What has beautiful flowers, delicious leaves, pods of delightful protein, and makes a great cover crop? Fava beans! This year I am sowing fava beans (also called broad beans) in my garden beds for an early season edible crop, and for soil amendment. Dual-purpose plants? That’s my favorite kind!
Did you know fava beans have been cultivated since the Bronze Age? In the Middle Ages, there was a drought in Sicily that gave fava beans a mystical status. After Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph, they discovered fava beans were the only crop to survive, saving Sicilians, and making favas part of St. Joseph’s day traditions on March 19th. Dried favas carried in pockets and placed in pantries are believed to encourage bounty (you may want to try this also, if you have teenagers).
While they are a staple in Europe, they are quite elusive in the U.S. In my experience, fava beans are relegated to gourmet restaurants and limited availability at specialty grocers and farmer’s markets. They are typically hard to come by because they are fresh for only a short period of time, and because they need cool weather to produce/grow, making them quite seasonal. By growing them at home, I can enjoy them at their peak. Their flavor is nothing like the canned or dried beans. I find fresh fava beans to be a true delight, and I love sharing this incredible crop with friends.
You can eat almost every part of the fava plant. Young, tender pods are edible at 2” and can be enjoyed fresh, much like a snap bean. For mature sized fresh beans, harvest when pods are green and the seeds inside are light green. At this stage, fava beans have a delicately nutty, buttery, and light pea flavor. Boil bean seeds briefly (30 to 60 seconds), then peel the bean’s outer layer, and voila! Beans are delicious simply sautéed in butter with herbs and salt and pepper. Similar to pea shoots, the leaves and stunning flowers are also edible with a sweeter, milder flavor. Cutting or pinching the top leaves off encourages plants to branch. If you know you won’t be able to eat all your favas fresh, you can let them dry right on the plant. Dried beans are ready when pods are dry and brown, and the seeds inside are dry. Harvest the beans and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until you are ready to use them.
Favas, especially small seeded types like Sweet Lorane Improved, can be used as an excellent cover crop to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Favas and peas literally pull nitrogen out of the air and make it available to other plants in the soil. If you are using favas only for cover crop, cut them down just as flower buds appear, and work them into the soil 3 weeks before planting your garden. You can also cut plants down and add them to your compost pile so that you can sow right away. If you are planning on eating favas, you can work plants into the garden bed or compost pile after harvesting.
Fava beans are cool season champions. They germinate in soils as cool as 35°F and their foliage can handle temperatures in the 20s. I sow favas directly in my garden or an outdoor container 4 to 6 weeks before the average last spring frost or in the fall, 4 to 6 weeks ahead of the first fall frost. Soaking seeds in water for 12 to 24 hours ahead of time helps germination. Their roots are sensitive to transplanting, so we don’t recommend starting fava beans indoors. Fava beans are actually more closely related to a pea than a bean. Their pea-like flowers are white with black specks and whiskers. Plants can reach 2’–4’ tall depending on the conditions. If they get large, you may want to stake them in case of wind.
Windsor fava bean is a heirloom type, which produces 6”–8” beans, each with up to 8 large, light green beans per pod. Sweet Lorane Improved is a small-seeded type with about 6 tanish green seeds in 4”–6” pods. I like to sow both because Sweet Lorane matures slightly faster giving me a longer harvest period between the two.
There is so much to love about favas—from their history, to improving your soil and being delicious. Give fava beans another chance! You won’t be disappointed.
CAUTION: People deficient in an enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) should not handle seeds, consume fava beans, or inhale its pollen.