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Why every gardener should grow broad beans

Most people wouldn't describe broad beans (Vicia faba) as particularly erotic, but poet John Clare saw something in them. In his poem Bean Blossoms, he compares the black markings on the flowers to "the dark eye of somebody" and the white of the flower to "the hue of her bosom".

Hopefully he didn't suffer from favism, a congenital disease that destroys red blood cells which is triggered when patients lacking enzyme G6PD consume broad beans. Some 400 million people are meant to be affected by this condition, which leaves the remaining 7.3 billion of us to enjoy eating them.

Broad bean flowers.


Broad bean flowers.

Even more fortunate than that, broad beans are a fabulous winter cover crop, sending nitrogen into your soil, providing food for your family and producing beautiful flowers that add colour to an otherwise dreary season.

READ MORE:* Q & A: Six common broad bean questions* A Southern nurseryman's legacy* Save your own seeds: Seed-saving basics & choosing what to save

Broad bean seeds ready to plant.


Broad bean seeds ready to plant.

HOW TO GROWBroad beans like the cold and will germinate well in temperatures ranging from 7 to 10°C. Sow seeds between May and mid-June at a depth of 4cm and 15cm apart.

Enrich the soil with compost or aged manure before sowing but avoid chicken manure or fish emulsion, which are high in nitrogen. As legumes, broad beans fix their own nitrogen, and too much nitrogen leads to lush leaves, not beans.

If your soil is particularly wet and soggy, raise them in punnets first so the seeds don't rot.

Water seeds deeply after planting, then make sure you give them adequate water throughout the growing season, particularly when they flower and set seed pods.

Red-flowered 'Hughey' broad beans supported by a bamboo trellis.


Red-flowered 'Hughey' broad beans supported by a bamboo trellis.

Most varieties grow to at least 1m high so will require staking. Rig up a structure (bamboo is most readily available) and tie them to it with soft, bendy ties such as old pantyhose or support them with ropes tied around stakes placed at the ends and middle of each row. 

Broad beans tied to a bean frame with soft ties cut from old pantyhose.


Broad beans tied to a bean frame with soft ties cut from old pantyhose.

Keep them growing quickly with a foliar feed of diluted worm wee or seaweed-based fertiliser. 

'Robin Hood' broad beans growing in a pot.


'Robin Hood' broad beans growing in a pot.

BEST VARIETIES FOR HOME GARDENSSuper-sized 'Superaguadulce' (Kings Seeds) has 25cm-long pods with seven to eight seeds and matures 75 days after planting.

If you're not keen on staking, don't have much space or want to grow broad beans in pots, go for 'Cole's Early Dwarf' (Mr Fothergills) or 'Robin Hood' (Kings Seeds), an award-winning (RHS) dwarf variety to 45cm with attractive green pods and beans. It's an improvement on heirloom selection 'The Sutton' and is exceptionally cold hardy.

There's nothing wrong with the pretty white and black flowers of traditional broad beans (just ask John Clare), but 'Hughey' broad beans (Yates), selected by Denis Hughes of Blue Mountain Nurseries have striking  scarlet flowers and a nutty flavour.

Red-seeded broad beans (Koanga Gardens) are said to have exceptional flavour that will change the mind of any non-broad-bean eater, put off by overcooked grey broad beans as a child. They stay red when they're cooked. 

Scottish heritage broad beans that stay green when cooked.


Scottish heritage broad beans that stay green when cooked.

If you want to try an interesting heritage variety, Koanga Gardens also sells a Scottish variety purported to have come with settlers in 1863. They stay green when cooked and are said to be prolific croppers.

Fungal disease chocolate spot on broad bean foliage.


Fungal disease chocolate spot on broad bean foliage.

BROAD BEANS PEST & DISEASE PROBLEMSWarm, humid, spring weather can lead to the fungal disease Botrytis fabae, commonly known as chocolate spot because it looks like the leaves, pods and stems have been dusted with chocolate. Remove infected plant material as soon as you see signs and dispose of it in the rubbish or burn it to avoid spreading spores. The fungus will remain in the soil, so don't plant your next crop in the same place for at least two years. Growing in neutral to alkaline soil, with plant spacing that allows good airflow around the plants will assist in prevention of the disease.

Black aphids can be a nuisance in spring and early summer. Blast them off with the hose – or for persistent pests, spray with Yates Nature's Way Insect Spray.

Broad beans and pods.


Broad beans and pods.

HARVESTING YOUR BROAD BEANSBroad beans are prolific producers but need to be picked regularly to keep them coming on.

They can be harvested and eaten at any stage of growth.* Tiny, immature pods can be picked and eaten raw in salads or tossed into a stir-fry.* Mature beans can be left in the pod or shelled and cooked in many different ways.* Slightly over-mature pods can be shelled, dried and treated just like any other dry bean or pea.* You can also eat the young shoots – add them to stir-fries or salads.

Tender young broad beanshoots.


Tender young broad beanshoots.

After harvesting, cut down the stems and leaves but leave the roots in the soil where they can release nitrogen for nearby plants.


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