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A comprehensive look at DIY bean supports and bean trellises for growing climbing beans. Includes the best way to grow beans using the three sisters method, controlling pole bean growth, and instructions for making a bean teepee trellis and a double row bean trellis. This piece is an excerpt from the book, Growing Beans
Climbing varieties of bean – pole beans – certainly need some kind of cane, pole or netting structure for support. Fully grown bean plants, particularly some of the more vigorous varieties with big flapping leaves and generous pods, are weighty and so the supports need to be very sturdy. Many a year I have spent time creating structures that I am quite certain are going to be strong enough, only for a windy day to bring them toppling down.
In my rural garden, it looks in keeping to have homemade, particularly wooden and bamboo supports. Traditionally bean supports were constructed with coppiced poles, about 2.4m long (8ft) and around 5cm (2in) thick at the base. I have a sufficient supply of hazel withies growing in a small wood on our land that I can cut when the wood is green and pliable enough to form into arched supports.
Use Sticks to Make a Bean Teepee
A hazel pole teepee is my favourite type of support and I think it’s the easiest by far. Tied at the top with thick hessian rope, a teepee looks good, is easy to erect and is very sturdy. What’s more, they are easy to move around. If the autumn weather closes in, the plants can be cut at the base and the whole thing, sticks and all moved under cover to dry.
The hazel poles usually last two or three years before they become too brittle. Nowadays many people use bamboo but spare a thought for where the bamboo has been sourced. It is likely to have been shipped in from halfway around the world. I am fortunate that a neighbour has a large stand of bamboo that she’s happy for me to cut back for her every year.
Make a Bean Teepee Trellis
As the name suggests the canes or poles are arranged in a teepee structure and tied at the top with a rope or wire. If the teepee is too large, then too much productive soil is left in the centre. Alternatively, grow a quick crop of lettuce or radish in the centre space. The lettuce in particular will enjoy the moisture and the growing shade created by the young bean plants.
Several small teepees, each built out of four or five uprights, can be placed in a row. Since I also like to grow several different varieties of beans, but not too many of each variety, the ‘teepees-in-a-row’ system suits my crop size. The only snag can be that one side of the row receives a bit less sun and light.
More Trellis Ideas for the Vegetable Garden
- DIY Pallet Cucumber Trellis (No Tools Required)
- Easy DIY Raspberry Trellis
- How to Make a Willow Garden Obelisk
How to Make a Double Row Bean Trellis
This is the classic structure and consists of two rows of poles or canes about 45cm (18in) apart and tied at the top with string or twine. On windier sites the rows should be placed further apart at around 60cm (2ft) – or even wider – as this gives more stability. In each row, space the poles or canes at about 22cm (9in) or a little wider, particularly if your poles are for more vigorous bean varieties.
Drive the poles well into the ground. This method is best with an extra pole along the top to give strength and stability. For added stability tie strings like tent guy ropes at each end to keep the whole structure tauter. It is often said that a frame should run in an east-west direction to equalise light on both sides, but I find it doesn’t seem to make a noticeable difference.
Use Recycled and Re-purposed Materials for Bean Supports
A trellis makes an excellent bean support, particularly if recycled from some other purpose. With a bit of imagination, all kinds of recycled and repurposed materials can be turned into bean supports. The reinforcing mesh used in building work, for example, makes a good support, and it quickly rusts to that attractive colour. Old metal bed frames or ladders can be propped against a fence or wall. I have some old galvanised sheep panels and two of these propped up lengthways make a very good bean frame.
Harvesting Wooden Poles for Bean Supports
Hazel – and several other types of tree, willow is good for example – can be coppiced to provide strong and flexible poles. A two-year-old withy is usually long enough and strong enough. The flexible withies can be bent and woven into arches or dome-like structures, particularly if you don’t remove all the twiggy side branches, but use them to weave.
Remember to cut poles around the middle to end of March when the withies will be pliable but not yet out in leaf. If you leave it until later in the year when you are ready to plant out the beans, the trees will have already broken into leaf. Cut the withies on an angle, and the pointed end will push into the ground much more easily.
Using Bamboo Canes for Bean Supports
Canes are perfectly straight and can be cut in relatively long lengths. They are resistant to weathering and can last for years. The thick, long canes that are best for climbing beans can be costly if you need a number of them. Bamboo canes also have the huge advantage that when the bean crop is finished, the old vines will slide easily off each individual cane. When you’ve spent an hour or more painstakingly picking bits of dried vines out of netting or twiggy arches, you’ll thank me for that advice.
Grow Beans on a Maypole
For this structure, a thick, tall central pole is driven into the ground. It needs to be deep and firm. Then ropes fixed into the top radiate out like a maypole and are pegged taut into the ground. My attempts at this structure have not been very successful, but commercial versions may work better than my efforts.
Make a Bean Arch
This is a very nice structure, particularly if it arches over a path. Commercial metal arches are the easiest and probably the most secure and although a costly outlay, obviously lasts many years. They can be heavy and unwieldy to move from place to place though if you want to rotate crops. Pliable hazel or birch poles make an attractive arch. Particularly if they are twiggy and can be woven into more of an arch form at the top. The weaving also helps to make the arch more stable.
Metal Bean Supports
Metal supports can be a good investment if you intend to grow beans year after year, and particularly if you want the beans on their supports to look good in your vegetable garden (or even at the back of a flower border). Compact metal bean supports, the tall circular type can be moved around more easily than more complex arched structures.
Grow Beans on a Fence
If you have a wall or fence already in place, then fix a solid, ready-made trellis or lean bamboo poles against the wall. If netting can be fixed to the wall or fence, it can be made to angle away from the wall. As long as the wall area receives sunlight for a good part of the daytime, 5-6 hours, then the beans should grow sufficiently well.
I have a section of sheep proof fencing – widely spaced wire fencing – in one part of my garden, which I sometimes use for growing the shorter climbing varieties. You can use recycled wire fence along with sturdy poles to secure it, but most fencing is not tall enough for climbing beans.
Crop Netting as Bean Supports
Crop netting can be purchased for growing beans, but it must be strong enough to take the weight and again, secured well so that it doesn’t fall when heavy with bean plants and their crops. Since I try to reduce the amount of plastic I use, I prefer not to use this type of support. As an alternative to plastic, jute twine nettings are available
Grow Beans Using the Three Sisters Method
In the Americas, beans are traditionally cultivated with squash and corn, known colloquially as the three sisters – the three staple ingredients of the traditional diet. The beans’ nitrogen-fixing capability provides nutrients to corn and squash plants, while squash leaves provide shade for plant roots to retain moisture and suppress the weeds.
The corn stalks provide a strong upright stake for the beans to climb up, winding their stems around the main trunk of the sweet corn. The squash plants trail around the foot of the corn and beans on the soil. Since both squash and beans need plenty of moisture at the fruiting stage and benefit from similar feeding, the watering regime benefits both plants.
Use Less Vigorous Beans for the Three Sisters Method
More vigorous climbing bean plants will overwhelm the sweet corn plants and may even pull them over when heavy. When I have seen this combination growing in Guatemala, the beans looked to be the shorter, spindly, bean plants common in the drier, warmer regions of South America, with small, lightweight pods, and the corn plants were tall and tough.
Selecting a climbing bean that is not too vigorous would be important if you want to try the genuine three sisters method. However, I do grow two sisters together – trailing squash plants in between my climbing beans to make good use of the space and for the combined benefits to both crops.
Controlling Bean Growth
Some of the climbing beans, particularly runners, are very vigorous. One trick I have read about is to shorten them by pinching them out when they are young plants, reducing the final height of the plants and making them much easier to pick. I offer this old market gardening advice, but I don’t do it. I’m sceptical that it causes the plants to put energy into growing several side shoots and delay flowering and setting pods.
On the other hand, when beans start to reach for the sky, towards the end of the growing season, pinch out the leading shoots or cut back some of that extra growth, entangled at the top of the poles. Cutting the plants back at the end of the season encourages the plants to respond with more flowers and more rapid ripening of the existing pods before the weather turns. Also, cut off any side shoots that are not actively bearing in order to encourage the set pods to ripen. Reducing extra growth, and even picking off excess leaves will have the added bonus of increasing that all-important air circulation.
Beans that Don’t Need Bean Supports
The advantage of dwarf or bush beans is that they don’t necessarily need supporting, although it is a good idea to insert short twiggy branches to keep the plants upright. Whether dwarf beans need support can also depend on the variety. The small rice bean varieties, for example, are very compact plants that usually stand tall by themselves, or just lean on their neighbours. Some of the old varieties of dwarf bean send out half-runners, or a leading shoot that can sometimes be 60-80cm (2-2.5ft) long and needs a short cane, and some dwarf types are big sprawlers that certainly need propping up.
Also, as you search for pods to pick from dwarf plants, they can become loosened in the ground and fall if they have no support. One tip is to earth up the plants or bring in some extra compost as mulch and mound it around the stalk. This helps to keep the plants firm in the soil, improves stability and also stimulates some extra root growth.
Problems with Deer Eating Beans
In my garden deer are a problem, as they are for many gardeners in North America and in some rural areas of Britain. They have a particular liking for the leaves of climbing beans which are held at a convenient height for them, so I have to surround my bean patch with a high netting fence to deter them.
Some suggest strong fishing line strung at one-foot intervals between wooden fence posts. I have also discovered that growing squash and courgettes, trailing between my bean plants as the South Americans do, helps to deter the deer. They don’t like to eat the big hairy leaves of the squash family and don’t seem to step through them to discover the beans.
Growing Beans by Susan Young
Retirement from a career of teaching in schools and universities allowed Susan Young to devote more time to gardening, and growing vegetables. She has lived for the last 20 years on two acres in the Wye Valley, on the English-Welsh border. Part of which she gardens and the rest maintains as a wildflower meadow. It was the pandemic and lockdown, a time to reassess and reconnect, that prompted her to write a book. Growing Beans is based on years of experience and a passion for searching out and growing beans.