Fava beans gain favor

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist June 19, 2013

June is the pivotal month, the time when the sun vaults the solstice and the vegetable gardener must hop, too, to stay ahead of the game.

The vital crossroads has been made trickier this year by a cold spring that delayed the harvesting — and replacement — of such things as peas, lettuce and, especially, the fava bean.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

A staple food of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the fava bean has been grown for generations by American gardeners of Mediterranean extraction, but it was slow to become a mainstream legume. That seems to have been remedied, judging by its widespread cultivation in my community garden.

It is an easy plant in that it grows without a lot of fuss, but it won’t be rushed, starting with the germination. This can take a maddening three weeks or more in March, when you need things to get into gear. Soaking the beans for a couple of days first seems to help, but not enough.

By May, the fava plant is up to four feet, covered in lovely blue-green foliage and the first of its clusters of blossoms, pealike but weirdly piebald. Then you wait again for the plant to decide which blooms it will turn into pods and which it will discard. It is a willful bean.


Fava bean plants. (Adrian Higgins for The Washington Post)

By the end of May, with few or no pods, you think, “Why did I devote so much real estate to this thing?” You’re waiting to plant tomatoes, peppers, zinnias even. So you consider pulling out the fava beans and forgoing the harvest, but by then you’ve already invested three months, and it is about to fruit.

So the best course is to ignore it and get on with something else, like tying in the grape vine or putting wood chips on your paths. When you next regard the fava, the pods are just there, green and plump, like wind socks in a gale.

Raw, the beans have a complex flavor that is sweet but earthy. Some people make them more palatable by removing their outer covering. This is aided by boiling them for a few minutes: The outer case turns a light gray-green, the inner germ is an alluring rich kelly green color.

The fava crop coincides with snow and sugar snap peas and four varieties of lettuce that look worried in the heat and poised to elongate in a way that renders them too bitter to eat.

Some years, I sow the fava beans in October, and they grow to a few inches high by the end of the year. This advances their spring growth spurt and seems to diminish the problem of black aphids, which gather on the stems and weaken the plants. The insects are easily controlled by dousing them with soapy water.

The off-season sowing only works in a mild winter — any prolonged weather below about 15 degrees will kill them off.

Some varieties are hardier than others, and better suited to winter growing. The most common variety is the Broad Windsor, but for winter growing, Aquadulce Claudia is a safer bet. A newer, hardier (and smaller) fava is now available named Sweet Lorane, highly commended by gardeners who grow it.

One year, I was interviewing the nature writer Richard Mabey in his garden in England and I suddenly saw over his shoulder a bed of favas with blue-red flowers. This was novel, magical and deeply distracting. I have been on the lookout for them ever since, and this spring I got a packet of fava beans from a friend that included the elusive and gorgeous Crimson Flowered.

They arrived late and are still only in flower, though my hope is to get bean seeds from them for next year. (You wait a month after normal harvest until the pods dry and crack.)

He also sent me a German variety named Fruehe Weisskeimige — compact with high yield — and Karmasyn, with lovely rose-pink seeds. The most beautiful, though, were Green Seeded; the beans were like pieces of jade, almost too beautiful to plant. This is the most delicious of all the varieties, according to my bean chum.

What can you plant in late June once the favas and salad greens have been pulled? You could put in pole or lima beans if you have a trellis or tepee ready to go — bush beans or bush limas if you don’t. Most of my fava bed will soon make way for parsnips, another vegetable that is grudging to get going, but what a payoff in November and December.

It might seem strange at the advent of summer to be thinking of tugging on parsnips for Thanksgiving, but in gardening — as with politics, stand-up comedy and chamber music — timing is everything.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

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