A bean that's one-up on the others: it defies frost

Art McCarty sells newspaper advertising and sketches like a dream. But he's also an accomplished backyard farmer. If ever he had to, he could make it out in the backwoods with ease.

Last year Art, as ready to experiment as anyone I know, grew something new in one of his garden beds -- new to him and still relatively new to US gardeners in general, but not to their English counterparts.

The vegetable in question is the English broad bean, sometimes known as the fava bean. It provides a hearty meal, much as its relative, the lima bean, does. But favas have one thing up on limas -- and every other bean for that matter -- and that is that they are frost-hardy.

You can plant them along with your sowing of early spring peas, and that has to be a major plus in those areas where Jack Frost comes early and stays late, year after year. In the milder parts of England the fava is sown in the fall for a harvest the following spring.

In Vermont, where winter hangs on with a discouraging persistence, the Vermont Bean Seed Company sows favas (85 days) in April and harvests them in July. Art McCarty, here in the slightly milder climate of coastal Massachusetts , sows his fava beans somewhat earlier and begins enjoying the harvest a few weeks before July 4 celebrations roll around.

British gardeners, who have been growing Vicia fuba,m to give it its Latin name, since the Iron Age, suggest harvesting the fava when the bean seed are "mature but still succulent." (Remove them from the shells and cook them like lima beans.) Or they can be picked when very young and eaten just like conventional green beans. They also dry well for winter storage.

In all, the fava is a very useful bean to have around the garden. They respond well to a nutrient-rich soil -- one that has been "heavily manured for a previous crop," to quote conventional British wisdom.

That checks out with Mr. McCarty's experience. Some years ago he built up his garden beds by following the French-intensive style. In other words, he dug out the top 12 inches of garden soil, threw in 6 to 12 inches of horse manure, and then replaced the topsoil.

In such a rich situation, his favas grew 3 feet tall and then some and were loaded with bean pods.

Because of their height (there are some dwarf varieties), favas require staking. A simple method is to set the stakes around the outside edge of the bed and then run twine from one stake to the next so as to form a string fence.

Without manure or quantities of compost, give the bed a dressing of general fertilizer, such as 5-10-10. You can forget any later side dressings of nitrogen because favas, true to their leguminous heritage, fix nitrogen in the soil most efficiently.

Plant the beans 2 inches deep, 10 inches apart, every way, or 6 inches apart in rows 16 to 18 inches apart.

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