The broad appeal of the humble broad bean


    By John Weldon

    In springtime, a young man’s fancy turns to love. In autumn (and in the autumn of his life – I’m nearly 60) his fancy turns instead to broad beans. Well, not just broad beans, any winter vegetable really: cabbages, broccoli, beetroot, lettuce, but, I must admit to a particular fondness for the broad bean.

    Why broad beans in particular, you ask? Well, they’re good value for money for a start; if you keep picking they’ll keep producing, so you get to enjoy them over a number of weeks. Their verdant bushyness also adds real vibrancy to a winter garden and their scent is beany-fresh (I know beans and freshness of scent aren’t normally associated – another reason to love the broad bean). They’re also fairly foolproof, provided you do a few basic things correctly, and for a man who is more garden enthusiast than expert, that’s a good thing.

    You can plant broad beans straight into the ground, but I like to start them off in potting mix, in old cardboard toilet paper rolls. These tubes make great compostable grow pots – once the plant is sufficiently sprouted you can plant them directly into the ground, without disturbing the roots. Starting them off in pots also means you avoid the predations of snails, slugs and other critters who can really monster tender seedlings. Even so, no matter how hardy my seedlings look when they go into the ground, I always use a cloche until they are about 6 inches tall at least. This keeps the bugs away, keeps moisture in and traps sunlight. I make my cloches out of old milk cartons and two litre soft drink bottles. Just cut the bottom off, make a few holes in the sides and away you go: mini greenhouse.

    Broad beans like manure or compost rich soil that is moist, but not too wet. Make sure you plant seedlings about 30cms apart. It can be tempting to plant them closer, especially if you’re lazy and or greedy for more beans, like me, but this just forces them to compete for sunlight and soil, and increases the chances of disease, resulting in a lesser yield.

    They’re a great crop to follow tomatoes as, like all beans, they’ll add nitrogen back to the soil until the day you rip them out, so leave them in the ground as long as you can after harvest.

    You’ll be reaping about 4 months after you sow, so fresh young beans either shelled or in the pod (young leaves too) can go straight into a spring salad. 

    I also reckon they’d be great charred and tossed in salt like edamame. Might give that a try this year.

    The mature beans need to be double shelled, that is taken from the pod, blanched and coaxed out of their rubbery outer coating via a light squeeze. Once done you can add them to a salad, or a pasta primavera, toss them in oil, lemon juice, mint and feta or, my favourite, use them instead of dried broad beans when making falafels for a real fresh and vibrant colour and taste. Interested? Check out the recipe below. 

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