Basics of Growing Fava Beans

Get two seasons and more beans from this underappreciated vegetable

fava beans
They’re so much better than string beans. Despite cool temperatures and poor soil, favas will still produce loads of tasty beans.

I had never met a fava bean until I moved to Northern California in the early 1980s and started my market garden. I noticed that the local Italian folks seemed to love these strange, giant, puffy-looking beans, so I decided to try growing them. The real eye-opener came when I took my crop to the farmers’ market. It wasn’t just Italians who were enthusiastic about them; I was amazed at how excited customers of Middle Eastern descent got over the favas. They bought bucketfuls! So I figured favas must be a great vegetable.

And they are. Favas are rich, meaty, and succulent, with a background taste of bittersweetness. They are also versatile and usable at different stages, from the immature pod to the fresh bean to the dried state. Countless recipes from around the world call for fava beans. The fava is actually not a bean at all but vetch (another type of legume) that originated in western Asia. Unlike our heat-loving New World beans, favas thrive in cool, wet weather. In areas where they can overwinter, favas are one of the most welcome and highly productive spring vegetables.

fava bean plant with flowers
It’s a handsome plant with striking flowers. The white blossoms are brushed and spotted with lavender and deep blackish purple. Photo: Mark Winwood/

Fava Basics

  • Direct-sow into wet soil.
  • Space seeds 4 inches apart, then thin to 8 inches once they’ve sprouted.
  • Stake plants so that they don’t flop and break.
  • Wait for pods to plump up before checking the maturity of the beans.
  • Cut off the tops of the plants if they become infested with aphids.


Grow favas as you would peas

fava bean seeds
Inoculating seeds leads to success. Coating fava beans with rhizobium bacteria results in stronger growth and higher yields. Toss dampened seeds in the inoculant, then plant immediately.

Favas do not require high soil fertility. That’s because, being legumes, they manufacture their own fertilizer right out of thin air. To aid them in their task of converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form their roots can use, I inoculate favas with rhizobium bacteria (sold in many of the same catalogs that sell fava seeds). These bacteria live on the legume’s roots in little nodules and are the agents that convert, or fix, nitrogen. There is an inoculant specific to favas, but a general legume inoculant is satisfactory. Just before plant­ing, I put the seeds in an old coffee can, dampen them slightly, then add inoculant and shake well until each seed is coated with dark powder.

planting fava bean seeds
A healthy crop is a well-spaced one. Because fava plants become large and bushy, you should space seedlings at least 4 inches apart, then thin them out to 8 inches apart once they’ve sprouted. Photo: Michael Howes/

I plant the seeds 1 inch deep in wet or heavy soil (an inch deeper in dry) with the dark eye down. I space seeds 4 inches apart, with three rows along the length of my 4-foot-wide beds. Germination can take up to three weeks. Once favas are up and growing, I thin them to 8 inches apart.

Most fava varieties grow 2 to 4 feet tall, making a bushy plant with several stems. The attractive purple-spotted white flowers are the first to attract bees to my garden in spring. Like peas, favas grow best when temperatures are 60°F to 65°F and the soil is moist. Temperatures higher than 80°F result in loss of quality, reduced production, and pest problems. You should, therefore, time favas as you would peas. The northern United States and Canada have optimal growing conditions in spring and summer. Elsewhere, there are two general planting strategies, depending on the climate.

opening a fava bean
A plump pod signals a ripe bean. When your pods begin to swell, it’s time to check their maturity. Split one open; if the beans are roughly the size of a nickel, they’re ready to eat.

In moderate winter areas, plant from early fall through late winter. Because fava plants can tolerate temperatures down to about 15°F, they can be overwintered for spring harvest in parts of the South and along the Pacific Coast. Here in Northern California, I plant from November to February for a May crop. I also sow favas in early September for a late-fall harvest.

Where winters are cold and summers are hot, plant as early as possible in spring. Gardeners who live in areas like the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions often have a narrow window of fava-growing weather before the heat hits. The key is to get the seeds in the ground as early as possible. Favas germinate amazingly well in cool soil, so push the rule “As early as the soil can be worked.” You can also start favas in a greenhouse or under lights indoors, then transplant them into the garden after hardening them off.

Stake the plants, and watch out for aphids

Upright plants are productive plants. To keep favas standing straight, secure the planting with a few short stakes and twine.
Upright plants are productive plants. To keep favas standing straight, secure the planting with a few short stakes and twine.

Full-grown favas have a tendency to flop over, sometimes breaking in windy conditions when the stems are heavy with pods. To lessen the potential damage, I stake the perimeter of my beds before the pods get large, then run a couple of rows of twine from stake to stake, starting about 18 inches above the ground.

Favas grow with few problems in moderate temperatures. In fact, they actually do a lot better than peas in cool, wet weather. Once hot weather arrives, my favas sometimes have serious aphid infestations. Although there are sprays that control aphids, my solution is simply to cut off the tops of the plants where the aphids congregate. This shouldn’t reduce production much because the plant is in its later stages of pod development at this point.

You’ll find favas listed in the bean section of seed catalogs, sometimes under their English label: “broad bean.” There is a relatively large number of varieties available for such a low-profile vegetable. The cultivar ‘Robin Hood’ is a dwarf variety that does well in most gardens. Also worthy of consideration are ‘Aquadulce’, a Spanish variety dating from 1844; ‘Windsor’, which has very large beans; and ‘Sweet Lorane’, advertised as the small-seeded variety with the best flavor.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Favas grow inside fleshy, bright green pods that have a thick cottony white lining. Each flat bean is encased in a fairly thick pale skin, which becomes thicker and bitter as the favas grow larger. This double shelling is what gives favas the reputation of being labor intensive in the kitchen. Here’s an easy way to cut down on the amount of work you do.

breaking open the pod of a fava bean blanching favas pealing fava beans

Step 1

To shell favas, break open the pods. Sometimes you can slide your finger along one side, opening the seam as you would a zipper, but at other times you just have to break the pod apart in pieces.

Step 2

Blanch the favas in boiling water for one minute, drain, and cool under running water.

Step 3

A fava has one slightly flattened, slightly wider end with a scar where it was attached to the shell. Grasp the fava between your fingers with the scar facing up, and with the thumbnail of your other hand, tear into the scar end and peel back. Pinch gently, and the fava will slide right out from the skin.

Favas are Ed Miller’s favorite spring crop to grow in his market garden in Healdsburg, California.

Photos, except where noted: FG staff

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