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!”

 

 

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