The broad bean is to autumn what the tomato is the spring, and it’s the variety we get unusually excited about when the leaves start to fall. As a youngster I remember the clumsy swagger of the broad bean plant alongside my itchy knitted threads. In winter I’d wander through my Nonna’s garden and a forest of ‘bob’ - as she would call it - and the battle would be on to protect her greatest autumn asset. She would have to use all her powers of distraction, persuasion and the wooden spoon to keep my mittens off.
Thankfully we now have raised garden beds to make it an unfair fight with the next generation and my broad beans are more than safe. Waiting until May also tips the balance in your favour as we can be sure that the soil has sufficiently cooled and the seeds are ready to jump straight in.
Growing from seed sowed directly to the patch is our preferred method. We find that with the right timing, and in a well prepared patch, you can bypass the seed tray and send them straight to work in the garden.
Given that my Nonna was obsessed with both broad beans and tomatoes, it made the rotation between seasons the smoothest of transitions. The broad bean - a nitrogen fixer - should always follow where the tomatoes once lay. In the absence of tomatoes, let them proceed sweet corn, eggplant or capsicum. Try to avoid planting in the same part of the patch where you had summer beans - also a nitrogen fixer - and if starting afresh, incorporate only a moderate amount of compost to your soil. As always, ensure it is free draining.
Before planting, soak your seeds in a glass of water overnight. The broad bean, much like regular beans and peas, has the ability to hold moisture that will aid its germination. A soaking will help increase its reserve as well as reveal any unviable seeds. Those that float to the surface should be discarded.
When planting, drill in rows and columns that are spaced 20-30cms apart. As the seed needs to be planted twice the depth of its diameter, each hole should be approximately 3-4cms deep. Plant two seeds per hole - because we’re conservative and in case one fails to germinate - and then thin out if you happen to have two seedlings sprout.
Once planted give the patch a decent soaking, and then don’t both watering again for a few days. If you’re planting in pots, you’re watering needs will be slightly elevated. Of course when giving tips it’s always nice to provide conflicting advice that sends everyone into a spin; and 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. Feel for it.
As the plants establish, water 2-3 times a week, more if planting in pots. The young seedlings are quite resistant to the wind, but as they grow older, are easily thrown about and made to look clumsy. There are two options here; one, individually stake. Or two, stake around the perimeter of where the plants are growing, roping them in like a group of drunkards that are happy to lean and be merry with each other. We favour option two as it saves on hardware and is more entertaining.
Given that winter will have set in and the plants well established - 6-8 weeks old now - there is a month of easy nurture before things get serious. Rainfall can often subsidise watering for in-ground beds, but ensure potted plants are still getting a water every couple of days in the absence of rain. On the cusp of spring, flowers should begin to form and depending on what variety you have planted, it can be quite the show of colour.
If you find you plants bludging and not that interested in being productive, pinching the tips of the plant will help them focus energy on creating flowers and pods. Business time shouldn’t be far off and it will time to get your mittens ready for action.
Of course, the pods can be enjoyed at many stages of development, so don’t be shy to pick. Harvesting will encourage more flowers to form, more pods to develop and is therefore more than in your interest. A plant will be productive for a good couple of months before started to look a little ragged. And by that stage, with spring crops back in the fray, ‘bob’ will feeling most uneasy about what will come next.