Steal a march on broad beans

Steal a march on broad beans
Broad beans can be sown direct to where you want them to grow. Some gardeners like to sow a few seeds each month and some prefer to get started in autumn or at this time of year. Picture: iStock

Fiann Ó Nualláin likes to sow fava seeds early to boost his harvest and his health

This weekend I am sowing some broad beans (Vicia faba) aka fava beans, I want to steal a march on getting them going now so that they will ‘overwinter’ in the green but come spring bounce with vigour into renewed growth and deliver me an earlier harvest than those that I will also sow come February/March.

Broad beans can be sown direct to where you want them to grow anywhere between March and the end of May.

Some gardeners like to sow a few seeds each month in that time period so as to stagger the cropping.

Some gardeners and some varieties (notably Aquadulce and The Sutton) prefer to get started in autumn. I also sow them now because I want to seal a march on my own personal health.


As a vegetarian I grow a fair bit of protein-rich plants to flesh out my diet — forgive the pun. And fava is one of the best bean proteins outside of soya. It’s one you don’t need to burn half the rainforest down to grow so while I will have a few “runners” and some “French”, I give most space to the broads.

The broads will in return supply me with plenty of meals and a welcome fortitude of health boosting nutrition.

Broads are a great source of folic acid and niacin to keep the nervous system in good stead, Vitamins A and E to keep vision and heart healthy and plenty of vitamin C to ward off the gardener’s sniffles.

There is plenty of research on how fava flavonoids fight toxins and even cancerous cells and in recent years they have been studied for their advantage to convert to dopamine neurotransmitters and strengthen the functions of the basal ganglia — which may help alleviate the movement symptoms of Parkinson’s and the fog of fibromyalgia.


For me, I come from a long line of people with diabetes and high lipid profiles on both sides of the family tree so it’s the dietary fibre that I am after.

A cup of cooked fava beans is roughly 30% of an adult’s daily requirement of roughage — that’s the fibrous indigestible material in foods which enables healthy bowel movements yes — but which is also involved in removing toxins and other accumulations out through the gut. Favas also contain soluble fibre which assists the lowering of lipids and blood sugars — helping remove those substances from committing harmful actions.

Favas are a high-tyramine food which can be a moderation notice to anyone on antidepressants known as MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), if you have high blood pressure or are prone to migraines. You might need to harvest a glut to have it interfere but caution where caution is due.


Favas mature in a pod and can be cooked in the pod, if picked small or shelled as beans if allowed to swell to full size.

Traditionally boiled or steamed until tender but they go a treat in pesto, curries, soups and stews and even if you want to channel ‘trendy chef’, try smashed favas on toast. Just not with a nice chianti (I know but you can’t reference favas and not reference Hannibal Lecter)

Ok, fictitional serial killers aside, the hardiest and one of the most flavoursome favas is the white seeded Aquadulce. Easy to grow and prolific fruiter. You can start in a small pot, sink the seed 7cm deep and coldframe it, or sow direct in a sheltered site.

It will sprout and then stop when temperatures dip, hibernate a while, a fleece on top is not a bad idea but not essential unless the forecast is for plenty of deep snow. Then come spring it will spring back into action.

Its maturity height is around 100cm and may need some supports. Depending on how I am fixed crop rotation-wise I do sow broad beans into the ornamental borders some years. Both The Sutton and the Aquadulce varieties are ideal for container growing; as are the other autumnal varieties available now in your local garden centre.

Grando Violetto is an old Italian variety that yields tasty dark purple beans while ‘red epicure’ serves up almost mahogany-red beans inside its dark green pod.

Hold back some of the packet and come the spring you can do the traditional thing and sow into the raised bed or allotment patch in double rows at a spacing of 25-30cm apart.

The overwintered seedlings can often be more resilient to complications — perhaps as they have already had to harden up to a winter but they can sometimes manifest the same problems as spring and summer sown crops.


Next year you will need to keep an eye for blackfly which can smell a lush growing tip from a considerable distance. Pinching out the growing tips seems to remove the pheromone-like waft attracting them.

A good spray with a garlic blitz can knock off the fragrant signal, it will also kill off any advance scouting party and end any infestation already staking a claim.

Garlic sprays also strengthen the immune system of the plant and help ward off later rusts or mildews if you are extending the crop into autumn. Some summer rusts notably what’s know as ‘chocolate spot’ can come by warm wet conditions. Spacing is key to help air circulation but also adding a little extra potash or tomato feed can help the plant build its own defences.

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