Several years ago I planted four little patches of alfalfa in the orchard. I did that for a number of reasons. Here are five of them (I didn’t count the last two for reasons you will see):
Dynamic Accumulator/ Nitrogen fixer:
In case you don’t know what a “dynamic accumulator” is – it’s a deep rooted plant that “mines” minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and deposits them in their leaves. Nitrogen fixers work a bit differently in that they create nitrogen out of the atmosphere and deposit it into nodules on their roots. The leaves of the first must be left on the top of the soil to decay and release the nutrients to the plants – or composted – or fermented in water and used in this way to add the nutrients back to the soil. The roots of the nitrogen fixer should be left in the soil to decay. Alfalfa, however, is both these things and so is a rich source of minerals and a perfect balance of carbon to nitrogen – 24 : 1.
One of the strongest, healthiest apple trees we have, grows next to our patch of Alfalfa and Comfrey. The fact that both of these plants put down really deep roots and pull up nutrients and then add their decayed leaves to the apple’s soil MAY be one of the reasons.
Feed Your Soil
Because of the protein, amino acids, fiber and sugars in its stalk alfalfa is loved by microorganisms in the soil. Years ago I read about a study done where they added a small amount of dried alfalfa to soil before planting. They discovered that the addition of only a few handfuls of the dried stalk and leaf hugely improved yields. More in this case was not better. I have not been able to find that study since, unfortunately. If you have seen it please let me know where.
Feed Your Plants
There is a plant hormone in Alfalfa called triacontanol, which stimulate plant root growth, increases beneficial microbial activity and enhances photosynthesis. This added to all its nutrients help to create a wonderful elixir for feeding your plants a few times each growing season. I use this in between applications of Kick-a-poo-Joy-Juice (see my blog on this). There are lots of methods for brewing, that range from 3 days to 6 weeks! One day I will try the 6 week method to see what I am missing – but in the meantime I stir my brew a couple times a day for a several days before I dilute it and use it on my garden.
It occurred to me today as I was starting another batch of alfalfa “tea”, that another plant I grow that is a “dynamic accumulator” is dandelion! I raise it in the garden for us and the chickens and decided to add a bunch of the older tougher leaves to the brew I made today. I also added stinging nettle to this batch. I have a lovely pair of “sheep shears” that chop it all up nicely – one of my favorite tools for this.
Feed Your Chickens/goats/rabbits/etc.
Alfalfa is a perennial that grows about 3′ tall – but flops over in my patch so it doesn’t stand more than 2 feet high. It can be cut right down 2 or 3 times a season and grows right back. I usually cut handfuls continuously to feed the chickens and to make “tea”, and when it finishes blooming I will cut it down and spread it on tarps to dry for winter use. I keep it in paper grain sacks or porous woven ones – to dole out to the chickens through the winter and to sprinkle on beds before I plant them in the spring. Oddly enough the hens get much more excited over the dried “hay” form of alfalfa! Farmers are instructed to cut alfalfa when 10% of it is in bloom – but I wait until the flowers are finished because I want to:
Feed the Pollinators!
It’s actually such a pretty mass of lavender flowers when it’s in bloom that it’s as decorative as most flowers grown just for their looks! The bees love it, as well as the purple bell flowers of the comfrey which shares the bed, so I leave them both until they finish flowering. It’s a pretty combination of plants and now I have some perennial wild sweet pea wandering through it as well. Happy bees!
Feed your Compost:
If you have a regular compost pile alfalfa and comfrey are both great to get it activated and cooking. I don’t do regular compost piles anymore so I can’t say this from experience, but it just makes sense. Instead, I toss old veggie plants, buggy plant parts, and prunings of edibles in a big heap in the hazelnut grove for the chickens to pick through. They poke around in it as it breaks down looking for bugs and worms. Our kitchen scraps compost in a rat-proof plastic garbage can and are layered with pee toilet paper and straw – for several months. The rest goes in giant informal piles just outside the orchard fence to slowly break down over time.
Save seed and feed Yourself (sprouts).
I had to mention this because I know that alfalfa is very good for people too! Alfalfa sprouts are popular partly because they are so good for you! I, however, never cared for them much, so I mention this simply because it’s true. For now I will settle for getting my alfalfa fix second hand – through my hens eggs and the plants I harvest from the garden…