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You’ve probably eaten alfalfa sprouts in sandwiches. Or maybe you regularly get alfalfa hay to feed some of your herbivorous animal companions. Either way, this wonderful plant has been cultivated as a vital food source for thousands of years. If you’re thinking about growing alfalfa for your farm this year, read on!
Growing Alfalfa From Seed
It’s ridiculously easy to grow alfalfa (Medicago sativa) from seed, so don’t bother with another method.
If you are growing it for edible sprouts, it is best to use germination containers. I’ve also grown them in mason jars, but tiered germination trays are ideal. Simply scatter the seeds, sprinkle with water and let the excess drip off.
Refresh the water once a day and harvest when you’re ready to munch on the sprouts.
Alternatively, if you are planting it outdoors, you can simply diffuse it as you wish. You can either till the soil or use a no-till method. Similarly, you can lightly rake the surface, spread the seeds, sprinkle with a little soil, then water. Or you can just mix the seeds and water them.
It is a very hardy plant that germinates if you hold the seeds in your hand for a while. As long as you scatter it over fertile soil, you should have no germination issues.
When to Plant Alfalfa
You can plant your alfalfa any time after the last frost date in your area. Cold weather will put seeds dormant or kill young plants. Therefore, make sure the soil has warmed up enough before going to sow yours.
That said, many people prefer to grow their alfalfa late in the season. If you plant it in late summer, it will compete less with invasive weeds.
Alfalfa needs about a month to reach maturity before flowering. As such, aim to plant yours between late August and late September if you want to harvest it before winter.
Some people like to seed their alfalfa late in the year to use as a winter cover crop. As it is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae), it is an effective nitrogen fixer. This makes it excellent for replenishing this nutrient in depleted soil.
If you have grown green crops such as kale, spinach, etc., sow alfalfa after they have been harvested. Then mow them as soon as they start to flower and let them decompose into green manure over the winter.
How to Care for Alfalfa
If you are growing alfalfa outdoors, such as for animal feed, hay, etc., the soil can be a little tough.
It does not grow well in wet, heavy clay soil. Instead, aim for well-drained, compost-rich soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5. If your pH is below 6, it may not thrive. Be sure to test the soil beforehand and amend it as needed to get the pH in the sweet spot.
Alfalfa requires a lot sun, so be sure to sow it in an area where it won’t be shaded by taller plants.
Watering and feeding
This crop is known for its drought resistance, but let’s not tempt fate.
Try to make sure your alfalfa gets at least an inch of water each week. If you live in a place with heavy rainfall, the plants should accept anything that falls from the sky.
Otherwise, you will need to offer them extra help with hydration. If you install drippers, you can keep your plants well watered at ground level.
In terms of food, alfalfa is a surprisingly greedy crop. It needs large amounts of phosphorus and potassium to thrive well, and it will deplete these nutrients from the surrounding soil.
Therefore, you will need to either pre-feed the soil or offer your plants a high PK feed several times during the growing season.
Potential issues and troubleshooting
Generally, if alfalfa does not grow, it is because the soil is too acidic or does not contain enough nutrients. This is why it is so important to test before you plant anything. This way you can modify as needed to ensure a healthy culture.
That said, alfalfa can be susceptible to certain diseases, as well as pest predation.
Alfalfa mosaic virus spread by aphids, and appears as yellow streaks parallel to the leaf veins. Although this cannot be avoided by itself, you can try to choose disease-resistant seed strains.
Root and stem roThis can happen if plants have “wet feet” for too long. The only ways to avoid these problems is to ensure in advance that the soil is well drained and to avoid overwatering.
Mildew, anthracnoseand leaf spot are all fungal infections that can appear during periods of high humidity combined with heat. Although there are disease-resistant seeds, it is best to space the seeds when you sow them.
This will allow for greater air circulation during humid periods. Fungicides will not solve these problems: if they appear, you have to cut and burn the whole crop. Then rotate crops or leave the area fallow for a few years.
With regard to insect pests, the main concerns are aphids, alfalfa weevilsand alfalfa the caterpillars. Neem oil is great for aphid control, especially if infestations are caught early.
To avoid predation by weevils and caterpillars, be sure to harvest your plants early. If you harvest them before they mature to the point of flowering, the leaves should be too small to provide tasty meals for these predators.
Harvest and storage
Do you grow alfalfa in water rather than soil to consume as crunchy little shoots? Then, harvest them when the shoots are about two inches tall. They will still be soft and tender at this stage, so they will be easy to digest. Simply pat them dry with a clean cloth before adding them to sandwiches or salads.
These fresh shoots won’t last long before they start to decay. You can store them in the germination container or between layers of damp paper towels in the refrigerator for a few days. If they start to brown or become slimy, throw them in the compost pile.
If you are growing alfalfa for animal feed, it is imperative to harvest it before it flowers. These flowers can be difficult for animals to digest. Additionally, the stems and leaves of the plant will harden and lose both texture and flavor once flowering begins.
Flowering usually begins about 28-30 days after germination.
How to harvest and press it
The method you use to harvest your alfalfa will depend entirely on how much you have grown. If you have less than an acre planted, you can just go wild with a hand scythe.
I like them for mowing the lawn, and they are ideal for this type of crop as well. If you feel particularly hostile towards your neighbors, also put on a long black cape before going out.
If you have several acres to harvest, you can use a sickle or disc awning attached to your tractor.
Check the weather network before harvest to make sure you have a few days of dry sunshine ahead. The last thing you need is for your silage to get wet and rot in the field after working so hard to cut it.
After the harvested alfalfa has dried for two to three days, use a baler to wrap it into rounds or squares. Then you can either leave it in the field, covered from the elements, or move it to a warm, dry barn.
Just make sure the alfalfa is thoroughly dried before baling it. If it’s still wet when baling, you run the risk of it composting in place and igniting spontaneously. If you’ve worked hard to make sure your animals have good nutrition all winter long, then don’t put them at risk because you’re feeling impatient.
Additional Benefits of Alfalfa
Most people don’t know how beneficial alfalfa can be for our health and well-being. In addition to being extremely nutrient dense, alfalfa contains high amounts of vitamins C and K and chlorophyll. It can help lower blood sugar, and its diuretic effects can help relieve edema and eliminate kidney stones.
Alfalfa sprouts in juice form (or young plants) can be effective in reducing respiratory congestion and may help speed wound healing. You can also apply the juice topically to conditions such as pressure sores and oozing eczema. It is a natural astringent, so it will dry up problem “wet” skin while promoting healing.
Notes on potential contraindications
Remember that food is medicine and what helps one person can harm another. Alfalfa seeds and sprouts contain an amino acid called L-canavanine. Although this substance may be beneficial for some people’s diet, studies have shown that it can significantly worsen lupus symptoms. In fact, it can even cause systemic lupus in some people.
Alfalfa can have a blood-thinning effect and contains a number of hormonally active saponins. Avoid eating the seeds or sprouts if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as if you are already taking blood thinners.
Speak to your health care provider before incorporating alfalfa seeds, sprouts, or juice into your diet, just to be safe.
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