One of the most rugged, carefree and useful beans for our cool, wet coastal climate is the fava bean or broad bean - and February is the time when planting season can begin for varieties destined for the kitchen.
Aside from producing tasty beans, favas leave the soil richer than they found it by fixing nitrogen in nodules on their roots. They don't mind slightly acidic soil, and can also handle clay and even soil that is somewhat salty.
These beans are popular all over the world and are said to still grow wild in their original habitat of Algeria. As early as 3,000 BC they were apparently being eaten by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks.
But until Columbus discovered America and brought back other bean varieties, favas were the only beans that Europeans knew.
Young fava beans are the most flavourful and can be eaten like green peas. They're even more tasty with a sprig or two of mint added to the pot. The young beans freeze beautifully too. Dried fava beans will store well for months. When they're cooked, their soft centre is the base for many kinds of dips and spreads.
In the garden, favas stand straight up on thick, square stems about four feet tall. But when the pods begin to fill out they start leaning at different angles. That's why it's best to place a tall stake at each end of each row and run string between them. The plants still lean slightly but their companions stop the bed from turning into a shambles.
Fava flowers are so heavily fragrant they scent the whole area. Most are white with a black blotch, but one heritage fava, Cambridge scarlet, has red flowers and bright green beans. It's a dwarf variety and the beans are also quite small.
Where different varieties of favas are grown together, they will cross-pollinate. If Cambridge scarlet is one, you can end up with a stunning mix of flowers from white to pale pink to hot pink to purple red. The bean shapes, colours and heights of the plants are equally diverse.
Even when soil is not especially fertile, these beans can still produce an adequate crop. As well, by the time other kinds of beans need frequent watering, favas have finished cropping and the bed can be cleared for second-season vegetables such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts.
Although favas can apparently develop rust or fungal infections, this doesn't seem to happen frequently. But attacks by the black bean aphid can be a yearly occurrence, dealt with by removing the tender top leaves. Unlike other aphids, the black aphids attach very firmly and few of them are dislodged by blasts of water from hoses.
The first warning signal is when ants become visible on the tops of the fava plants. That's when gardeners who want to do a pre-emptive strike will pinch out the top of each bean plant. The aphids don't bother moving down to the tough lower leaves.
If you mulch favas with grass clippings around the time that mowing begins you can manage to avoid weeding from seedling emergence through to composting the mature plants. Mulching is best started down the rows and as the seedlings enlarge, the mulch can be extended to cover around the plants.
. Anne Marrison is happy to answer garden questions. Send them to email@example.com.