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Planting Fava Beans in the Fall
This fall we are planting fava beans in anticipation of next year’s harvest. Before I started gardening I had no idea what a fava bean, or broad bean was. They are substantial in size compared to other beans that we are used to eating and the flavor is delicious! We love using them in chilis, stews, miso and more.
Due to their nitrogen fixing nature fava beans work really well as a cover crop and as companions to other plants. I like to rotate fava beans into garden beds after a heavy feeding crop has been harvested to help replenish the soil’s nitrogen levels.
In this post I’ll share a brief historical context of fava beans in relation to my family’s etymology, a note about favism, why I have turned seed from a fava bean landrace into my own grex, some of our planting techniques for fava beans, followed by a photo tour of the rich harvest that came as a result of planting our fava beans this season.
Fava beans are one of the oldest legumes under cultivation and have been an important crop since the Stone Age. Favas were well known in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Italy and many Middle Eastern countries.Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth
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Etymology for a Bean Farmer
My father’s name is Fabio and he and my mother gifted the name to me as my middle name. My father, who grew up on a coffee bean farm, has always proudly said that his name meant “bean farmer”. At some point I casually looked into this out of curiosity but couldn’t find a connection between Fabio and beans.
Recently, however, it donned on me how similar Fabio sounds to fabaceae and suspected that what he had been told about his name must be true. I looked more carefully than I had before and sure enough:
Fabio is a given name descended from Latin Fabius and very popular in Italy and Latin America (due to Italian migration). Its English equivalent is Fabian.  Fabian is the English form of the late Roman name Fabianus. This was a name originally given to those adopted into or descended through the female line from a Roman family named Fabius, that derived from the Latin faba for the broad bean, an important food crop in antiquity. 1. Fabio, Wikipedia
2. Fabian, Wikipedia
After a big more digging I learned that Fabius wasn’t the only Roman family to be named after a legume.
From agriculture the earliest surnames were derived … Those of Fabius, Lentulus, and Cicero, from the several varieties [“Faba,” a bean; “Lens,” a lentil; and “Cicer,” a chick-pea.] of leguminous plants in the cultivation of which respectively these individuals excelled.Naturalis Historia, Chapter 3 via PlinyPedia
Surely there is much more wealth of history, culture and traditions tied to the fava bean. I’ll leave it here for the purpose of this article, but I look forward to learning more about this historically important plant in the future.
For the time being I am absolutely loving growing this plant and building a relationship with our land thanks to the help of the fava beans. I am also feeling more connection to my own family history and wonder for this bean that has been feeding so many people throughout so many cultures.
Before continuing into gardening with fava beans, I thought I’d also quickly point out the risk of favism, which is present in some portion of the human population that have the G6PD gene.
In some people, especially males of southern Europe ancestry, eating fava beans or inhaling fava pollen causes a potentially deadly reaction called favism. The symptoms include muscle weakness, paralysis and, in extreme cases, death. Favism is an inherited disorder usually associated with eating large quantities of fresh fava beans.Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth
But since favism is “usually associated with eating large quantities of fresh fava beans,” according to this source, I became curious if eating well cooked fava beans reduces or eliminates the issue of favism. I found one study that referenced cooked fava beans with regard to favism:
All patients or their families reported that favism attacks occurred within 1–6 days of eating fresh cooked or uncooked [fava beans]. No patient had an attack after eating frozen, dried, or canned [fava beans].Do favic patients resume fava beans ingestion later in their life, a study for this, and a new hypothesis for favism etiology, Salah Noori Ahmed, ScienceDirect
This study found that favism occurred with cooked or uncooked fava beans, but unfortunately didn’t include details about cooking time or temperature. Favism did not occur with “frozen, dried, or canned” fava beans. Ironically two of those preservation methods involve heat, aka cooking. (Heat is typically used to dehydrate food and heat is required to can food) That leads me to question if the cooked fava beans were not heated as high or as long as fava beans were during the canning process. That theory is supported by the following claim about glucosidases and cooking:
On ingestion of fava beans, vicine and convicine undergo hydrolysis by glucosidases present both in the beans and in the gastrointestinal tract, releasing the respective aglycones: divicine and isouramil. These highly reactive redox compounds have antifungal and pesticide activity, which probably helps prevent fava beans from rotting, but the compounds are also capable of triggering a favism attack. When fava beans are cooked, the glucosidases are largely inactivated. This is probably the main reason why in most cases an attack of favism is triggered by eating raw beans rather than cooked beans. [emphasis added]Favism and Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency, NEJM Resident 360
Cooking vegetables for a long time, and until they are completely soft, breaks vegetable cell walls, more easily allowing the release of minerals and nutrients into our digestive system, as well as break down lectins, saponins, oxalic acids and other anti-nutrients that can prevent us from absorbing nutrients and potentially harm us (especially when eaten raw in concentrated amounts).
In the case of favism, I question whether cooked fava beans thoroughly (for long periods) can reduce the risk of favism attacks in individuals with the G6PD gene. And for me I continue to follow the wise woman tradition of thoroughly cooking vegetables, for 1 or more hours, as a general nourishing practice that has lived the test of time.
Disclaimer: This is not medical or dietary advice. When introducing any new food to your diet, wild or domesticated, it would be wise to start with small amounts first and listen to your body.
My First Experience with Fava Beans
I initially started growing fava beans in my second suburban garden, which had a very wild nature. At the time I was becoming fascinated with permaculture and probably learned about fava beans from Gaia’s Garden (I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone new to gardening or permaculture).
I plunked the beans in the soil in various places around the garden next to other plants, on the edges of pathways and just outside the drip line of trees. I had learned that the fava beans, like many other legumes, would add more nitrogen into the soil around their roots. So I sowed them all over and allowed them to to become companions with the plants around them.
At the time I wasn’t trying to grow the favas as a dry bean crop but I was fascinated to learn that the leaves of the plant were edible. I loved nibbling the leaves in the garden and in my salads with their spinach like texture and mild, nutty flavor. I also cooked the leaves as greens and harvested the young fava bean pods to use like green beans in stir fries and stews.
I let the fava beans grow semi-wild and good number of the bean pods went unharvested, dried out and self sowed themselves later that season. The fava beans loved resting up on other plants, but where there were no immediate neighbor the stalks eventually lowered to the ground by the weight of the bean pods, before they eventually dried up and died, before giving way to see the next generation. It was a beautiful thing to stand back, let go of control of what should happen in the garden and to see the complete lifecycle of the fava bean plants in this way.
Fast forward to present day — now with more garden space and different goals I do grow fava beans in larger blocks to harvest dry beans. But now that I am looking back I am inspired to also plunk those fava beans around the garden in various unfilled spaces and let them do their thing again.
Benefits of Fall Sowing
Fava beans are hardy annuals, tolerating frost but not prolonged freezes. In mild winter climates, favas are fall planted for spring harvest. The plants do not tolerate heat well.Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth
Initially I had been planting fava beans in the late spring and getting a summer harvest. But then I learned that as a cool weather crop, fava beans like peas could be planted as early as February in our zone 7b-ish climate. And I did that for a few years thankful for that extra time that the plants had to establish their roots and enjoying a larger harvest.
At some point Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds shared with me that he plants his favas in the fall and overwinters them. He called fava beans, along with garlic, onions and leeks, “climate appropriate” crops.
In our climate with cold winters, but not cold enough to kill the fava beans, the plants get a few extra months time to germinate, begin photosynthesizing and establish a strong root system. Then by the time the weather warms up in spring time they are off to a strong start.
The fava beans are climate appropriate because our region has a very long dry hot summer season. However our winters and early springs tend to have a fair amount of precipitation and the cool temperatures keep the ground web between precipitations.
Most annual crops grown during our summer growing season require significant irrigation. Fall planted fava beans on the other hand only require a little irrigation in late spring and early summer until the pods are fully formed and the plants begin to dry up and lose their leaves, indicating that irrigation is no longer needed. In a lucky season where we have late spring and early summer showers the fava beans may not even need any irrigation.
For readers in colder climates than our region’s zone 7/8 you may not be able to overwinter your fava beans. In your case, Joseph Lofthouse’s planting directions may help provide insight in planting fava beans within the constraints of your own climate:
I recommend planting Favas in Cache Valley, the day the snowcover melts in the spring, about the second week of March. Three week old seedlings may also be planted out at that time. Favas don’t set seed well in hot weather, so the quicker they get established in the spring, the more likely they are to set seeds. Planting so that they have mid-day or afternoon shade may help productivity. I’d love grow reports about plantings in mid to late summer, and whether they can make a crop before fall frosts. Growers in warmer climates, USDA Zone 8 or warmer, may get best results by direct seeding in the fall.Joseph Lofthouse, Landrace Seedsman
Finally because the fava beans are harvested in late spring/early summer, it leaves the possibility for growing a second crop in the same bed that summer. I did just that last year by planting tomatoes in between fava plants on the sunnier edge while the tomato plants were still small. When the fava beans were dying back the tomatoes were established and growing strong. It worked pretty well!
I initially tried a smaller planting of overwintered fava beans and reserved a larger amount of seed for the following spring. When I saw how much better the overwintered fava beans did, I now reverse that and plant most of my beans in the fall. I might plant more in the following year if we have some crop failure or if I decide I want to grow more and have the extra bed space for it.
When you plant your first packet of fava beans, if everything goes well that season, you will get enough dry beans for a meal or a few. But if you hold back, don’t eat them and replant them the following season, your seed supply will multiply.
With plants like tomatoes, a packet might give you enough seed for several years of planting. And then if you save your own tomato seed from one or two of your tomatoes you might end up with enough seeds for a decade. Meanwhile you are also eating a bunch of tomatoes. With fava beans, and other beans, you only get a few seeds per pod as opposed to dozens per tomato. If you want to end up with a lot of dry beans for food, you might not want to eat to much of your first years crops.
I also find it important to keep a few years back stock of fava bean seed in case of crop failure. If my entire crop doesn’t germinate, or gets wiped out for some reason, I don’t want to start over in building my seed stock from individual packets again. This did actually happen to me once. We ate everything that didn’t get planted and then when the crop didn’t survive I found myself starting over again. The beans were yummy though!
Now I am planting the 4th season of my current fava seed stock. To illustrate how the fava beans multiply consider how much fava beans I have after planting each season:
- 7 lbs of seed left after planting my 2022 harvested seed.
- 2.5 lbs of seed left after planting my 2021 harvested seed.
- 0.5 lbs of seed left after planting my 2020 harvested seed.
- Started with 4 packets of seed in spring 2020.
Those numbers would have multiplied even faster except for the fact that some of my favas didn’t germinate in the fall/winter of 2021. That year I planted the beans in three beds and one of the larger of the three plantings mostly didn’t germinate or emerge from the soil. I am still not 100% what the issue is (I have a few theories), but the most important lesson for me was distributing my seed to more than one location, especially while this garden space and soil is still relatively new to me. I was glad I had a harvest from the other two beds.
I also want to point out that by next spring I’ll have a really good idea how our crop will perform when I can look at the plants, see how many of them there are and how well they are flowering and how well the pods are forming. If we have a good crop next year, and with some backup planting stock retained I’ll start eating some of the older and less desirable seed. If we can keep yielding 7 or more lbs of seed every year, after accounting for planting stock, that could makeup a nice portion of our diet!
The fava beans that we are growing originally came from the Lofthouse Landrace Fava Beans purchased at Experimental Farm Network. I also combined the Lofthouse landrace fava beans with a few other varieties of fava beans.
Side note: Experimental Farm Network is a really interesting organization cultivating geographically distributed seed breeding projects and hosting an online seed catalog compiled from many small producers doing very interesting breeding work.
Joseph Lofthouse is a farmer dedicated to growing landrace vegetables, which offer more diversity and resilience, to name a few of the benefits, compared to plants that are selected for just a few very specific traits. Read more about landraces from Joseph Lofthouse on his website at Adaptivar Landraces or in his book Landrace Gardening.
In general I am becoming more interested in growing grexes and landraces for our staple homestead vegetables because they are more diverse and resilient. I also love that growing seed representing a very diverse gene pool helps me let go of some of my cultural conditioning to control life. The garden is my favorite place to let go of rigid expectations and straight lights and welcome diversity and disorder.
I love the diversity in the sizes, colors and patterns of these seed! They are so beautiful to look at and the smooth texture of the beans feel so good to the touch. I can’t help but feel like a kid when I grab handfuls of the beans, drop them back into the pile, shake them, mull over them and just admire and appreciate the beauty and abundance of seed.
In fact as soon as I start picking through seed to choose this year’s planting stock my son’s ears immediately perk up when he hears the rattling seed and runs over, grabs his stool and is instantly by my side with his hands in the beans. As he buries his hands in the beans, shakes them, adores them and loads them into his dump trucks he reminds me that I can be more present with each moment. I love seeing him absorbed into these tactile activities! At some point I left him to go prepare a bed for planting the beans and came back 15 minutes later to see him still standing there playing with the beans.
When I am choosing seed to plant I look for the larger, healthiest seed representing as much of the diversity of color and patterns as possible. The largest seed ensures larger, stronger initial plants and the diversity of color and patterns is just for the pure joy and sensation of color, as well as the genetic diversity that they represent.
I am also choosing seed that hasn’t been evidently damaged by the fava bean weavil before I froze my seed to prevent more damage.
Favas are both an inbreeding and outbreeding plant. Fava beans are self-pollinating, but bees are attracted to the large flowers and can cause a good deal of cross-pollination.Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth
I find it interesting that fava beans have both inbreeding and outbreeding qualities, where we might end up with some seed that is distinctly uniform from year to year while others may develop their own distinct traits.
In the Lofthouse fashion, I will likely continue to add more varieties of fava beans to our own grex from season to season in order to gain more genetic diversity. It will be fun to see how this grex changes over the years.
I used to plant my favas about 4-6″ apart in any direction. This worked pretty well for long narrow beds, but for larger blocks wider than 2 or 3 feet the plants in the middle of the block don’t produce as well because they are more shaded.
Now I plant further apart, like 6 inches apart in rows spaced 1 to 1 1/2 feet apart (see Bed#1: Till Method below). Or if I am planting with equidistant spacing I will sow the beans about 8-12″ apart on all sides (see Bed #2: No Till Method below).
This wider spacing gives the plants more room to spread and more light which allows for more blossoms and beans. The wider spacing also helps prevent fungus from forming. We did have an issue once with fungus in our overwintered fava beans that were planted in a tighter pattern. The spring planted favas in the same season did not have a fungal issue. There may have been a connection with a moist and humid winter. Subsequent seasons with the wider spacing and fungus hasn’t been an issue so far.
Bed #1: Till Method
I planted fava beans in two beds this fall. In our climate I try to plant them by late September but this year I was later than I like to be and got them in the ground the last week of October, just before Samhain.
This first bed is not a new bed but it has never been tilled. Its a unique triangle shape between two fences, narrow at one end and wide at the other. When we were thinking about expanding our garden I realized we could enclose that triangle for a quick win.
A few years ago it was grass at the bottom of a gentle slope with some nice top soil developed over the years. We mulched over the grass and used some smaller branches from evergreen trees that were thinned from our land and then covered it completely with 6ish inches of wood chips and probably some manure. It worked well and not much grass came through.
The first year the wood chips were not planted into. The second year we grew squash and corn here and the squash did ridiculously well. The third year I again grew squash but the plants didn’t establish as well before it heated up and I only got a few squashes. But as the wood chips had broken down more and with planting, harvest and irrigation some soil came to the surface, this bed became prime for volunteers.
Where there was less squash there was more life and food in other forms. We were blessed to have parsley, kale, fennel, plantain, dandelion, marshmallow, orach and more volunteer in this little space.
Since the clay soil is fairly hard under the top soil that we had been developing I chose to till this soil before planting the favas. Based on experience, our gardening practices and what I am seeing in this bed’s present soil condition we will only really need to till this bed once or twice before using it in a no or low-till way.
Starting in on the dry soil was pretty hard to dig down so I first irrigated for a period of time to let the water soak down. I didn’t water long enough to thoroughly drench the soil but it was enough to make it much easier to sink my broadfork tines.
Using a broadfork I went down about a fork’s depth and loosened the soil. Then I went over it again with a handfork to pull out a few more of the larger rocks and incorporate organic matter. Finally I used a garden rake to form furrows while breaking up the clay soil a bit more where the seeds would be planted.
Planting was easy in this soil after it had been worked in this way. It was easy to stick our homemade dibble stick an inch or two down and plunk the seed into the ground. Walking over the line of planted seeds is an easy way of tamping down and ensures soil contact with the seed which should help with germination and ability for the roots to take hold and push the sprout up.
Finally the new bed is watered to let the seeds soak. If my soil is already quite moist or experiencing rain I’ll skip that step. I like this furrow method I’ve developed over the years because it directs the water down directly to the seeds where they can get the most benefit. In the winter and early spring it won’t matter as much but by late spring when the soil is drying out the furrows will be mostly intact, although a bit smaller, and water received will be efficiently directed down to the fava’s roots.
I’ll leave the bed un-mulched with soil exposed now and over winter. Next year when the soil is starting to dry out I may mulch between the plants. Or if there are many weeds between the fava beans, I may let them grow as a living mulch and chop and drop them in place to add more dry mulch a few times. I did that this year and it worked really well.
Bed #2: No Till Method
The second bed is a bit smaller than the first and we have grown veggies and flowers in this bed for three seasons now. During our first winter I created a compost pile here. Before starting the compost pile I spread out bits of compost. And then in the spring I moved the compost pile, forked the soil a bit to loosen it and planted fava beans there in that rich soil where worms had moved compost down and created abundant top soil.
So its fitting now three years later to plant favas in this same space. This time I am expanding further than the footprint of the original compost pile.
Three years later after more mulch, manure, leaves, organic matter and soil prep this soil is becoming richer and fluffier. I pushed my garden fork down in a few places to see how much resistance there was and as I suspected it went in pretty easy. So I chose not to till the soil here.
There are a bunch of plants and weeds growing here so first I need to remove them. We’ve already had a few frosts and we are about to head into much colder weather and so we are OK with sacrificing what crops still remain in this space.
My no till weeding method also includes leaving as much roots in the ground as feasibly possible to allow them to decompose and become fodder for soil creatures. With larger rooted plants (1/8th+ inch thick), such as mallows, cosmos or salvias in this case, I sever the root at or just below the soil level with a knife. The smaller rooted plants just get pulled up.
I am not being incredibly thorough about weeding here because I plan to invite weeds to grow between and around the favas, and they will anyway regardless if I invite them or not! I am just wanting to clear the bulk of the plant matter to give the favas plenty of light and space to germinate and grow ahead of other plants, and to give myself plenty of time before I have to come out and thin or prune weeds between the fava plants. So there are still plenty of small weeds in the soil at the time of planting, and the large fava sprouts will have no problem with them being there.
I already planted our best and most visually diverse fava seeds in the first bed. For this second planting I selected primarily the biggest and strongest looking seed.
Sowing the fava beans is as simple as using my dibble stick and making holes 1-2 inch deep and plunking the fava bean down in there. I like to push the bean down with my fingers to make contact with the soil, or sometimes if the soil pushes down too easily, I’ll push the bean more to the side to make contact.
If the soil is way too loose when I push down, as sometimes is the case due to gopher tunnels, I’ll push the soil down in that general area until its denser so that the bean can get a good contact with the soil and its not dropped down too deep.
When I am done planting I walk over the planting holes and lightly scuff my feet to cover the beans with soil and tamp them down a bit. If its dry I water them in so the beans can start soaking up the moisture and swell up until they are ready to germinate.
Planting = Harvest
Before I even started preparing “Bed #1” for planting I found myself excited about the weeds and volunteers that had established themselves here this season. Fennel, dandelion, kale, marshmallow, orach, parsley, plantain to name a few. Many of them, especially the perennials and biennials were still in great shape this time of year.
Rather than just pulling them out and throwing them on the compost pile, which would have been the fastest thing to do, I chose to celebrate and thank many of them for growing here by offering them a place on our table or in our garden.
There are also a few pea vines on the fence bordering this “Bed #1”. I had planted them in the early fall and they are now making peas and its part of an experiment to see what kind of fall harvest we can yield, and especially if peas will overwinter.
I absolutely love when planting time turns into an unexpected harvest. I get to slow down, because its not as fast as simply ripping everything out or turning them under. (Though I do my fair share of that.) But its so gratifying to see the distinction between planting and harvest blurred to the point that they become one and the same.
To conclude this fava planting story, I’ll share a photo tour of these harvests and transplants that came out of planting fava beans.
2 responses to “Planting Fava Beans in the Fall”
Very interesting article. I’m in zone 4 and planted a winter garden of peas, carrots, beets, spinach, rutabaga and swiss chard when I was planting my garlic. I had about a 40’x4′ row empty, so I gave it a try. Success. Another note, anything that did not germinate, the row was covered in straw and ready for planting in the spring. You never know in zone 4 when you can get into the garden in the spring. Going to try planting fava beans this fall.