By Roberta Bailey
Fava beans (Vicia faha) are an Old World legume, originating in the Near East. They were probably the first domesticated food crop. From the Neolithic period onward, they appear in myth, Egyptian tombs, and archeological sites of the Mediterranean basin, China, and Northern Africa. Prior to the discovery of the Americas, favas were the only known bean in the Old world. Favas fed the slave ships.
Fava beans, also known as Broad, Windsor or Horse beans, thrive on the cool, short days of northern climates, yielding crops where true beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) struggle to grow. In Egypt and China, they are planted as a winter crop. In Maine, they can be planted as soon as the ground thaws. Prolific yields of delicious, meaty shell beans are ready just after asparagus and before peas, adding welcome variety to eager spring appetites.
Fava bean plants can reach 4 feet tall. The hardy, thick-leafed rosettes that appear shortly after planting send up a sturdy, square stemmed stalk anchored by a modest tap root and many shallow feeder roots. White pea-like blossoms form at the leaf nodes or axils. The resulting pods swell to 6-inch-long pods, which usually remain erect. Each pod forms an average of four or five beans, or as many as eight.
Because of their early planting date, the soil should be prepared the previous fall. Favas require moderate fertility and humus levels. Apply a 1-inch layer of compost over the entire bed and turn it under. Avoid excess nitrogen or rich soils, as the resulting lush growth reduces yields and plants will be prone to lodging. To offset acidity, add 1 to 2 gallons of wood ashes to 180 square feet or smaller amount directly in the seed drill.
Seed can be planted as soon as the ground thaws in mid-to-late April in Maine. Favas thrive in temperatures between 40 and 60 degrees F. Sow seed 6 to 8 inches apart and 3 inches deep in drills that are spaced at least 1 foot apart.
Molly Thorkildsen and Will Bonsall of Khadighar in Industry, Maine, maintain hundreds of fava bean varieties and raise favas for their own consumption. They recommend planting them in 4-1/2-foot-wide beds with two to three rows per bed. Fava bean plants are quite sturdy and are not prone to lodging, but the double or triple rows provide support in windy weather, and are an efficient use of garden space. The outer edges of the bed can be planted with beets, chard, spinach or other greens.
Rows should be mulched to keep the soil cool, to eliminate weed competition, and to conserve moisture. If mulching is not an option, weed regularly. Avoid deep cultivation as it can damage the shallow feeder roots.
Cutworms love fava beans. Will suggests that the plants can actually be used as an early trap crop before setting out precious seedlings. As soon as you see signs of cutworm action around a plant, dig down and get the cutworm. The fava plant will recover and continue to grow.
Favas have an extended harvest period. Immature pods can be picked and cooked like snap peas. They are best used as a shell bean. Pods are mature when the suture becomes slightly inverted. The large, meaty beans, tasting somewhat like a cross between a lima and a snow pea, add up quickly. They can be eaten steamed, in a stir fry, or in any tomato based or Mediterranean dish. With 30 percent protein and substantial bulk, they have earned the reputation of ‘poor man’s meat’. The shelled beans freeze very well. Mature beans can be dried and saved for seed or prepared as any dry bean.
By late July, the plants will have died back. At Khadighar, Will and Molly clip the plants back to their base. New shoots appear from some of the plants, and these shoots will mature another, though lesser, fava crop.
Aphids can be a problem with fava beans that are planted late. By planting early, the bean plants are too tough and undesirable by the time aphids appear. The second crop is also not bothered.
Favas are very frost hardy. They can easily survive 15 to 20 degrees F., possibly lower with snow cover. They are truly a well-adapted cold climate crop that most of the world seems to know about. We Mainers are usually pretty quick to catch on to these things. What a great early crop for the farmer’s markets. I’m looking forward to having them on my table.
Many thanks and much appreciation to Will Bonsall and Molly Thorkildsen of Khadighar and Scatterseed Project for their time and enthusiasm in sharing their extensive knowledge of Vicia faba.
Khadiworld newsletter Summer 1981, Vol. 2 “Fava Beans”
Fava News newsletters, April 1990 and October 1990, published by Aprovecho Institute, 80574 Hazelton Rd. Cottage Grove, Oregon 97424