Experimental use of Alfalfa as a summer cover/rotational crop


Meadowlark

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I’ve started an experiment in the use of summer alfalfa as a garden cover crop in East Texas. Alfalfa has been found to not like our East Texas climate of super heat and even more super humidity as a hay crop…but what about as a cover/rotational crop for the home garden?

It has outstanding N2 fixing qualities and grows vigorously in summer which should offer excellent weed control. I have long recognized that it is also an outstanding soil additive that serves as a natural fertilizer and soil conditioner. Alfalfa pellets are readily available in my feed stores and they have demonstrated to me to be an excellent soil builder, one of the best available.

So, why not the real thing? Alfalfa has an interesting “character” trait that I believe makes it an outstanding candidate for cover/rotation in the garden. Beginning in late summer, physiological changes begin to occur in alfalfa plants where sugar and carbohydrate accumulation is diverted away from stem and leaf growth and toward the root and crown structures of the plant. Sugars act as an “antifreeze” to prevent cell damage during the extreme cold temperatures of winter. Carbohydrates are stored in the roots and crown to provide energy for stem growth during the spring months.

Those stored sugars and carbs sound to me like an ideal summer cover/rotational soil building crop that can be planted after the spring plantings of garden veggies such as corn, a very heavy feeder.

My research has uncovered that alfalfa also has a possibly undesirable characteristic of suppressing other plant germination while it is growing. I’m hopeful this does not carry over to follow on veggie crops.

I would like to hear from anyone who has tried this as a summer cover/rotational crop.

Oneeye are you out there?

The attached photo shows my experimental double row of germinating alfalfa in the garden. Another advantage is that seed is highly available and is relatively cheap about $2 per pound when purchased as a hay crop. Since COVID, I have found that anything for the garden, including my preferred field peas for cover, has taken off in price and has limited availability these days…but not alfalfa seed for hay production.

Comments appreciated and solicited.




alkalfa germinating.JPG
 

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I tried over crops. Found season too short and it often froze to nothing after growing. One years it survived and I found difficult to get rid of for conventional growing.

The other choice was to summer fallow and only sow over crop but my efforts were too small to get any real advantage from this process.

The idea has some merit if the climate is suitable. I find in my small operation, compost and mulch seem to be suitable for now.
 
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It's amazing to me that alfalfa roots may penetrate over 20 feet deep. Having roots that deep gives alfalfa excellent drought tolerance. Super plant.
 

Meadowlark

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It's amazing to me that alfalfa roots may penetrate over 20 feet deep. Having roots that deep gives alfalfa excellent drought tolerance. Super plant.
How do you think it will do as a summer cover/rotation crop in my garden? You've seen my soil and seen how I use cover crops...interested in what you think?
 
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Meadowlark

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You might find this an interesting read
Yes, interesting. Thanks.

My county , Polk, wasn't mentioned that I could see but two adjoining counties Trinity and Nacogdoches were listed as a negative for Alfalfa. I think I'm going to contact the author of that report and ask some questions. I have an outstanding hay meadow in bottom land of about 20 acres that I would be willing to take a try at a hay crop, if the soil experts would say it would work.
 
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Meadowlark, my experience with alfalfa is that its rather invasive. Almost as bad as chickweed.

Id recommend trying it in a separate dedicated plot to see how it reacts in your warmer weather. It doesn't get hot enough here to really stunt it. Ifnothing else you can harvest and compost it separately from your main garden.

Just noticed that you do have a separate plot planned. Maybe try growing something in with the alfalfa to see if it does or doesn't stunt the vegetable?
 

Meadowlark

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Meadowlark, my experience with alfalfa is that its rather invasive. Almost as bad as chickweed.

Id recommend trying it in a separate dedicated plot to see how it reacts in your warmer weather. It doesn't get hot enough here to really stunt it. Ifnothing else you can harvest and compost it separately from your main garden.

Just noticed that you do have a separate plot planned. Maybe try growing something in with the alfalfa to see if it does or doesn't stunt the vegetable?
That's a good idea...I'll put a few field pea seeds in with the alfalfa. Thanks.
 
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I’ve started an experiment in the use of summer alfalfa as a garden cover crop in East Texas. Alfalfa has been found to not like our East Texas climate of super heat and even more super humidity as a hay crop…but what about as a cover/rotational crop for the home garden?

It has outstanding N2 fixing qualities and grows vigorously in summer which should offer excellent weed control. I have long recognized that it is also an outstanding soil additive that serves as a natural fertilizer and soil conditioner. Alfalfa pellets are readily available in my feed stores and they have demonstrated to me to be an excellent soil builder, one of the best available.

So, why not the real thing? Alfalfa has an interesting “character” trait that I believe makes it an outstanding candidate for cover/rotation in the garden. Beginning in late summer, physiological changes begin to occur in alfalfa plants where sugar and carbohydrate accumulation is diverted away from stem and leaf growth and toward the root and crown structures of the plant. Sugars act as an “antifreeze” to prevent cell damage during the extreme cold temperatures of winter. Carbohydrates are stored in the roots and crown to provide energy for stem growth during the spring months.

Those stored sugars and carbs sound to me like an ideal summer cover/rotational soil building crop that can be planted after the spring plantings of garden veggies such as corn, a very heavy feeder.

My research has uncovered that alfalfa also has a possibly undesirable characteristic of suppressing other plant germination while it is growing. I’m hopeful this does not carry over to follow on veggie crops.

I would like to hear from anyone who has tried this as a summer cover/rotational crop.

Oneeye are you out there?

The attached photo shows my experimental double row of germinating alfalfa in the garden. Another advantage is that seed is highly available and is relatively cheap about $2 per pound when purchased as a hay crop. Since COVID, I have found that anything for the garden, including my preferred field peas for cover, has taken off in price and has limited availability these days…but not alfalfa seed for hay production.

Comments appreciated and solicited.




View attachment 67153
Appears to be poor soil. Anything has ot be an improvement IMO
 

Meadowlark

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To test germination restriction from the alfalfa, I planted a few peas in my "poor soil" (LOL @ Durgan) in area with alfalfa and at the same time in another area without alfalfa seeds. There was no discernable difference between germination with or without alfalfa. I'll let these plants go awhile to see if their growth is affected by the alfalfa.

I will test germination again later when the alfalfa matures some to see if the germination restriction develops, but so far so good.

The plot without alfalfa.

germination test 1.JPG


The plot with alfalfa...planted with same type of pea seeds at same time:

germonation test 1a.JPG


Pea Germination in both plots happened within 48 hours.
 

Meadowlark

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Tomatoes are in the row right next to the experimental alfalfa row. Tomato production is "off the charts" …but the alfalfa hasn't had time to have any appreciable effect. It's just poor soil, LOL. We are over run with tomatoes two buckets a day.

tomatoes rain.JPG
 
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Yes, interesting. Thanks.

My county , Polk, wasn't mentioned that I could see but two adjoining counties Trinity and Nacogdoches were listed as a negative for Alfalfa. I think I'm going to contact the author of that report and ask some questions. I have an outstanding hay meadow in bottom land of about 20 acres that I would be willing to take a try at a hay crop, if the soil experts would say it would work.
My dad had some farm land close to Bartlett Tx and he tried to grow alfalfa. IIRC he had 1 successful crop and from then on the alfalfa just wouldn't grow for some reason. This was back in the 1950's. The soil there is slightly alkaline.
 

Meadowlark

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On the other side of the experimental alfalfa row is my third planting of corn which is now about 8 ft tall which is very tall for sweet corn. I'll closely monitor it to see if alfalfa proximity has any discernable effect.

IMG_0545.JPG
 

Meadowlark

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My dad had some farm land close to Bartlett Tx and he tried to grow alfalfa. IIRC he had 1 successful crop and from then on the alfalfa just wouldn't grow for some reason. This was back in the 1950's. The soil there is slightly alkaline.
I have heard similar experience in my county but with acidic soils. Maybe the alfalfa takes up all of some needed nutrient in one growing season? You would think that TAMU would have done some experiments considering the economic value of alfalfa.
 

Meadowlark

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Update, nearing the end of July. The experiment continues and has expanded somewhat with additional plantings in the rows previously occupied by corn, a very heavy feeder.

My observations thus far: Despite what I thought was a fairly heavy seeding, the alfalfa has not shown the ability to protect against weeds...in fact the contrary. In comparison to field peas which I started at the same time, weeds are very prominent in the alfalfa and chocked out in the peas. Other considerations, of course, come into play such as N2 fixation and soil building but so far the alfalfa is not showing the ability to out compete.

alfalfa jul.JPG


alfalfa ju2.JPG


Compare to field peas started about the same time:

fall onions.JPG
 
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It appears your garden is inundated with nutsedge and called also nutgrass. I have much in my garden and I am constantly pulling the plant. It is very invasive and persistent.
 
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Meadowlark

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Thanks...I'll file that comment away with the "poor soil" post you also offered.

By intent, that garden space has been left unattended for several weeks (about 5 weeks) to get a good test on the relative merits of alfalfa as a summer cover crop. Thus far it doesn't measure up to peas.
 
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Meadowlark

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The progression of the alfalfa experiment continues. It is getting more dense and showing more green with each cutting. I've mowed it with a lawn mower now four times and each time it bounces right back thicker and greener than before.

Notice the clippings pilling up alongside the alfalfa row...pretty impressive stack of green manure. I'll continue to grow and mow every two to three weeks until early Nov. when we usually get our first frost. Then it will be tilled under and replaced with my winter ryes, grains, etc. Next spring I'll try to compare the direct results of rows with alfalfa cover crop vs rows with peas as the cover crop and try to get a handle on which is best.

alfalfa 4th.JPG
 

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