Fava beans are the broad beans seen in minestrone and not seen in falafel.
One of the only beans available in Europe until the discovery of the Americas, fava beans make an excellent ground cover and a delicious meal. Being a legume, like peas and other beans, fava beans are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen to feed themselves and their neighbors (until seed development begins). Fava beans are a close cousin to vetch.
Known as broad beans, Windsor beans, field beans, bell beans, and tick beans, fava beans look similar to lima beans and have been cultivated since prehistoric times for food, as a cover crop or green manure, and the seeds can even be roasted and ground as a coffee extender! These plants are prolific producers.
Fava bean plants
Fava beans can grow to 2- to 5-feet tall on erect stems. They have a taproot and large leaves. Fava beans can tolerate temperatures as low as 20°F. The seeds can even germinate at 40°F! They will grow better if you incorporate some compost into the soil before planting, but they can tolerate our heavy clay soil. The flowers are large and fragrant, attracting many different pollinators to the garden.
How to grow fava beans
Fava beans (Vicia faba) are a cool weather crop, so you will want to start your seeds in September or November, in the Bay Area, for a cover crop or green manure. Crops destined to be eaten should be planted in February and March. Fava bean seeds should be sown one or two inches deep, depending on seed size, and 4- to 5-inches apart. Rows should be 2 or 3 feet apart. Seedlings should be thinned to 8- to 10-inches after germination. Regular irrigation is necessary for full pod set. If it is a wet winter, no irrigation is needed. Mulching around the plants will help keep the soil moist.
Harvesting fava beans
Fava beans are harvested when they have reached full size but are still green. They can also be left on the vine until they have dried. They take 80 to 100 days to reach maturity. Like Brussels sprouts, fava bean plants mature from the bottom up, so start harvesting from the bottom of the plant and it should keep producing for several months.
Fava beans as cover crop
As nitrogen-fixing legumes with strong taproots, fava beans are well suited for use as a cover crop or green manure crop on heavy clay soil. Allowed to grow through their complete lifecycle, fava beans can prevent erosion and improve soil structure. If used as a green manure, which means cut down and left to lie where they fall, fave bean plants add nutrients to the soil for future crops.
Fava bean sensitivity
Some people are genetically predisposed to a sensitivity to fresh fava beans because they lack a certain enzyme. These individuals are generally men from southern Mediterranean and northern African regions. This condition is called favism. Symptoms include jaundice, back and abdominal pain, and dark urine. Fava beans also contain high levels of tyramine, so individuals taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors should avoid eating them. They also contain oxalic acid, so fava beans should be avoided by those prone to urinary tract stones.
Don’t let favism (or childhood nightmares of lima beans) keep you from trying fava beans in your garden or landscape. Do you have a favorite fava bean recipe? Share it with us in the comments!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!