Fava Beans in Appalachia?

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I have been captivated with the idea of growing fava beans ever since my introduction to them in Italy a few years ago. Their farmers markets were overflowing with piles and piles of this strange, large bean that I had never seen before.

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Gardening nuts take pictures of produce while on vacation.

I inquired with the grower about their identity, and made sure that I tried them in restaurants later that week. They were quite possibly some of the best beans I had ever eaten, and let me tell you, I love beans!

Once I returned to Kentucky, I looked for fava beans everywhere. Not a sign of them. Perhaps I could find them on a trip to the “big city” of Lexington? Nope.

I read and inquired about growing my own, which was pretty discouraging, as most all of my resources indicated that favas wouldn’t do well here. That’s because fava beans are a cool-season bean. We jump from winter almost immediately into summer temperatures here, which means that if we plant favas in the early spring when the ground can be worked, they won’t be ready to set beans until May or June (most favas are at least 3 months to maturity).

But I’m not a person to settle for what “they say” can’t be done. And now that I had a few years of four-season gardening under my belt, I knew I had to try it.

Fava Varieties

I’ve learned that if you are going to experiment with a new vegetable, you can’t just plant one variety. Some are more hardy, better-tasting, or disease-resistant than others, and so I don’t like the idea of giving up on a vegetable entirely just because I chose to grow the wrong variety of it. With favas, there are the edible large-bean types, such as the well-known Broad Windsor, but also small-bean types that are used for cover crops. These beans are one of the best nitrogen-fixers out there, so it makes sense to grow them as a green manure for the garden, even if you won’t be consuming any beans from them.

Nitrogen-fixing nodules on an uprooted fava plant.

Nitrogen-fixing nodules on an uprooted fava plant.

 

Of the many varieties of fava beans available, I chose a large-bean type (Aquadulce, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company), a small-seeded cover crop variety (Diana, from Osborne Seed Company), and a variety that purported to be an edible cover crop (Sweet Lorane, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange).

Diana fava, left, for cover crop, and the larger seeded Aquadulce

Diana fava, left, for cover crop, and the larger seeded Aquadulce

 

Sweet Lorane

Sweet Lorane was the first variety of fava bean seed that I received, and thus the first to go into the ground in fall, with sowings both within and without of the protection of low tunnels in the first week of November. The seeds germinated well despite the cold temperatures, but grew slowly over the course of the winter. Sweet Lorane lived up to its reputation as a remarkably cold-tolerant bean, surviving well even without protection down to temperatures in the very low teens.

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Beautiful ice crystals on cold-tolerant fava bean plant

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Playing with fava bean winter protection. Dried leaves and straw, just straw, or no protection at all… they fared equally well without any cover.

Favas turned black when exposed to temperatures in the teens (F), but rebounded fine once temperatures warmed.

Favas turned black when exposed to temperatures in the teens (F), but rebounded fine once temperatures warmed.

Favas in the tunnels (left) grew slightly more than those without protection, but it may not be worth the effort... they both flowered at almost the same time in spring.

Favas in the tunnels (left) grew slightly more than those without protection, but it may not be worth the effort… they both flowered at almost the same time in spring.

Beautiful fava blooms look like butterflies.

Beautiful fava blooms look like butterflies.

 

Even though I sowed these beans in fall, I still did not see any fava flowers until mid-April. Most of the flowers failed to set any pods until a period of heavy rains and cooler temperatures returned during the first few weeks of May.

Sweet Lorane is billed as an edible cover crop variety. The beans are indeed delicious, but  in my opinion not worth the effort. If you have never prepared fresh fava beans before, you should know that it is a VERY laborious process. Fava beans are actually a type of vetch, and their thick hulls should be removed. Once the beans are removed, you must go one step further: you must remove the bitter seed coat that surrounds each fava bean. This is easily accomplished by blanching the beans in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, then chilling in ice water. Well, it’s easy for the large-bean varieties… Sweet Lorane is tasty, but if you have a family to feed and you need to get supper on the table, this bean is not for you.

Fava beans freshly hulled. Aquadulce, left, and Sweet Lorane.

Fava beans freshly hulled. Aquadulce, left, and Sweet Lorane.

A bean (top left) removed from its seed coat.

A bean (top left) removed from its seed coat.

 

Diana

I chose Diana as a cover cropping variety, primarily because of cost. Fava bean seed is EXPENSIVE. For example, one half-pound packet of Sweet Lorane put me out $8.75. Aquadulce? $2.50 for just 25 seeds. After much searching and reading gardening threads, I latched on to Osborne Seed Company, which had 5-pound bags of fava bean seeds for only $7.60… what a steal!!!

Now THIS what I call a big packet of bean seeds!

Now THIS what I call a big packet of bean seeds!

These fava beans germinated well despite a very late sowing in December. True to their promise, they were cold hardy into the low teens. As these were grown as a green manure, we cut them down and tilled them into the soil before they set flowers in the spring.

 

Aquadulce

I can’t speak to Aquadulce’s cold-hardiness, as given the limited number of seeds that I had available to me, I opted for an early-February sowing in the low tunnel, rather than trying to over-winter them and potentially lose the plants all together. These seeds also germinated well despite nights in the teens and twenties, and time until bloom was just a couple of weeks later than the overwintered cover crop favas. The fava beans weren’t ready to harvest until earlier this week (late May). Now that temperatures are consistently in the 80s, I’ve preemptively cut the plants down since they are no longer setting pods due to the heat.

 

Final thoughts

If you have never grown fava beans, you should definitely give them a try… if for nothing else, their fantastic use as a winter cover crop. I plan on overwintering fava beans again this year, primarily using Diana as a cover crop, but my sowings will fall earlier this year (September/October) so that the beans can generate more biomass for later tilling in to the soil come spring. I also want to play around with getting a fall harvest from September sowings of large-bean varieties, as well as winter sowings/transplants in the protection of the tunnels for an earlier spring maturity.

I’m optimistic that I’ll get the timing worked out on this fantastic bean for more extended harvests in the future. It may sound like a lot of work, but these beans are so worth it! Earlier this week, I prepared our blanched and peeled beans by sautéing them in olive oil and garlic, sneaking them onto dinner plates without announcing their identity.  Pa Hubbard’s exclamation in this blind taste-test confirmed what I already knew: “Whatever these are, these beans are GOOD!”

 

 

13 Comments

  1. Tina

    May 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    Mmmmm fava beans…I grow fava beans in the spring, but might have to try growing them in the fall as a cover crop! I have only grown broad windsor fava beans, but I always just grill or roast them and pop them out of the pods and skins. I love their flavor! I really have enjoyed reading your blog over the past few weeks, and I am trying your method of melon growing followed by broccoli. 🙂

  2. littlemountainhaven

    June 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I am glad they are worth the work! we are growing aquadulce and windsor this year, I thought I would try a couple of varieties as it is our first year growing AND eating them (fingers crossed none of us are allergic as I’ve heard the allergy can be bad). I started transplants of the windsor inside and transplanted them under protection early March (and shovelled snow off of them) they survived -8C/17.6F! They seem to be way sturdier than the aquadulce which seem to be falling over with one central stem whereas the windsor seems very stable with three stems. They both flowered around the same time so I am not sure if the extra work was worth it but they are also way more stable. Do you find you have to build a trellis around them so they don’t fall over?
    I LOVE your posts!

    • Ma Hubbard

      June 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      I’m so glad to hear about your experiences with favas, especially given that you are so many more miles to the north of us! I didn’t trellis any of the favas and did not have any issues with them falling over (though I might have if I had gotten a bumper crop of beans).
      The reaction that a small percentage of people have to fava beans is not an allergy, but due to an inherited genetic disease that makes their red blood cells (the cells in your bloodstream that carry oxygen) more susceptible to oxidative stress. This disease, called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, rarely causes symptoms in most people… they don’t know they have a problem until they consume certain oxidants (fava beans contain several types, but it could also be oxidants in a drug) or get infections (your body produces oxidants to fight infectious organisms). Under these conditions of elevated oxidative stress, their red blood cells can’t make enough of an antioxidant called glutathione, which causes the cells to become damaged by free radicals and removed by the body. Individuals need blood transfusions to replenish their lost red blood cells, and in some cases can develop jaundice or kidney failure (both due to the large amount of hemoglobin being released from the cells). The good news? Unless you are of Mediterranean descent, you probably don’t need to worry about it. The better news? If you’re female, it is VERY unlikely, as this is an X-linked recessive disease and pretty well restricted to males almost all of the time. So eat those beans with gusto!

      • littlemountainhaven

        June 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

        that is so interesting! Thank you for such a detailed response. I am actually of mediterranean descent 🙂 My grandfather is Italian on my mom’s side and my other Grandfather is half spanish. But I’m not too worried about it, I was just alarmed when I saw how strong of a reaction it can give some people.

        I am SO excited to eat them!!

  3. littlemountainhaven

    June 2, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    OH! and I almost bought a crimson flowered heirloom fava, they are VERY rare! but 2 varieties were enough for this year 😉
    http://www.heritageharvestseed.com/beansbroad.html#crimsonflowered

    • Ma Hubbard

      June 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Oooh!

  4. David Auerbach

    September 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    If you put a some soda bicarbonate in the blanching water, the skins will magically slip off (after draining, and rinsing of course.) Nice pinkish color to the water; chemistry, don’t you know.

  5. The Ground View (@thegroundview)

    April 27, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Fabulous tips–thank you very much. Great to know a low cost source for fava beans, and also the cold hardiness of various varieties. In terms of when to cut them, I was told to do so at “peak bloom,” so before the pods start, in order to hit “peak nitrogen fixing.

  6. Diane Whitehead

    December 13, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    I have grown 15 kinds. I sow them in the fall and haven’t paid attention to when they are ready in the spring, but I don’t have to worry about hot conditions here on the Pacific coast of Canada. Emigrants from the Mediterranean took seeds with them to Central and South America. I have grown some from Guatemala and Ecuador. They are grown in Guatemala as an export crop. These might be more suited to the U.S. southern states than English varieties, but it is possible these are grown on cool mountaintops, so that wouldn’t work too well for you.

    I pick them before they need to be peeled, which certainly saves a lot of effort. Stereo, an English variety, was developed to be eaten pod and all, like a snap pea.

    A friend likes to eat them raw – he sampled all of mine, and decided that these three were the best-tasting: Red Epicure, Ianto’s Return, Stereo

    • Cathy

      December 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Wow! Thanks for the tip on Stereo — I’ll be looking for that one. 🙂

  7. vcpspam@yahoo.com

    February 4, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    I was introduced to fava as a kid. Being of 100% Italian ancestry, both sides of my family grew them having brought the taste for them with them from Italy. In NY, where’s it colder, we plant them in early spring rather than letting them winter over. Low teens is one thing, -15 F (real temp, not wind chill) is quite another. Harvest was (still is) always at the 4th of July, sitting in a circle in lawn chairs in the shade of maple trees popping the pods and fill kettles with beans. Concerning getting rid of the out shell of the bean with blanching and cold water, it is a matter of taste and possibly preparation. We did blanch them, but only to prep them for freezing. We always cooked them with the shells on. A favorite recipe is slicing Italian sausage and frying it. Then when it’s about cooked tossing in the beans, diced garlic, fresh basil, and parsley and salt to taste. Then simmer uncovered until the beans are tender. Add a little water now and then to keep things moist and it forms are very nice sauce. When the beans are tender serve them in a bowl with a nice serving of the liquid they were cooked in. Add some parmasean cheese and have some big chunks of Italian bread for dipping in the sauce.

    • Cathy

      February 6, 2015 at 6:40 am

      Sounds wonderful! Thank you for sharing these ideas and your story. 🙂

  8. Mel

    October 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Avoid the high price seed sold by seed companies.

    Dry fava beans sold at your local grocery, food coop or natural foods store in bulk or by bag cost between 4 to 8.00lb compared to the seed sold by seed companies which on average can cost more and you often have to pay shipping cost!

    Grocery sold fava bean seeds are also covered by low income food stamp vouchers and if not carried on shelf, most grocers will order them for you.

    Just remember to buy raw dry seeds with the least processing and natural blanching as possible, which the bulk of dry seed are sold as such.

    After the first season, you can simply save your own seed and share some with other growers!

    Grow well,

    Mel