Posts Tagged ‘nitrogen-fixing’

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.

Gather Ye Nitrogen While Ye May: Desert Bird-of-Paradise

Caesalpinia gilliesii, the Desert Bird-of-Paradise, is a spectacular plant. It is native to South America but is naturalized throughout the Southwest. It would probably grow in other places. It thrives on our alkaline soil, baking desert sun, and low rainfall. It’s gorgeous in bloom and neat-looking when not in bloom. It seeds itself around but is easily eradicated where not wanted. It provides filtered shade to other plants. And it fixes nitrogen. Quite a set of advantages.
I’m making use of it on a dry, hot, unirrigated strip of south-facing land along my driveway where I want to grow goji berries. The goji plants struggled and mostly died at first, but as seed-sown bird-of-paradise takes hold and provides them with some shade and nitrogen, the gojis are getting a new lease on life and have finally put out some berries. I trudge the hose over and give everything a deep soaking about once every 3-4 weeks.
For years I struggled with Caragena arborescans, which is the darling of the permaculturists but simply will not grow well, or at all, for me. Now I have Caesalpinia instead. No part of it is edible but it helps edibles grow. It has survived 10 degrees Fahrenheit with no problems. In Britian they do have hardiness issues with it, and I think it won’t tolerate wet feet. For dry gardens it works beautifully.
So look around you and see what nitrogen-fixers thrive in your area and grow without pampering. Use them. Don’t fuss with the ones that are determined to die.