by Nanette Londeree
What’s green, comes in different forms, is loaded with vitamins and protein and is good for your soil, horses and rabbits? And, is inexpensive and completely biodegradable? Oh, one more thing—is a super spring tonic for your roses? Stumped???? It’s good old-fashioned alfalfa. Yes, the hay that horses chomp, the grub that pet rabbits and guinea pigs munch, and the sprouts atop your lunch salad—alfalfa.
If you’ve been around a rose lover at this time of year, you’ll hear them extol the virtues of this stuff. “Be sure to add a couple of handfuls in spring and fall”; “Don’t forget to spread a pound coffee can full of pellets around each plant”; “Don’t get the stuff with molasses” … and so on. Is there any credence to these recommendations? And if so, why?
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), an herbaceous perennial plant, is a member of the legume family that can reach a height of about three feet, has smooth, sharply angled stems and clover-like flowers that can range in color from yellow to violet. Also known as lucerne, it’s rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, and, when cut prior to bloom, it’s low in fiber and high in energy thus it’s prized as a primary component in dairy cattle rations and an important feed for horses, beef cattle, sheep, and milk goats. Its prolific growth acts as an effective weed control and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root nodules add nitrogen to the soil rather than depleting it while improving soil structure for future crops. It’s considered the most important pasture and hay plant in North America. On top of this, wildlife, including over 130 bird species, use alfalfa fields for food and shelter. For many animals, including endangered species, alfalfa fields are their preferred habitat.
The remains of the plant, more than six thousand years old, have been found in Iran. It was important to the early Babylonian cultures, the Persians, Greeks and Romans for feeding their horses used in war. The name alfalfa comes from the Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri words meaning “best horse fodder” and “horse power.” Although planted in the U.S. by the colonists, it was not widely grown until the gold rush came to California and it was discovered that it grew as well here as anywhere in the world. It’s become so popular that it’s known in many agricultural circles as the "Queen of the Forages."
While all the organics and minerals in alfalfa are great for feeding the soil, the tonic that roses really go for is triacontanol, a naturally occurring fatty alcohol produced as the alfalfa breaks down. It’s a growth stimulant, so when it reaches the roses roots, it can trigger new growth at the bud union or base of the plant, in addition to increasing overall plant vigor and flower production.
When alfalfa is harvested, it is dried in the sun, then the hay is baled. The hay can be ground to form a meal, and for ease of handling, compressed into pellets or cubes. For use in your garden, alfalfa meal and pellets are the most readily available and easiest to use. Hay can be a bit challenging to handle unless you have lots of area to cover. It can mat after watering and actually cause water to run-off rather than soak in around the plant. Meal is simple to spread and will break down the most quickly. Pellets are easy to handle while cubes may be too big for garden application. Before you purchase any of these, confirm that the product doesn’t contain any molasses, sugar or other added nutrients. You don’t need these other ingredients, and they’ll cost you more.
Whether you use meal or pellets, simply apply a couple of cups around the drip line of each plant on top of the soil in early spring. No need to work it in; the earthworms should do it for you. If you don’t prefer the look of the pellets (they’re a drabby green color and rather lumpy as they start to break down), you can top dress with a little more compost or mulch. While it may take a bit more effort to apply it this way, it’s certainly easier on the eyes.
An annual mulching with alfalfa almost guarantees good results. You can also treat your roses to alfalfa “tea.” The liquid form can provide a quick “pick me up” for your plants, though be forewarned—its aroma is downright STINKY! It’s easy to make—just add 10 to 12 cups of alfalfa meal (or pellets, though they take a bit longer to break down) to a 32-gallon plastic garbage can with a lid. Fill the can with water, mix and steep for 4-5 days, stirring occasionally. As it ferments, the mixture will start to smell after two or three days. Keep the lid ON to keep the odor in and pesky critters out. Add about a gallon of the finished tea to each large rose bush and about a third as much to miniatures. When you’ve used all the tea in the can, fill it up again with water and wait another few days. By the way, within a day or so of adding the tea to your plants, you shouldn’t smell a thing.
If you like the results, alfalfa tea can safely be used every 6 weeks during the active growing season. It’s reported to work on all sorts of plants in containers—leaves green up, new growth appears and flowers take on a richer hue.
You can purchase alfalfa meal at local nurseries in 5 and 10 pound containers. Fifty pound bags of pellets are available at animal feed stores in Mill Valley and Novato.
So remember, alfalfa isn’t just for rabbits—treat your roses with this spring tonic and they’re sure reward you with increased health and vigor.