26 Mar 1996
An Organic Alternative...Alfalfa
by Ivy Bodin
(Originally written for the Roseline of Baton Rouge LA in 1996 by former member Ivy Bodin, this fascinating article won an Award of Merit presented by the American Rose Society. Ivy now grows beautiful roses in Vista, CA.)
"Let me introduce a plant you are familiar with and which you think may be quite ordinary --alfalfa. Yet when grown in the yard it pulls nitrogen from the air and feeds it to soil bacteria, enriching the earth even more than manure. It produces prodigious amounts of humus. It's the perfect mulch. It makes the most superior compost. It's the ideal animal feed. And most amazing of all, it has been found that tiny amounts have a growth-stimulating effect that boosts yields of a wide range of garden vegetables. Don't think alfalfa is for farmers only. It just may be the greatest garden plant ever." by Ray Wolf, "Organic Gardening Magazine", early 1980s.
The source of the special effect of alfalfa is a substance called triacontanol. As reported in "Organic Gardening" in the early 1980s Dr. Stanley K. Ries, a horticulturist at Michigan State University began experimenting in the early 1970s with nitrogen-rich foragers as fertilizer substitutes. The results of his 1975 field trials were puzzling in that some of the alfalfa-treated plots greatly outyielded chemically fertilized plots. In the lab they isolated the active agent --triacontanol, a fatty acid alcohol which occurs naturally in the waxy surfaces of the plant's leaves. Additional testing revealed triacontanol was not a fertilizer, but a growth-stimulating substance. The less triacontanol you use, the better the results.
At the Organic Gardening Research Center in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, greenchop alfalfa in very small amounts was tested and indeed it was found that use of homeopathic doses of greenchop alfalfa produced greater yields than use of much higher rates. The lowest rate to be used was found to be 1.5 ounces of alfalfa for 100 square feet of garden or about one cup of fresh alfalfa. The answer explained why triacontanol proved elusive, but garden crop yields on tomatoes, corn, wheat, cucumbers and other crops increased over 40% with alfalfa use than when no alfalfa was used.
Alfalfa is a perennial herbaceous legume meaning it can overwinter, doesn't produce woody tissue, and has the power to take nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil. Plants have purple or yellow flowers, with leaves in clusters of threes, on alternate sides of the stem. The plant starts from a crown at or near the surface of the soil, from which 5 to 25 stems may grow. Each plant is independent, and although usually thought of as a grass, it is more like a bush. It can reach as much as 4 to 6 feet in height with a thick stem. It's botanical name is Medicago sativa and its closest relatives are clover, peas and beans.
Alfalfa's main advantage is its ability to "grow" nitrogen and produce a high-protein forage. As a nitrogen-fixing legume, alfalfa is the standard by which other legumes are compared. It can fix an average of 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre, per year by supporting bacteria of the rhizobia family on its root hairs. As the bacteria grow, they take nitrogen from the air and convert the bacteria, forming nodules ranging in size from no bigger than a pinhead to the size of a BB. The plant uses the nitrogen produced by the bacteria, and in exchange provides sugar that the bacteria need to live. When the plant is killed, the nitrogen in the nodules and the extensive root system remain in the soil for future use. The top parts of alfalfa offer your garden a storehouse of nitrogen with fresh-cut alfalfa containing more nitrogen at 2.7 to 3.4% than any manure. The beauty of using a fertilizing mulch that you can grow yourself should be self-evident. An ideal way to use alfalfa is to plant it in part of your garden each year and regularly take cuttings to mulch all the rest of the garden and then later turn the plants under to green manure your garden soil. Still another use could be as a cover crop kept short by cutting, to mulch out seeds in your garden beds around your precious crops. Some alfalfa patches can be left alone for as much as 10 years with 3 or more cuttings being available for harvest each year. The main ways to use alfalfa in the garden are as a soil-enricher to be rotated through the garden, or as a patch to produce a high-nitrogen material for mulch. It can be used as the energy to heat up a compost pile or as a mulch for all garden plants, slow-releasing fertilizer throughout the year.
Leaning on the old maxim "practice what you preach", I tried all the afore mentioned alfalfa lore and the results were astounding to me as an avid gardener. My realm was mainly in the vegetable garden and I immediately noticed results when I used a bale of alfalfa hay as mulch. This hay also supplied fire to my compost pile. The next year and for several thereafter, I grew a small patch of alfalfa plants in my 10 x 20 foot garden. I harvested the plants for mulch used on my vegetables and noticed a significant increase in volume and quality of produce. I would simply cut some alfalfa plant and tear it into pieces and distribute just a little around each plant. I also used the alfalfa plants one year as a living mulch around my veggies keeping them cut short with the clippings used around plants. The living alfalfa plants were then tilled into the soil each fall as a green manure and I was able to stop using chemical fertilizers and move toward the organic approach to vegetable gardening. I realized the nitrogen as a fertilizer from the alfalfa, as well as the growth inducing substance--triacontanol were revolutionizing my vegetable gardening. Some early trials with the green chop alfalfa on my perrenials and a few rose bushes also showed good results. But vegetables and increased yields were where the results were in those first years of experiment. The greenchop also made a potent fermented alfalfa tea that gave good results on plants.
On to Roses:
What does all this have to do with roses you say? Whatever you may wish to make of it! All longtime rose growers talk about the special effects of alfalfa as a fertilizer amendment to be worked in around our rose plants in varying dosages. The rose culture literature likewise has as many tidbits of advice about the use of that magic elixir--alfalfa, and the wonderful results that are produced in the queen of all the flowers. This well kept secret amendment did not pop up until I reached the inner sanctum of the rose world. When I discovered Alfalfa, the dosage was yet another mystery. Was it one tablespoon, two tablespoons, 3 cups, or 2 cups per bush, or as much as you can afford for all those bushes? I have tried all the approaches with some success, and as of lately with a cheaper source of the magic potion more available, I used more and got more vigorous results.
Well, the flowers tend to be larger for one thing, coming from larger stems with healthier dark green leaves on them. Also the colors of the blooms tend to be richer in color saturation and maintain the color a bit longer than usual. The blooms aside, the plants themselves seem to have a prodigious vigor spurred on by that growth hormone in alfalfa. The leaves also tend to be larger and more numerous as the factory supplying all the food to generate those sumptuous blooms we strive for. Here we are talking about all roses but mainly the hybrid teas we love and groom for those beautiful cut blooms. The alfalfa in my experience tends to generate fine results in other varieties of roses also with the climbers, both modern and antique, showing the most dramatic results. Floribundas and shrubs tended to be more floriferous and hearty and old garden roses seemed to thrive on this soil amendment as compared to use of other manures from organic sources and from commerciallly produced fertilizers. It is noted that the David Austin English garden roses seemed to perform especially well with the use of alfalfa.
Where to get Alfalfa:
Locally at nurseries I have found 4 pound boxes of alfalfa meal for about $7. Also local feed stores usually sell alfalfa pellets made by Purina and other companies as an animal fodder in 50 pound sacks for about $15. Especially good are feeds for horses or rabbits. Many rosarians avoid the animal feed pellets becaue they say that there may be other things in them. Some brands do contain some molasses and salts as binding agents and flavor enhancers but is is doubtful this would produce untoward consequences. In an article in The American Rose Magazine, Dr. John Dickman recommends using alfalfa in a tea on plants and quotes Howard Walters--the Rose Rambler. "Alfalfa tea is a great Fall potion that doesn't interfere with normal fall processes. Alfalfa tea releases a growth hormone that makes everything work better. Just add 10 to 12 cups of alfalfa meal or pellets to a 32 gallon plastic garbage can with a lid, add water, stir and steep for 4 or 5 days stirring occasionally. You could also 'fortify' with 2 cups of Epsom salts, 2 cups of Sprint 330R(chelated iron), or favorite trace element elixir." The tea will start to smell as it ferments and Uggh! Use a gallon on a bush and add water back to the meal to remake several batches before finally pouring off the contents on your rose bushes.
From my own experience with roses I use about 2 cups of alfalfa meal or pellets per rose bush and lightly scratch it into the soil in the Spring and again in the Fall. That basically is the story on use of Alfalfa. I also believe the tea works nicely and sometimes will brew-up a small batch with about 2 pounds of pellets in a 5 gallon bucket of water aging it over a week and applying some to bushes. I add more water and keep steeping the meal for several more batches. The bushes definitely do seem to be healthier as a result and they seem to appreciate the tea in the heart of a heat- filled summer. I also like to use about a tablespoon of alfalfa meal or so on newly set out cuttings that I am trying to root, whether in pots or in the garden. I tend to get better results with this slight boost.
With all the information you will discover about alfalfa as a recommended tonic for roses, with attendant sparse details, the bottom-line test is to use some meal and observe the results for yourself. Whatever happens you will observe it to be beneficial and I guarantee you will have a pleasant new experience with your roses if you haven't yet tried this magic potion. Happy experimenting to you!