Broad beans are an easy and productive crop, producing valuable early harvests, before most other vegetables are ready. They can be sown at various times from autumn to late spring, depending on your growing conditions and the variety, and if you sow several batches you can enjoy fresh, delicious beans from early to late summer.
Month by Month
There are many broad bean varieties to choose from, with different sowing and harvesting periods, plant heights and pod sizes. Some hardy varieties can be sown in autumn, others are for late winter or spring sowing.
Dwarf varieties, which only reach about 50cm (20in) tall, are ideal where space is limited and for growing in containers or in windy sites.
Varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) performed well in trials, so are particularly good choices – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
What and where to buy
Broad bean seeds are readily available in garden centres and from online retailers. You may also find young plants in garden centres in spring – ideal you don’t have the time or space to grow from seed, or just want a few plants.
Preparing the Ground
Choose a warm, sunny, sheltered growing site for your broad beans, with well-drained soil.
Before sowing or planting out, weed the area thoroughly, then add plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost – at least a bucketful per square metre/yard – to improve moisture retention in the soil.
You can also add a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4, at a rate of two handfuls per square metre/yard.
Broad beans are straightforward to grow from seed, usually sown in late winter (indoors, or outdoors with protection) or spring (outdoors), for summer harvests. In mild regions or very warm, sheltered sites, they can also be sown in late autumn, for a crop as early as May. Choose a sunny growing site, and prepare it ahead of sowing or planting, to ensure your beans get off to a strong start.
Sow the large seeds individually into small pots or modular trays filled with multi-purpose compost, inserting them 5cm (2in) deep. Water well and keep in good light.
Plant them outside as soon as possible, in early to mid-spring. Take care to harden off your plants for a couple of weeks first, to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions, and prepare the ground as explained above. Space plants 15–23cm (6–9in) apart, either in single rows 45cm (18in) apart or in double rows 23cm (9in) apart. Water in well.
Broad beans are easy to sow outdoors in March, April and even early May, for harvests throughout the summer.
Sowing in November or February is also possible in milder parts of the UK or very sheltered sites, especially those with well-drained soil. Use a hardy variety and protect young plants with cloches or fleece during cold spells. It can also be beneficial to warm the soil for a couple of weeks before sowing, using plastic sheeting or cloches.
Sow seeds 5–7.5cm (2–3in) deep and 15–23cm (6–9in) apart, depending on the cultivar. In open ground, sow in single rows 45cm (18in) apart or double rows 23cm (9in) apart with 60cm (2ft) between each double row. In raised beds, where space is not needed to walk between rows for picking, all rows can be spaced 23cm (9in) apart.
It’s also worth sowing a few extra seeds at the end of the rows, to produce additional plants to fill any gaps left by seeds that fail to germinate.
To extend the cropping season throughout the summer, sow several batches a few weeks apart.
Sowing in containers
You can sow dwarf varieties in large containers, at least 40cm (15in) wide, filled with multi-purpose or loam-based compost and positioned in a sunny, sheltered spot. Sow the seeds 5cm (2in) deep and 15cm (6in) apart.
Dwarf plants in containers require frequent watering throughout the growing season, as they dry out more quickly than plants in the ground.
Weed regularly between the rows with a hoe, especially when plants are young, to reduce competition for light and water.
Tall cultivars need staking – insert sturdy stakes at each corner of the rows and every 1.2m (4ft) along the rows. Run string around the stakes at 30cm (1ft) intervals from the ground.
Smaller cultivars usually support each other, especially when planted in double rows, but you can add twiggy sticks if necessary.
Pinching out shoot tips
When the lowest set of flowers has formed small pods, pinch out the shoot tips at the top. This encourages plants to put their energy into the pods rather than more growth. It also reduces problems with blackfly, which tend to colonise soft young shoot tips (see Problem solving, below). The shoot tips are delicious steamed or stir-fried.
To enjoy broad beans at their best, pick:
Young immature pods when only about 7cm (3in) long and cook them whole.
When the pods are full but still small – for shelling, harvest pods when they’re still young. Small beans are sweeter and more tender than large ones. The scar on the bean should still be white or green, not black, as the beans will become tough at this stage.
Regular picking encourages further pods to form. Use secateurs or scissors, to avoid damaging the plants. Pods lower down the plants mature first – check them every few days, as pods can ripen fast.
You can also harvest the young shoot tips, to use like spinach.
Once harvesting has finished, cut plants down to the base and compost them, but leave roots in the ground to boost nitrogen levels. Alternatively, simply dig the whole plants into the soil.
Several pests and diseases can affect broad beans, but these robust plants are rarely severely damaged and usually still produce a good crop. Earlier sowings are less likely to attract pests or diseases.
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