A garden is a fascinating thing. It teaches us that things are not always the way we think they are – and it even teaches us when we think there’s nothing to be learned. I’ve begun to learn that my garden sometimes hosts what most gardeners consider weeds, but which are actually edible plants (think Lamb’s Quarters, Dandelion, and Purslane), and I now know that there are smart gardeners who devote part of their garden to these plants, because not only are they nutritious, but they grow stronger and more willingly then do many of the more reluctant domesticated garden plants. And I bet you know that all the things we now call vegetables were once wild weeds – sure you did!
But this spring, my garden taught me a new lesson – and that was that many times we don’t take advantage of ALL the ways our garden plants could serve us, and we miss out on perfectly good food. I speak specifically of fava beans (vicia faba) here, and those of us who have grown favas probably did so for the bean itself, which is delicious, although some find them aggravating to shell – a mature fava must be shelled twice to get at the tender inner bean, causing some to consider them too much work. However, most fava growers know that an immature fava will only require removal of the outside shell before it gives up a smaller, tender inner bean. But this is only one secret the fava has to teach us.
I have recently gone on record as saying that one of the most aggravating things that keep gardeners in the Pacific Northwest out of their gardens each spring is the fact that the long rainy spring makes it impossible to work the soil for planting – our clay based soils simply make huge wet clods, that resist either a tiller or a shovel. There are a few ways around this problem though – one way is to lay out long rolls of plastic sheeting held down with garden staples – this keeps the ground from absorbing water during winter, at least somewhat, and allows for an early start at working the soil.
In the same way, a cover crop of something that will continue growing through the winter (and thus absorbing much of the rain), but which will easily break down upon being tilled in the early spring, will accomplish the same thing – and even more! A long sheet of plastic will give nothing beneficial to the soil, but many plants will provide nutrition as they grow, and later as they break down. And one of the very best cover crops for this purpose is the fava bean.
The beneficial nature of the fava bean is compounded because it adds nitrogen to the soil both as it grows, and later when it’s broken down to decompose as part of the soil itself. Now, the one obvious problem here is that if you plant your fava beans in the fall, and they grow through the winter, by spring, they will just begin flowering at the time when you’ll want to till them into the ground. So, no beans! But there is another fava secret lurking here – and it’s a secret known only to a few – it’s fava greens!
What the hell are fava greens, you say? Well, it turns out that fava greens are the very top of the plant, where the new blossoms and tender leaves are emerging – and the entire top 4 or 5 inches are snipped off to be used. This provides the very tenderous parts of the plant, and is superb for salad. If you want to use the fava greens for cooking, you can not only use the very top of the plant, but the lower leaves as well. Cook them the same way as you would spinach, but expect more of the fava bean taste in the leaves.
As you can see from my pictures -taken on a typical cloudy day here- the very crown of the fava plant is nicely made up of many curled young leaves – this crown not only captures all of the youngest, most tender of the fava’s new leaves and flowers (also edible), but it allows you to snip them off and still have most of the plant left to till back into the soil to capture all its beneficial effects – sort of having your cake and eating it too, … sort of.
So, where have fava greens been all this time? Well, I’m not sure about this, but my theory is that it started in California, where many other food trends have started – and the reason why I believe this is that California now has hundreds, maybe thousands, of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms. Most CSAs work by subscription, where at the beginning of the season you pay a fee, and each week during the growing season, you receive a box of veggies, depending on whatever is being picked at that moment. And a lot of these farms are organic operations, and an organic CSA farm is more likely to use a fava bean cover crop than are non organic farms. And I think that these CSAs realized that not only were these tender fava greens edible, but that they could be one of the very first veggies to go into their boxes each spring.
At least, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. But I just wonder how much of that CSA box goes unused each week?
Whatever else it is, the fava bean plant is fascinating. It laughs at our cold and rain, and boldly holds its place in the garden – and as the weather begins to turn, it bursts into full glory. The plant has a tubular, hollow stalk, the cells of which are filled with water, and easily breaks into crunchy pieces – this is primarily why it’s so good as a winter cover crop. However, this characteristic makes fava greens poor keepers in your vegetable crisper – they hold well for 3 or 4 days, but soon become mushy after that. They are best used straight from the garden, or your CSA box.
Favas are more popular in Europe than in the U.S., and there are many different types. The most common type is also known as a ‘Broad Bean’, named I suppose for the shape of its large, flat bean shape, much like a lima bean with a concave middle. But the type used mostly for a winter cover crop is known as a ‘Bell Bean’ – it produces a much smaller, rounder bean, which I guess is not much used as food, since a cover crop is turned under when the soil is tilled. If the Bell Beans are grown to maturity, it is usually to use the seed for the next year’s cover crop.
Plants such as favas do have lessons for us, and we here in the land of over-abundance have the most to learn. We would do well to increase our sensitivities to a world where food is in short supply, even as the population continues to grow. If we are to play a role in finding answers to this coming crisis, we could do worse than to let our own garden begin to teach us a few simple lessons.