Fava bean plant
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Vegetables

Planting Fava Beans as a Fall Cover Crop

In the winter time, a couple of my garden beds get less sun and stay more soggy so it’s difficult to grow a food crop. I usually let the soil rest at this time, but by that I don’t mean I leave the garden beds bare.

Even if you only garden three seasons out of the year, you should never leave the soil exposed and empty. Winter rains could lead to soil compaction, especially in hard clay soils. The ground could become eroded and the nutrients washed away when there are no plants and roots to reign them in. Some people simply throw a layer of mulch on the ground and call it good. I like to grow a cover crop — and I especially like to grow fava beans as a dual-purpose cover crop.

Fava bean cover crop

As a legume, fava beans fix nitrogen in the soil; that is, they put in more nitrogen than they take out. As a cover crop, they improve the soil texture, suppress the weeds, support microbials in the earth and they’re even edible to boot. They are the gift that keeps on giving. Even if you don’t have the patience to shuck fava beans, even if you don’t like the taste of them… you should grow favas, and you should get them in the ground this month.

Fava beans (Vicia faba, also called faba beans or broad beans) are actually not a bean but a type of vetch, a common cover crop and forage crop. They germinate quickly, thrive in cold weather and tolerate shade. They require minimum watering in winter, especially in wetter climates. With proper mulching, I only give my favas an inch of water a week, and sometimes less if we’ve had rain. The leaves are susceptible to rust, an airborne fungal disease, so keeping them airy and dry is important.

Though it’s not necessary, you can soak fava bean seeds for a few hours to speed up germination. Sow the seeds about 6 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Sprouts will appear within the first week, and grow into 6-inch seedlings within a couple of weeks.

Fava bean seedling

Favas are tall, thin, and top-heavy plants that usually require staking as they mature. They grow up to 5 feet tall and produce clusters of beautiful, orchid-like flowers. These flowers turn into dense green pods that sometimes reach 8 inches long or more.

Fava beans, also known as faba beans or broad beans

Fava leaves

Fava flowers

Young fava bean

Once you’ve harvested all the beans, you can prune the plant back to just a few inches above the ground; I’ve trimmed mine down to 6 inches, cutting just above the leaf nodes. This vigorous haircut, although a little scary at first, encourages new growth and you may get a second harvest of beans in the same season.

In spring, after the last of your harvest, cut down all the plants but leave the roots to rot in situ (so they release nitrogen back into the soil). At this stage, the stems are too woody to dig into the ground (as green manure), so I simply compost them.

You can also plant another fava crop in spring and repeat the process. Throughout the year I’ll stick a few fava seeds in the ground wherever I have an unused patch of soil; even if I don’t let the favas grow into fully mature plants, their roots feed the rhizobia (soil bacteria), which work with legumes to fix nitrogen. If you remember to rotate legumes (including peas and pole beans) among all your beds, you can continually nourish the soil without ever adding fertilizer!

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  • Early to mid fall is best, but if the weather has been temperate, you can get away with seeding your fava beans later in the season. I’ve seeded my plants in winter when we’ve had unusually warm weather in SoCal. The only con to that is the lower angle of the sun in our garden, which slows their growth.

  • Joan Gray

    Where can I get fava bean seeds? I live in Marin County.

    • I get mine from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com). They also have a brick-and-mortar store, the Petaluma Seed Bank in Petaluma. I highly recommend a visit!

  • opus11

    How about pesticide? I tried to grow fava beans for two years, and each year the plants were covered with aphids. How to deal with it?

    • I occasionally use neem oil spray to control aphids, but find that aphids only appear at the end of the season when the plants are already stressed and starting to die back. If they’re attacking healthy plants, you might be underwatering or overwatering, or there may be another underlying cause like excessive nitrogen or lack of sun. If you’re using any kind of pesticide, it’s also possible the pesticide may have killed off beneficial insects that typically prey on aphids.

  • Olive grower

    Question for Garden Betty or other….. How long between germination until flowering and pod production ? I am thinking of planting as a cover crop but cutting and disking under before pods are produced to gain all the nitrates produced and the organic mater as green fertilizer. thanks

    • Mature fava beans can be harvested in about 3 months, so I would guess they start flowering about halfway through that cycle. However, if you’re in a very cold climate, the plants continue to leaf out all fall and winter but don’t bloom until spring.

  • Pingback: Seed Starting in the Summer | Garden Betty()

  • digitaldebris

    Right on — I’ll try this in the winter to fix nitrogen in my “medicinal herb” garden beds. We get fava beans in our CSA and they’re really tasty after all of the labor involved. We saute them in butter and garlic.

    • You can also eat fava bean pods whole — just throw them on a grill!

  • Dovid

    The top shoots are edible. I sauté them as I would pea leaves. I also harvest some if I need to thin the beans that I’ve planted.

  • denise

    We planted our fava beans too deep this year, 6″!!!!!! Only 4 or 5 have grown a few inches in height out of 30 or 40 seeds. Will the rest grow or not? We live in central California if that helps any. I appreciate your time and help with this.

    • I’d say that if the majority of your seeds haven’t germinated after 10 days, they probably won’t at all.

  • Elu

    Thanks for this — very interesting! Coudl you please tell me how long they will be productive for? I have lots in my southern hemisphere garden and they are giving us great beans, but they have crowded out/shaded everything else and I’m keen to cut them down in the next month.

    • Mine go all season, so I guess at least 4-5 months or so.

  • Miamimyamy

    What a great idea! I am learning so many dimensions to gardening and was just going to toss some mulch on there but now I think i really need to plant fava beans. I love that it would be something potentially useful! Thank you!

  • Aparna

    You have so much knowledge! Your blog is not only useful but reading
    your posts is a good break from my otherwise crazy work days. Thanks!

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