published by Kyle Books, 2019.