The broad bean (Vicia faba L.) can trace its cultivation back into the mists of time – some ancient sources describe them being eaten as far back as 6,800 B.C. which marks the dawn of recorded history. Back in Ancient Greece the philosopher Pythagorus – he of the triangle, forbid his followers to eat or touch these beans because he thought they contained the souls of the dead. They were once used as a voting tool in Ancient Rome because when you voted in the Senate, you gave a white bean for yes and a black bean for no ! In Italy to this day, the broad bean features in a key celebration. On November 2nd, it is their ‘All Souls Day’ where they are traditionally sown and cakes are baked in the shape of these beans or ‘beans of the dead’.
Old Wives Tales would have us believe that rubbing a wart with the furry part of the broad bean pod caused it to shrivel and disappear. How that came about is anybody’s guess.
We know them as broad beans in Europe but they are called ‘fava beans’. When it comes to cooking, they make a superb accompaniment but they also make a wonderful sauce or houmous when crushed with peas and mint for pasta. They can also be mixed with feta or goat cheese to be smeared on toast with some salt and black pepper or just added into salads for that odd hint of variety. Some recipes like to include them with tomatoes for a protein rich meal. I also like them in soups, risottos, potato salads etc.
Usually, the skins of older beans are removed as they have a slight bitter note. The young pods can also be picked and cooked but once they have developed their inner fur, they become difficult to munch on.
Nutritionally, they are full of minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, copper and phosphorous. It also contains B vitamins like B1 (thiamine). The benefits are to your immune and nervous system, bones and bloodstream.
They are self-fertile but benefit from insect pollination especially with bees. These beans are great for small gardens because they are so easy to grow and you can get a good crop from a small area of ground. I think successional growing works well too with younger plants interspersing the older. Ideal for those who are just starting out with growing vegetables and children also like growing them.
The beans freeze well !
Cultivation Of Broad Beans
Beans are sown directly into good garden soil although my favoured method is to plant them in modular cells. Slugs and snails are an issue as they target young shoots however, when sown under glass this is best managed. Full sun is a must !
They prefer good, fertile, well-drained soil which is rich in organic matter with added well-rotted compost and manure. A sheltered spot is ideal as high winds knock plants down which is the case with Brussels sprouts. Some slow release fertiliser is a help too in the early growing phase. I like a bit of general purpose compost added to the soil just to keep the plants in nourishment.
The seeds are sown from February to April which makes them one of the first to be sown directly into the ground. Some varieties like Aquadulce can be sown in October for an even earlier cropping. With autumn and very early spring sowing, warm the soil beforehand with a cloche about two weeks beforehand. I plant the seeds 5cm deep and 20cm apart although slightly further apart as I mention later is OK. Germination takes about 10 days.
The young shoots are planted out about 23cm (9in.) apart in double rows which are 45cm (18in.) apart. The stagger the plants to get maximum benefits from space. There should be about 60cm (24in.) between any further rows for good ventilation and easy access. Keep hoeing to remove weeds.
The plants need to be watered regularly in dry weather and weeds need to be removed simply to stop shading competition.
The pods form at the base having produced white/back pea like petals. The plants need to have their tips pinched out to promote pod growth and also stop blackfly or black aphids from gaining a foothold on the plant. If you want to encourage beans to ripen even quicker then pick off the top 5cm of the plants when the bean pods first begin to swell up.
Dwarf varieties do not need staking but taller varieties do need to be supported against a stout cane as the pods cause the plant to keel over. To stake them push a wooden stick into the ground at each corner of a double row say and tie string or garden twine between them at 20cm intervals. It really works. I like to just let them establish a height without staking as this helps strengthen their stems.
Harvesting Broad Beans
Pods emerge from the bottom and these are picked first. The best way to pick is to hold the stem to avoid uprooting the plant and pull away. The pods can also be cut with scissors.
Blackfly: Black aphids readily congregate on the growing tips from early summer onwards. Deal with the pest by nipping off the top of the plant once the pods have come as this stops sap movement and the aphid dies.
Chocolate Spot: Brown spots on the leaves are symptomatic of this rust. Severe attacks kill the plant but has little impact on pod production.
Slugs and snails: Young plants need protecting so any preferred means should be employed. I prefer the greenhouse so that the issue can be monitored properly.
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cv. ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ is one of the best choices for autumn sowing. It is a great cropper and ideal for the earliest of harvests. It produces long pods, about 9in or 23 cm long. The seeds are white, very tasty and mature early. This variety has always been recommended for autumn and winter sowing throughout the UK to generate the earliest crops the following spring and summer. See SimplySeeds or visit www.dobies.co.uk
cv. ‘Duet’. Duet is an unusual variety producing small pods with around 5 beans in each one. However it has outstanding flavour and produces very high quality beans, with a high yield, when picked. Choose from SimplySeeds.
cv.’Express’ is a fast growing type which is great for spring sowing as it also produces early pods.
cv. Stereo is an unusual variety producing small pods with around 5 beans in each one. However it has outstanding flavour, probably the best of all, and produces very high quality beans, with a high yield, when picked regularly. The flavour is described as nutty. Perfect when the pods are finger length. Stereo is a compact variety that is ideal for container growing and the pods are best picked when young and eaten like ‘mange-tout’ or left to grow to full size. It is available from Simply Seeds otherwise www.thompson-morgan.com and www.suttons.co.uk
cv. ‘Oscar‘ Compact, branching plants that are ideal for patio containers, producing good crops of fine quality, creamish-green beans which are about four to five per pod. the pod set is very uniform and usually it is possible to harvest the plant in one single pick. Sow successionally to extend the harvest. Available from www.dobies.co.uk.
cv. ‘The Sutton’ is the ideal dwarf variety for the windy spot. It is possible to grow in tubs and containers and is ideal for small gardens and cramped spaces. Only grows to 25 – 30 cm (10in or more). I sow a few in odd spots of the veg patch.
cv. Vectra is a tender, succulent and sweet variety with white seeds. Gives good yields and is an easy one to grow.
cv. Witkiem Manita (AGM) a variety that is sown in autumn and spring. A fast grower with long pods.