In Praise of Fava Beans

Fava beans in flower.

A few weekends ago, while volunteering at a local school garden, I overheard someone complain that favas are ugly beans. While she conceded that they make a good foolproof crop for kids to grow, she said she never plants them herself.

I was surprised and vaguely wounded on behalf of favas, but I took a deep breath and stepped up to their defense. Personally, I find fava beans quite visually stunning, with their erect stature and silvery foliage. I am particularly partial to the sight of a stand of Favas in early morning light with a good dose of dew.

But beyond their visual merits, favas have a venerable history as world travelers, and a lot to offer in the garden.

 Cover cropping

Like all members of the legume family, favas fix nitrogen in the soil. This makes them invaluable as a cover crop, planted to rejuvenate the soil’s nutrients and structure. To take advantage of nitrogen fixation, it’s important to cut the plant before the beans form. According to John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables, legumes should be cut when they are at 10% to 50% flower.

For green manures, simply cut the favas up and dig them into the soil, allowing several months for decomposition before planting. Another option is to cut the plants at the base, leaving the roots intact, and include the plants in your next batch of compost. I favor this second approach, in large part because it allows me to get my next crop in the ground quickly.

If you allow the beans to mature, the dead plants can be used as a high-carbon addition to your next compost pile.

Eat the beans!

Fava beans are good fresh or dried. They make Jeavons’ list of “significant-calorie-producing” crops. It’s important to note that some people are deathly allergic to this type of bean, suffering from a condition commonly referred to as favism (no joke!). It’s also interesting to note that fava beans shouldn’t be fed to chickens, as this negatively impacts the birds’ metabolism, growth rate, and feed efficiency. That being said, favas are commonly eaten by people in many parts of the world and are protein superheroes in the vegetable kingdom.

Frost tolerance 

Favas can hang in there at temperatures of 21 degrees Fahrenheit and lower, depending on the variety. If you plan to eat the beans, the general recommendation is to plant in February or March. For cover cropping, plant in September through November. This year, I got the beans in the ground in October, and they’re coming along nicely.

Bee food?

We won’t claim it’s their favorite food source, but our bees have definitely checked out the fava flowers this winter. Kelly recently reported what she described as a “frustrated looking bee” attempting to navigate into a fava blossom.

According to one source I found, honey bees are unable to access nectar through the front of the flower, and must go around to the back instead. However, a number of studies have found honey bees to be important fava pollinators.

A stand of fava beans--not quite the dewy morning light I love, but beautiful nonetheless.

7 Responses to In Praise of Fava Beans

  1. Do you have a good recipe for fava beans? I’ve never cooked with them, but I do have very sweet memories of picking fava beans in my father-in-law’s garden with my daughter when she was five years old. For the most part, Grandpa grew them because they were good for the garden, but I think he sometimes ate the beans steamed (which sounds pretty bland to me).

    • Hi Mary, I have only ever eaten fava beans raw. I know that Kelly has cooked favas in the past. I’ll try to get a good recipe from her to post. I’m eager to experiment with cooking the beans this year when they ripen!

  2. I’m fascinated, once again, with one of the links you’ve provided: ” favism”. Fascinating details re fava poisoning, amino acid deficiency, and malaria!

    Todd

  3. I didn’t realize you could eat fava beans raw. I look forward to trying the recipe when you post it – if I can find some fava beans to buy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in a grocery store.

  4. Sarah, I’m thinking about planting a “cover crop” to enrich the soil in my vegetable box, because I don’t have enough worm tea to spread around and I missed the “mulching with leaves” boat this year. Fava beans are mentioned [on this site: http://www.avant-gardening.com/ogardening.htm%5D as a cover crop that also attracts beneficial insects, so I’m thinking about planting some. If you recommend any other cover crop or have any tips, I would love to hear your advice….

    • Sorry — the word “also” is missing from my above post (as in “also mentioned,” in addition being mentioned on your blog as a nitrogen-fixer). Just to clarify! 🙂

    • Hi katie, sorry for my delayed response. It’s not necessarily too late to mulch the bed. The mulch will break down more slowly during the dry season, but it will still be doing its work. In terms of cover crops, I have to admit that most of my experience is with fava beans. However, I found some useful information on this UC Davis site: http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/ccrop/CCPubs/SelectingCoverCrop.html. I was particularly interested in their mention of cowpea, hyacinth bean, and sunnhemp as good warm-season legume cover crops which don’t require much irrigation. Makes me want to stake out more bed space to experiment with cover crops!

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