Alfalfa is a staple among livestock farmers as a nutrient-rich feed. But did you know that alfalfa meal is also a great organic fertilizer?
High-quality alfalfa meal is generally weed-free. It adds nitrogen and trace minerals to your soil. It also contains a natural fatty-acid growth stimulant called triacontanol.
You can use it in place of other fertilizers or in conjunction with other soil amendments. It’s often used to improve the tilth of the soil as well, so it has dual purpose.
I’m sure by now you’re asking, “What is alfalfa meal, and how do I get started with it?” So let’s break down this wonderful soil amendment and get you to work!
Our Favorite Alfalfa Meal Products:
- Dr. Earth Pure & Natural, 3lb
- Down To Earth 2.5-0.5-2.5, 5lb
- Organic Greenway Biotech 2.8-0.29-2.4, 15lb
- Zilla Reptile Bedding and Litter
- Rogue Quality Feeds Alfalfa Pellets
- Oasis Organics Alfalfa Pellets
- Standlee Hay Company Certified Alfalfa Cubes
What Is It?
Alfalfa itself is fantastic for your garden. As a plant material, it provides not only a good NPK boost but lots of micronutrients. Many people use alfalfa hay as a mulch material as it acts as a natural fertilizer layer and weed blocker.
But alfalfa meal is a bit more processed than straight alfalfa hay might be. They begin by drying out adult plants (Medicago sativa), then grinding them into a fine powder. If it’s going to be used as animal feed, it’s fermented first to make it more palatable to ruminant livestock. It may then be pressed into pellets or cubes.
Some forms are also produced from fermented alfalfa seeds. These are then dried out and ground into a fine powder as well.
As a livestock feed, its use has been dated as far back as 3500 BC, when it’s believed to have been grown in Iran. Its use as a fertilizer appeared much later. Once people discovered that it enriched their soil, it became popular very quickly!
Alfalfa meal fertilizers have multiple benefits in the garden. The NPK value is usually balanced, somewhere around 3-1-2. But it doesn’t stop there. There are many trace elements in this meal that make plants thrive.
Vitamins such as A, B, and E are present in the meal, as well as minerals like magnesium and iron. It contains sixteen amino acids that play roles in healthy plant growth.
Best of all, it has naturally-occurring triacontanol. This naturally-occurring growth hormone stimulates healthy root and stem development in young plants.
In essence, this wonderful meal acts like a multivitamin for your plants. It helps kickstart growth through the quick release of nutrients into the soil. Also, it decomposes fast, helping improve soil tilth and water retention.
Should You Grow Your Own Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is an excellent cover crop. Not only does it grow fast to act as a weed blocker, but it also puts down extremely deep roots. Those roots act like natural tillers, breaking up clay soil and aerating it.
It’s surprisingly easy to grow a crop of alfalfa. Broadcast your seeds over the surface of your soil. You can cover them with a thin layer of soil or just water them in. They’re slow to get started, but once they start putting up foliage, they can reach 3 feet in height.
Once they’re at full size and have started to flower, the adult plants should be cut down and fermented. This fermentation process is anaerobic or done without air. During fermentation, the sugars convert to acids like lactic acid.
Silage, or haylage as alfalfa silage is sometimes called, is the finished product. After about two weeks of anaerobic conditions, the natural sugars break down. The resulting haylage can be used as animal feed, or dried and ground into meal.
Once ground into meal, it is often pressed into pellets or cubes as an easy-to-store feedstock. This also makes it easier to store for gardeners. It’s susceptible to rodents like mice, so it’s important to store your meal, pellets, or cubes safely.
Unique Benefits of Alfalfa
As I said earlier, one of the best benefits of this is triacontanol. This naturally-occurring component helps to promote healthy root development in plants. It also improves the yield of crops, aids in nutrient uptake, and fixes the nitrogen in the soil.
As an additive, alfalfa meal is great for another purpose too. It’s a natural compost pile booster. If your pile is starting to cool, a few handfuls of it can kickstart the heating process.
Additionally, it’s rich in micronutrients. A tremendous amount of trace minerals can be found in this meal, all beneficial to your garden.
If you are growing your own alfalfa, you have the added benefit of the plant loosening your soil. It puts down very deep roots that help to aerate and break up clay-like soils.
Absorbing much of its own weight in water, it also works to hold moisture in the soil. It’s not as effective at this as other plant matter may be, but it does help improve moisture retention.
One thing using it as a fertilizer is believed to do is control harmful nematode populations. If you have root knot nematodes, there are very few ways to eliminate them. Adding beneficial nematodes will do it, but alfalfa meal in heavy doses can also reduce nematode populations.
As it breaks down, it produces heat. Now, this is fantastic if you’re trying to heat up your compost tumbler! But too much alfalfa meal worked into your planters may cause the soil to heat.
Careful application alfalfa of can reduce the heating risk. But what other disadvantages does alfalfa have in the garden?
Pelleted or cubed versions of this soil amendment are used as feed for livestock. It also acts as a feed for rodents. Mice, rats, rabbits, or other rodents may come search through your garden beds.
If rodents like field mice are a problem for you, use loose meal instead of pelleted or cubed forms. Work it through the top layer of your soil. This will reduce the rodent population.
Also, alfalfa feedstock is often treated with molasses or other additives. While these additives won’t harm your garden, the sugars can speed up bacterial growth. For beneficial bacteria, this is great! But those of us who’ve fought a bacterial plant disease may wish to wait, at least until the bad bacteria’s gone.
Cheaper grades of product may have seeds mixed in. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, you should be aware that you might have alfalfa sprouts if you buy low grades!
When watering in, it can cause matting or clumping. This may temporarily inhibit moisture penetration. Loosely mixing the soil through your fertilizer should prevent this problem.
Finally, as alfalfa pellets or cubes break down, they can turn brown and look unappetizing in a garden. You can simply hide them with some mulch if you’d like. Otherwise, soaking the pellets or cubes in water until they break apart is best. This allows even distribution
Organic Alfalfa Meal Vs. Non-Organic: Which Is Better?
In recent years, there’s been a lot of concern about GMO crops and added chemicals. If you’re going for a purely organic garden, this may be something to be watchful for.
Much of the feedstock alfalfa is GMO. “Roundup Ready” is a modified strain that holds up well with pesticide use. While this means that they’re able to grow huge quantities with little pest damage, it has a drawback… it’s been treated with pesticides.
In small quantities, this doesn’t pose a major issue. However, over time the pesticides can build up in your soil. Plants may have a harder time germinating in pesticide-laden soils. More fertilizer may be needed to keep plants healthy.
As a general rule, I recommend using an organic form whenever possible. This prevents you from any potential pesticide pollution in your garden. Check the labels on your box or bag of meal to see if they’re OMRI-certified.
In the case of the average home gardener, this is seldom going to be a problem. But for someone with a small commercial garden, it’s best to be safe rather than sorry later!
How To Use Alfalfa Meal
- For a light dosage, 12 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet is recommended.
- Medium is 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
- Heavy application is 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
Adjust to suit your plant’s needs and the condition of your soil.
You can spread it as a top cover, or work it into the top few inches. Generally, it’s best to mulch overtop the meal if it’s top-layered. This keeps it from drying and blowing away.
If you’re starting with pelletized or cubed meal, you can sometimes use them as they are. Smaller-sized pellets like rabbit feed break down quickly when exposed to water.
Larger-sized cubes or pellets, like those meant for horses, should be broken down first. Place some in a 5-gallon bucket and add water to cover. Wait for at least an hour, then use a potato masher to break apart the pellets or cubes.
Drain off the liquid from soaking, but don’t dump it out (see below). The meal can be worked through the soil as normal.
Only have a couple of plants that need fertilizing? No problem. Depending on the level of fertilization needed, you can use between 1/4 and 1/2 cups of fertilizer per plant. For larger plants like full-grown rosebushes, use 1 cup around the plant’s base.
Making Alfalfa Tea Fertilizer
To make alfalfa meal tea, use four cups in either meal or pelleted form to 5 gallons of water. I like to do this in a large bucket.
Be sure your water isn’t chlorinated. If all you have available is chlorinated water, fill the bucket 3 days in advance. Stir it at least twice a day. This allows the chlorine to evaporate.
If you wish to add some extra magnesium content, you can add 1 cup of Epsom salt to the 5-gallon bucket as well. Epsom salt breaks down into magnesium and sulfur, both of which are beneficial to plants. The sulfur will also help prevent snails and slugs from coming around your plants.
Mix all ingredients well in your bucket and put on a lid. Stir at least once or twice per day and let it steep for seven days. This allows the mixture to ferment and develop beneficial bacteria.
Alfalfa tea for plants can be used on a weekly basis as a good fertilizer. You can use it as a foliar spray or a soil drench, as preferred.
Even if you’re just breaking up alfalfa cubes in your water, keep the resulting water! You can allow that to ferment down into alfalfa tea as well. It’s a wonderful fertilizer in its own right.
Where To Buy Alfalfa Meal
Fortunately, it’s widely available, depending on whether you want pressed or loose meal. Loose meal is most common in garden centers. Pelletized alfalfa meal is available at pet shops and feed stores. Cubed is most common at feed stores or livestock suppliers.
Let’s talk about some of the different options available to you, and how to make these work for your garden!
Powdered alfalfa meal is usually available for garden use. Ready to blend into your soil, it provides convenience and ease of use. It can be very dusty, so I recommend wearing a mask while applying it!
There are many brands on the market, but of these, I’m going to highlight the following three, and I’ll explain why.
Dr. Earth Pure & Natural is blended with 5 types of beneficial soil microbes. If you’re trying to build up living, healthy soil, this amendment will help! Guaranteed organic, you won’t have to worry about chemicals here.
Next up, we have Down To Earth. This is purely organic alfalfa meal. No microbial amendments have been added to this mix. If you’re making alfalfa meal tea as a fertilizer, this is a great way to do it!
Finally, we’ve got Greenway Biotech’s alfalfa product. Available in a large 15-pound bag, this provides a lot of meal for a reasonable price. This meal’s been fermented before drying and powdering and is a quick-releasing fertilizer.
All three of these are great choices. But in these cases, they’re probably best for smaller spaces or indoor gardens. The loose meal seems to be more expensive than pelletized or cubed.
Those of us with much larger gardens do still have options, though! Let’s move on to pelleted products and go over their pros and cons.
Let’s talk pellets. Normally, pelleted meal is used as feedstock. In some cases, such as reptiles, it’s also used as edible bedding.
Because of this, it’s important to be careful and to read the ingredients. The goal is to have pellets that are 100% alfalfa or very close to it. Small amounts of molasses or other binder agents are okay. They’ll break down, too!
Zilla Reptile Bedding and Litter is mostly alfalfa meal. It includes a small amount of rice bran, which acts as a binder. What I like about this is the fine pellet size. You can blend the pellets directly into the soil and allow them to break down with this one!
Rogue Quality Feeds Alfalfa Pellets are bulkier in size. These are easiest to use if softened and broken up in water. You can still blend small amounts of these into the soil directly. They’re GMO-free and high quality.
Finally, Oasis Organics Alfalfa Pellets come in a 50-pound bag. These are extremely high-quality pellets, certified organic and GMO-free. The drawback to these is that they can be a bit pricey, but you get what you pay for!
With these pelleted feeds, there is a slight risk of seeds being in the pellets. It’s minor at best, and any sprouts can simply be turned under the soil.
You get much more quantity for your dollar with a pelleted version. It’s slightly more labor-intensive to work with, but if you plan on making the tea anyway, it’s a great option!
If you go to your local feed store, you’ll likely find many different options for cubes. Some will be local brands, while others will be large, national brands. Generally, these are used as horse feed, but may also be available for small animals like rabbits.
I highly recommend Standlee Hay Company Certified Alfalfa Cubes. What’s certified in these is that they are noxious weed-free. To a gardener, that’s of major importance! These have been ground and steamed under high heat to sterilize any seeds they contain.
There are many other brands out there, but some are a blend of timothy hay and alfalfa. Timothy hay doesn’t have the same fertilizer benefits as alfalfa does, so I don’t recommend it for this usage.
If you cannot find certified alfalfa cubes, you can use regular cubes. You may have some weed seeds or alfalfa seeds in those, so be prepared to weed regularly.
Keep in mind, that it’s a lot more work to use cubes. These are usually much too large to add directly to the soil. Break them up in much the same way as you would coconut coir by soaking them in water until they fall apart.
Be sure to use both the water that you’ve soaked your cubes in and the alfalfa remnants in your garden!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are there other names for alfalfa?
A: Alfalfa is known botanically as Medicago sativa. It’s also referred to as lucerne or lucerne hay.
Q: Can you get the benefits of alfalfa without using meal, pellets, or cubes?
A: Yes! Grow a cover crop over your plant beds. Cut it back as it starts to flower, leaving the cut vegetation on the soil surface as mulch. You should be able to cut and grow again a few times. A month before planting time, till it into the soil. The green matter will bulk up your soil and decompose to provide nutrients for your future plants.