The broad bean was recorded by Neolithic man, the Greeks, the Egyptians and Romans and it was mentioned in the Bible. It was a staple food for both rich and poor prior to the arrival of the potato, and the only bean widely grown in the UK until the 20th century. Its near cousin, Vida faba var. equina was grown as horse fodder – hence the expression “full of beans”.
Broad beans are the hardiest of the legumes and very easy to grow. They are an ideal crop for the allotment where there is usually a good open situation and no shortage of space. The flowers are sweetly scented.
Broad bean types
Types vary from dwarf to tall kidney-shaped to round, and from green and nearly white to red. Opinions vary as to which are the tastier. The Longpod types with eight seeds are hardier and more prolific – the main choice for early crops. The shorter Windsors (first cultivated by Dutch gardeners at Windsor) have four seeds. They are considered the finer beans and are generally grown later in the season. Breeders have combined the two for new varieties with the merits of both. The dwarf types are usually sown for late summer harvest.
Cooking Broad Beans
The entire pods can be eaten raw or cooked like mangetout if they are picked when tiny. The French cook the mature beans with savory. The Chinese serve them in their skins to be shucked at the table. In Morocco they make purées of broad beans, combined with other pulses. The Egyptians make ful medames from dried broad beans.
Soil and situation
Broad beans are not fussy, though they prefer a heavy soil. They cannot cope with water logging or drying out in summer. It’s important to dig the soil over well so their hefty tap root can grow down through it with ease.
The hardiest varieties can be grown from mid-January into February under cloches once the soil temperature has reached a minimum 5°C (41°F). Soak the seeds overnight. For a continuous supply, sow once a month from then onwards, switching to main-crop types from March to May for beans throughout summer. In mild areas you can sow in November to overwinter, though this is not without risk.
Sow single seeds 5 cm (2 in) deep and 20 cm (8 in) apart. They are usually sown in a staggered double row with a good gap between rows 75 cm (3Cv in) so they don’t cast shade on each other.
The easiest way to support broad beans is to run stakes along the row about 1m (3 ft) apart and tie the tops round with string or wire.
Watch for mice as they may well be after the seeds before they even germinate! Keep the ground around them well hoed. Remove all suckers as they appear so that you are left with a single stem for each plant. When the tops have four clusters of flowers, cut them off. This will encourage the pods to form and help to protect against black bean aphids that are drawn like a magnet to the fresh young growth. Keep watered in dry spells.
Harvest as soon as the pods are ripe and before they coarsen.
Mice, black bean aphid, chocolate spot. Sometimes rust can appear but does little harm.