How to plant broad beans

Plant broad beans now, when the weather is cool, and they’ll be in for the long haul, writes Mat Pember.

By Mat Pember
Plant broad beans now, when the weather is cool, and they'll be in for the long haul, writes Mat Pember.
The broad bean is to autumn what the tomato is to spring. It's the variety we get unusually excited about planting when the leaves start to fall. As a youngster, I'd wander through my nonna's winter garden and a forest of "bob", as she would call her broad beans, and she would use all her powers of distraction, persuasion and occasionally the wooden spoon to keep my mitts off her greatest autumn asset.
When it comes to planting broad beans, by May the soil has cooled sufficiently for the seeds to be sown directly into the patch - our preferred method. With the right timing and a well-prepared patch, you can bypass the seed tray.
My nonna was obsessed with both broad beans and tomatoes, which made the rotation between seasons the smoothest of transitions. The broad bean, a nitrogen fixer, should always alternate with tomatoes, or other hungry summer crops such as sweetcorn, eggplant or capsicum that deplete the soil of this element. And avoid planting in the same patch as the summer beans, since they're also nitrogen fixers. If you're planting broad beans in a new patch, incorporate only a moderate amount of compost in the soil and, as always, ensure your patch is free-draining.
Before planting, soak the seeds in a glass of water overnight - they hold moisture that will aid their germination. Soaking helps increase their reserve, and reveals non-viable seeds; discard those that float to the surface.
When planting, sow in rows spaced 20 to 30 centimetres apart. The seeds need to be planted at a depth that's twice their diameter, so each hole should be three to four centimetres deep. Plant two seeds per hole - in case one fails to germinate - and thin them out if two seedlings sprout.
Once planted, give the patch a decent soaking, and then don't water again for a few days. If you're planting in pots, the watering needs will be slightly elevated, but while the seeds need a good soaking to help them germinate, too much can encourage rodents to come hunting for their next meal. It's all about balance.
For the first month, water every second day, then, when the plants become established after four to six weeks, water them two to three times a week, or more if they're in pots. The seedlings are quite resistant to wind, but as they grow taller they're easily thrown about. There are two possible remedies here: stake individual plants, or stake the perimeter of the patch and rope them in together.
Winter will have set in by the time the plants are six to eight weeks old. Rainfall supplements watering for in-ground plants, but potted plants need watering every couple of days in the absence of rain. On the cusp of spring, flowers begin to form and the pods follow about a month later.
If you find your plants bludging, and not that interested in being productive, pinching the tips of the plants helps them focus energy on creating flowers and pods. Business time shouldn't be far off, which means getting your mittens ready for some harvesting action, and the plants continue producing well into October, and even perhaps into November.
Of course, the pods can be enjoyed at many stages of development, so don't be shy of picking them. Harvesting encourages more flowers to form and more pods to develop so it's more than in your interest. Broad bean plants are productive for a good couple of months before they start to look a little ragged. By that stage, you'll be busy with spring crops and "bob" has had its day.
One-minute skills: saving crops over winter
If a living, breathing animal can hibernate for many months of the year underground, then surely so can a plant. When treated right, your late-summer varieties - such as capsicum, eggplant and chilli - can find a way of surviving dormant through the winter. Here's how to lend them a hand.
To start, your plants need to be stripped back, leaving just the bare bones. By pruning them to a skeleton they can survive the cooler months in-ground, ready to sprout back into action once the soil temperature rises again. Cut off all the foliage and, come October, these plants will bounce back bigger than ever.
The compromise is in the real estate your dormant annual-type vegetables occupy through the productive winter season. A skeleton eggplant in the patch means one less opportunity for cool-season produce. But that's the trade-off you'll need to weigh up for yourself.
Illustration Tom Bingham
  • Author: Mat Pember