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Permaculture plant: Broad Bean

Clockwise from above left: Broad bean plant; Broad bean plant in flower; Dried and fresh broad beans. Photos by Maude Farrugia

Broad beans (Vicia faba) are prized as much for their fleshy beans as they are for their potential use as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop. This ancient food of early Mediterranean civilisations is still widely cultivated across the world today. Sometimes known as ‘fava beans’ (fava from the Latin word for bean), they’re a popular staple across the Middle East and Africa, and are commonly eaten as a snack across virtually every continent.

Growing

They may not grow to Jack and the Beanstalk proportions, but broad beans are almost as easy to grow as those fabled magic beans. Pop them in a sunny spot come autumn (in temperate regions—they’re not suited to tropical climates) and see them burst forth with vigour, quickly overtaking other plants you’ve mollycoddled through seedling-hood.

Before planting it’s common practice to soak seeds overnight to give them a head start, but this isn’t strictly necessary, especially if you’ve got a few good days of rainfall forecast. Beans are best planted in blocks for pollination and wind protection purposes, as they will help each other to stand up.

Some people like to stake their beans, while others (myself) don’t bother and put up with a few unruly plants at the edge of the block. If staking is your thing, it’s best to do it at planting time so you don’t disturb young roots as they’re establishing. It’s also common practice to sow broad beans after a hungry summer crop like tomatoes or corn, as too much organic matter in the soil will mean lots of leaf growth and less bean.

Usage

Despite some people’s thoughts to the contrary, broad beans are delicious—when you know how to cook them. High in protein and carbohydrates as well as low in fat, it’s no wonder they persist as a staple food of many diets across the world.

Try them as falafel, ful medames, in dips or arancini if you’re yet to be convinced. Another trick is podding baby broad beans and using them with, or instead of, fresh podded peas. Very young whole pods can also be eaten. If you find yourself in a broad bean glut at the end of spring, fear not! They can also be easily dried and stored for use later in the year (in fact, many dishes are based around the use of dried rather than fresh beans).

Other Uses

Broad beans, along with their leguminous friends, are often used as a green manure due to their potential as a nitrogen- fixing plant. There are some caveats to this process however. Firstly, in order to achieve effective nitrogen fixation, the correct bacteria must be present in the soil to kickstart this process. Some seed sellers provide an inoculant with green manure seeds to ensure that this is the case, so if you’re aiming to use broad beans to fertilise your soil, then this is a good first step.

Secondly, there is some evidence that in order to maximise nitrogen fixation it’s important to dig in your crop before seed set (i.e. before you get any beans). For small space growers there often isn’t the room to entertain this prospect, but one technique practiced by our 77-year-old Sicilian neighbour is taking a bean harvest, cutting plants right back and letting them shoot and flower again before digging them in—this second growth is a lot quicker, as the beans’ root systems are well established.

Problems

While being an easy and low-maintenance crop to grow, broad beans can suffer from fungal issues. This happens in spring, when the weather warms up but there’s still moisture in the air, just as you’re beginning to enjoy a harvest. Removing diseased plants is the best organic method to avoid this problem, and if you’re planning to save seeds for next year’s planting, ensure they are not visibly disease-affected. Ensuring you don’t plant broad beans in the same patch year after year can also help you to avoid a build-up of diseases.

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