One of the advantages of growing your own edibles is the opportunity to grow something unusual, unfamiliar or something you can’t easily purchase at the grocery store. Fava beans (Vicia faba) are that and more. Here are five features of favas that may have you eager to order seeds for the upcoming fall season.
Favas grow in the cold weather. Along with English peas, fava beans are an ideal cool-season legume. The common garden beans that most gardeners are familiar with (including bush beans, pole beans and limas) grow in the warm season. Favas, which are more closely related to vetch, grow in cool weather and are extremely hardy, withstanding temperatures into the low twenties. In Texas, they are best grown as a fall crop, with seeds planted between Halloween and Thanksgiving — essentially after the weather has cooled off. In mild winters you may get a harvest by Christmas, but in more severe winters the plants will slow their growth, then pick up after the coldest weather has passed, producing a crop in early spring. They can also be planted in late winter, but they do not set pods in hot temperatures, making a late-spring harvest largely dependent on unpredictable Texas weather.
Favas are a link to ancient culinary history. Horticultural experts believe that favas, also known as broad beans and Windsor beans, originated in the Mediterranean region, where they were cultivated and consumed by the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt and the Middle East. Until European explorers introduced the warm-weather beans of the newly discovered Americas, favas were the typical bean of the Old World, where they remain a staple crop. In many European countries, the arrival of favas is celebrated much the way Americans recognize those first spears of asparagus as a harbinger of spring. While historical records from Monticello document that Thomas Jefferson sowed Windsor beans on several occasions, they never quite reached homegrown status in American gardens, perhaps falling from favor after lima beans became a more popular crop for the summer season.
The large, buttery fava beans, which often grow bigger than a nickel, are delicious and easy to prepare, yet they are hard to come by in Texas unless you grow them yourself. Though not readily available in conventional grocery stores, a quick tour of Middle Eastern and Indian markets in the Austin area uncovered an abundance of fava beans in various forms, from fresh pods (generally a California import) to dried, canned and frozen.
Favas are easy to grow. Fava-bean seeds are large and easy to plant — an ideal task for children. Plant the seeds in loose, moist soil one-inch deep and six-to-eight inches apart in a full-sun location. Don’t worry about which end is up; just plant the seeds flat and the shoots and roots will go in the appropriate direction. They take about 10 days to germinate, but soaking in water for several hours before planting will help hasten the process. If planted in a block — several short rows seeded close together — the bushy, upright plants can be corralled with stakes and twine for easier access during harvest. Provide regular waterings, especially during flowering and pod-set. Depending on the variety, the plants will grow two to four feet tall, producing green fleshy pods, each containing three-to-six beans. For eating fresh, harvest the pods when they are plump and glossy, and you can feel the individual beans with your fingers. As the pods fill out, they tend to turn downward, a signal that they are nearing harvest size.
Favas can be eaten at all stages of growth. The beans can be eaten at the plump, green stage or pods can be left on the plant to dry and then shelled for soups and stews. The leafy top growth is also edible, typically wilted spinach-style, stirred into soups or eaten raw with fresh herbs and salad greens. In fact, aphids are quite attracted to the tender new growth; so, it is a good idea to snip it off and eat it rather than let the aphids move in and take over. Pinching out the top growth also encourages an earlier crop.
Fresh, cooked favas are creamy and mild tasting, a bit like a cross between green peas and edamame. However, to attain that creamy texture, the thin outer sheath of each bean must be removed by the process of blanching: submerge shelled beans in boiling water for one-to-two minutes, then transfer to a bowl of ice water. Cool slightly, then one by one, nick the sheath on one end with a knife and then squeeze gently to release the inner bean. At this point, the beans can be used right away or refrigerated three-to-four days. The blanch-and-peel process takes a little time but is worth the extra effort for truly succulent beans. Enlist the help of a second set of hands — even children can assist by popping the beans out onto a plate.
A pound of pods will yield about a cup of shelled beans, slightly more or less depending on the size of the beans. Favas are typically braised or sautéed in olive oil or butter with a garnish of pecorino, Manchego or other tangy, sharp cheese. Their bright, beany flavor is delicious combined with early-spring vegetables and herbs, such as asparagus, fennel, mint, dill, leeks, green garlic or tiny new potatoes. They can also be braised with rice, couscous or pasta, or mashed into a chunky dip. One more option for eating fresh favas is to harvest young, slender pods before the beans start to develop. Steam or cook the whole pods; season and eat just like snap beans.
Favas are good for the garden and the gardener. Fava beans are an excellent source of fiber, a key nutrient often underconsumed in the standard American diet. The beans also provide protein and contain significant levels of potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium and folate. And not only are the leafy plants ornamental and the blooms attractive to pollinators, but the plants are also “nitrogen-fixers” that gather nitrogen from the air with the help of soil bacteria called rhizobia. These bacteria live on the plant roots, where they convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plant can use. Excess nitrogen not needed by the plant is stored in tiny nodules on the roots, which should be left in the soil for the next round of crops.
Coating the seeds with a legume inoculant, especially if you are growing favas in a spot that has not hosted other legumes, will ensure that the bacteria needed for nitrogen fixation are available in the soil. Powdered inoculant can be purchased at garden centers and through many online seed catalogs. At planting time, mix a small amount of inoculant with non-chlorinated water to make a slurry, lightly coat the beans and then plant the inoculated beans immediately. Consult package directions for more specific information.
‘Sweet Lorane’ and other small-seeded favas are a good choice for a soil-enriching winter cover crop. Sow them in the fall and let them grow through the winter. In spring, chop the plants up and incorporate into the soil; alternatively, cut the tops off for the compost pile, leaving the roots to decompose in the soil.
A word of caution: while favas are delicious and enjoyed worldwide, a small percentage of the population, generally of Mediterranean descent, may have a genetic predisposition to favism, an enzyme deficiency that can cause a severe reaction to raw beans and pollen. If this is a concern, it would be wise to consult your physician and sample the beans only fully cooked and in small quantities. tg
(H=Hybrid OP=Open Pollinated)
Variety Days to Harvest Source
Aquadulce 85–90 days 6
Sweet Lorane 90–120 days 4, 5
Vroma 75 days 2, 3
Broad Windsor 75–85 1, 3, 4, 5, 6
- High Mowing
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Pinetree Garden Seeds
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Territorial Seed Company
- True Leaf Market
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables