By Andrea Bellamy - Photo: Carole Topalian
Aspiring gardeners are wise to cozy up to the legume family, which includes familiar favourites such as peas, beans, lentils, and even peanuts; its members are culinary mainstays, and growing them actually improves the health of the gardener’s soil. But if sugar snap peas and string beans are the darlings of family Fabaceae, favas are its neglected and slightly odd stepchild.
Like most eccentrics, fava beans—also known as broad beans—can really make for an interesting dinner party (and not just because someone will inevitably make a reference to The Silence of the Lambs). Buttery, with a slightly nutty flavour, favas are a springtime staple in Europe and other parts of the world, yet have been slower to catch on in North American kitchens, perhaps because of a perception that they’re difficult to prepare. (In fact, they just require a few not-unpleasant minutes of prep time.)
Favas are unusual as far as beans go in that they are a cool-season crop, thriving in temperatures that would destroy heat-seeking soy, runner, and snap beans. Planted in October or November, the plants will easily overwinter in our mild climate, treating you to succulent leaves, plump pods, and delicate seeds come spring.
For best success, treat the seeds with an inoculant prior to planting in compost-rich, well-drained soil. Water the seeds in, but then keep the soil dry, if possible, until the seedlings emerge (seeds can rot in overly wet soil).
Because they’re legumes, fava beans—or rather, the soil-dwelling bacteria with which they have a symbiotic relationship—make nitrogen from the air available in the soil, which increases the soil’s fertility. Legumes are an essential component of a good cover crop. Cover crops do just what their name suggests: they cover the soil, preventing nutrient and soil loss and improving soil structure once tilled under. Complement the beneficial effects of favas by broadcasting cereal rye or winter wheat between your rows. In spring, till these grasses under or shear them back, and add the greens to your compost.
Spring’s lengthening days mean the plants will begin to put on growth. Favas can get quite large; staking them will help keep them upright. Or, if you change your mind about the whole proposition, simply till the plants under—along with your grass cover crop, if you planted one—to give your soil an incredible boost.
Spring is also the time when you’ll suddenly notice hordes of black aphids clustered on the tips of your fava plants. Favas are so irresistible to the little beasts that some gardeners actually grow them as a trap crop—to lure aphids away from other edibles and to attract ladybugs. By the time aphids really show up in numbers, fall-sown favas are often large enough to withstand them without intervention, but it’s rather satisfying to knock them off your plants with a sharp blast of water. Once knocked off they are slow to re-establish, but you may have to bring out the hose a few times before their season is over.
In her book Grow Cook Eat, Willi Galloway recommends harvesting fava greens once the plant has reached 18 inches in height. Pinch back the growing tip plus an additional set of leaves, and repeat when the plants flower. According to Willi, the greens make a great basil substitute in pesto and are excellent in frittatas.
A second harvest comes once the first pods emerge. Tough and inedible when mature, young pods (harvested at less than four inches long) can be prepared similarly to snap beans. Beans reach their mature size once the seeds swell in the pods. At this point, eating favas means shucking the pods and blanching the seeds in boiling water. Plunge the seeds into ice water, and then slip off their tough outer skins. The delicate beans can then be added to pastas or salads, or simply tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and Maldon salt.
After harvesting, cut back the plant and add its leaves to the compost. Leave the roots to decompose in the soil, giving it an additional nitrogen kick. Really, you can’t lose with favas. Unless, I suppose, you meet up with Hannibal.
A garden checklist for October/November
• Plant a hardneck variety of garlic, such as Red Russian, for scapes in late spring and bulbs in July.
• Continue to sow radishes and spinach until the end of October.
• Sow cover crops in any empty garden spaces.
Andrea Bellamy is the gardener behind heavypetal.ca and author of Sugar Snaps and Strawberries: Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-Space Edible Garden.