This week we are planting the broad beans, better known to most Americans by the Italian name of fava bean. They are seldom seen in American markets. This uniquely American oversight is somewhat difficult to explain, as most other people on the planet are quite fond of them. This was the bean of medieval Europe, and so, when Europeans first encountered the New World bean, now familiar at every table as the ubiquitous green bean, they named it “bean.” Mr. Thomas Hariot, botanist for the 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina, explained, “Called by us beans, because in greatness and partly in shape they are like to the beans in England, saving they are flatter, of more divers colours, and some pied [speckled].”
The broad bean, or fava bean, is a shell bean, much like the familiar lima bean. Unlike the New World beans, the broad bean is a cool season plant that must be sown in late fall in the middle colonies. Farther to the north they are planted in early spring, before the peas are sown. Farther to the south they may be grown as a winter crop. Beans sown in late November will emerge by Christmas week and will survive the winter as three-inch plants. We find that these small plants are much more dependable than beans which are sown too soon in the fall and become too large and flaccid to reliably withstand the vicissitudes of winter weather.
It is a large seed, larger than the largest lima, and is best sown with a dibble six inches apart in rows two feet asunder. If, however, you are limited in your land, you may sow them in a block with rows one foot asunder. Once they are up they are covered with a table of straw which will be explained in the proper season.
A more complete discussion of the Fabaceae can be found in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners. (Rodale Press)