Posts Tagged ‘alkaline soil’

The Plant That I Can’t Do Without


If I were a poet, I would write a hymn to alfalfa.  This workhorse plant is now all over my small property, improving soil and feeding the animals and indirectly feeding me.  For the first couple of years I labored fruitlessly to try to grow enough grass or clover to make a picnic circle, but ultimately I gave up and seeded the area with alfalfa.  What a gain in utility.  Alfalfa thrives in my alkaline soil. Its roots are reported to go down as much as 30 feet deep, and it is fairly drought resistant.  It is a bit sparse the first year but then fills out nicely. It fixes nitrogen and improves the soil. Early in the spring, usually by mid-March in my area, the vibrant green leaves are forming clumps.  It is a remarkably nutritious green, however I don’t usually eat it myself, although I will clip a few tender leaves off the tips and put them in cooked greens mixtures.  Chickens love fresh alfalfa, and it is quite astounding how much of it they will eat. Of course, this is providing all sorts of nutrients and greatly increasing the beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids in the egg yolks.  The yolks are beautifully vibrant orange. I grab handfuls of stems and cut them close to the ground with scissors, then go to the chicken pens and cut the stems into lengths 1 to 2 inches long, to make the plant easier for the hens to eat.  They start jumping against the door as soon as they see the alfalfa coming.   My goat relishes a handful of fresh alfalfa as a snack, although mostly she eats dried alfalfa hay.  I have little patches of alfalfa all over the yard now, wherever I had a bare space to fill, and I let at least one patch go to flower for the pleasure of seeing the bees mob the blue-purple blossoms.  I would estimate that each clump is cut four to six times between March and October.

I still wish that I had a lush smooth clover lawn to picnic on; alfalfa is clumpy and by the end of the season it is stiff with all the stems that you cut. You can’t sit right down on it.   But a large sheepskin in between you and the alfalfa makes it a much more comfortable resting place, and it is far more useful and durable than clover. Currently I’m experimenting with planting fruiting trees and berries into the alfalfa patches to see how they coexist. My hope is that the alfalfa will provide some nitrogen for the trees. I hope to report back in a year or two.

If I think about my property as a factory, alfalfa is mining the nutrients from the subsoil, combining them with water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to make edible food, and transporting the food to the general marketplace at the soil surface. The chickens are eating from the market, breaking down the 16-carbon omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, and re-forming them into 18 carbon omega-3s that people can readily utilize, as well as making proteins and concentrating caratinoids and other nutrients. They contribute eggs and sometimes meat back to the common marketplace, where I “buy” the foody products with my labor and feed input, and happily devour them. It’s a beautiful chain.


These delicious eggs can be thought of as little bombs full of all the nutrients in alfalfa. But they are much easier for people to eat.

Organic Matters

The soil at our new house, like many urban soils, was unpromising at best. Rocky, compacted, and highly alkaline, the only thing that really wanted to grow in it was tumbleweed.  With compost, gypsum,  and sheet-mulching it’s already a lot better and improving steadily. Beginning gardeners may be amazed at the sheer quantities needed. To emphasize the point of using enough, I’m illustrating the winter Grand Tetons of my backyard, Mt. Shredder and Mt. Manure. It might look like a lot, but it will be gone by spring.  Over the winter I’ll gradually spread the compost and work it into the growing areas, and mulch paths with the bark chips.  If you don’t have room for big heaps, you can get compost in bags, but get plenty. Apply gypsum per the results of your soil test, and you’re set for a successful growing season.

Didn’t get a soil test? I have to admit that I didn’t either. On soil that hasn’t been gardened before, I apply gypsum according to the directions on the bag, putting a little more where I’ll be growing calcium-lovers like broccoli and spinach. I also use extra on the potato patch, to get the pH down into a range that the potatoes can tolerate. Where soils are acidic I’d be using lime instead, but our very alkaline high-desert soils usually need a dose of gypsum to make them liveable for vegetables. Then I put on a scientifically determined amount of compost: all I can afford. Unless it’s really well aged, I keep it off the potato area. Instead, I dig all my neighbors’ discarded leaves into that area. No doubt it leads to comment when I remove the leaf bags on the night before green waste pick-up day, but as I see it, worse things could be said about me, so I’m lucky if people are only talking about my leaf-snatching habits. Needless to say, nothing should be touched unless it’s set out by the curb for pick-up. When in doubt, ask. But there’s no reason to pass up free organic matter that others are trying to get rid of.  Think of yourself as the Guerilla Gardener, and you may feel dashing instead of disheveled and a bit silly.