There isn’t much you can sow as the leaves fall and temperatures plunge, but broad beans (known as fava beans in the US) are an exception. I reckon this underrated vegetable is due some recognition because it’s super easy to grow, not to mention super nutritious. They’re also super hardy – not many other seedlings will happily sit through a cold winter outdoors! – and they crop at the very start of summer when there’s little else to pick.
These pleasingly plump beans are one of the finest sources of vitamins and minerals, with exceptional levels of protein and plenty of potassium that’ll help reduce blood pressure and promote a healthy ticker: beans, beans, good for your heart!
How to Plant Broad Beans
Like all beans, broad beans team up with soil bacteria to secure nitrogen at their roots in little balls called nodules. Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient, so this remarkable setup makes these beans are pretty self-reliant. That said, they will grow better if you can feed the soil before planting with about an inch (3cm) deep layer of compost. There’s no need to dig it in – the worms will take care of that! The compost will help to maintain a healthy, free-draining soil which, of course, translates into healthy and productive plants.
Planting broad beans in the autumn gives the earliest-possible crop. They will also help keep the soil covered over winter, which will maintain happier soil life, and they make efficient use of otherwise empty beds. Pick a variety described as ‘hardy’ or specifically suited to autumn sowing.
Broad beans are the biggest of all vegetable seeds, which makes them a lot easier to sow. No fiddling around with tiny seeds trying to space them out! The easiest way to plant the beans is to make individual holes for them with a dibber or trowel. There are a couple of ways you can space the seeds. Some people like to grow them in double rows, with each pair of rows spaced around 3ft (90cm) apart. I prefer to keep it simple by planting the seeds in a block, 8in (20cm) apart in both directions, and about an inch (3cm) deep. Birds like pigeons can sometimes be a pest, so you may need to cover the bed with some netting to keep them safe.
Sowing Under Protection
Autumn-sowing is a bit of a balancing act: you want your beans to germinate before winter, but sow them too early and they’ll grow fast, soft and lanky…only to then get clobbered by very cold weather. Ideally, your seedlings should reach no more than an inch or two high before growth stops for the winter. If seedlings do get a bit ahead of themselves, it might be worth protecting them during cold snaps using fleece or cloches.
If autumn-sowing is a non-starter because winters are very cold where you garden, or perhaps your soil gets too waterlogged to sow seeds into during the colder months, delay sowing till spring or sow them under some form of protection, such as in a greenhouse or cold frame from mid to late winter.
I like to sow broad beans into larger plug trays of all-purpose potting mix, one seed per plug, down to the same depth of about an inch (3cm) deep. Another option is to sow into small pots. Keep your sowings somewhere mice can’t get at them, because they have an uncanny knack of sniffing out the seeds and digging them up. I’ve lost numerous sowings of peas and beans to mice, so now I pop them into a plastic storage tub with either the lid popped back on, or some wire mesh secured on top to keep the vermin out. Mice can also find bean seeds outside of course, so if you find they’re a problem out there, this technique may be best for you.
Once the beans have germinated, they can be grown on in the greenhouse or cold frame and then transplanted outdoors in early spring.
Caring for Broad Beans
Broad beans are incredibly resilient. Once the weather warms up they’ll put on rapid growth. You could just leave them be until it’s time to harvest, but there are a few things you can do to ensure healthier plants and heavier harvests.
The first thing we can do is offer taller varieties some support so they don’t flop over when they start getting top-heavy with beans. The easiest way to do this is to push in canes at the corners of your row or block, and along the sides as needed, with a couple of rows of string stretched between the canes to the hem the plants in. Most of the stems will naturally grow within these supports, but any that fall outside of it are easily tucked back in.
Pull out or carefully hoe off any weeds, especially while the plants are still young. Keep your beans watered in dry weather. Making sure your plants are well-watered will help to avoid diseases such as chocolate spot or bean rust, which can quickly spread on stressed-out plants.
The other thing we can do is pinch out the very tips of the bean plants (the growing points) as the plants reach full bloom and the very first pods are set. This makes it harder for black bean aphid colonies to establish – they love this soft, young growth, and by removing it they’ll be less likely to gain a foothold on your plants. This can also help to concentrate the plant’s efforts into pod formation. Don’t throw the tops away – you can eat them.
Incidentally, if you’ve never smelled the flowers before, they have a deliciously sweet fragrance – just delightful! And on the subject of flowers, there are some glorious cerise-flowered varieties you can grow that are really stunning.
Picking Broad Beans
Like digging up potatoes, or harvesting those first ripe tomatoes, picking fulsome broad bean pods is a most satisfying moment! Twist or tug them free, but take care not to damage the stems.
You can eat smaller pods whole, but larger pods will need shelling. I rather enjoy this process – the insides of the pods are so silky smooth, almost furry, while the fat, smooth beans are so rewarding to slide out. It’s a very sensory process, and I love it! It’s also a great little project to get the kids helping out. Gluts are very easy to freeze.
Cook smaller shelled beans as they are. Larger, starchier beans will need to be boiled for a few minutes before popping them out of their thick outer skin to leave the tender inner bean.
Try steaming them and serve with a white sauce; whizz them up into a spring-fresh bean hummus, made zesty with a good squeeze of lemon juice; roast them with a little salt to snack on like peanuts; or perhaps, like all good cannibals, serve them up with some liver washed down with a nice chianti!