Tag Archives: Heritage Seed Library

The Coal and the Bean


The brothers Grimm tell a tale explaining an anatomical feature of a bean seed. In The Straw, the Coal and the Bean, a bean seed which is destined for the pot escapes its fate, along with a piece of straw and a lump of coal. The three companions run away but when mishap befalls the coal and the straw, the bean laughs so hard that it splits its sides. A tailor happened upon the bean and took pity, kindly sewing up the legume “but because the tailor had used black thread, all beans since then had a black seam“.

A cute story, but not as true as I’d like it to be! I’m guessing the bean in question was a broad bean (Vicia faba) since it has a long hilum (the bit where the seed attaches to the inside of the pod) which does indeed look like a seam, and is often black. But it can also be white depending on the variety. Research by the Heritage Seed Library indicates that if a variety has seeds with different coloured hilums, this is a tell-tale sign that there has been cross pollination, or that the variety isn’t stable within itself.

The seeds of French and runner beans look different to those of broad bean, but are similar to each other. There can be confusion between the two, as the plants look alike. Both are in the genus Phaseolus, but are different species: the French is P. vulgaris, whilst the runner is P. coccineus.  The seeds of runner beans are usually (but not always) bigger than those of french beans. As the Latin name coccineus indicates, runner beans usually have scarlet flowers (though they are sometimes white or a combination of both). But a runner bean is not always P. coccineus, as French beans were sometimes called ‘runners’ in old catalogues!

The way to be certain is to observe the way they germinate.  If the foliage which first emerges above ground are the ‘true leaves’ (i.e. typical of that plant), then it is the runner bean, P. coccineus. The seed itself stays in the soil, and its cotyledons (seed leaves) stay enclosed within. This is called hypogeal germination. However, if the seed is hoisted into the air and the seed leaves burst forth, then it is a French bean. The first leaves you see are the cotyledons, followed by the typical leaves. This type of germination is called epigeal. The way I remember the difference is that a runner bean ‘hits the ground running’ so to speak, already producing its true leaves when it unfurls from the ground. The French bean is behind in the process.

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Runner Bean: hypogeal germination

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French Bean: epigeal germination

Things may just have got a bit more complicated! In the latest Organic Gardening Catalogue, I noticed a cross between a French and runner bean. As it’s listed in the runner bean category, I’m guessing (perhaps incorrectly) the germination style is hypogeal..


This year, I am trialling a non-climbing French bean on my shady fire escape. After success with dwarf tomatoes, I’ve decided to try a short version of this sun loving bean. Interestingly, when I tried runner bean ‘Hestia’ I didn’t have much success, despite P. coccineus coping with more shading.

Further Reading:

Biddle, Anthony J., Peas and Beans (CABI, 2017)

Stickland, Sue, Back Garden Seed Saving: Keeping our Vegetable Heritage Alive (eco-logic books, 2001)


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A Shady Harvest

Shady spots are difficult to grow food in, and the problem isn’t made easier when cultivating in pots. The crops recommended for lesser amounts of sunshine are often not suitable for containers. I’ve realised those which are don’t necessarily produce enough to make growing them worthwhile e.g. rocket. I love the stuff, but still had to visit the greengrocers to get my salad’s worth. Must get into the habit of repeat sowing, which might help matters.

The biggest success turned out to be the ‘Whippersnapper’ tomatoes which were sown as an after-thought. They were very productive – I picked 242 fruit before I stopped counting. And with every 10 tomatoes weighing in at approximately 100g, that’s over 2.5kg of harvest. Not bad for a plant that prefers sun. Plenty to eat and save seed from (an important consideration as these are from the Heritage Seed Library). There was even some spare for the wildlife – one day I noticed a squirrel munching on a tomato for breakfast! (see rushed and blurry picture below.) Thankfully, I don’t think the shadow-tail developed a taste for them because no further tomatoes were snaffled.

sharp squirrel

Squirrel nibbling a tomato

I had reasonable success with golden mange-tout. The golden chard, however, proved quite sulky. A similar attitude was demonstrated by the CCA kale that I transplanted to grow on to maturity. I suspect I was a bit remiss about feeding my crops after high summer. Plants in tubs cannot access nutrients in the same way as from the earth, which is a living ecosystem. In a pot, nutrients are quickly depleted, and so feeding container crops is more imperative. In the ground, it’s more a case of “feed the soil, not the plant.” Legumes, such as my mange-tout, fix their own nitrogen using nodules on their roots, and so can feed themselves.

A major disappointment was my chives. They had been doing well until they got afflicted with blackfly. Nobody ever warns that this type of aphid has a liking for chives – it’s always broad beans that are mentioned! I tried the squishing method of control, but this wasn’t particularly effective as it’s difficult to get right into the base of the leaves, where the blackfly can then recolonise from. I decided to try companion planting with Nemophila to disguise the chives, but the companion overwhelmed its mate, and the chives became really spindly.  I have to choose camouflage  that doesn’t sprawl so much..

As for midsummer sowing.. I wasn’t organised enough to do this. It seems my enthusiasm is very much a spring motivation. And as the sun gets lower in the sky towards the end of the year, I decided yesterday I wouldn’t pursue the idea of winter crops as I reckon my shady plot would suffer even less sunlight. It’s something I will observe over the next few months. In the meantime, I’ll start dreaming and scheming for 2015.


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I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most gardeners crave more plants for their gardens than they have room to indulge.  This is even more critical for those of us who have teeny-tiny growing spaces, and choosing plants an even more agonizing task.
For me, deciding on what veg to grow and what varieties to opt for has always included a desire to protect genetic diversity.  The Heritage Seed Library helps keep veg varieties in existence that might otherwise become lost:  if they are not on the National Seed List they cannot legally be sold, and slowly these varieties disappear.  Membership schemes bypass this law, as seeds are exchanged for a signing-up fee.  I joined the HSL many years ago, and through lapses in membership I endeavour still to grow heritage seed where possible.


‘Where possible’ has become more tricky, as I’m now ‘growing-my-own’ in a patch averaging four hours of direct sunlight, and I have a mild obsession with tomatoes!  I like their taste; for me, they have been problem-free (haven’t encountered Blight yet); and saving seed from them is no different to eating them… except for the destination, of course.  Even though they are sun-lovers, I tried out tomatoes on my five feet of landing last year, as an experiment.  I’d read an article saying that small tomatoes cope with some shade, and I wondered if this meant little plants or diddy fruit, or both.  I grew a dwarf bush type (‘Whippersnapper’); and two tall cordon types: one with cherry fruit (‘Millefleur’), the other with bigger fruit (the confusingly named ‘Green Bell Pepper’).  The sort that did best was ‘Whippersnapper’.  Having realised I could just about get away with growing a certain kind in the shade, I was nonetheless determined not to bother with tomatoes this year, and focus on other things instead.Another sun-lover I thought I’d test was the french bean.  Seeing as the short tomatoes did okay, I hoped I’d have reasonable success with dwarf Phaseolus vulgaris.  Who am I kidding? I tend to have difficulties with french beans anyway, and two attempts didn’t even germinate (old seeds?) When I sowed the second batch earlier this month, I also sneaked in some ‘Whippersnapper’…  I couldn’t resist.  I assured myself that they’d be for friends, but as my french beans amounted to nada, the toms will take their place.  I usually fare better with runner beans, the related Phaseolus coccinea which are more suited to shadier spots. HSL variety ‘John’s Best Long Bean’ consistently gives longer-than-average pods, but again, I’ve had the seeds a while and it doesn’t look like they’ll sprout.Generally in a small plot, it’s best to choose crops that produce food quickly e.g. not broccoli or cauliflower which need to go into their second year before harvesting (though the Real Seed Catalogue offers a quick-heading calabrese which is productive in just a few months).  Salad leaves are a good option.  I’d not realised how good baby kale is until I had occasion to grab lunch in a sandwich chain (which shall remain nameless!) As a result, I’m using kale as a cut’n’come again crop, along with rocket and red mizuna.  Thanks to Vertical Veg, I’ve made a couple of other shady discoveries – coriander (surprisingly) and young broad bean leaves, which taste like mange-tout.  The real mange-tout is currently lashing its way up a wigwam.

Other plans include a hanging basket with golden chard and scarlet flowered nasturtiums, and if I’m organised enough, post-midsummer greens such as ‘Dragon’s Tongue’.  Basically, I’ll see what I can shoe-horn in.  Like every other gardener.


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