Fava beans are among spring’s culinary treasures. But they’re also a great way to improve your soil.
Many people plant fava beans in the cool winter months here in the Bay Area when they thrive. Since they possess the capacity to fix nitrogen into the soil (through a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria), favas are an excellent choice as a cover crop. Now spring is here and the plants are covered with blossoms. But do you get the nitrogen-fixing benefits if you allow the beans to form and ripen? Or must you pull the plants now and forego a crop of delicious fresh fava beans that is only weeks away?
There is a school of thought that suggests removing them after they start to flower but before the beans form. The logic behind this is that the plants will use the nitrogen they have previously fixed in the soil to produce fruit. Other experts say that the plant will never use all the nitrogen it has added to the soil so it’s fine to let the plants stay in the ground for the beans, pulling them just two weeks before you plan to plant your summer crops. Some people like to let the plants produce a few very small beans and eat them shell and all, like young peas. They can be steamed and seasoned with a little lemon and olive oil. Keep in mind that when you do decide to remove them to cut the stem back as far as possible, but leave the roots in the soil so that the little nitrogen-producing nodules will be there for the next crop to feast upon.
An Addendum from a Reader
Thanks to an email from Anne-Christine Strugnell, we learned that you can enjoy all the nitrogen-fixing qualities of fava plants and still have a delicious harvest. She writes, “another option is to enjoy the fava greens! I cut the stalk at the root level, leaving those nitrogen-fixing nodules in the soil, and take off the leaves. They are delicious! You can treat them just like spinach—use them in salads or saute them. I found this awesome recipe online and we’ve made it several times: fava leaf salad with citrus, feta and walnuts. I was thrilled to discover that the leaves were edible. They have a pleasant flavor, and it’s a great way to get a harvest from this cover crop without having the beans pull nitrogen back from the soil—and without having to process those beans, which is a pain!”
Thank you, Anne-Christine!