Should I Grow Runner Beans or Broad Beans?

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Thinking about growing your own fruit and veg this year but not sure where to start?

When it comes to beans, there are several different types that you can grow. At first glance it can be confusing as to the difference between them, and which type is best suited to you. Two of the most common types of bean are the runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and broad bean (Vicia faba, also known as fava bean).

Some varieties of broad beans are hardier and more resilient than runner beans. Tolerant of frosts, they can be sown earlier and will crop earlier than runner beans. Runner beans will usually produce a heavier crop and as climbers will take up less space than broad beans so are good for small plots. Broad beans do not climb and will require support. Unless very young and tender, broad beans are podded and the seeds alone are cooked, whereas (at least in the UK) runner beans are cooked and eaten pod and all.

Read on to discover more about runner beans and broad beans, so that you can make an informed decision on which is the best bean for you to grow!

1. Where do runner beans and broad beans originate from?

Runner beans originate from the uplands of central America and were introduced to the UK around the 17th century. Broad beans are believed to originate from the Mediterranean and Africa.

2. What do runner bean and broad bean seeds look like?

Runner bean seeds are speckled and most commonly are coloured pink, purple and black (see below left; “Enorma” varierty). Broad bean seeds are more oval in shape and darker brown in colour when dried (seed colour can vary when fresh, from white to bright green and even red) (see below right; “The Sutton” – a dwarf variety):

Runner bean seeds (left) and broad bean seeds (right)

3. When should I sow runner bean and broad bean seeds, and which soil conditions do they prefer?

Runner beans are not hardy and should be sown outdoors from May onwards, after the last frost. If you want an earlier crop it is possible to sow them indoors and then plant out from May onwards (again, ensuring that you avoid frost).

Unlike runner beans, certain varieties of broad beans, such as “The Sutton” are hardy and have the ability to survive frosts. They can be sown in October to November and will germinate within around 2 – 3 weeks, survive the winter and then resume growing in the following spring, giving an earlier crop. If the winter is particularly harsh then you will need to consider protecting the seeds by using a cloche.

Non hardy varieties of broad beans can be sown outdoors from March onwards.

Sowing SummaryRunner BeanBroad Bean
Sow indoors for an earlier cropApril to MayFebruary to April
Move from indoors to outdoorsMay onwards (avoiding frost)April onwards (avoiding frost)
Sow outdoorsMay to July (once soil has warmed, will not survive frost)October to November (Hardy varieties only; will crop early spring)

March to June
Time from planting to harvestapprox 12 weeksWinter sown crops – approx 25 weeks

Spring sown crops – approx 12 weeks

4. How are runner beans and broad beans grown?

Both types of bean are flowering and will produce substantial crops throughout the growing season (although runner beans will generally crop heavier than broad beans). They can both be grown in containers, raised beds or directly in the ground. Both runner beans and broad beans are available in dwarf varieties which, although they will produce a reduced crop, are ideal when you are growing in containers and space is at a premium.

– Runner beans

One of the main differences between the runner bean and broad bean plant is that most varieties of runner beans are great climbers whilst broad beans are not. If you are short on space then runner beans are ideal – provide them with a robust frame to grow up and they will pretty much take care of themselves.

Follow the link to shop for runner bean support frames on Amazon.

To keep runner beans under control and to encourage bushier growth it is a good idea to “pinch” out the growing tip of the plant once it starts to get beyond a manageable height. Once you do this the plant will stop gaining height and will concentrate all of its energy into the production of beans. Left unchecked, runner beans will grow too high – well over the height of the average person! One of the main advantages of this height is that you will achieve good, strong harvests from relatively little garden space.

Runner beans need a sunny position and should be watered regularly to ensure good cropping – keeping the soil moist in especially important to do if growing in containers. Also, mulching or mixing in compost to the soil will hep keep in moisture.

Check out our article on growing runner beans in containers here

Cane frame ready to grow runner beans. Runner beans are great if you have limited space!

– Broad beans

Broad beans will tend to take up more space than runner beans as they are not climbers and will need support after they get past a certain size. An effective way to support them is by using taut string support lines tied between canes, these supports should be erected when the plants are still small ready for when they grow bigger.

Like runner beans, broad beans need to be watered regularly and the soil kept moist. They need a full sun position which is ideally sheltered from strong winds. Once the plant has started to develop pods then the top of the plant should be “pinched out” – this will further promote the development of further pods.

Check out or article on growing broad beans in containers here

Growing SummaryRunner beanBroad bean
Hardy / Survive frosts?NoYes – Certain varieties
PositionFull sun preferable but will tolerate partial sun. Choose a spot sheltered from windFull sun. Choose a spot sheltered from wind
Soil conditionsRich, deep, moist, well draining soil. Soil can be enriched with compost a few weeks prior to planting.Rich, deep, moist, well draining soil. Soil can be enriched with compost a few weeks prior to planting.

5. What do fully grown runner beans and broad beans look like? How do I know when they are ready to harvest?

Fully grown runner beans have long, straight and flat pods (below, top) and fully grown broad beans have a similar length but are fatter and rounder (below, bottom).

Runner bean (top) and broad bean (bottom)

Broad beans will be ready for harvest earlier in the year than runner beans, as the crops are sown earlier. Broad beans typically harvest around June to September while runner beans will be later, from July through to October.

– Runner beans: when to harvest

Runner bean pods can grow in excess of 50cm – you don’t want to let them get that long though! They should be picked frequently when they are young, fresh and tender – ideally when they are around 15cm long. Check that the pods will snap in two, if not picked soon enough they can become tough and stringy – if they are rubbery and flexible this indicates that the beans are probably past their best so should be removed from the plant and disposed of.

As runner bean plants crop heavily, in order to keep on top of things you will likely need to be picking beans every few days. This frequent picking will also in turn encourage more cropping.

– Broad beans: when to harvest

Broad beans can be picked when they are very young and tender (about 6cm long) and cooked whole, pod and all.

Once the bean has grown over this length the pod will become tough, chewy and will take on a bitter taste so in mature beans the seeds are eaten and the pods are discarded. When this is the case, the beans are ready to be picked once the seeds have started to bulge and swell inside the pod – if you can clearly see the shape of the seeds on the outside of the bean pod then it is ready!

As is the case with runner beans, once you have started harvesting, broad beans should be picked every few days – this will encourage strong cropping.

Harvest SummaryRunner beansBroad beans
HarvestJuly to OctoberJune to September
Signs beans are ready to pickPick when pods are young and tender.

Pods should be firm and rich in moisture and easily snap in two.

Length should be around 15 cm but this can vary variety to variety.
About 6cm long: can pick and cook whole, including pods

>6cm long: pick when shape of seeds are visible from the outside of the bean pod. Cook and eat seeds only.

6. Once picked, how are runner beans and broad beans cooked and eaten?

To enjoy them at their best, both types of beans should be cooked and eaten within 1 – 3 days of being picked. Neither type of bean can be eaten raw and must be cooked. The beans are both cooked and eaten very differently:

– Runner beans

Runner bean – prepared for cooking

The seeds and pods of the runner bean are both edible. In the UK it is common to cook and eat both the beans and the pod, although this is not so much the case in other countries that tend to eat the seeds only. Before cooking the top and tail of the beans are removed before the remainder is of the bean is sliced lengthways to remove any stringiness. After cutting the pods diagonally into smaller pieces, the most popular way to cook them is to boil them for around 5-7 minutes.

– Broad beans

Broad bean – prepared for cooking

When very young and tender (less than 6cm in length) the broad bean can be cooked and eaten whole, seeds and all. Typical uses include stir frys and stews.

When broad beans have exceeded 6cm in length, the pods (above, top) are discarded after the seeds within are removed, and only the seeds eaten. Once initially removed from the pod, the seeds themselves can then be podded again so as to reveal their rich green colour (above, bottom left) which will to ensure that you get the best flavour from the bean. The green broad bean seeds are then cooked (boiled for around 3 – 6 minutes) and used in salads, risottos and pastas.

Eating SummaryRunner beansBroad beans
Should they be cooked?Yes. Do not eat raw.Yes. Do not eat raw.
Eat pods?YesOnly when very young (less than 6cm long)
Eat seeds?YesYes
Typical usesBoil and serve as side veg or include in salads

Cook in stir fry
Tender beans cooked whole: Cook in stews or stir fry

Seeds only: Cook and serve with salads or pasta

7. What should I do with the plants at the end of the growing season?

Runner beans and broad beans are both part of the Legume family and, when growing, take in nitrogen from the air around them. By leaving the root system in the ground once the plants have been cut down, they will decompose and the nitrogen will be returned to the soil, benefitting whatever you decide to grow next!

So now you know….

So now you know more about the differences between growing runner beans and broad beans. Hopefully this will help with your decision on which beans to grow. But if you still can’t decide, and have the space available, maybe you could try growing both!

Shop for runner bean seeds on Amazon here.

Shop for broad bean seeds on Amazon here.