A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans

by Chris Burns
Just like snow flakes, you'll never find two that look exactly alike,  attesting to Nature's infinite variety of expression!
Have you ever seen these beautiful beans for sale at any market?  Would you even know what they were if I didn't tell you?  Don't they look like some kind of 'Magic Bean' that Jack of 'The Beanstalk' fame might have planted?  If you haven't guessed by now, I'll tell you. They're Scarlet Runner Beans and they're called that for two good reasons.  One, they have the most intensely scarlet red flowers, and Two, they 'run' up any pole, tree, fence or trellis that happens to be close to where they are growing.  If you've never grown them then maybe it's time to consider giving them a place in your garden.

I've grown them many times before, but up until recently I always considered them to be strictly 'ornamental'.  Don't know why!  Perhaps it's because they were described that way in the catalog from which I ordered my first seeds.  As you can see in the pictures posted with this article, they add exquisite beauty to any garden patch. It wasn't until 2011 that I sampled them as cooked, dried beans and discovered their beauty is only rivaled by their delicious flavor!
Scarlet Runners vining up the bamboo trellis. We grew a 70-foot row last year and are doubling it in the 2013 season.
These beauties grow steadily to a dramatic height of 10-12 feet (or more) and need a sturdy trellis of some sort to support the weight of their generous profusion of bean pods (we used bamboo poles tied to a wire pulled taught between t-posts). For those who enjoy attracting pollinators to your garden, you'll likely find (as we did) that the flowers regularly attract hummingbirds and many beneficial insects. (If you have cats, best not to grow the runners as we've heard sad tales of hummingbirds being caught and killed by those furry, domestic predators).

Bean-trellis made with bamboo poles wired to a cable.
Scarlet Runner Beans will grow in a greenhouse too. Just be sure to leave enough vents open to allow pollinators to come and go.
Plant beans 4"-6" apart and 1"- deep. Soil can be course and should stay moist but not too wet as seeds germinate. Often we will pre-sprout the seeds by keeping them between wet towels for several days till they germinate. Be very careful when planting as the sprouts are fragile.
The pods are deliciously sweet when they are young and tender (about 3-4 inches long).  So sweet, in fact that it was the first thing our two teen-age garden-helpers would seek out and munch on whenever they came to the gardens.

Bean pod-loving teens!
If it's mainly green beans that you're looking for though, it's probably best to grow another variety like 'Blue Lake' or 'Contender' which provide you with more of a volume at each picking.  These Scarlet Runners tend to produce pods steadily over a longer season but they become tough and stringy if they aren't picked on the small side.  The reason they probably aren't grown commercially for dried beans is that they must be hand-picked. At the Sharing Gardens we've turned this limitation into an asset as the weekly bean-picking was a task that folks with back and knee-issues could accomplish easily standing up. After a few days laid out on screens in the greenhouse the husks were dry enough to split open easily by hand. This was a task that many volunteers (share-givers), who weren't able to do more strenuous tasks,  found fun and relaxing; it also provided an opportunity to sit in the shade and chat with new found friends.

Pods, any bigger than this and they're too tough to eat green.
If it's dried beans you want, don't pick the pods until they are evenly tan and dry. If picked too green, beans won't store well, nor will they be viable for planting next year's crop. Once the frost hits, beans will no longer ripen much more. Pull up the whole vine and let the beans finish ripening in a green-house or warm, dry place before picking them off the vines. When they are as dry as they're going to get, shell these partially ripe beans and use them first as they won't store as well as fully cured beans.

These beautiful beans are rather large --about the size of a fat Lima bean-- and therefore yield enough to make a pot of soup-beans in a short time. If you're serious about growing your own protein-source, Scarlet Runners make an excellent choice.
Harvest beans once their pods are tan and dry. OSU-students shelling Scarlet Runner Beans.

Shelling beans from their pods is a fun activity for all! Jim and Adri shelling kidney beans.
But the best kept secret of all is just how delicious the dried beans are. They have a mild flavor and, unlike Fava beans, their skin is thin (not even noticeable) and they have a velvety texture.

A bamboo tipi provides a trellis for beans and beautifully frames our garden helpers.
Recipe: To cook these beans for eating, soak them over night just like you would any other, with about 1/3 beans to 2/3 water in a stainless or cast iron pot.  Pour off the water the next day; rinse the beans with fresh water and put them back in the pot. Add fresh water until the level is about 2-3 inches over the beans.  Don't add any salt because it won't allow the beans to absorb the water as they cook and they'll never soften.  I like to cook them on the woodstove in the winter.   These beans stay very firm when they're finished cooking but can be easily mashed and used as refries, or made into a hearty chile with tomatoes, onions, peppers and Mexican spices.  I cook up a large pot at a time and, once rinsed and cooled, I pack them into smaller zip-lock bags which I stack in the freezer to add to stir-fried kale and leeks with potatoes all winter long. Instant dinner!

Be creative! Sometimes just a plain ole' bowl of beans with olive oil, soy sauce, finely chopped onions and grated cheese is all you need to get you in the mood to go outside and brave the winter elements.

Such beauty!
Anyway, if you want to enjoy these wonderful and versatile garden gems, the time to plant is coming up soon! (late May or first week of June in our region)  If any of our local readers need seed  please let us know and we'll get you started, and you can save your own for next year.  Happy Gardening!

The Sharing Gardens is a non-profit and tax-exempt organization. We exist entirely through donations. If you have found benefit from our project or our site, please consider making a donation through PayPal. (Click button below.)


  1. very informative article, Chris! Thanks!!
    I sure enjoyed the beans from the Sharing Garden last season. I would like to plant them at a tipi construction in my backyard this year. Of course, I would need your guidance on this project.
    Thanks again,

  2. Happy to "share" the info! You'll need to prepare the ground first (clear it of sod). We usually soak the seeds for a few days on plates (between wet paper-towels) to germinate them. This way, we know we're planting viable seeds. We use thin bamboo poles for our tipis but you could use saplings, re-bar plastic pipe...the beans will climb 10- 12 feet tall! Begin by tying three of the best, straightest poles together 2-4 feet from the top. (the higher you tie them, the taller your tip, but if you tie it too high, shorter poles won't have anything to lean on.) spread the 3 poles out to form a tri-pod. Begin laying your other poles down in the crotches of the tri-pod going in a circular direction, Leave a space for a door. poles should be about a foot apart at the bottom. We put straw in the center which makes for a shady hang-out in the summer time. Beans are planted about 6 inches apart around the bottom of the tipi. be sure soil stays moist as they establish roots. Watch for slugs, and keep them weeded till they get up high enough to compete.

  3. Hello! I just would like to give a huge thumbs up for the great info you have here on this post. I will be coming back to your blog for more soon. Quality Shop Store

  4. I stumbled upon these growing in the parking garage of MCAD art school here in Minneapolis. It's late September and a friend and I were out walking and I was pinching plants to root from commercial arrangements that were going to be allowed to die outside of store fronts. (I just want to save them all!! Especially the Hibiscus trees!) I had nabbed a green pod but my friend who has landscaping experience handed me a dried pod and told me that I would need that if I wanted anything to grow. I finally opened it today and Imagine My Surprise when I saw what was inside! I posted a picture on social media and a friend sent me your link. This has been so wonderfully informative for me. I really couldn't ask for more outside of how to store them for the winter, and whether any will survive if I germinate a few to grow inside under my grow light just for fun. I will be missing the critters, but will I be able to grow a vine as a house plant? Thank you so much! ~Lynette

    1. HI Lynette - Love your enthusiasm! We're the same way (rescuing abandoned houseplants or covertly watering them when visiting friends who don't have a green thumb)!

      Regarding scarlet runner bean, winter storage: beans must be thoroughly ripe and dry. Your friend is right -- green pods are not ripe. Dried, brown pods are ripe. Just pop the purple and black beans out and store them in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. If you gather enough of them you can make an excellent vegetarian chili from them (see above) but if you only save a handful, best to keep them to start plants next spring -- after danger of last frost.

      Beans need warm-ish soil to germinate and full sun to grow and ripen. We do not know of anyone who has grown them inside as houseplants. It might be fun as an experiment but, without pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds the flowers will not be pollinated and won't form pods or seeds. Hope that helps! Llyn and Chris

  5. Great article.. First one that told me what I had grown!

  6. Your post is really appreciated. It helps me a lot. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I'm in UK, we grow runner beans as a staple in most allotments and gardens during our summer months. Don't think of them as exotic, no hummingbirds sadly. Enjoyed your informative article. Love from Wales.

  8. No hummingbirds? Sorry to hear it, but I'll bet your other local pollinators love the bean flowers! Thanks for writing. Wales is an amazing country! Llyn (with a Welsh spelling!)

  9. Hello from Washington state!
    I was introduced to scarlet runner beans about two years ago as a good source of dietary protein. My husband and I fell in love with them and because they are hard to find in this area, I decided to grow my own last summer. I spaced 4 beans in a small pot and placed it in my kitchen window. After several weeks, I was about to lose all hope when nothing happened. Then, one morning I walked into the kitchen to make coffee, and one tiny sprout was raising his head above the potting soil! I was so excited, I ran to get my husband out of bed to show him!
    For the next two weeks, we watched Sprout grow a faithful 2.5 inches every single day, rain or shine. Finally, I had to take him outside and put him on the wire runner on one end of our 10-foot arbor. He continued to grow throughout the summer and put on quite a show for the neighbors!!! By the end of the season, he was covered in red flowers and lucious green pods. I used his example when giving a ministry talk to the ladies of our church. Sprout has been a beautiful inspiration to many!!! Life, in all its forms,
    is nothing less than a miracle from God!

    1. Thank you Dianne, what a beautiful story! Since we wrote this post we discovered the sibling to this wonderful bean called the Giant Greek White bean. They don't seem to produce quite as heavily as the Scarlets (but that could just be where we planted them). The individual White beans are larger though, and every bit as delicious as the Scarlets - if not more so! We found seeds for them at our local Food Co-op/health-food store, in the bulk section. They bloom white (so not quite as showy) but still, a great addition to "growing our own protein". Seeds, and gardens ARE miracles from God and we give thanks for them every day.

    2. Can I buy Scarlet Runner
      Beans from you? Our only source has discontinued them!!!

    3. Hello, we can't ship them outside the U.S. but if you live in the States, send us an email at shareinjoyATgmail.com with your name and address and how many you're interested in, we'll see what we can do. We don't sell any of our seeds but donations are always gratefully accepted through PayPal (upper right-hand corner of our site) or by check mailed to Sharing Gardens - 664 Orchard St., Monroe, OR 97456. "Bee" well! Llyn and Chris