This time of year isn’t renowned for being one of new life and opportunity. The trees are trembling away their leaves with every passing breeze, herbaceous plants have turned to either a mush or a thicket of straw-like stems, and growth is slowly but surely grinding to a halt as the mercury drops. It is nature’s way of flushing out the old as she settles down for winter’s slumber. Not the best time of year, then, for outdoor veg to be sown. Unless, that is, you happen to be a broad bean.
Broad beans have an incredible capacity to withstand winter weather. Hardy down to an icy -10°C (14°F), these rugged members of the legume family are able to germinate at just 2°C (36°F). Quite why any seed would want to push out its juvenile roots into a soil flirting with freezing point is anyone’s guess, but it certainly works in the kitchen gardener’s favour. It means we can get a crop into the ground now in order to snap up a harvest of tender pods as soon as the end of spring. This is handy for two reasons. Firstly, it gives us the first delicious beans of the year – irresistible cooked in a fresh springtime soup with perhaps spring onions, spinach and any other early risers gleaned from the garden. Second, these early broad beans are less likely to fall prey to black bean aphid, an inevitable pest of spring-sown beans.
Sowing Broad Beans
Despite their heroic hardiness, if conditions are likely to plunge too low for too long you are best waiting until spring to sow outside, although a somewhat earlier crop can be had by sowing into modules or 7cm (3in) pots of multipurpose compost under cover in late winter. These can then be planted out in early spring.
Even where conditions warrant an autumn/fall sowing, not all broad beans will be suitable for this treatment. Longpod varieties are the hardiest, so go for these. As their name implies, this type of broad bean produces longer pods packed with more beans. The kidney-shaped beans have a satisfyingly fat, substantial feel to them. The universal favourite for autumn sowings is ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ (sometimes sold simply as ‘Aquadulce’), which yields 23cm (9in)-long pods encasing smooth white beans. It establishes reliably, crops early and grows to a manageable metre (3ft) tall. It’s the one I overwinter and would heartily recommend. If you can’t find ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ look out for ‘Coles Early Dwarf’.
Choose a sunny, sheltered spot for your beans and sow into soil that is well-drained and fertile – forking in some well-rotted manure or compost before sowing will help to improve soil conditions. There are a number of ways to sow the plump beans, but my preferred method is to sow into the bottom of wide, shallow trenches made with a draw hoe. Space the seeds about 15-20cm (6-8in) apart in a zigzag fashion, covering them back over with 5cm (2in) of soil. Space additional double rows about 80cm (32in) apart. Sow a few extra beans at the end of each row to gap up any that fail to germinate.
Looking after Broad Beans
Once they are in the ground there’s really little to be done. The seedlings may take some time to push through but rest assured things will be stirring beneath ground. It’s a joy to witness those first thick shoots break the soil surface. Keep your bean beds weed free by hoeing as necessary. If it gets really cold be on hand to cover your seedlings with a few layers of horticultural fleece until conditions improve.
Longpod broad beans can be gangly plants, flopping about all over the place unless tamed with a girdle of string. You’ll get better results if you belt in your beans. Do this by pushing bamboo canes into the ground to create a double row of supports flanking each block of beans. Tie string between the canes to frame the beans – about two strands should do the trick. Tuck in errant stems the right side of the string lines as they grow. The tips of your plants can be pinched out when the first beans reach about 7cm (3in) long. This will act as a further guard against black bean aphid and encourage longer, better-filled pods. Don’t discard the pinchings – they are delicious lightly steamed as a spinach substitute.
Harvesting Broad Beans
Pods can be picked when they are just 5cm (2in) long to cook whole as a delicious springtime treat, or wait until the beans have fully developed before shelling the pods. This can take a little guesswork but a gentle squeeze of the pod case will give you a good idea as to the size of the beans inside. Boiled, pureed or turned into a rich (and heavenly moreish) soup, those keenly anticipated first beans of the year are by far the most delicious.
By Benedict Vanheems. First photo courtesy of Suttons Seeds.