Despite being relatively easy to grow, and even easier to cook, beans have long confused gardeners thanks to their wide-ranging habits, and the cross-classification between runner beans and green beans, and pole beans and bush beans.
In this article, we explain the key differences between runner beans and green beans, as well as how to grow each, and which is best to grow – runner or green beans.
What’s the difference between runner beans and green beans?
Runner beans are long, flat beans, with slightly wrinkled pods. They have a string down one side of the pod which needs to be removed before cooking. Green beans are long, slim, cylindrical beans with a sweeter flavor. Both grow in similar ways, and both produce high yields, though runner beans tend to continue cropping for longer into late summer, even fall if picked regularly.
Both runner beans and green beans are best eaten with their pods, have similar leaves, and both have nearly identical red, white and pink flowers. In other words, the only way to tell the difference is by looking at the bean seed, or the ripe pods.
What are runner beans?
Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are long, flat podded beans, with wrinkly skins. The beans inside runner beans come in all shapes and sizes and can be exquisitely ornate. Most runner beans are best eaten with their pods, but some look so good dried in a jar that it’s worth storing them for winter
Are runner beans the same as pole beans?
Pole beans are a description of growing habits, rather than the beans themselves, so runner beans can be pole beans or bush beans depending on the variety. Equally, many varieties of green beans are pole beans too.
Best runner beans to grow
1. Red Rum runner beans
Red Rum are self-fertile runner beans with red flowers and pale green pods. While they’re not the prettiest flowering beans you can grow, they can reach up to 4m tall on a trellis and are one of the heaviest cropping beans you can grow in your garden.
Red Rum bean pods never get particularly long, so they’re not great for competition growing, but they’re packed with flavor.
2. Painted Lady runner bean
I love Painted Lady as an ornamental plant as much as a veg crop. We grow Painted Lady sweet peas in the ornamental beds here, and the flowers of these runner beans mirror them perfectly, drawing you around the corner into the veg patch in early summer.
As well as being utterly beautiful these runner beans are famously high yielding, and thanks to their longer-than-average pods you can pick just one or two for a decent side dish.
3. Polestar runner bean
If the tough strings in runner beans put you off growing them, try growing Polestar. Polestar can be picked early for stringless runner beans and have a sweeter flavor than most other runners.
If left to grow out Polestar beans are great for competitive growers as they grow reliably straight, and pods can reach 1m long.
4. Scarlet Emperor runner bean
The vivid red flowers of Scarlet Emperor runner beans are only outshone by the beans inside the pod. Immediately after harvest, Scarlet Emperor can be cooked with the pod or podded for vivid red beans that hold their color pretty well after cooking.
If dried for storage, these beans are stippled with burgundy and black skins that work perfectly as a replacement for kidney beans.
5. White Lady runner bean
White Lady isn’t known for yields or height. Instead, White Lady runner beans are grown almost entirely for flavor, with delicate smooth-skinned, fleshy pods that hold beautiful creamy white beans inside.
What are green beans?
Green beans, also called French beans and string beans, are long cylindrical beans with small seeds running down the length of each pod. They are sweeter than most garden beans but can be complicated to grow as they toughen with age.
While green beans produce the same number of beans as runner beans through the seasons their yields are smaller as the seed pods are smaller.
Are green beans string beans?
Green beans, also known as string beans, used to have strings, like runner beans, running down the back of their pods. The strings in beans are actually the vascular tissue that carries water and nutrients to developing seeds within the pod. Modern plant breeders have bred the tough vascular tissue out of green beans, though it remains in runner beans.
Are green beans bush or pole beans?
Most green beans are pole beans, typically growing at least 1.5m tall, but there are many varieties of bush green beans available, which do well in small gardens and can produce similar yields to their taller rivals.
Bush bean varieties of green beans produce yields of around 1.5lb, while pole bean varieties produce just over 2lb in good manure or compost. While taller beans use the same amount of space, they require more nutrients and can shade out other garden beds, so bush beans are often chosen for the ability to interact with other parts of the garden.
Best green beans to grow
1. Hunter French Bean
Hunter are the perfect beans for anyone struggling to choose between runner beans and French beans and they are flat podded, stringless French beans, which look and cook like runner beans, with the flavour and texture of green beans.
Hunter green beans come as both bush beans and pole beans, so be sure to choose the right variety for your garden.
2. Purple Cascade French Bean
Purple cascade is a climbing green bean with deep purple pods. They are incredibly easy to grow, and like all black-skinned vegetables have a far richer flavor than their paler counterparts.
Dark skins help to ripen and heat up the flesh inside seed pods and fruit, which really does improve flavor. While stuffy traditional vegetable gardeners might dismissively call these ‘novelty veg’, these heirloom varieties were around far before the green beans we’re used to!
3. Cobra French Bean
Cobra is probably the easiest French bean to grow for beginners and professionals alike. Whatever the weather, Cobra will produce a reasonable crop. It’s far from the highest yielding green bean, but if you’re after a reliable crop of beans that taste exactly how you pictured, then Cobra is the bean for you.
4. Yin Yang Bean
Yin Yang beans can be cooked like green beans, or dried for stews and casseroles. Also known as the Orca bean, the joy of these beans lies within the pod, on the vividly patterned beans that grow within.
5. Borlotto French Bean
Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here. There are dozens of varieties of borlotto beans alone, including green pole borlottos, and bush borlottos. Some are redder, and some have more white, with clearer red speckling.
One question we are asked all the time on our allotment is whether there is any difference between the different borlotto beans, and honestly, when cooked, there isn’t. Borlotto beans all have a rich, earthy flavor, with a gorgeous creamy texture when cooked into sauces, and work just as well fresh, and dried.
Crop comparison: Runner beans Vs green beans
Runner beans and green beans have very similar yields, both require similar care, and both germinate almost as reliably as each other, but below we’ll look at some crop comparisons for our last few harvests using one plant of average cropping varieties of both beans:
|Runner beans (Painted Lady)||Green beans (Cobra)|
|Germination||7-14 days||5-10 days|
|Time to harvest||12-16 weeks||7-10 weeks|
|Management||Regular picking for more crops||Beans can be left for longer on the plant|
|Yield||1lb per plant (avg.)||0.5lb per plant (avg.)|
|Yield time||Crops for 1-2 months with regular picking||Crops for 3-4 weeks|
Actual difference in crop based on crop intensity
While we measured the harvest off these plants as individual plants last year, it’s important to state that that comparison doesn’t take into account the intensity of crop placement of green beans.
Runner beans should be planted 8 inches apart as an absolute minimum (a foot apart is even better) while green beans can be planted just 6 inches apart. That means that for one 6ft row of green beans, you can grow fifteen plants, and double the row on the opposite side of the trellis, but for runner beans, just nine plants:
|Yield per plant||Yield per 6ft row|
So, in most cases, runner beans are the most productive plants, but you can grow green beans so tightly that you can plant on the reverse of that same row, doubling your yield to 15lb from one row of supports.
Commonly asked questions
When should you harvest runner beans?
Runner beans can be harvested at any time, but are best picked young before the seeds begin to form. When beans form in the pods, the vascular fiber down the spine of the pod becomes tough and difficult to eat. Once runner beans reach over 6 inches, leave them to grow to maturity, and pod the dry beans for storing.
Are raw beans toxic?
Raw green beans and runner beans have low levels of a toxic compound called lectin phytohaemagglutinin. In small amounts, it’s not dangerous but can build up in your gut if you eat too many raw beans. So it’s safe to try the occasional bean in the garden for flavor, but don’t use loads in salads!
Are there different kinds of green beans?
Green beans come in pole and bush varieties but are often confused with each other for the vast array of names they are given. The three most common names for green beans are French beans, green beans, and string beans.
Are Romano beans runner beans?
Romano beans are not runner beans, despite sharing many of the same characteristics. Romano beans are flat French beans and can be eaten at any stage in growing without developing those frustrating strings that can catch in your throat – common in runner beans.
If you’re still struggling to decide between green beans and runner beans, then there’s one final factor you should consider – cooking. Whatever veg you grow, it should always be chosen for flavor, above all else.
For me, that makes green beans far superior to runner beans as a useful garden crop, for the simple reason that they taste sweeter, have a better texture, and are easier to prepare. But, if in doubt, grow both!