Not so boring broad beans!

Broad beans seem to be treated with far more respect in Europe where they’ve even made it into fairy tales…remember Jack and the beanstalk?  Yep, that was a broad bean stalk that took Jack up into the clouds.  There’s even a town in Germany that has the Broad Bean as its mascot!  I received this as a gift from a German brother and sister while operating a backpackers a few years ago. Yes, they take broad beans very seriously!

Well I’m here to fly the flag for these wonderful legumes as they’re easy to grow, give a huge yield like nothing else and if you know how to prepare them, are really tasty!

When and How to grow them

Broad beans will grow happily over winter and are best planted around now (almost May) through to the end of winter.  Peter Bennett, the author of the fantastic Australian Organic Gardening now in its 7th edition, is a big fan of later plantings as he argues the flowers won’t set into pods if the weather is too cold.  This year I’m placing a bet each way, so in addition to the crop I’ve already planted, I’ll plant another in a month or so.

As they’re part of the legume or bean and pea family, broad beans can be planted in a garden bed that’s previously had a heavy feeding crop such as broccoli, lettuce, asian greens etc.  While you won’t need to specifically add any organic fertiliser, it’s wise to add compost to the soil and in the case of broad beans sprinkle some potash and dolomite over the soil and work in prior to planting.  This is one crop that grow best when planted from seed – don’t bother getting seedlings as it will work out to be hideously expensive and you’ll struggle not to damage their large root structure removing them from the punett.

Sow in rows about 50cm apart with the seeds spaced about 10cm apart.  They’re huge seeds so make sure they’re sufficiently covered by soil (about 5cm).  Water well once covered and don’t worry about watering again until the seedlings have emerged (usually around 2 weeks).  These guys will get quite tall (sometimes well over a metre) so it’s important to support them from falling over, especially in the windy weather we get in spring.  A good strategy is to plant in small plots so you can support a group of them together.  Simply place stakes at each corner of the plot and loop pantyhose around the stakes so the broad beans are enclosed.  Avoid using string as it can damage the plants in strong winds.

This is a photo of last year’s crop about a month after planting.  Leaving enough space between rows allows you to easily weed using a dutch hoe so no back breaking work and the weeds become a green mulch.  These stakes will eventually provide support for the beans.

Cooking broad beans – one tip you can’t miss!

Before I get to the tip an important medical fact with broad beans is that they should never be eaten raw by anyone taking antidepressants that contain monoamine inhibitors…the results can be fatal!  Okay now the scary stuff is over the most important tip for making sure your broad beans never resemble those greyish looking horrors from our youth is to DOUBLE PEEL them.  How?  Well you simply take the beans out of their velvety pods and pop them into boiling water for 30 seconds.  Take them out and refresh in cold water until cool enough to handle.  You’ll find the beans have an outer skin that can be removed with a small cut from a paring knife or long fingernails if your fortunate enough to have them.  This will reveal a new, green bean within which I guarantee will change your life…well almost.  This light blanching will be enough cooking for young tender beans, they’ll just need rewarming when added to non-salad recipes.

Generally speaking broad beans are a fairly dense bit of veg, and if you simply serve up a bowl by themselves it’s kind of like trying to eat half a cabbage.  They are best when served with flavours that are going to cut through and enhance their veggie goodness.  So think of strong cheeses (romano, parmesan, feta), bacon, panchetta or chorizo and of course my favourite – organic butter and sea salt.

They work really well with pasta dishes and can liven up stodgy dishes where other greens simply wilt away.

One final recipe idea which I’ve stolen from Stephanie Alexander (which she stole from Stefano de Pieri and he probably stole from a little old Italian lady) is as follows:

As above, pod, blanch and peel your broad beans.

Crush them in a mortar with a pestle – if you don’t have one you can do small pulses in a food processor making sure you don’t overdo it – it’s not a dip.

Remove into a clean bowl and mix with a grated hard cheese such as pecorino

Give them a good glug of some of our great local olive oil (I’m using extra virgin Camilo from Teesdale)

Season with ground black pepper and sea salt

Serve on toasted or better still grilled sourdough (make it La Madre or Zeally Bay) which has had a clove of garlic rubbed onto it

My own addition is to add some marinated Meredith Goat Cheese just prior to serving it up – perfect if you want a light meal rather than an entree.

A perfect way to celebrate spring and enjoy a bruschetta type snack long before you’re first tomato has ripened!

Pruning Time

A common pattern you’ll see with all the productive plants humans have been poking around with for the last few thousand years is that they need us!  We’ve evolved these UBER productive plants by helping them perform to their peak.  So we prune for the following reasons:

– It keeps the tree size manageable and allows you to access the fruit.

– By clearing out the over crowded internal branches, you allow more light and airflow.  This means less disease and allows fruit access to more sunshine meaning it will ripen more quickly.

– When you reduce the amount of vegetation, you encourage you tree to produce larger and sweeter tasting fruit – perfect for home use.

Knowing what to chop

Not sure which branch to unleash your new loppers onto?  Try the five D’s:

Dead – no sign of life?  Get rid of it

Diseased – look a bit different to other branches, seeping gum, missing bark? Chop it!

Damaged – strong winds or lots of heavy fruit can break branches – remove these once you’ve harvested any fruit

Daggy – remove these branches if they look out of place and cross other branches, are too low to the ground etc.

Dark – by this I mean remove branches if they’re hidden in the middle of the tree and in summer are unlikely to see the light of day

Best times to prune

Speaking pretty generally here, but prune in Winter when you’re after more growth i.e. it’s a young tree and not yet the size you want.  Prune apples and pears early in winter and leave stone fruit until late winter.  Prune old trees before young ones.  Summer-prune trees that have reached the size you want.   Simply remove new vegetative growth.

Don’t cut off next year’s fruit!

A very important point to note is that you don’t chop off parts of your tree that are going to produce fruit!  Very few trees produce fruit on the CURRENT year’s growth.  So that means you need to leave some older laterals or branches on the tree.  You can tell the age of the wood by the colour and how close it is to the trunk.  Look for fat little flower buds on spurs (kind of little twigs of main branches) as these are signs where flowers will eventually become your fruit.  See the example below from an apple:

Tools of the trade

If you’re going to be doing your own pruning for at least a few seasons, then it’s worth investing in quality gear.  You pretty much get what you pay for, PLUS quality tools make pruning a lot simpler.  And unlike most things these days, quality garden tools will last and become something you can pass on to someone else one day.

Secateurs.  These are usually of the bypass type where the two blades pass each other.  Most models out there are a copy of the Swiss Made Felco brand.  I’m yet to hear a bad word about Felco’s products and they back everything up with spare parts etc.  Also it’s worth checking out Barnel from the USA.  Yes, there are still some old school quality manufacturers around so support them I say!

If you have trouble with arthritis or struggle to use normal secateurs, then you can get models to suit.  I purchased a set of these for my Dad and he’s been very pleased with them.  Fiskars are a Finnish company who like Felco make stuff to last.

Long handled pruners also often use a bypass cutting method or an anvil type – again choose a quality brand and you’ll never need another pair.  These will be good for branches up to 40mm across.  Larger branches can be taken care of with a pruning saw.  These are designed to get into small spaces and are available in hand-held and pole models for all heights.

Of course if you’re this guy – well just use your hand…