Alfalfa enriches both the soil and plants around them because of their high nitrogen content and ample root system.
To enjoy its many benefits, you have to learn the best time to plant them.
When to plant alfalfa? The best time to plant alfalfa is highly dependent on your local climate. For regions with cooler climates, it is best to plant them in spring. However, gardeners in temperate regions can opt to plant alfalfa in the fall.
Growing Alfalfa in Different Seasons
There are several factors to consider before starting to grow alfalfa.
These include rainfall patterns, temperature, weed pressure, and proper time of year ideal for germination and emergence.
The problem is that there is no single season that will meet all these conditions perfectly.
There will be pros and cons for each time period, and you have to decide which factor should be prioritized.
Planting in Spring
For places with a continental climate, there will be a greater chance of success for growing alfalfa when you plant them in spring than late in summer.
Spring has adequate soil moisture, and the temperature is cool enough but not freezing. This helps tremendously in germination and growth.
Wet soils may be a problem, but you can start planting alfalfa after the last spring frost date.
Planting in the Middle of Summer
It is not a good idea to start planting your alfalfa in midsummer. This is due to the higher chances of weed growth during midsummer.
Planting Late in the Summer
Summer seeding or planting in the first 15 days of August is possible if the soil is sufficiently moist.
After August 15th, it is not a good idea to plant your alfalfa because the plants might suffer and die due to frost.
To secure its survival, alfalfa needs to be planted at least 40 days before a severe frost and after germination.
A formation of the crown and a minimum of four trifoliate leaves should be present for the plant to survive through winter.
The greatest benefit of planting late in the summer is the reduced competition against weeds.
You will also notice an increase in yield the year after compared to when you plant your alfalfa in spring.
Keep in mind that planting late in the summer comes with the risk of having early frost and unpredictable rain patterns.
How To Plant Alfalfa
The first written documentation of alfalfa dates back to 2939 BC in a Chinese tome.
However, it is believed that at around 500 BC, the ancient Greeks were already cultivating alfalfa for medicinal use and feeding livestock.
By 1 AD, alfalfa was domesticated all around the world.
Nowadays, it is grown as forage and fodder for various types of livestock, from hamsters to cows.
It is also popularly used as fertilizer.
It does not matter whether you plant it on a single bed or an entire field; the basics of planting alfalfa stay the same.
Growing From Seed
The popular way to propagate alfalfa is by sowing from seed.
One benefit of alfalfa in your garden is that it can fix nitrogen in your soil.
When buying seeds, choose ones that are rhizobium bacteria inoculated to help fix nitrogen in your soil immediately.
Step 1: Select a good location.
In choosing a good location, look for a place where the extra biomass and nitrogen these plants provide will be most beneficial to the soil.
If you plan to till the alfalfa under, consider a location that requires aeration or a lot of amended organic material.
It can be a brand-new site with heavy and poor soil or a garden site where you’ve recently planted a heavy feeder, like corn or squash.
The roots of alfalfa can usually drill deeper than 10 feet, and the roots on the shallower parts of the soil can spread around for more than 20 feet.
Although they are best planted in well-drained soil, the taproots can break down rocky soil. Hence, choosing a garden site with compacted earth is not a problem.
Step 2: Time your planting.
Weeds can compete with nutrients and space if you decide to plant alfalfa in spring.
Therefore, it’s best to start sowing seeds after the last spring frost date.
If you plan to plant alfalfa as an annual cover crop, it would be preferable to plant them in the fall.
This way, the sprouts won’t have to clash with spring weeds for nutrition.
Alfalfa will be fine even in cool weather, so use that to your advantage and start sowing after the summer weeds are dormant.
Another benefit of fall planting is the winter rains, which provide soil moisture that is good for the plant.
Step 3: Start sowing the seeds.
To start sowing alfalfa seeds, flatten the top layer of your soil by raking it. This way, the seeds you planted will have the same depth.
Sow the seeds in rows spaced about 15 inches apart.
When sowing seeds, only go as deep as half an inch. Place two seeds at a time and space them two inches apart.
Gently press down the soil surrounding the seeds using your hands to allow soil contact necessary for proper germination.
If your purpose in growing alfalfa is to dry them as hay, sow them five inches apart to allow enough air circulation for the plant to form trifoliate leaves.
If your purpose is to grow green manure, it is better to space them closer. Planting the alfalfa closer will prevent weeds from becoming established.
Make sure to water the sprouts when you see them break through the top layer of the soil.
Growing From Cuttings
You can consider this option if you only want a tiny patch of cover crop.
The upper hand of this approach is that you can add a perennial stand in the summer or even in the spring without having them compete with spring or summer weeds.
Step 1: Root your cuttings.
First, you need established alfalfa plants to grow alfalfa from cuttings.
If you plan to transplant your cuttings in the fall, start rooting them five weeks before the first local frost.
Choose the healthiest stalks when taking your cuttings to get strong transplants.
Cut them at least two inches from the ground so that the axillary buds can still support new growth.
Remove all the leaves from the lower part of the cuttings and leave only two to three leaves from the upper portion of the cuttings.
Place the cuttings in a glass of water and leave them to rest overnight.
Step 2: Plant indoors.
Grab a shallow pot with drainage holes and fill it with moist potting soil.
Then, stick your rooted cuttings about one and a half inches deep. Each cutting should be at least two inches apart.
Place the pot near a source of filtered but strong light. The soil should always be kept moist but avoid soaking it.
When watering, do not water from overhead but at the soil line. Doing this will prevent fungal diseases from occurring.
Step 3: Transplant outdoors.
In a month or two, new sets of leaves should occur. This is when you will know it’s time to harden off the cuttings.
To do this, expose them to greater amounts of sunlight for a few days.
After hardening them off, you can transplant your rooted cuttings outdoors.
When doing so, be sure to space them a few inches apart.
Cover the roots with soil and gently press the soil down using your hands. Water them regularly to keep the soil moist.
How To Grow Alfalfa
Alfalfa is very easy to grow and is perfect for controlling erosion and improving the soil.
To ensure they stay healthy, here’s how you should care for your alfalfa plants:
1. Keep the beds weed-free.
You should ensure that the beds have no weeds until your plants are at least five inches tall.
When the plants are young and short, weeds will easily take over.
As your alfalfa plants grow taller, they will have stronger and more established roots and will be less vulnerable to weeds.
2. Ensure they get enough water.
Even though alfalfa is drought-resistant, you should still make sure they get enough water to help the plants thrive.
When it has not rained for a while, you can use a garden hose to water the plants.
Remember to water at the soil line and not from overhead.
Alfalfa plants need at least one inch of water per week. You can use a rain gauge to measure the rain you receive exactly.
The plants will be dormant in the winter, so you do not need to water them in the colder months.
How Long Does Alfalfa Take to Grow?
Five to six weeks after alfalfa seedlings emerge, they will be available to harvest.
However, it is better to wait at least two months for a higher yield.
Alfalfa has been grown for decades, and it is no wonder why.
Also known as Medicago sativa, it is a nutritious herb grown as a perennial in cooler regions.
It is rich in vitamins K, E, C, and A, and iron, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium, so it’s also often grown to feed livestock.
It is also used as a soil conditioner and as a cover crop.