Horticulture Magazine

How To Grow Broad Beans

bumblebee sat on white flowers of broad bean plant

Broad Beans Overview

Official Plant NameVicia faba
Common Name(s)Broad Beans
Plant TypeVegetable
Native AreaMediterranean, Central Asia
Hardiness RatingH4-H5
ToxicityEdible
FoliageBroad, oval-shaped leaves
FlowersWhite flowers with black spots
When To SowFebruary, March, April, May, October, November
Harvesting MonthsJune, July
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Partial Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.5 – 1.8M

Spread
0.1 – 0.5M

Bloom Time
April – June

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

Grown by early humans many thousands of years ago and now going stronger than ever, Broad Beans are an early summer favourite. These tasty treats are oh-so easy to grow and are also equally easy to prepare in the kitchen. On top of all that, Broad Beans are remarkably healthy and nutritious. They are available in many varieties, each with its own merits.

A light and versatile summer vegetable, Broad Beans are a fine side-dish with trout or Dover sole, and are a standard ingredient for veg omelettes, salmon quiche, cheese tarts, pea-and-bean soup, Spanish stews, Mediterranean salads, Italian risottos, Lebanese Falafel . . . you get the drift. Or you can just lightly stir-fry them in a pat of butter and enjoy with a dash of vinegar and chopped cilantro! 

This legume, called Fava Beans in North America and also Faba Beans, is popular just about everywhere on all continents bar Antarctica and is cooked and consumed in myriad ways. Its Botanical name ‘Vicia Faba’ indicates its (transitive) membership in Family Fabaceae which includes all the legumes, beans, and peas. Fava Beans are just about the only beans in Genus Vicia, colloquially called the ‘Vetches,’ that humans find tasty and pleasing to eat though in ancient times Bitter Vetch has been a source of food for humans. Various Vetches or Vicia species are eaten in the wild by ruminants. They are an easy-grow fodder for livestock and also serve as ‘green manure’ for the replenishment of depleted soil.  

stewed broad beans in tomato and herbs
Yum! that Looks – and Surely is – Delicious but it’s Also Very Nutritious

Vicia Faba is an annual with an upright habit though most varieties are not stiffly upright. As the more genteel and refined members of the very large, rough-and-tumble Vetch Family, Vicia Faba lack any tendrils with which to grasp and clamber over other herbs and shrubs. In windy regions they frequently bend or flop over.

For a plant that is valued for its vegetables, Vicia Faba bears unusually pretty, even ornamental, flowers; what is more, they are very fragrant. Like other plants in the Pea Family, its flowers have irregular corollas of Papilionaceous form. The corolla comprises of two lower ‘keel’ petals, two outer ‘wing’ petals, and an upper ‘banner’ petal. These petals are usually white or very light and have two very dark, often black, spots on the wing petals, and finely-etched lines on the banner petal.

Broad Beans are not only widely-grown and consumed around the world, they are among the easiest vegetables to grow in home veg gardens. They do not even need regular watering let alone fertilizing. Yet they are very nutritious and are full to bursting with health benefits. 

Background and Origins

The well-known Spirit Cave archaeological site in what is now Thailand reveals that an ancient hunter-gatherer peoples consumed or perhaps even cultivated Broad Beans in about 7,000 B.C. Only some centuries later, early humans in Central and Southern Europe had domesticated Broad Beans.

Archaeological excavations in Central Europe confirm that Late Stone Age peoples have been growing Broad Beans as a food crop since no later 5,000 B.C. They have been a staple vegetable for Mediterannean populations since no later than 3,000 B.C.

Those are far from the only geographic locations where people have grown and eaten Broad Beans millennia ago. They are known to have been domesticated and eaten in some elevated regions in what we now know as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Broad Beans is one of the founder crops of the Middle Eastern region further to which it is considered to be a candidate as the Mesopotamian Primer Crop that triggered the idea of agriculture in the minds of early humans. 

ruins of Dara, Mesopotamia, now Mardin, Turkey
Dara, Mesopotamia, now Mardin, Turkey. Was This Where Broad Beans Gave Rise to Agriculture?

Essential Varieties

Underneath we present five varieties that are selected for taste, productivity, and easy sowing and growing in spring.

The Sutton – An Olde Englyshe dwarf variety, The Sutton is one of the best varieties on several counts for hobbyist gardeners. As the plants grow to only about 40 centimetres with a similar spread, they need less space than other varieties. Yet they are very productive and their numerous pods are 12 to 14 centimetres in length with each having typically six tasty beans. It even bears among the most fragrant and prettiest flowers of all Broad Beans. RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

Monica – Three huge draws make this variety well worth growing. From a spring sowing it is possibly the fastest to producing pods; at least it is one of the fastest. It is also very productive. Finally, it is ideally-suited to spring and summer sowing. Pods have 5 or 6 fat, juicy beans. Young beans are especially tender and well-suited for adding uncooked to salads and such.

Witkiem Manita – This variety is one of the hardiest ones and tolerates freezing conditions so it is perfect for sowing as early as February to be rewarded with fresh beans in spring. It is a productive variety as well. Each of its rather short, chunky pods contain, usually, five white beans which are more plump than most and also tasty. RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

freshly picked Witkiem Manita beans
The Pods and Beans of Fresh Broad Beans Witkiem Manita

Eleonora – This is a spanking new variety and an excellent one. It is fairly fast-growing. The plants are on the short side and are sturdier and more erect than most which makes them well suited for windswept locations. Each pod has about five biggish white beans, which are remarkably flavourful. This variety also stores or ‘keeps’ well and can be home-frozen for winter. 

Bunyards Exhibition – That this heritage variety is still with us after being developed in the 1830s back in Victorian Times is a tribute to its merits. It is especially fuss-free to grow and is sought-after in kitchens that need the finest-quality Broad Beans, known to be sweetish. Each pod has 6 or 7 beans. The plants are tall, growing up to 1.2 metres.

large ripening pods of Vicia faba
Broad Beans Pods on the Plant

Other Varieties

Underneath we present a further five varieties; these are primarily selected for hardiness and for a couple of different and distinctive attractions.

Super Aquadulce – If you live in a cold region and/or want to sow seeds outdoors in autumn or in February, this heritage variety ought to be your top choice. It is possibly the hardiest Broad Bean. Besides being hardy it is also very productive. The plant is on the tall side and can grow to about 1 metre.

Aquadulce Claudia – Another very hardy variety and related to the preceding one, it is ideal for cold regions. Like its sibling variety it bears pods about 25 centimetres long with each one containing about 6 beans. The beans are tastier than most. The plant is quite tall, growing from 1 to 1.5 metres. RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

crop of homegrown Aquadulce Claudia
Healthy and Vigorous Broad Beans Aquadulce Claudia in an Allotment Plot

Meteor – Though not a great variety for the best-tasting mature beans, it is probably the quickest to produce pods from a spring sowing (hence the name). It is also comparatively hardy so it can be sown in March and in autumn as well. As for the quality, if pods are harvested early and the beans are eaten young, then they are tender and tasty. RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

Masterpiece Green Longpod – Can’t be beaten for the length of the ‘longpod’ or the number of beans as each pod is usually packed with 6, sometimes 7, green beans. The pods are long but thin so the beans too are thin but are tender. A great choice for home-freezing Broad Beans to have in the dark days of winter. RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

Crimson Flowered – To go all in on the ornamental value of the flower you could opt for this heritage variety. The blossoms are a deep magenta-crimson that add splashes of intense colour to a veg garden – or any garden. The beans are just as good as any variety, though, so no worries there. This is a tallish variety that will grow over 90 centimetres and can approach a full metre.

Crimson Flowered broad bean plant with purple flowers
Broad Beans Crimson Flowered is a Dual Treat – Garden Fresh Veg and Crimson Blossoms

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Though the Vicia genus is a rugged one with most species growing in poor soils and withstanding inhospitable conditions, Broad Beans – which, after all, are a domesticated species – are certainly not rough and tough like their country cousin vetches.

These plants flourish in full sun and in rich soil that has good drainage and contains ample organic manure. Taking a (well-drained) bed of a fertile loam mix, spreading a light layer manure over it, and mixing it in will provide an excellent soil for Broad Beans. Do not sow Broad Bean seeds in clay-rich soil as the seeds will likely rot and not germinate.

The ideal pH is between pH 6.0 and 7.0 – Slightly Acidic.

These plants need protection from high winds; accordingly, they should be grown in sheltered spots. If no such location is available then they a windbreak may prove necessary. 

The ideal ambient temperature to grow Broad Beans is between 10° and 20° centigrade. Soil temperature should not exceed 24° centigrade.

Keep in mind that as a leguminous crop Broad Beans is a nitrogen-fixing plant that boosts the fertility of the soil it is grown in. Therefore, you can use the same soil the following year to grow such plants that need nitrogen-rich soil.

white and black flowers of Witkiem Manita, with green foliage
Broad Beans Flowers – Very Unusual and Even More Pretty!

How to Grow Broad Beans

You can sow Broad Beans seeds outdoors in late October or November for an early harvest. Autumn-sown seedlings will germinate, overwinter outdoors, and start growing again in spring after the temperature crosses about 4.5° centigrade. Many (though not all) varieties’ seedlings will be fine so long as they are in a sheltered spot with Southern exposure. Otherwise you will have to protect them with fleece or cloche or germinate them indoors or in a greenhouse for later transplanting.

To grow in the easiest, most trouble-free way, sow seeds outside when the minimum temperature is no less than 4.5° centigrade and daytime temperature crosses 10° centigrade. This will be sometime in April in most parts of England and Wales. 

As a general rule, April is the ‘best’ month for sowing Broad Beans seeds (in England and Wales). However, if the weather permits or your variety of Broad Beans allows, sow in March to reap early harvests.

As a general rule seeds should be sown 5 to 6 centimetres deep, and about 20 centimetres, give or take a few centimetres, apart. However, the spacing can vary for some varieties that may need more space or could make do with less. Seeds in the next row may be planted at a similar distance; about 20 centimetres. 

If you sow seeds in long rows in open ground, space each double row to give you sufficient space to walk along the rows to pick your beans, say about 50 centimetres. 

All the seeds will not germinate so if you wish, sow a few ‘spares’ in pots or wherever you have room to transplant in unoccupied spots.

Give the seeds a fair sprinkling of water. Give them another sprinkling when you see the seedlings sprouting from the soil. Water in the early part of the morning and be wary of overwatering. In many regions of the United Kingdom natural rainfall is usually almost sufficient for Broad Beans.

Keep the bed clear of weeds.

Most Broad Bean varieties, as leguminous plants, need support stakes. The best way to support these plants is to drive stakes into the soil front and back along pairs of rows. If your variety is not stiff or if you live in a blustery location, tie nylon string low and also high from stake to stake diagonally so as to create a lattice or fretwork as seen from above. This framework should be tight enough to provide support to the growing plant so that it doesn’t flop over yet also provide sufficient room for the plant to spread as it grows.

sticks and strings used as support for broad beans plants
Stakes and String to Support Young Broad Beans as they Grow

If your soil is not rich and fertile, feed the plants with a 5-5-10 organic fertilizer.

When the plants start to flower, water them well if rainfall has been insufficient so that the soil becomes wet. Do so weekly.

When the first flowers wither into charcoal-coloured slivers and the earliest little pods begin to take shape, pinch off the growing tips, alongwith the small bunch of young leaves, from the plants. (These pinched-off pieces – stem, leaves, and all – are a tasty treat and can be steamed, sauteed, cooked in omelettes, or otherwise used as you would young Spring Greens.) This pinching-off of the growing tip will stop the plant from growing bigger and its energies will be redirected into making bean-pods. As a bonus, it will reduce the chances of black fly and aphid infestation.

Harvesting Broad Beans

You should be able to pick Broad Beans by early June on out. 

Do not let Broad Bean pods mature on the plant; pick them on the early side. Harvest pods young; pick a pod as soon as it is visibly swollen with beans. 

There is no ‘right length’ at which to pick pods as different varieties’ lengths vary quite widely. Run early experiments to figure out what is the best ‘length’ at which to pick pods on a particular variety you are growing. This will depend on your personal taste and also on how you intend to cook and consume the beans.

As a general rule, pick lower pods first.

Do not pull the pods or cut them, but twist them off with a smart flick of the wrist.

Pods should be shelled when the seam or scar is whitish or a light shade of green and before it darkens. Otherwise the beans will lose their freshness and flavourfulness and become stringy, tough, or mealy.

Pods can be picked very young and cooked with beans in-pod, or the small, tender beans can be tossed raw in salads.

fresh broad beans in a wicker basket and being held by a hand
A Fresh Harvest – from the Veg Garden to the Kitchen Table

Common Diseases and Problems

Spring-sown Broad Beans may suffer from Blackfly aka Black Bean Aphid and Pea and Bean Weevil. The former pest is a very serious problem and the latter a rather minor one.

If you see Blackfly on any plant, you will need to scour all your plants for this pest as it is a fast-breeding and very destructive pest. Pinch off all tips where you see infestation. Release Blackfly predators like ladybugs and other beetles. You can also spray organic products that are safe to use on edible plants; these include Bug Clear for Fruit and Veg and Neudorff Bug Free. 

Pea and Bean Weevil cause cosmetic damage to leaves but do not affect the mature plant as a whole or its crop. If this pest attacks seedlings or very young plants, then growth and health can be affected.

Chocolate Spot is not uncommon in plants that overwinter outdoors or in humid weather but it is much less common on spring-sown plants.

Where to Get Broad Beans

Broad Beans are a very popular home garden vegetable and you should have no trouble finding seed packets of at least some of the varieties listed above at your neighbourhood garden centre. All the listed varieties should be available at one or another online seed seller.

Health Benefits

As is probably well known, Broad Beans are chock-full of nutrients. To begin with, they are low in fat, high in dietary fibre, and have an appreciable amount of protein as well.

They are especially rich in Folate (Vitamin B9), Manganese, and Copper and are a terrific natural source for these minerals. As it happens, this particular triple-play is as if directly aimed at the needs of lactating and menopausal women.

Broad Beans contain significant amounts of levodopa or L-dopa. This compound is one of the precursors of dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter, whose deficit is a primary cause of Parkinson’s Disease. As such, Broad Beans play a part in warding off Parkinson’s and are even considered to relieve at least the symptoms of this grave disease.

salad with eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and broad beans
Loaded with Health Benefits – a Broad Bean Salad

They are also good sources of iron, magnesium, and potassium, besides protein. Who needs a multivitamin tablet when you have a Broad Bean plant or two in the garden!

Finally, Broad Beans contain anti-oxidant compounds that will clean up a few of those pesky free radicals hurtling around in your system.

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