Broad beans – Vicia faba – are also known as fava beans, horse beans, English beans, European beans, Windsor beans, field beans and tick beans. Broad beans are one of the oldest legumes in cultivation and have been an important crop since the stone age. They were well known in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Italy and many Middle Eastern countries. They have rigid stems and an upright growth habit. (Source: ‘Seed to Seed’ – Susan Ashworth)
This hardy lot were planted in blocks back in May 2013, consisting of both a short and tall variety – ‘Coles Prolific’ and ‘Aquadulce’ respectively. Although broad beans are self-pollinated, bees are attracted to the large flowers and can cause a good deal of cross-pollination. So rather than attempting to keep these two varieties pure by separating or bagging them I plant and store seed from both, including the crosses. Very few gardeners are managing to develop new varieties of vegetables, and my hope is that I will eventually be able to find plants that still carry the long bean of the Aquadulce but on the shorter stalks of the Coles Prolific. Perhaps that way they won’t get blown over so readily in Spring!
Because broad beans are a member of the Leguminosae family they play an important role in organic gardens in storing nitrogen in the soil via nodules on their root systems. Planted out between late autumn and mid-winter, they do well as a cover crop that provides delicious fresh large-podded beans to the table in early Spring when not much else is available from the cold ground. We cook ours in olive oil with finely-chopped onion. The cook collects pods from higher up the plant, knowing full well the gardener’s stern injunctions about leaving the lower (early) beans on the plant for next year’s seeds.
By summer these broad bean plants have died off into black sticks with just the hard bean cases attached. Some of the pods burst open and spill the dried bean seed onto the ground, but this can’t be helped. These spilt beans will germinate in the beds and make attractive plants during summer, but aren’t much use so are weeded out. The dried pods are picked off and stored in open trays in the shed awaiting processing, and the dried stalks are knocked over to be shredded as mulch or until the bed is needed.
When seed-saving day arrives for the broad beans, the dried pods are simply placed in an old onion bag and banged on the cement path to release the bean seed. This mixture is then sieved and rocked to lift the broken shells to the surface where they can be picked off and tossed onto the compost heap.
The bean seed is placed back into trays until I get a further minute to pick out the misshapen and miscoloured seeds and throw these away, retaining only the best for planting out in six months time. These selected seeds will spend a few days in the freezer to kill off any bean weevil eggs in residence. Each year I manage to save a few more tins of these wonderfully large seeds so that I might extend the areas of the garden where winter crops of broad beans create natural fertilizer in the soil to boost my summer vegetable crops.