One of the strange dichotomies of kitchen gardening is that Springtime – which brings such a feverish burst of planting and new beginnings – is so impoverished a period as a provider of food for the kitchen table. So now – in the very middle of an Australian winter – is exactly the right time to ensure something is on the table then by planting broad beans.
Broad beans (LEGUMINOSAE – Vicia fava), also known as fava beans, can be cooked in oil with chopped onion or dried and stored for winter soups. They are easy to grow, nutritious, tasty and cold-hardy. While many gardening books suggest planting your broad beans in autumn while the soil is still warm, I’ve always thought Peter Bennett's Organic Gardening book had it right – hold off planting until mid-winter (i.e. now!), as broad beans will flower but not set pods until frosts are behind them. Planting too early means that only the very last flowers at the top of the 1m high broad bean plant will get to feed you, and they are always the smallest beans on the bush. If late planted beans are just coming into flower in September, you will find they are productive over a long period while you wait for all those other Spring vegetables to get on their feet.
Here in South Australia, springtime can be windy, and therein lies the second threat to broad bean plots; their height and the sail-like area of their broad leaves and beans mean that they can be irrevocably blown over, ending your chances of a harvest. So I grow my broad beans in a block (safety in numbers), stake all four corners, then run horizontal lengths of smooth and round golden bamboo poles all around the beans to give them some support without damaging their stems.
Broad beans seeds are large – about ‘ball of thumb’ size for the big Sicilian broad beans I favour. These I’ve grown on for many years from a small handful of dried broad beans I was given by an old Sicilian chap just down the road, now long in his grave. Smaller greener varieties of broad beans are available from the local seed displays available at nurseries and hardware stores, and are easy to come by. Just dig shallow trenches in good soil with the angle of the hoe, and drop seeds in about 25 cms apart. They will germinate readily in cool-to-cold soil.