Positively full of beans

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The Independent Online
The score in the kitchen garden is pigeons - six, gardening correspondent - one. They have got the peas, the French beans, a seedling row of black kale, purple cabbage, rocket and Brussels sprouts. I have got the broad beans. Our place has always been massively overstocked with birds. The rooks are little trouble. Although they sleep here, they have the decency to eat elsewhere. It shows initiative. And I like the way they clatter about as they come back in the evenings after their expeditions. They are slow to settle down. Occasionally, little groups of avian Hells Angels swoop out of the trees and plummet at vast speed straight towards the house. At the last minute, they pull out of the dive and climb fast back up to the top of the chestnuts, shrieking "Chicken" to each other. It's pure show-off stuff and very engaging.

I like the woodpeckers, too. A pair of them (green) fuss about nervously on the lawn outside the sitting room. Whatever it is they are eating - ants, leatherjackets - I'm sure I'm better off without it.

The same goes for the robins that flick in suicidally close to the edge of my spade to snatch up grubs. They are bossy little boots and pour out streams of vitriol if another robin comes close. Unadulterated aggression. The red chest says it all. How on earth did they con their way on to the front of Christmas cards - the season of supposed goodwill? A robin has as much goodwill as a traffic warden on Monday. But being small, the aggression is hilarious rather than troubling.

The pigeons are another matter. They are heavy, slow, clattery flyers. They don't go anywhere. They just sit about in the trees, waiting for the next meal to be put in front of them. They sing outside the bedroom window in croony, insincere voices. And they have wiped out my French beans, two long rows of 'Slenderwax' (Johnsons pounds 1.49).

French beans are now available in a staggeringly diverse range of varieties. 'Slenderwax', though, is not a way-out bean. It is cream coloured, dwarf rather than climbing, but the pods are stringless, fat, juicy and very well flavoured. The prettiest beans are the ones that are splashed and striped with contrasting colours. Robinson's, best known for their mammoth onion seed, provide two stunners, both climbers. 'Rob Roy' has cream pods splashed with red. 'Rob Splash' has the same base colour but the pods are streaked and splashed with purple. You can use them two ways. When they are young, you cook them like any other French bean. As they get old, you can leave the pods to dry, then shell the beans inside to use as dried haricots.

The biggest selection of French beans, though, is offered by Graines Baumaux at Nancy in France. There are 85 different kinds in their current catalogue, including some fabulous striped beans such as 'Merveille de Piemonte', cream and purple in the manner of 'Rob Splash'. 'Rose d'Eyragues' has pods speckled with pink over cream and the haricots inside are similarly decorated, each one individually marbled.

You might expect a French seed merchant to have the best selection of French beans but in fact they are not French at all. Like runners, they are New World beans, brought back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadores. These beans, wrote the early herbalist, John Gerard, "boiled together before they be ripe, and buttered, and so eaten with their cods, are exceeding delicate meat, and do not ingender wind as the other pulses do."

The most important thing about French beans (apart, that is, from protecting them from pigeons) is not to be in too much of a hurry to sow. My first line went in on June 12. By nature French beans are fast growing annuals and it is a waste of seed to put them in cold, dank ground. Sow at regular intervals, starting in late spring when the soil temperature has reached about 13C. The climbing types will need support, but the compact bush varieties will crop without any propping up, even in pots and Gro-bags.

They like rich, light soil, but are not fussy about whether it is neutral or acid. They do best in a sheltered position. You can sow them in a dee apple box, lined with newspaper and filled with compost, then transplant them out when the weather warms up. But the shock to the system holds back transplants, and indoor sowings may crop no sooner than seeds sown outside. They generally germinate so fast, I don't bother with indoor sowings, but sow direct into the ground, setting the seed about an inch deep and about nine inches apart in the rows.

In exposed situations - where this can't be avoided - you can earth up the stems of young plants as they grow to give them extra support. Provide canes or other supports for climbing French beans. Keep the soil moist throughout the growing period, but especially when the plants come into flower.

Expect about eight pounds of beans from a 10ft row. For fresh beans, pick the pods frequently while they are still succulent. For dry haricot beans, leave the pods and pull up the whole plant at the end of the growing season. Hang them under cover until the pods have dried off. Then shell the beans and store them in air-tight jars.

In Ecuador, where I was earlier this year, we often saw climbing beans planted among the sweetcorn, so that they could use the strong stems of the corn for support. The traveller Samuel de Champlain noted exactly the same symbiotic relationship in his journeys in Brazil in 1605. That's a partnership that we could easily copy. The two crops like the same kind of situation. From various caches of beans dug up in caves in central Mexico and Peru, archaelogists reckon that South American Indians have been cultivating beans since at least 6000BC.

I'm still working my way slowly through the French bean archive, but these are some of the ones that I have enjoyed eating: Green-podded: 'Aramis' fine, round stringless pods, 'Delinel' excellent texture and flavour, 'Pros' round sweet juicy pods, 'Tendergreen' meaty pods, stringless and fibreless. Purple-podded: 'Purple Queen', the glossy purple turns green when the pods are cooked but the flavour of the purple cultivars is paralleled, 'Purple Tepee' productive and quick to mature. Yellow-podded: 'Kinghorn Wax' stringless, round wax bean, 'Rocquencourt' dark yellow rounded pods contrasting with dark green foliage. Good in cold areas. Climbing: 'Blue Lake' excellent flavour, 'Or du Rhin' broad, flat yellow pods, late, black-seeded. For haricots: 'Brown Dutch' floury texture and an excellent flavour, 'Chevrier Vert' a classic old French flageolet.

Seeds from: Johnsons, London Road, Boston, Lincs OE21 6BR (0800 614323); W Robinson & Sons, Sunnybank, Forton, Nr Preston, Lancs PR3 0BN (01524 791210), Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Road, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456), Graines Baumaux, BP 100, 54062 Nancy, France (00 33 83 15 86 86)

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