Normally I sow broad beans in October, straight into the still-warm soil, where they grow steadily over winter, giving them a head start for spring and providing me with the first crop of the season by May. But last autumn I ran out of time to get the seeds in before it got too cold, so this year I am starting from scratch. It is still too early to sow seeds directly into open ground, but anyway, there are so many squirrels running riot on our allotment site that any seeds in the soil would be raided by these pests.
So I have started my broad beans in root-trainers, which if you’ve never used them I strongly recommend: they are sets of deep modules which allow the roots to stretch their legs, making them strong and healthy for planting out further down the line. This broad bean set will go undercover, in my old rickety small wooden greenhouse, where the temperature is already warm enough for the seeds to germinate.
I have around six sets of root-trainers, and in a few weeks will use them for peas, sweet peas and, in April, French beans and runner beans.
At the weekend I went through my seed stash and decided I have so many varieties of everything, built up over the past few years, that I am not going to buy anything new this year except seed potatoes and onion sets. This is good discipline, which I need, because it is so easy to be tempted by seed catalogues, particularly in the winter when there is too much time to idle indoors. In my audit of seed packets I discovered I have eight varieties of broad bean, which by happy coincidence is the same number of rows of root-trainer per box, with four cells to each row.
I used a multi-purpose compost because I find it has a better, more open structure than seed compost. Filling the root-trainers can be fiddly: the best way is to keep piling the soil on top of the whole box and shaking it until the compost settles in each module. Push one seed per module about an inch below the surface – on its end to prevent rotting. The shaking will cause some soil to fall through to the table underneath – I used this to cover the seeds once they were all in.
I may not have enough room to grow 32 broad bean plants, but sowing so many helps me keep my options open, and cover myself in case any of the seeds are past their best and fail to germinate. The bed I have set aside to grow them can probably take about 24 plants, so the rest I will give away or keep to sell at our spring fair.
On Monday I went to Plot 35a with two aims: one, to continue clearing beds and do some repair work on my fruit tree espalier frames; two, to sow my first seeds of the season. I did both of these things but I also achieved a third: the feeling of being completely rehabilitated by fresh air and gardening. Our site may be in south London near to a busy road but it is also next to a golf course and woodland, so breathing the fresh air for an hour, after a winter of inhaling the damp, polluted fug of the city, I felt like I had had a bath of oxygen. My shoulders felt lighter, my head clearer, and the muscles in my arms and legs felt cleansed and relaxed. It also felt good to do one dirty task (clearing and repairing) followed by a rewarding one (seed-sowing).
The eight varieties of broad bean I’ve sown are:
Super Aquadulce – an early variety, very reliable cropper, very hardy.
Luz De Otono – the name means ‘Autumn Light’, so called because it can crop late into the season, so long as you keep sowing successionally.
Karmazyn – pink/terracotta-coloured beans.
Dreadnought – heritage variety, long-podded.
Valenciana – very hardy so ideal for autumn sowing, long-podded
Red Epicure – deep red, almost mahogany-coloured beans, old-fashioned flavour.
Crimson Flowered – confusingly, the flowers are deep pink as the name suggests but the beans are traditional pale green; short pods.
Red Flowered – this is the variety name on the seed packet, but I’m pretty sure this is the same as ‘Crimson Flowered’. But they are so pretty on the plot I don’t think it is a bad thing that I have twice the number.
Once the plant grows to about 10cm tall, with a decent root system, and the soil is warmer than 7C, I will plant them out. The picture above shows broad bean seedlings planted out in March, from seeds sown in root-trainers. Planting them like this means you can be quite neat with spacing: there’s about 30cm between each plant and each row.
In this picture, above, broad beans were sown in autumn and came up in a more random fashion – possibly because they were disturbed by mice (another disadvantage of sowing direct into the soil).
After the spring equinox at the end of March, growth really speeds up and the plants should start to set flowers by April. Above is the traditional white and black broad bean flower.
And here is the crimson flowered variety, which looks lovely against the shiny green leaves.
As with most plants with fresh and juicy leaves, you have to keep an eye out for slugs. I use organic slug pellets and Nemaslug, the regular application of nematodes. Once the plants reach 1m tall they will need staking or else they will flop over under their own weight in heavy rainfall and wind.
This, above, is my broad bean patch last April. The seeds were sown in the previous October, meaning the plants were much higher than those on neighbouring plots. My crop this year will grow more slowly because I have waited until now to sow. But the difference in harvesting time between autumn and spring sown broad beans is only a matter of a couple of weeks.
Once the plants set flowers, they become vulnerable to black fly, which can infest an entire bed of broad beans overnight, leaving ugly smudges all over the leaves and pods and lead to poor growth. To prevent this, pinch out the growing tip once the first flowers emerge. The picture above shows the concertinaed leaves of the growing tip. You can collect these and chuck them in a stir fry as a bonus side-harvest.
Pods will emerge in May for autumn-sown plants and early June for spring-sown. To keep cropping throughout summer (and into autumn, for Luz De Otono), sow seeds successionally into April. I often eat my first broad bean crop raw, double podded, and celebrate the end of the hungry gap.