Photo by Rick Gush
It’s still too chilly to work much in the garden and the ground is still too wet to be worked properly, but the signs of impending spring are all over the place. In the garden, the fava beans, Vicia faba, are finally flowering. I planted all the way back in late October, and it’s nice to see the crop progressing to the final stage. We’ll harvest the fava beans in a month and eat them mostly fresh in salads and combined with sliced salami and Roman sheep cheese, as is the tradition here. We’ll put some in soups, and if there’s a bumper crop, we’ll dry some for putting in soups later in the year.
Here in Italy, fava beans are an ancient, poor farmer’s crop. Stories of people surviving on nothing but fava beans are common, and a few holidays are named in honor of these historical events. Fava beans are also considered the equivalent of a lucky penny, and some people carry one bean around in their pockets for good luck. Modern medicine knows that fava beans contain large amounts of levodopa, the ingredient in many medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease
In the United States, fava beans have been more commonly grown as fodder for farm animals, though this is changing. In general, fava beans are now grown commercially in states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, where there is cool spring weather, because the beans are planted in the early spring, and don’t like hot weather when they’re flowering. In warmer states, such as California, the beans are planted in the fall as they are in Italy.
I know fava plants are legumes, but I’m not certain whether they have a significant nitrifying effect on the soil. I’ve heard that they need to be inoculated with a specific nitrogen-fixing bacteria in order to fix much nitrogen, but nonetheless, I try to plant them in a bed that will be filled with tomato plants the following spring.
Fava, for us, are definitely an emotional crop rather than a serious effort to produce the food that we eat. Everybody here likes fava beans as a reminder of when the beans were an important food source, but hardly anybody eats a lot of them. To have one’s own fava plant is great socially and sort of a historical gesture. I earn points giving fresh-picked fava beans to my mother-in-law, who is an old-style, frugal, country woman, and I don’t think the fava beans would be nearly as tasty to her if she knew we’d had to buy them.
The good part about growing fava over the winter is that they are tough plants. The light snow doesn’t bother them, and big pest problems are rare in the spring. There is a bit of uncertainty about planting them, and if the weather turns cold right after seeding, germination can suffer. The pros I know often plant several plantings a few weeks apart, to ensure that at least one of the plantings will experience the ideal early season and accumulate the optimal crop momentum that can triple the final yield.