'Crimson' fava bean features beautiful red flowers on 2- to 4- foot tall plants.
Fava beans not only taste great and are easy to grow, they make excellent cover crops adding nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.
Fava, or broad beans, are not well known in America, but if you go "across the pond", the English and Europeans love them. But favas had a rocky start. Back in ancient Greek times, Pythagoras warned to "avoid all favas". It seems certain people in the southern Mediterranean region have a genetic tendency to get sick from eating fresh fava beans, a syndrome called favism.
Maybe fava beans are best known to modern audiences from the movie Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lecter said, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."
Personally, I can think of better ways to eat favas. Fava beans are enjoyed from China to America where they're a key ingredient in recipes ranging from minestrone soup to falafel. Before the "discovery" of the Americas, fava beans were one of the only beans available in Europe.
Fava bean pods are picked green once the 1-inch diameter beans have sized up inside the pod, but before they mature. They also can be used as a dried bean once mature. The beans are great in soups, stews, casseroles and roasted. Favas are a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins A and C and help produce a chemical called dopamine in the body which has been used to treat Parkinson's disease and help with low libido.
Fava beans are easy to grow in cool climates. In northern areas they're spring seeded for a late summer harvest. In mild winter areas like England, the Gulf and West coasts, sow fava beans in late summer or early fall for a winter and early spring harvest.
This cool weather loving legume produces a beautiful 2- to 4-foot tall plant (taller under very fertile soil conditions) that can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees F. Although more closely related to vetch than the common bean, favas have a taproot and fix nitrogen, making them an excellent cover crop, especially on clay soils (see article on improving clay soils in this issue).
You can eat fava beans fresh in the green shell stage, like an English pea, or let them mature to the dry stage for cooking in soups and stews.
Fava beans grow best in well-drained soil. Some varieties benefit from a staking and trellising to keep them from falling over.
There's a wider selection of fava beans available to home gardeners in Europe and England than in America, but here's a good listing of ones available for U.S. home gardeners. Depending on the variety, fava beans take 80 to 100 days to mature from direct seeding.
'Aquadulce' – Pods are up to 9-inches long and produce 8 or more seeds per pod, making this a productive variety. Good for fall sowing in mild areas.
'Broad Windsor' – This classic variety produces 5- to 6-inch long pods with 3 to 5 beans inside.
'Crimson' – This compact variety produces beautiful and unusual, crimson-colored flowers (most fava beans flowers are white with a black eye). It's a great ornamental in the garden or in a container.
'Express' – A fast maturing plant that produces 8-inch long pods.
'Jubilee Hysor' – An improved fava bean that's more productive than traditional varieties, producing well-filled pods of 6 to 8 beans each.
'Negreta' – This early maturing variety features 10-inch long pods with 6- to 7- green turning to purple beans per pod. Good as an overwintering variety in mild climates.
Amend well-drained soil with compost before planting. Sow in spring as soon as the ground can be worked. The seeds will germinate in soils as cold as 40 degrees F. In cold areas, soak seeds in warm water overnight before planting to accelerate germination. Fava beans don't like summer heat and the pods won't set beans if it's too hot. However, once the weather cools in fall, they will start to set again. Also, favas can be sown in late summer or early fall in mild winter climates to mature in winter and early spring. As a cover crop, sow in spring and till fava beans under before they set their pods.
Plant seeds 1-inch deep, 4- to 5-inches apart in rows 2- to 3-feet apart. Thin the seedlings to 8- to 10-inches apart once they germinate.
Favas grow best in well drained, moist soil. It's particularly important to make sure beds are kept moist during flowering and pod set. If too dry, the pods will be half filled or empty. Mulch established plantings with a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of hay or straw to keep the soil evenly moist.
Since they fix nitrogen, favas only require compost at planting for fertilization. To encourage nitrogen fixation, consider inoculating the beans with rhizobia bacteria before planting.
Fava beans are susceptible to attacks from aphids, bean beetles, and other insects and diseases common to beans. Keep plantings healthy and rotate crops to avoid disease problems. Spray aphids with insecticidal soap and hand pick bean beetle eggs and larvae.
Favas bean pods mature from the bottom of the stalk up like Brussels sprouts. Start harvesting the lowest pods at the green shell stage (like garden peas) once the beans have filled out, but before they have matured. Pods can also be allowed to mature and the dried beans harvested, stored and used in winter soups and stews. Fava beans will continue producing more pods and beans up the square stalk as long as the weather stays cool.