Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) or Lucerne is a favorite both in the garden and kitchen. It’s faster and easy to grow outdoors as well as indoors to add a nutty taste to sandwiches or salads. Alfalfa is perfect to grow as you can easily sprout in containers and eat it within just a few days, or grow it as green manure in your home garden to help promote a good healthy soil.
The plant offers many essential nutrients for humans –it helps with the purification of the liver and blood, detoxification of urinary tract, and maintaining body alkalinity. But perhaps most people will remember alfalfa for its extensive commercial use as fodder for livestock. It acts as a rich source of calcium, protein, boron and many other essential elements.
Other than human and livestock use, planting alfalfa in your garden helps restore your soil’s fertility and enhance the growth potential of your garden. Below is a quick overview of how to grow alfalfa in your garden.
How to grow alfalfa
It’s important to note that alfalfa is a perennial crop that grows up to 3 feet tall and spreads 2-3 feet. The plant flowers in May-July and the flowers look like clovers, which can be blue, yellow or purple. The leaves are tri-foliate, narrow and oblong or oval in shape.
Planting and Growing Details
- requires shade/sun with up to 3-4 hours of sunlight. You can quickly grow alfalfa sprouts in just 3-5 days indoors in a small tray or a glass jar. When sprouts get to about 2-5 inches, you can transplant them to your garden beds.
- it requires regular watering, where you water the topsoil whenever it turns dry. You generally need to keep the soil aerated and moist, but not saturated. Too much watering can result in the development of fungal diseases and rots.
- the best sowing season is spring to summer. You need to prepare a weed-free garden with firm soil so that there is increased contact between the seeds and the soil. Plant your seeds at the recommended rate and keep the soil moist to prevent the developing roots from drying. As earlier mentioned, you can also start by sprout the alfalfa seeds indoors before transplanting the sprouts into your garden.
- always keep your alfalfa garden free of weeds. If you have a relatively small garden, you can opt for manual weeding. Otherwise, pre-plant herbicides are recommended for larger plantations. Apply fertilizer as per your soil test results. But the most common fertilizer used at planting is N.P.K fertilizer (a combination of Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium)
- Some of the most common diseases include bacterial wilt, common leaf spot, Downey mildew, and leaf rust. Use appropriate pesticides depending on the disease incidence. Commons pest such as whiteflies, alfalfa caterpillars and aphids tend to promote the growth of sooty mold.
Harvesting and use
If you’re growing alfalfa for your consumption, the best time to harvest your produce is at sprouting stage – about 7-10 days after planting the seeds or at least in the early stages of growth. the larger the alfalfa becomes the woodier the stocks are and the stronger the flavor becomes.
When growing for alfalfa green manure, you will need to allow the plants to grow until the purple blooms develop, at which point you can either just mow it back in the garden or leave it in a fallow bed until you are ready to cultivate the bed and put it back into use. Alfalfa will break down in the soil, releasing nutrients as well as stimulating microbial activity. Additionally, alfalfa adds nitrogen to the soil while it grows and provides erosion protection. If you live in a rural location, alfalfa can be used as fodder for livestock such as chickens, rabbits, and other animals, if your fallow garden location is fenced.
If you’re harvesting alfalfa herb for livestock fodder, you will need to harvest and cure it before flowing sets in or at early bloom. When flowering sets in, it gets difficult for livestock to digest the fodder. Harvesting at early bloom also ensures that you take advantage of the most nutrient content. Also, you will want to want to gather your livestock manure and cultivate it into your garden or add it to your compost pile.