A) a cover crop
B) a delicacy
C) a soil aeration tool
D) an ornamental plant
E) a fertilizer factory
F) all of the above.
If you guessed "all of the above," congratulations. Yes, the fava is all that. And more.
Like many McDonalds-eating teenagers, I had never heard of fava beans until I saw "Silence of the Lambs" in high school and heard Dr. Hannibal Lecter's now-famous "with a nice chianti" remark. I didn't taste favas until sometime in my twenties, and ever since I have eaten them every chance I get. Fresh favas are juicy, buttery, and silky; dry favas are fat, nutty, and meaty, sticking to your ribs in a deeply satisfying way.
Technically, favas are not really beans, at least botanically speaking. Favas, vicia faba, are a legume in the vetch family, and one of the most ancient cultivated plants. But from a cooking and eating point of view, they look, feel, taste, and are cooked like beans -- savored fresh in the shell stage or as "gigantes" -- giant dry beans for winter eating.
From a gardening point of view, the non-bean status is clear, though. While beans can only be planted when the soil is warm and grow fast and furious in the heat of summer, favas like a long, cool growing season. We plant them in December, and harvest them in the Spring. They fill a great niche in the garden, growing when nothing else does, in the coldest months of the year.
And all that time they're growing, favas are making nitrogen and storing it around their roots in the soil. As nitrogen fixers, they literally produce fertilizer out of thin air. And their fiberous root systems grow and spread all through the winter and early spring, breaking up hard soil and aerating the garden beds. By the time you chop up the plants (in late May or early June here), the place where the favas were planted is full of the nitrogen-rich, loose and deeply aerated soil that gardeners dream of. Perfect for planting warm-season crops as soon as the favas are done!
Favas are such a good cover crop that some large-scale farmers use them solely for that purpose, tilling them under as green manure without even harvesting the beans. That would be a tragic waste to my mind.
We're planting five pounds of fava beans this month as a winter cover crop. They'll provide one of the earliest spring harvests from our garden and we'll eat them, dry them, and sell them fresh at the tailgate market.
Favas are one of the crops that we're experimenting with in our no-till system -- we've never tilled the rich and loose soil you can see in the photo above. We have been able to put worms and plants to work for us --starting out with cardboard/straw sheetmulch and allowing worms to breaking up the soil, then aerating with a broadfork, and then planting crops that loosen and aerate the soil with their root systems.
As if the food value and soil-building value of favas were not enough, the icing on the cake is their ornamental value. To my eye, their black and white pea-like flowers are elegant and lovely. Favas are one of the earliest plants to bloom in our garden, their flowers little bright spots against the vigorous, bushy green leaves of the fava plant. All of that green is a welcome sight in early spring, too, when most of the rest of the garden still looks fairly drab.
So here's to the fava, gourmet delicacy, garden workhorse, spring garden jewel, and sustenence-provider since ancient times. Viva la fava!
Favas planted last December, growing in early March of this year.
Favas in the garden in May
Big old juicy pods on the fava plants in May
Favas ready for shelling, May 2009.
More on favas at Foodista: