Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Fava Beans and Planting Bed Preparation

I got around to planting some of my fava beans yesterday. They are going into the bed that used to be home to the tomato jungle (still a few remaining as you can see). Below is what the bed looked like mid-way through preparing it for planting. I've broadcast some amendments on the right side of the bed, the left side is already done and ready to be planted. The white buckets on the left contain the amendments that I use to prep the beds each time I clear and replant, about twice a year.

My first season in this garden was the summer of 2008. I carved my garden out of the hillside where the soil is really no good at all for growing vegetables. I had a soil mix brought in that looked absolutely lovely.  It turned out to be basically sterile, no nutrients, no nothing. My first clue that I had a problem with the soil was when I planted zucchini and watched them do nothing. They didn't grow! Anyone who has ever grown zucchini knows that you put them in the ground and then get out of their way before they engulf you. Of course, by the time I had that figured out I had planted my entire summer garden. I had added some fertilizer when I planted but it turned out to be not enough. My biggest chore that season was weekly fertilizing with a water soluble organic fertilizer, and the garden still didn't do all that well. After some research I came up with the following mix to help my soil.

Here's what's in the big bucket: a mix of crab meal (5 lbs), sulfate of potash (.5 lb), and humic acid (1 lb). You could spread each amendment separately, but I find it easier to mix up a batch and have it on hand to use when ever I'm replanting a bed, or a section of a bed. This is enough to amend about 50 square feet or  about half of one of my beds.

The brand of crab meal I use is made from ground up Dungeness crab shells (THE crab to eat here on the west coast). It contains primary nutrients (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) at the rate of 3-4-0. It is also high in calcium, about 23%, so some gardeners like to use it when planting tomatoes and other crops susceptible to blossom end rot. Crab shells are also high in chitin and its presence in the soil promotes the growth of chitin eating bacteria. High levels of these bacteria can help to control soil dwelling pests that contain chitin, such as nematodes and some grubs. Crab shells break down very very slowly in the soil, thus making it an excellent slow release fertilizer. I've found that I don't need to do any supplemental fertilizing during the growing season.

Since crab meal is not a good source of potassium I add sulfate of  potash to the mix. Sulfate of Potash is a mined mineral that is finely ground and has a nutrient profile of 0-0-50. It's also a good source of sulfur - 17%.

Humic acid is not a fertilizer, although it does contain small amounts of trace elements. What it does is it helps to make nutrients in the soil more available to plants and improves the health and structure of the soil. It increases microbial activity in the soil and improves seed germination. The humic acid amendment that I use is simply ground shale, a rock that is comprised of ancient plant material - basically prehistoric concentrated compost. So, I'm sure someone will ask, why not just use compost? Short answer, I don't have enough aged compost to use yet.

The smaller white bucket contains the fertilizer that I add. Sustane 4-6-4 80% slow release formula, derived from aerobically composted turkey litter, hydrolyzed feathermeal, and sulfate of potash. This provides some immediately available nitrogen and a good amount of nutrients over the rest of the growing season.

All of the amendments that I use are approved for organic growers.

That first season I had reserved one of the beds for winter vegetables. That was the first bed to get the mix. I used a double dose, about 20 pounds of crab meal, a pound of sulfate of potash, 2 pounds of humic acid, and 2 pounds of Sustane and did the back breaking work of thoroughly digging it into that bed.

The difference was amazing. The winter vegetables thrived and produced beautifully. I never once had to apply additional fertilizer over the whole growing season. Last May, when the winter veggies came out and I prepared the bed for the tomatoes, I dug in half that amount of amendments. The tomatoes thrived and if you've read my Harvest Monday posts, you saw the bounty of tomatoes that I harvested.

This time around I used about the same amount, about 5 pounds crab meal for 50 square feet. But rather than digging and turning (I'm getting too old for that kind of work), I went back to my favorite method of loosening the soil with a spading fork. I plunge the fork into the soil, push it back and forth a few times, pulling further back once to lift the soil to break it up a bit. Much of the amendments will fall into the crevices during this process. Then I take a garden rake with short heavy tines, not the type for raking leaves, and break up the the surface clumps and smooth the soil. There a few advantages to this method, it's a lot easier on your back, it's easier on your soil and the good critters that inhabit it, and it's a lot quicker than shoveling and turning.

Here's the other half of the bed half way through being turned. Another advantage for me is that I don't have to pull all the drip lines aside, I just pull up the little U-shaped stakes that hold them down.

And here's the bed all ready for sowing the fava seeds.

This year I've chosen 2 new varieties of favas to plant. I want a quicker crop of beans this year so I bought 2 extra early varieties, Early Violet (Extra Precoce Violetto) and Early White (Extra Precoce Bianco). These are supposed to take only 80 days to produce. The Aguadulce Morocco favas that I grew last year took about 4 1/2 months to produce and the Crimson Flowering took even longer, I think, but I'm not sure when I planted them. I've started keeping better track of my planting times, now I need to start taking better notes about when the first harvests start. The first reference I have to harvesting Crimson Favas is May 28. I don't want to wait that long next spring.

Here's a photo of the seeds laid out on the soil. I also used a legume innoculant to encourage the formation of nitrogen producing nodules on the roots.

I planted the seeds 18 inches apart in rows 9 inches apart. The Early Violet plants are so named for the color of their dry seeds.

Once the seeds have germinated and started growing I will mulch with some compost. Last year I lost a lot of seeds to seed corn maggots. I think it was because I had created a favorable spot for the maggots by covering the seed bed with  a nice layer of compost, so this year I won't spread any compost until after the seedlings on well on their way.


  1. Looks like very good preparation for your beans. We've found that the best thing for our soil is goat manure - we put a lot on the garden last winter and this year we want to put about twice as much. But our soil is very different from yours - we certainly don't need to add calcium to it. Good luck with your early beans!

  2. Coincidentally I just did a post on the Crimson Flowered Broad beans seed I saved this year! Looks like you have done some beautiful amending. Nothing better then organic matter. I will look forward to watching your beans grow, I am sure by the time they start flowering we will be under a foot of snow.

    If you are interested I could share a few Crimson Flowered Broad bean seeds. Let me know if you are interested.

  3. I love reading about what people put into their soil. I always forget exactly how much of something I add. Putting things on my feel is not a good solution. I ought to keep closer track.

  4. Michelle,
    Great article, learned a lot about organic fertilizers. Even though Meg has been growing organically for 28 years she never tells her secrets.

  5. Where do you get these amendments? I asked Denise to check at the feed store for a list that Steve Solomon lists in Gardening When it Counts, and they didn't have any of it.

    I don't know whether to ask the soil guys, who do compost too, or get online. But 50# amounts of things are going to be costy.

  6. I can't believe I just found your blog now--we have so many shared interests. I'm a member of Seed Savers too, and I have a hard time finding people who write about gardening heirlooms in CA. Woohoo! I found you!

    I'm looking forward to exploring your site further.

  7. Chaiselongue, goat manure is good stuff. One of the test gardens run by the Master Gardener group that I used to volunteer with amends with goat manure. That garden is always beautiful and prolific. I'm adding fresh chicken manure to my compost these days, hopefully that will speed up the process and make a nice amendment for the garden.


    Dan, aren't those beans lovely! And they are good tasting. I did save a lot of seeds myself and I think I will find a spot for them in the garden, not as big as last year though. Those are worth growing for the beauty of their flowers alone.


    Daphne, I used to do the same thing, just put in whatever looked right. One of the amendments that you use looks like it might be a good thing for my garden. All those trace elements in azomite might be a good thing to add until I have enough good compost to add.


    Randy, there's so much to learn about fertilizers. The big growers have it down to a science, I'm sure they test their soils all the time. But I think it's something of an art for home gardeners, I certainly am not going to test my soil every time I plant. I'm sure Meg has perfected her art!


    Stefani, Yes it is an investment up front! The crab meal is what I go through most quickly, a 35 pound bag is not quite enough for one season. But the 50 pound bags of sulfate of potash and humic acid will last for years. At some point I plan to reduce my dependence on those amendments when I get a steady amount of good compost. If you have good soil already you probably don't need to amend as much as I do.

    I would call around to find the stuff. I haven't found a local source yet, I buy it at a feed store in Ben Lomond, Santa Cruz county (can't remember the name). Too far for a special trip, but I have to drive to Silicon Valley a few times a month and Ben Lomond is an easy detour. I just have to make sure to buy it on the way home - the crab meal smells...

    I'm going to have to take a look at Steve Solomon's book, looks interesting.


    Christina, Welcome! We do have a lot in common, now I get to check out your blogs and see what you're growing and eating...

  8. I looked back on your blog and you certainly had some really nice Crimson Broad Beans growing! They were beautiful. I just started turning in so I didn't know you grew them already.


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