Alys Fowler

Hardy broad beans

With the smell of Spring in the air, for gardeners the temptation to sow every seed packet in sight is great. With fluctuating temperatures still to come Alys recommends focusing your efforts on broad beans.

As I step out the black door, I smell spring in the air. I smell the earth sigh, I smell the first few daffodils and the snowdrops sparkle in the sun. The temptation to run away with this fleeting headiness and sow every seed packet scattered around the kitchen, is great, but I know that March can be cruel and April even more so. Wait, I whisper to myself, wait.

Although there might be a fair few days above 10 degrees, the light is still weak and the nights are still cool. Most spring seeds will do so much better if sown at the end of March, however many warm days we have.  If you have a polytunnel greenhouse you could probably get away with sowing a few lettuces, but growth is often painfully slow and anything sown later will catch up in no time. You need to grow with the lengthening days and warmer nights, not be fooled by the mid day warmth.

Still there are a few things hardy enough to try now. Broad beans are capable of germinating through fluctuating temperatures, particularly if you warm the soil up first. The easiest way to do this is to keep the soil dry. Wet soil stays colder for longer. If you have a large container full of compost or ground ready for growing (in that you’ve hoed off any winter weeds), then cover it with some plastic.

Black plastic will warm up faster, but it will also harbour slugs, not a bad thing as long as you bother to pick them all off first. Clear plastic doesn’t tend to attract so many slugs but it will warm up the soil enough to germinate weeds, again this has its benefits if you hoe again before you sow. Cloches are another alternative and are useful for pots, fleece is less useful because it lets water in. The key to warming up the soil and I can’t emphasis this enough, is keeping it dry at this time of year.

Make sure you secure the plastic down with bricks or something heavy, pebbles will not do, and the slightest wind and your plastic will be away with it. Likewise, tent pegs don’t work because the plastic will just rip.  Leave the plastic on for around two weeks, lift it up and press you hand into the soil, it should feel considerably warmer than uncover soil and it’s warm enough when you can leave your hand there for a number of seconds. If it doesn’t feel unpleasant, cool, but not unbearable, then it is time to sow. The old adage is that if you could sit on the soil with your bare bum it’s time to start sowing.

I love broad beans and can never get enough of them. I sow several batches from now till mid March. I like Aqua Claudia Dulce, but it’s a very tall broad bean and will need staking on windy sites. For small areas or windy ones then ‘The Sutton’ which is a sturdy dwarf variety is well worth growing.

I also like growing fava beans, these tend to be smaller beans and often the plant it multi stemmed, they can be eaten fresh, but are more commonly dried for falafel, Fou Madame (an Egyptian broad bean dish eaten for breakfast) and soups and stews.  

Often the beans sold as field beans for green manures are actually fava beans. I like the variety called Wizard and save my own seeds every year. I find this variety is less susceptible to chocolate spot, a kind of fungal disease that leaves brown spots all over the leaves and eventually the beans, that can be very problematic broad beans, particularly if the weather is wet.  

Broad beans should be planted 4-5cm deep, 23cm apart each way, preferably in staggered rows. Don’t plant any seeds with holes in them, usually this means they have been attacked by bean seed weevils and they won’t germinate.

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Broad beans © FreeImages.com/IvanMarn