Whether you’re interested in growing alfalfa for your own culinary creations or to feed livestock, this ultimate guide to alfalfa seed gives you all you need to know for growing, harvesting, and maintaining this nutritious, easy-care grass.
What Is Alfalfa?
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Alfalfa is a fairly hardy perennial grass in the legume family. Legumes have a high protein content, and alfalfa is no different. The high levels of protein, minerals, vitamins and fiber provide tremendous health benefits for people and livestock alike. People enjoy alfalfa sprouts on healthy salads and sandwiches. Livestock happily forage on fresh alfalfa plants or dried alfalfa hay; even goats, deer, and cats enjoy nibbling on alfalfa grass.As they mature, alfalfa plants develop purple flowers that ultimately produce alfalfa seed. Alfalfa has an extensive root system that benefits the plant and the surrounding soil. Alfalfa roots aid in erosion control, make the plant more drought tolerant and enrich the soil with important nutrients. Closely related to clover, alfalfa doubles as an all-important cover crop.Farmers plant cover crops between the harvesting of one primary crop—say corn, for instance—and the next planting. The primary crop draws nutrients from the soil as plants grow and develop abundant, quality produce. A cover crop, used in between plantings, restores vital nutrients to the soil that the previous crop depleted. Alfalfa cover crops naturally add the nutrient nitrogen to the soil, which is critical for the healthy development of almost all plants.
As with most plants these days, growers have hybridized hundreds of new alfalfa seed varieties in a quest for improved performance, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and more. We recommend going with tried-and-true heirloom varieties. The tag “heirloom” applies to plants that occur naturally, being open-pollinated in the wild. These plants pass down similar characteristics from parent plants, year after year. Heirloom often implies that a plant that has been around for over 50 years; many heirloom plants were in use prior to World War II.An organic variety is essential as well since people and pets will eat these plants. If we’ve learned anything from 20th-century gardening practices, it’s that chemicals used in horticulture are bad—for people, animals, water supplies and the environment at large.
Guide To Sprouting Alfalfa Seeds For Culinary Use
For producing the sprouts used in cooking, grow alfalfa seeds without soil, in a specialized container called a sprouter. Sprouters can be bought ready-made, or, for do-it-yourself types, can be homemade. Either way, sprouters are typically made from heavy plastic, glass, or even natural fabric. A simple home-made sprouter is just a glass canning jar topped with a mesh “lid.”
It’s best to soak alfalfa seeds in water overnight—or, if you’re impatient, at least 4 to 6 hours—before planting. The moisture will soften the seed’s protective outer layer, resulting in better germination. For best results, be sure that the seeds are completely immersed in the water, not just floating on top. After soaking, use a fine sieve to drain the water. Finally, rinse the alfalfa seeds to clean off any excess dirt or debris.
The next stage in preparing your alfalfa seeds for sprouting involves rinsing the seeds in cold water, not just once, but 3 or 4 times a day. This process keeps the seeds both clean and hydrated, essential for healthy development. All sprouts are prone to mold growth, so constant rinsing ensures that the sprouts remain free of harmful bacteria; just don’t let the sprouts stay in standing water. Continue rinsing the sprouts multiple times each day, even as you harvest them and before you cook with them.
A sunny location with good air circulation is the best spot for growing your sprouts. Air circulation is vital for the health of your sprouts by preventing molds from growing. Ready-made plastic sprouters have tiny holes in the bottom that encourage good air circulation. Sprouting bags made from natural fibers are great for both rinsing your sprouts and providing good drainage that aids in air circulation. For glass canning jars, swirling and tipping the jar to pour out excess water results in good air movement that helps sprouts stay relatively dry and mold-free.
Growing Alfalfa Grass For Livestock Fodder
Choose a site with plenty of sunshine for growing your alfalfa grass. Access to moderate moisture is important too, although alfalfa is tough enough to withstand drought conditions when it must. As with most plants, it’s important to prepare the planting bed before sowing alfalfa seeds for optimum results. Besides clearing away old plants and other debris, you’ll want to test the soil for acidity.
Alfalfa thrives in soil with a pH balance of 6.5 to 7.0, tolerating a reading up to 7.5. Soil testing kits are available at most garden centers or farm supply stores and will tell you what type of amendments your bed needs before planting. To raise the pH level to 6.2 or higher, apply lime to the bed at rates recommended on the package. You may have to wait for the desired pH level to develop before planting—possibly even as long as 6 months. Re-test the soil until the pH is in the optimum range, just above or below 7.0.
Alfalfa also requires a good supply of phosphorous and potassium. Common fertilizer blends contain both. For best results, apply an organic fertilizer when planting, so it is readily available for the new plants. Chemical fertilizers may be cheaper and promise faster, bigger growth, but they’re not worth the trade-off. They can be too powerful for the plant, stressing it to its limits. An organic fertilizer will give the plant just what it needs for optimum growth, and in a slow-release, sustainable fashion.
Alfalfa, like any tender seedling, needs warm weather with no threat of frost to thrive; the exact timing will vary depending on where you live and local weather patterns. Space rows 18″ to 24″ apart to allow in adequate sunlight and air circulation. Sow the seeds 4″ to 6″ apart, ideally at a depth of 1/4″, but no deeper than 1/2″; any deeper and the seed will have a tough time reaching the surface. Lightly tamp down the soil to ensure good contact between the seed and the layer of soil above it.
Water seeds lightly so as not to disturb their location. Water as frequently as needed to prevent the seed or surrounding soil from drying out; little sprouts require constant moisture to develop into sturdy plants. As the sprout grows and roots descend deeper into the soil, you can pull back on watering. It’s best to water deeply but infrequently for more mature plants, rather than applying tiny sips daily that don’t penetrate below the surface down to the roots. Avoid over-watering, though; since alfalfa is prone to mold, it won’t tolerate standing water.
As the young plants reach a height of 6″ to 12″, you can thin them out. Thinning is the practice of separating young plants that are growing too closely together. You don’t want the plants competing for water or nutrients, and you want to give them plenty of elbow room. Gently dig up the extra plants, then re-plant them 12″ to 18″ apart or less.
It will take about 60 days for your alfalfa grass to be ready for harvesting. A good indicator that the grass is ready is when the plant’s purple blossoms develop. While open flowers look pretty—and bees love them!—they will reduce the viability of the plant for subsequent harvesting. Harvest alfalfa grass when just one flower opens slightly. With good conditions, you can harvest the hay again just 25 – 30 days later, getting 2 or 3 separate harvests in one growing season.
Alfalfa seeds germinate quickly, in about 5 to 7 days. When they reach the desired height for your culinary purposes, harvest the sprouts by pulling them out of their growing container and move them to the refrigerator. This will slow down the growth process, allowing you to work with them as an ingredient over a longer time period. It will also help the sprouts maintain their nutrient quantities and vigor.
Maintaining Alfalfa Pastures
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To keep sufficient supplies of alfalfa available for livestock, it is important to maintain multiple paddocks—or enclosed grazing areas—for the herd. An alfalfa stand can tolerate up to four days of grazing without the animals completely depleting the stand. Moving from section to section, a process called rotational grazing, gives recently grazed plants the opportunity to grow again, getting them ready for the next grazing rotation. We recommend six to eight paddocks, although this will vary depending on the size and type of herd you have. If well-maintained, alfalfa plants can live up to four years on average.
When deciding what kind of grass to grow for livestock, or what type of sprout to add to your home kitchen garden, alfalfa seed is a terrific choice. High in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, alfalfa seed is an excellent food source for people and animals alike; it’s small but mighty. It’s also easy to grow and maintain, indoors and out—a big plus. Grow it in small containers right in your kitchen or plant outside for larger harvests intended for forage. Be sure to select a seed that is both heirloom and organic, the way nature intended. That little detail will help ensure that you, your animals, and the environment all reap the health benefits provided by alfalfa seed.