Today we talk about the planting and cultivation of broad beans (Vicia faba), a legume that is becoming increasingly popular on our tables. We have already discussed the ability of leguminous plants (including broad beans) to provide benefits to the soil through intercropping. Today, however, we focus on growing broad beans for consumption and their planting. The cultivar of this vegetable begins its cycle in autumn and yields its fruits in spring. Let’s now look at all the necessary precautions for the home cultivation of a plant that adapts well to the dimensions of a family garden.
Furthermore, the broad bean plant is capable of producing generous harvests and is, therefore, a must-have in our gardens. And in spring, on our tables.
The Broad Bean Plant
The broad bean, Vicia faba L., is a plant of Mediterranean origin. Belonging to the order Leguminosae, family Papilionaceae, tribe Vicieae. The species we are dealing with is the Vicia faba maior, the large broad bean.
The cultivation of broad beans has been carried out in the Mediterranean basin since ancient times. They are used not only for consumption but also for their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, improving its fertility.
The broad bean is an herbaceous plant with an annual cycle. It has fibrous roots that penetrate deep into the soil. The roots have numerous lateral branches inside which there are tubercles containing Rhizobium legaminosarum, the bacterium capable of fixing nitrogen in the soil.
The plant has an erect posture and is green-gray in color. The stem has a square section with a hollow interior. It develops numerous lateral branches and can reach a height of up to one meter.
Leaves and Flowers
The leaves of the broad bean have an elliptical shape, slightly velvety, alternate, and without a stalk.
The flowers are very beautiful. Axillary, white with black shades. They usually self-pollinate, meaning with the pollen of the same flower. Pollination is facilitated by the presence of bees and bumblebees.
The pod contains the fruits and can vary in size depending on the chosen variety. The one in the photo below is from a super long variety, but others can be shorter and thicker. The inner walls are covered with spongy material that gently wraps the seeds.
The broad beans in the pods can be consumed either fresh or dried for preservation.
Various Varieties of Broad Beans
For planting broad beans in your garden, you can choose from a wide range of varieties. In general, these varieties differ mainly in their cycle duration: early, medium, or late. Another difference is the size of the pod and fruits, such as the aforementioned super long variety.
We want to emphasize that the seeds available on the market tend to be highly standardized. There are many hybrid varieties, and it is difficult to find local varieties (which are mostly of foreign origin). To conclude this introductory section, we list the main varieties available on the market:
- Luz de otono, very early
- Palenca, very early
- Reina mora, early
- Violetta early
- Primabel, early
- Zaina, early
- Reina blanca, medium early
- Aguadulce, medium cycle
- Lunga delle cascine, medium cycle
- Super aguadulece, medium cycle
- Histal, late
- Sciabola verde, late
- Super simonia, late
The seed can be safely stored and used in the following season, just as our farming ancestors used to do, preserving a portion of the harvest for future sowing of fava beans.
The advice we give is to find non-hybrid seeds, preferably of local varieties, or maybe sourced from farmers’ markets. This way, you can conserve them from year to year.
One local fava bean variety we want to highlight is the fava cottora dell’Amerino. It is a produce from an area encompassing the municipalities of Todi, Amelia, and Orvieto, in the southern part of Umbria.
This variety has been passed down from generation to generation among farming families in the region who have cultivated it for centuries. It excels in its rapid cooking and easy digestion capabilities compared to “commercial” fava beans. These characteristics stem from the bond between the plant, the specific soil, and climate. These are qualities that any truly organic cultivation should possess.
Fava Bean Cultivation
Now, let’s delve into the technical aspects of fava bean sowing and cultivation. Of course, we are talking about a completely organic cultivation.
Climate and Sowing Period for Fava Beans
Fava beans are usually sown in the autumn, during the months of October and November. This is particularly true in the central-southern regions. Harvesting takes place from the beginning of spring until the beginning of summer, depending on the sowing period and the chosen variety. This suggests that fava bean cultivation is very resistant to cold weather.
After sowing, the first vegetative phase takes place in the heart of winter. The young plants can withstand temperatures below freezing. However, they are susceptible to prolonged cold spells. For this reason, in some areas, fava beans are sown towards the end of winter. Naturally, with late-winter sowing, the harvest takes place at the beginning of summer.
As we have seen in the lunar calendar for November, the favorable moon phase for sowing fava beans is during the waxing phase.
Fava bean cultivation is very robust and adapts well to various types of soil. However, it prefers clayey soil. Clayey soil can retain a lot of water, which is essential for the proper development of this cultivar. If your soil is dry or tends to be sandy, especially during the spring season, there is a risk of having to resort to repeated irrigation to support the growth of fava beans. In such cases, it might be useful to consider creating an irrigation system.
Regarding fertilization, fava bean cultivars do not require organic matter inputs. In fact, pre-sowing organic fertilization could be detrimental. As we have mentioned before, fava beans have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. This means they fertilize the soil themselves. This is why fava beans are considered a renewal crop. They can improve the soil where they grow. Hence, they can be successfully planted after heavy summer crops such as tomatoes or zucchini, which use a lot of organic matter present in the soil.
As we have seen in the article on green manure with legumes, once the pods are harvested, the plants can be worked into the soil without uprooting the roots. This way, a green fertilization is carried out. On land where fava beans have been cultivated, the following season can be used to grow just about anything profitably.
Sowing Fava Beans and Plant Spacing
Sowing fava beans is very simple because we deal with very large seeds. To proceed, simply make a small hole in the ground, about 5 cm deep, and place the seeds there, ranging from 2 to 4 seeds per hole.
The orientation of the seed must be precise: it should be placed with the head, i.e., the part marked with a dark line, facing downwards.
After sowing, the fava beans will start to sprout from the ground after about 10-15 days.
Distances are crucial. The holes in which you place the seeds should be at least 30 cm apart from each other. The distance between rows should be at least 50 cm.
Maintaining a certain distance serves two purposes. First, it allows the plants to breathe and develop vigorously with enough space. Second, it facilitates cultivation operations such as hoeing and subsequent harvesting phases.
Although the plant is very robust, fava bean cultivation requires some care:
Hoeing and Mulching
The first essential practice is periodic hoeing to remove weeds. During the spring season, weeds can attract many pests, which can, in turn, carry diseases. To limit hoeing, you can resort to natural mulching with straw, which can be placed around the plant when it has reached a certain size. The natural mulch will also protect the plant from cold during the winter season (we have recently experimented with jute mulching).
Because they are grown during the winter season, fava bean cultivation is subject to the influence of the elements. Especially the wind, which can easily bend the long branches, especially when they become heavier due to the pods.
To overcome this issue, you can set up supports, similar to those used for tomato cultivation. For instance, you can purchase and use bamboo canes like these.
Furthermore, fava beans have an indeterminate growth habit. For this reason, during the spring after flowering, another cultivation practice is to prune the apical part. This way, we give strength to the lower part of the plant and promote the swelling of the pods.
Usually, the flowers in the upper part do not produce large fruits. If the plant is too tall, it is better to prune it and accelerate the ripening process.
Biological Pest Defense
Organic fava bean cultivation must also consider the possibility of pest attacks.
During the spring season, fava beans are one of the first crops attacked by black aphids, which particularly like this plant.
If the infestation is too extensive, it can cause serious problems and damage proper maturation.
At the first signs of black aphids, we recommend intervening with natural macerates, especially nettle macerate. Applying the macerate will not only serve as a repellent against aphids and their proliferation but also as an excellent foliar fertilizer for the plants themselves.
Aphids are generally controlled by predator insects. One of these is the ladybug. By promoting biodiversity in your gardens, you create a natural balance capable of limiting your interventions.
After discussing fava bean sowing and cultivation, let’s finally move on to harvesting. This occurs, as mentioned, in spring and extends throughout the spring season (here you can find more information on seasonal vegetables).
Fava Beans for Consumption
The maturation of the pods is staggered, occurring gradually.
Thus, it depends on your taste and patience. When the spring pods swell, it will be sufficient to conduct some trials to determine their level of ripeness.
Once the pod has swelled, there is no fixed rule. Some prefer to harvest immediately to have very tender fresh fava beans, while others prefer larger and harder seeds. The important thing is not to let the pod mature too much; harvest it before it starts turning black. When this happens, the seeds inside usually harden.
Regarding harvesting for the purpose of preserving the seed for future fava bean sowing, the opposite principle applies. Choose the lower pods of the plant, the most vigorous ones, and let them ripen to the maximum before drying them for preservation.
- College of Agricultural Sciences – Oregon State University: The article titled “Beans, Fava” discusses the various shapes, sizes, and colors of fava bean seeds and the plants they come from.
- Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems – CSU Chico: The article titled “Fava Bean Trial Field Day” shares the benefits of fava beans as a cover crop.
- University of Massachusetts Amherst: The article titled “Fatemeh Etemadi, Dr. Masoud Hashemi, Dr. Frank Mangan & Dr …” discusses the planting and harvest times for fava beans in Massachusetts.
- UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County: The article titled “Fava Beans” provides basic information about small and large seed types of fava beans.
- University of Hawaii at Manoa: The article titled “Fava Bean” provides market information for fresh fava beans.
- North Carolina State University: The article titled “Vicia faba (Bell Bean, Broad Bean, English Bean, Fava Bean, Field …)” discusses the cultivation of faba bean or broad bean, a self-fertile, widely cultivated annual legume.
- North Dakota State University: The article titled “Faba Bean — Variety Trial Results” provides access to Fababean Variety Trial Results from all NDSU Research Extension Centers.
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: The article titled “HS550/MV017: Bean, Broad—Vicia faba L.” provides information about broad beans, also known as fava beans.
- Michigan State University: The article titled “FAVA BEAN Plant Guide” provides a guide to Vicia faba L., commonly known as fava bean.
- University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: The article titled “Fava Beans – Small Farms” discusses the culture of fava beans in California.