How exciting to be up and running with the veg growing! I’m going to be talking about one of my favourite of all vegetables today – broad beans. One of the joys of growing your own broad beans is that they are SO seasonal – one of the few things that you’ll only buy fresh in supermarkets or get in veg boxes at certain times of the year.
And simply delectable whether you eat the beans whole when young, or shucked of their tough skins when they are bigger.
1. Choosing Seeds
There are lots of varieties of broad bean to choose from, with fabulous names like Imperial Green Long Pod and Crimson Flowered (these are pretty as well!) . Bunyard’s Exhibition is a tried and tested variety for a beginner, and The Sutton is a good one to go for if you are growing your beans in pots (perfectly feasible in a sunny spot) or are limited for space, because they don’t grow so tall.
Broad beans are tough old things (much like us Growbags!) and lots of gardeners like to plant some seeds in the autumn to get an early crop the following year – even as early as May. But it’s fine to put them in now, as well – they are really fast growers once they have the bit between their teeth. If you can sprinkle a bit of fertiliser on the soil so much the better, but you don’t need anything that says it’s high in nitrogen, because broad bean plants are full of it, anyway!
I usually get my broad beans going in cardboard loo-roll innards or rather fancier root-trainer modules before planting them out into the veg patch, but you don’t have to. I do this because I like to know beforehand which seeds are duff and therefore don’t need a space on my bamboo support-frame. Another thing you can do to find this out is to soak the seeds for a day or so in plain water, wrap them in damp kitchen roll, stick them a plastic bottle and close the lid. Put the bottle somewhere warm and check the seeds after about four days to see if they’ve germinated (got little roots growing). (Laura uses this method for her sweetpea seeds, using Tupperware containers.)
This is important! Get your support structure in place BEFORE you plant your beans, especially if you are growing them in a large pot. They are definitely going to need tying in to something as they grow, and because they grow so quickly it is much harder to put in bamboo canes or trellis or whatever after they have already started flopping. A wigwam of canes can work well and is more stable than single canes. I personally make a double row of slanted canes tied together with a couple of cross-canes for strength, and there is about 10″ (25 cm) between the two rows.
Water the soil where you are going to plant, and place your seeds, germinated or not, 2″ (5 cm) deep, and 8″-10″ (20-25 cm) apart. If you haven’t germinated them, find the dark spot on each one (actually called an ‘eye’) and have that at the bottom of your seed. Some gardeners actually bung two seeds at each point, to allow for some of them not germinating at all! I reckon three seeds to a big pot would be about right.
Water again, say a little prayer and stand back!
3. Looking After the Plants
Broad beans can tolerate a bit of dryness but they HATE drying out completely. The best thing to do is water deeply (the soil around them, not the plants themselves) either first thing in the morning or in the evening, daily in hot weather.
Tie in the stems as they shoot upwards using soft twine, string, wool, anything like that. Never use wire which will break the stems.
Please be careful about weeding them – they have frighteningly shallow roots and take it from me, it’s horribly easy to damage them when you are poking about uprooting a dandelion……….
When you see pods starting to appear after the flowers near the bottom of the bean stems, pinch out the top of each plant between your thumb and forefinger, or snip it off. This will encourage it to stop producing more leaves and put its energy into bean-production – hooray!
Also pinch out the tops of any plants that become infested with black-fly or aphids. (A couple of other tips here, if you encounter this common problem – spray these little sap-suckers with a water-jet to hose them off, or grow some nasturtiums nearby, and hope the beasties get lured away from your precious beans…)
If you get white spots on the leaves and they start to crinkle up, this is mildew. Cut out the affected bits, and make sure that you never wet the leaves when you’re watering; this problem can be worse if your plants are very crowded together.
Now we get to the good bit! As I said earlier, you can pick some of the pods when they are still small. In fact you can pick them before they have even got beans visible in them, and eat the whole pod steamed like sugar snap peas. The only thing about that is that they don’t have as much flavour as they do later. So we prefer to wait until we see the beans bulging in the pods, but not so late that they are looking dry. Keep picking (snip off the pods rather than pulling them) to keep the plant producing more flowers and thus more beans.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I am a terrible cook, so this tip is from my husband: the way to open the pods is to pull the string along the side of the pod downwards. The waxy coat of the beans can be bitter, but drop them into boiling water for 5 secs. to blanch them, take them out with tea-strainer or a slotted spoon, and then drop them into cold water. The shells will come off much more easily that way, and leave you with YUMMY green beans to scoff.
One last thing. As I said earlier, broad beans are full of nitrogen (Laura can drone on about nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, till the cows come home) so when your plants are looking utterly spent and there are no more beans coming, cut them down to the base, but leave their roots in the soil – it will enrich it hugely for next year’s glorious harvests!
A word of warning: A LOT of people are getting on board with veg growing this year, understandably, and some seed companies are starting to run out of the most popular varieties. Thompson & Morgan, Mr.Fothergill’s and Sutton’s are good first ports of call, but shop around and you should be able to find the seeds that you want.
NB: You can see all 14 steps to creating a veg patch here. Our regular gardening blog now includes a veg-growing section. We’d love you to join us by entering your email address here. We’ll email you every Saturday.