Known as fava beans in the USA, broad beans are among the easiest vegetables to grow in the garden. The plants have attractive flowers which bees will pollinate freely. The colour of the flowers varies between not just different bean varieties, but different plants, and it's not unusual these days to see vibrant reds, yellows, or two-colour lilac and white variants; the most common two-colour variant is black and white. Part of the fun of growing broad beans, especially if the seed has cross-pollinated from a previous year, is not knowing what colour flower you are going to get. However, for those who like a little more control over their plants, some 'heritage' types are available with specific colours.
Broad beans can be served in a variety of ways, the most common of which is to shell the beans and cook them while still fresh. The young pods can also be cooked and eaten before the beans mature, although French beans are better for this style of serving. In addition, it's possible to dry the beans after shelling. These can either be cooked after rehydrating or saved for planting out to provide for the next year's crop.
This guide entry gives the times of planting and maintenance for growing broad beans in the United Kingdom. Gardeners in countries outside the UK will need to adapt the advice for their own growing seasons accordingly.
The ideal time to sow broad beans in the garden is between February and March, although a late crop can sometimes be obtained with a May sowing. If you make or buy some cloches1 for your garden, you may be able to sow the beans in the winter. Choosing this route can give you a bean crop as early as May, but be prepared to lose some plants to frost. You will also need to live in a mild area of the country with a sheltered, free-draining soil before attempting over-winter sowing, otherwise you will probably not be successful with cloches before February. If you are growing beans for the first time, ask your gardening neighbours if they have had success with autumn-sown broad beans. If they haven't, cloches probably won't help in your location. Alternatively, you could try a few beans as a test crop to see what happens. When using cloches, always seal both ends of the cloche run to prevent mice, rats, and even cats from getting inside, eating the plants or scratching out the seeds. Those who live in the not so mild parts of the country need not despair though. Some growers sow the beans in boxes of earth over winter periods and can get some of the earliest bean crops of all by doing so. These boxes are kept in the house until they can be gradually introduced to the garden in the early spring. Don't be afraid to experiment.
There are several varieties of broad bean available and it's always a good idea to ask your local garden nursery which is the best type for your area, given the time of year you are intending to sow them. A variety which is a fast grower in the North may not be fast in the South and vice versa. The three main groups of broad bean are 'Dwarf', 'Windsor', and 'Longpod'.
Dwarf broad beans are recognisable from the other groups by having short pods and plants with a bushy growth. The best type for small plots of land, they should be grown in single rows for the best crop. With a height of around 45cm they are ideally suited for growing in cloches.
Windsor broad beans are the best flavoured of all the broad bean groups. However, they are not able to stand over-wintering, so are not recommended for sowing in the autumn. Windsor beans are slow-maturing varieties, with an average bean count of around four or five per pod.
Longpod broad beans are easily recognised from their long, slender pods. These usually contain around ten beans, and easily reach over 30cm in length. The choice of exhibitors, these beans are hardy, early croppers with heavy yields.
Before you sow your beans it is best to dig over the ground thoroughly, however it is not absolutely essential unless you are creating a completely new garden plot. Digging over before sowing is usually a good practice for most types of crops, but as broad beans cope well with heavy soils and grow in most without a problem, there isn't a particular requirement to turn the earth into powder. However, unless you are on virgin ground, broad beans should be grown in a plot that was used for a different type of crop in the previous year (former potato plots make the best growing areas). If the ground needs improvements to the soil, dig in a light dressing of manure in the autumn ready for spring planting and add fertilizer about a week prior to sowing. Planting times should be staggered if possible to give continuous cropping.
The growing position should be fairly sunny, and, to avoid problems with blackfly, try to grow your beans beneath an elder tree (if there is one in your garden). This will draw the fly away from the beans. If you have no elder trees, you will have to resort to the tried and trusted method of blackfly control – pinching out 8cm from the tops of the bean stems once the first beans have formed. Not only does this help fight against blackfly, but removing the tops ensures an earlier crop. The pinched out bean tops are edible and will make an interesting addition to the dinner plate for the adventurous home gardener. Be warned though, do not cook the bean tips if they have already become infested. If the blackfly persists after removal of the plant tips, you may need to spray the crop with a liquid derris2 or equivalent product. Again, it's worth consulting your local garden nursery about which is the best blackfly treatment for your crop and the correct way to use the products. It's also worth noting that the later you sow your beans the more likely they are to be attacked by blackfly.
With the exception of the Dwarf varieties (which should be sown singly due to their bushy growth), broad beans should be sown in double rows to give the best crop. Remember, you'll need to walk between the rows to pick your beans, so these double rows should be 23cm apart with 60cm between them and the next set of double rows3. Within the rows themselves, each bean should be planted 23cm apart at a depth of 8cm. A good tip is to try to offset the double rows. That is to say, begin by spacing out the first row as described. Space out the second row, starting 11.5cm away from where you placed the first bean of row one. Each bean plant should then emerge in the gap halfway between its neighbours.
After the beans are sown as above, another useful tip is to sow a few extra beans at the end of the rows. These can be transplanted later should you need to replace any beans that have failed to develop. When the broad bean plants have reached a height of 15cm, keep the ground around the roots free of weeds with regular hoeing (or hand weeding if you don't trust your skills with the hoe). When you have finished the task of clearing weeds, pull the soil up towards the plants to protect them against damage in high winds.
If there are bean pods forming, ensure the beans are well watered around the base of the plant during dry periods. If the plants sends out side shoots from the base, these should be cut off. At the end of cropping the plants should be removed from the soil. If the plants are left in the ground after their work is done, young sucker shoots can emerge which will exhaust the soil for follow-on crops.
As the beans get taller, you will need to provide extra support to your plants. A common mistake of the first-time gardener is not giving plants support ties that allow growing space. The haulm (stalk) of the broad bean plant is very brittle and easily broken, so the best way to support the plant is to construct a narrow box of stakes pegged in at 120cm intervals. Twist lengths of string from stake to stake to create a supporting frame that the bean plants can lean against when being blown around by the winter winds. Further levels of string can be added as the beans grow taller.
Finally, for the best flavour, pick the beans when they are starting to show through the pod while the scar on the end of the beans is still white or green (although they can still be enjoyed after the scar has turned black). To remove the pods from the plant, give them a sharp twist in a downward direction.
An excellent way to serve them is to boil the beans in salt water for 20min maximum, drain and transfer to a saucepan with a pat of butter. If it suits when serving, you can add a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley to vary the flavour.