Broad beans have long been a poor relation of the vegetable garden. Easy to grow and fairly popular but they are not on every body's list of favourite vegetables. All that is changing because broad beans are back in fashion with chefs. Often now known as fava beans - their American-Italian tag - they are being used in more imaginative ways, in salads, stews and stir-fries, and, crucially, they are being used as much younger beans.
Site and soil
The ideal site for broad beans is full sunshine with shelter from strong winds but reasonably airy. It is a fast grower and needs good light. Being a legume, a member of the pea and bean family, the broad bean likes well-drained, open soil but unlike peas and some other legumes, it likes the soil to be rich, well manured or enriched with plenty of compost. While over-rich conditions make peas very leafy, broad beans crop very well when well fed. Too much richness, especially nitrogen, tends to make the plants very lush, however, and inclined to topple over, and more prone to pests and diseases. But it is not a very choosy plant and will crop reasonably well in most soil conditions.
Many of the broad bean varieties have been around for a long time, over one hundred years in some cases, such as ‘Bunyard's Exhibition', and this is usually a sign that a variety is stable and reliable, not overly susceptible to pests and diseases. The commonly used varieties are ‘The Sutton', ‘Masterpiece Green Longpod' and ‘Aquadulce Claudia'. ‘The Sutton' is a dwarf variety, reaching only about half the height of the taller kinds that reach over one metre. This avoids having to support the stems. It yields well and has white beans. ‘Masterpiece Green Longpod' produces green beans of good quality, yields well and freezes well. ‘Aquadulce Claudia' is the variety most popular for autumn or early spring sowing. There are newer varieties too such as ‘Witkiem Manita', which is an early to mature from a spring sowing. ‘The Sutton' can be used for autumn sowing too but does best with cloche protection.
Broad beans can be sown in autumn, choosing a suitable variety. If the weather is rough and cold, the plants can get damaged and snails can cause problems in mild weather. But mostly they survive to give an early crop in summer. Seeds can be sown in January or February in mild areas, if the soil is open and not too heavy, but most sowings are done in March or April, and repeat sowing can be carried out to get a spread of maturity.
Prepare the soil by digging and opening it up well, incorporating well-rotted manure or compost. Beans like plenty of air in the soil to grow well. Choose a spot where the taller varieties will not shade other vegetables. Make a single or double row about 60 centimetres between rows or other vegetables. The double row can be about 20 centimetres apart. Sow the beans about 15 centimetres apart in a single row and a bit more in a double row. Closer spacing helps the plants to support each other.
The beans germinate readily and soon they make small plants. These quickly grow tall when warmer weather arrives. Weed removal should be kept up until the plants are well-grown. They are sown early and rarely need watering.
The plants can be over on metre and are inclined to topple over if the garden is not very sheltered, particularly when laden with a heavy crop of developing pods. It might be necessary to push in some strong twigs or sticks, or to run a wire support on light posts on either side of the plants to hold them in place.
It is not generally known that the entire pods of broad beans can be eaten in the same way as french beans, but the pods must be picked when still small, about finger-length. This is not a waste because there are usually too many beans at maturity. The pods are carried in groups and some of the these can be removed and some left to grow bigger. Later on the pod becomes tough and furry on the inside. But the pods picked for beans should be picked relatively young so that the beans are sweet and succulent and not becoming starchy. The size of beans varies but it is best to pick the beans before they fill the pod. Broad beans freeze well. The tips of the shoots can be used in the same way as spinach. If some pods remain unpicked, they can be allowed to mature and dry and saved for seed the following year.
Pests and diseases
Broad beans generally suffer from only one pest - aphids. The black bean aphid is commonly found on the tips of the shoots after flowering has started and the tips can be taken off to reduce the attractiveness of the plant, but they also feed on the spine of the pods sometimes. They may not need control but can affect growth in large numbers.
Bean weevils harmlessly notch the leaves of young plants. Chocolate spot disease can cause leaf spotting in wet conditions and rust disease often appears as the plants are declining.