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Alfalfa, Medicine for Soil

by a Friendly Gardener
Alfalfa and tree

What is Alfalfa?

Alfalfa, officially known as Medicago sativa, is a plant that has been cultivated for hundreds of years for use in livestock feed. It is a nutritious feed with a high content of minerals, proteins, and vitamins. A member of the family of legumes, specifically the pea family “Fabaceae”, alfalfa is also called purple medic or lucerne but is considered as an herb.

This is a perennial plant, similar to clover with trifoliolate leaves, that tolerates heat, drought, and cold. It is highly valued in agriculture for improving soil, ofttimes grown as a so-called “cover crop” and as a natural source of nitrogen in the soil thanks to an extensive and deep-reaching root system. It is also used as green manure for soil improvement.

Apparently, alfalfa originated in Asia but has been grown around the globe for centuries and is also known for its medicinal properties in humans. Both seeds and leaves can be consumed as dietary supplements, as well as alfalfa sprouts. Alfalfa boasts vitamin K, vitamin C, copper, folate, and manganese among others. Some people take alfalfa supplements as tablets, in powder form or some may drink it as tea. The most natural way of consuming alfalfa is by eating alfalfa sprouts in a salad, soup, or even in a sandwich.

Alfalfa in a salad with tomatoes and green peppers

For those who prefer to consume alfalfa sprouts, they offer the same nutritious value as forage alfalfa and are extremely low in calories, making them perfect for dieters. Imagine a cup of alfalfa sprouts in your salad, you’ll only be adding 8 calories to your intake with only a gram of protein and carbs each. And that cup of alfalfa sprouts will give you vitamins K and C, together with copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, riboflavin, and thiamin. It’s no wonder alfalfa is one of the go-to staples in livestock nutrition.

Alfalfa has long been used as a medicinal herb. While it has many potential benefits for your health, few are supported by scientific research in humans as of yet.


How to Grow Alfalfa

Alfalfa will adapt to any garden as it is extremely tolerant to a myriad of climate conditions. It is drought-resistant and does not like soggy soil due to the risk of mold development. Thus, the soil should be well-draining and have an ideal pH level that measures between 6.8 and 7.5.  Before planting your alfalfa, the area should be cleaned and tilled to remove debris. Alfalfa seed can be purchased at nurseries or livestock feed supply stores.


When to Plant Alfalfa

For those who garden in a cooler climate, alfalfa should be planted in the spring. In more temperate warmer climate conditions, alfalfa can be planted in the fall.

Alfalfa drawing

How to Plant Alfalfa

As alfalfa will root quickly, you can sow seeds about a half-inch deep. Sprinkle your seed on the soil bed and then cover it with a light layer of soil. Rows of alfalfa seeds should be spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart. The alfalfa should begin sprouting within a week to ten days.  As soon as your alfalfa reaches six inches to a foot in height, you should begin thinning it to avoid any overcrowding.

If you want to use alfalfa for soil improvement in a portion of your garden, wait until it blooms its purple flowers and then mow it. Work or till the cut alfalfa into the soil or just leave it. The mowed alfalfa will break down fertilizing the soil. For this reason, it is often referred to as “green manure”.

Purple alfalfa


How to Harvest Alfalfa

Should you be growing alfalfa for livestock, or your pet cow, or as a supplement for your horse, it needs to be harvested before it flowers. Alfalfa is difficult for farm animals to digest if it is a mature plant. Early-bloom harvesting also guarantees nutrient value thanks to the many minerals and vitamins found in alfalfa leaves.

Chopped up alfalfa

If you are at risk for rain, avoid cutting your alfalfa as this can lead to mold in your harvest. Premium alfalfa hay should look green and leafy with thin flexible stems and a pleasant aroma. Once you harvest, remember to turn your soil bed before planting there again for the next season.

While alfalfa has good pest resistance in general, the alfalfa weevil can cause havoc with your crop. If the stem nematode infests your alfalfa, stem buds will be weakened as a result.


How to Grow Alfalfa Sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts

Tasty alfalfa sprouts have become a popular dietary addition for many. Should you want to grow alfalfa sprouts for your own culinary creations, you can easily grow them right at home. You’ll need seeds and a canning jar with a sprouting lid. If you cannot find a sprouting lid, you can just cover your jar with two layers of cheesecloth and secure them with a rubber band.

Now place a tablespoon of alfalfa seeds in the jar and add water to cover them. Cover with your sprouting lid, placing the jar in a dark, warm spot. The next day, drain the water from the jar through the sprouting lid. Add in lukewarm water, swirling to rinse. Now add in enough water to cover the seeds and put the jar back into the dark, warm location. repeat this procedure twice a day for four days.

On day four, place your jar in a bright spot but not in direct sunlight. Now allow the sprouts to develop. After four days, rinse the sprouts and put them in a bowl to remove seed coats that float to the surface, straining them away. Wash your sprouts well to remove bacteria. Remove as much water as possible. Place your sprouts in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator. They should keep for as much as a week.

Alfalfa sprouts

The Bottom Line

Thanks to its high crop yield, nutritiousness, and resilience as a crop, alfalfa is regarded as one of the most important, if not the number one legume forage crop globally. This well-earned reputation is a result of several important reasons that might inspire you to include it in your garden at some point.

  • Alfalfa is a great source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous as well as boron, calcium, iron, magnesium, sulfur, and zinc.
  • This member of the legume family is a fixer of nitrogen, meaning that it fixes nitrogen to the soil. Alfalfa roots contain bacteria that produce nitrogen. Once the alfalfa plant dies, the nitrogen it has is released helping to feed other plant life and improve soil quality.
  • Alfalfa roots expand even to depths of fifty feet. These roots create spaces within the soil for air and water, improving the texture of the soil. Thanks to high levels of nitrogen, it also assists in the decomposition of other organic materials, improving soil fertility.
  • Alfalfa contains amino acids, fiber, protein, and sugar meaning that is a superfood for soil and garden microbes.
  • Alfalfa stimulates compost if you want to form your own hummus for soil fertilization. It is a terrific cover crop for green manure avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers in your garden.
  • Alfalfa attracts some insects that are beneficial to your gardens such as ladybugs, big-eyed bugs, parasitic wasps, among others. These insects will feed on aphids, armyworms, spider mites, and more that will feed on and destroy your crops.
  • It’s great as animal fodder and as a healthy addition to the human diet.

Those are so many reasons to consider cultivating this exceptional forage legume right in your backyard garden!

Salad with alfalfa in a bowl

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