MOST PEOPLE YOU meet on the street probably won’t list fava beans as a major component of their diet. However, if you were walking down the streets of ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, everybody would be lined up at old-school food trucks clamoring for fried favas and falafel.
For thousands of years, in cultures spanning half the globe, favas were a staple food source. Favas are one of the earliest-known cultivated plants, and have been an important crop for at least 6,000 years. This level of cultural import is reflected in their vast catalog of pseudonyms. Fava beans are also known as faba beans, broad beans, Windsor beans, Scotch beans, English beans, straight beans, horse beans, pigeon peas, tick beans and bell beans. Of course, if you want to keep it simple, just call them Vicia faba.
While generally referred to as beans, favas are botanically categorized as vetches. Beans and vetches are both included in the Fabaceae, or legume, family. Legumes are fabulously popular crops due to their high protein content, long-term storability and their ability to add nitrogen to the soil (typically referred to as nitrogen fixing).
Favas are a great crop to add to your vegetable garden tool kit. They taste great; improve the quality of your soil; and can be planted overwinter, when you are most likely to have space available.
How to grow
Favas fit well into the vegetable garden because they like the same conditions as most other annual crops: regular water, a soil pH between 6.3 to 6.9 and full sun.
Fava beans are annual plants that typically grow from 2 to 5 feet tall. The plants have a quite elegant, upright and narrow growth form. However, due to their relatively shallow root systems, favas tend to fall over. I highly recommend staking the plants when they are still young. This will prevent stems from cracking and keep pods off the ground, where they are likely to rot.
While favas can be transplanted, it is not usually necessary in our region. Direct-seed beans 1 to 2 inches deep, 4 to 8 inches apart, in rows 12 to 36 inches apart. It’s always helpful to add a legume inoculant at planting time. Inoculants are dried bacteria that naturally live on the root nodes of legumes. By coating your seeds with inoculant, you can increase the local population of these helpful bacteria, improving plant health and increasing yields.
Fava beans can be planted in September, October or March. While favas technically need 80 to 100 days to reach maturity, their life span is often much longer. Fall-sown plants generally will stop growing between November and March. A fava planted in October might not be ready for harvest until the following May, meaning about 240 days from planting until maturity.
Spring conditions will make a serious impact on how quickly the plants mature, but fall-planted favas generally mature in May, and spring-sown favas mature in June. The advantage of growing favas over winter is simply that they are ready to come out of the garden in time to make room for summer crops like tomatoes, squash and snap beans.
Some growers cut off the growing tip of the plant once the pods start to form. This can help speed the ripening of the pods, resulting in an earlier harvest.
Pests and diseases
Favas are easy to grow in our region. The most common issue seems to be black aphids, which can decimate a planting if left unchecked. Like any aphid issue, if caught early, they can be managed with a blast from the hose, soap sprays or neem oil.
Because much of their life is spent in the rain, favas are susceptible to blight, mosaic virus, botrytis and anthracnose. To minimize disease potential, avoid handling the plants when they are wet, remove infected plants as soon as you notice a problem and rotate your planting location each season.
Harvest and storage
Fava beans are generally harvested as shelling beans or dry beans. I like to pick them as shelling beans. Depending on variety, mature shelling pods will be about 6 to 10 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter. Pick them when they are still green and pliable. When preparing favas, after taking off the pod, it’s best to quickly boil the beans and remove the membrane on the outside of each bean. The process can be a labor of love, but worth it.
If you want to store them as dried beans, wait for the pots to dry out to a light-brown color, and make sure to pick them before they begin to shatter and drop to the ground. I recommend freezing any dried legume seed for two weeks before storing, to kill off any bean weevils that might be hiding inside.
You might think that a crop with such a long and venerable history would proliferate into dozens of culinary varieties. However, there are relatively few to choose from. In fact, many seed companies sell only Windsor seeds for edible plantings. Smaller-seeded types are often sold as cover crops.
I always have had great luck growing Windsor beans; they are a reliable, heirloom variety. There are some interesting dwarfing types, such as Robin Hood and The Sutton, which might be fun alternatives, especially for the container garden.
It’s late September, and you’re going to have to start clearing summer crops from the garden any minute. It can be a somber task, but planting a few fall fava beans will keep the spirit alive (and your soil in place) as we wait for next spring.