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Cover Crops, Flowers, Soil Improvement

Hairy Vetch: A Pollinator Plant And Great Cover Crop


14 min read

Hairy vetch is an underappreciated plant that you should consider planting in your garden, possibly as a way to suppress weeds and weed seeds in cash crop production. Its flowers attract pollinators; it adds nitrogen to the soil since it’s a legume, and you can use it as a cover crop to add nutrients to the soil with green manure. While it has plenty of benefits to offer, it’s also just pretty to look at!

Hairy vetch is one of the only vetch species that can be planted in the fall and reach maturity in July. It’s a cold hardy variety that can grow in most of the US, even if the temperatures dip far below freezing! It’s an important plant to keep around if you want to provide food for the pollinators in early spring when most other plants haven’t even sprouted yet.

Let’s look at how you can grow hairy vetch in your garden to make the most of this helpful little plant.

Quick Care Guide

Hairy vetch
Hairy vetch. Source: katunchik
Common NameHairy vetch, fodder vetch, sand vetch, winter vetch, purple bounty
Scientific NameVicia villosa
FamilyFabaceae, or legumes
Height & Spread3 feet tall with vines up to 12 feet
LightFull sun, partial shade
SoilSandy, neutral or alkaline, well-draining
WaterKeep soil moist
Pests & DiseasesVetch bruchid, cutworms, root-knot nematode, southern corn rootworm, soybean cyst nematode, tarnished plant bug, two-spotted spider mites, anthracnose, chocolate spot, downy mildew, powdery mildew

All About Hairy Vetch

A sprig of hairy vetch with flower buds
A sprig of hairy vetch with flower buds. Source: Macleay Grass Man

You may not know much about hairy vetch, but it’s certainly something you should consider planting in your garden or flower beds as a cover crop for nitrogen fixation and reducing runoff at the soil level. It’s often used in weed suppression in corn planting, particularly in cropping systems involving sweet corn. 

Leaving crop residue in the field (mostly small grain residue) and planting vetch cover crops protects soil. New efforts of growing vetch have been coupled with no-till corn production in this regard. Farmers will begin planting seed in late April, allowing vetches to grow and flower in spring, suppressing weeds, and protecting their crops in the process. 

This cold-tolerant plant grows small tubular flowers with a beautiful purple color along with plenty of green foliage, so it’s sure to brighten up your yard while providing some erosion control. It’s a self-seeding winter annual that will come back year after year if you let it, making it an easy plant to care for once it’s established in your garden.

The plant reaches about 3 feet tall on average, but when you give it room to spread or a trellis to climb, the vines can reach up to 12 feet tall. Most vetches, including hairy vetch, are native to Europe and west Asia, although there are over 20 species native to North America. 

If you don’t maintain hairy vetch, it can become slightly weedy since it’s a climber that may choke out other plants at the soil surface with its vigorous growth. It’s only considered invasive in a handful of states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Oregon), so it isn’t of much concern in the US and is generally safe to grow in most gardens.

If your thumb isn’t quite green, hairy vetch should be pretty easy to care for since established plants can survive freezing temperatures. It can also withstand hot climates if it has extra shade and water. There are very few places where this great plant can’t grow, so give it a try!

Caring for Hairy Vetch

Hairy vetch flowers
Hairy vetch flowers. Source: dmott9

Hairy vetch is often utilized en masse by farmers for nitrogen fixation and preventing soil erosion, but you can give it TLC in your backyard garden just as you would with any other plant. With proper sun, water, and pruning, you can make Vicia villosa a gorgeous centerpiece in your yard.

Sun and Temperature

Plant hairy vetch in an area with full sun or partial shade. At least six hours of direct light is best, but the hotter the climate, the more shade it will need. Vetch seed germinates in temperatures of 59-73°F, and young roots grow the best in temperatures of 68-77°F. Planting as soon as the temperatures cool in late summer or early fall will give you the best results.

The latest you should plant hairy vetch, and most cover crops for that matter is no later than 30 days before the ground freezes. Young plants aren’t cold hardy yet and experience winter kill in the frost. 

Established plants, however, can survive snow cover and temperatures as low as -30°F, making it cold hardy down to zone 4. You can grow hairy vetch in zone 3, but you’ll likely need to give it some protection since temperatures can get colder, killing hairy vetch at their coldest.

Water and Humidity

Hairy vetch isn’t too needy when it comes to water. Just keep the soil moist, and it should stay pretty happy!

Water the plants in the early morning or late evening to allow the water some time to seep into the ground before the sun starts to evaporate it. Doing so will allow the plants to get a deeper drink and develop a strong root system. Good irrigation is important for establishing a healthy cover crop. 

Water the plants close to the ground to prevent the leaves from getting wet to prevent pests and diseases from spreading. This step isn’t completely necessary, but it’ll help tremendously if you’re growing a lot of vetch in a small area. Drip irrigation or soaker hose irrigation is best. 

Soil

The hairy vetch’s soil needs – or the lack thereof – are part of what makes it so easy to grow. Remember that vetch is often used as a cover crop to improve poor soils, so it can tolerate less-than-ideal situations. It’s widely adapted to many different soil types. 

Plant vetch in most soil types, including sandy soils. It can tolerate more acidic conditions than other pea family plants can, which makes it great for cover crops. However, neutral or alkaline soils are ideal. Most well-draining soils will suit the plant. If it doesn’t hold water, it will keep your plants happy.

Fertilizing Hairy Vetch

Vicia villosa growing habit
Vicia villosa growing habit. Source: Macleay Grass Man

You likely won’t need to fertilize hairy vetch since it doesn’t require many nutrients and grows freely as a cover crop. In fact, other cover crops like vetch will add nitrogen to the soil. It’s like you’ll only need to feed your vetch fertilizers that are high in phosphorus and potassium, which will help the plant grow sturdy roots and lush foliage.

If you’re growing your vetch cover crop in completely nutrient-deficient soil, a balanced fertilizer that includes nitrogen will help the plant get a head start. You can apply this at the time you plant vetch seed since the seedlings will need nitrogen.

You’ll probably only need to fertilize the plant once a year at the time of planting. Hairy vetch will improve the soil by adding more nitrogen and preventing soil erosion. Therefore, you won’t need to supply nitrogen the following year.

Pruning Hairy Vetch

Pruning is necessary if you don’t want your cover crop to look unkempt or take over other plants. A happy vetch is a growing vetch, and it will send out long vines when it’s in a good mood! You can prevent these vines from taking over your entire garden by pruning them. 

You can cut them whenever you’d like. You don’t have to wait for a certain part of the year. However, if you’re growing for hairy vetch mulch, you’ll want to chop and drop it at the same time as your other cover crops. Wait for the flowers to appear, and cut your cover crops down. Alternatively, allow the first pods to form, then chop them in mid-June, harvesting seed in the process. 

Vetch Propagation

Hairy vetch is self-seeding and will come back year after year as long as it drops seeds. Broadcast seed to propagate this plant and ensure the seeds have good soil contact for germination. Vetch isn’t always the best at producing seeds. The seed pods mature unevenly and can shatter, making collecting them a bit difficult. 

However, allowing the plants to grow where the seeds land will make it easier. Then you can have them as cover crops multiple years in a row. Late seeding in well-drained soils is possible, too, especially where local conditions involve a milder winter. In this case, begin planting your vetch alongside your small grain crop in late August. 

Provide your seeds with a good amount of organic matter, and both your vetch crop and small grains crop will take off. Use a seeding rate of 20 to 25 pounds of seed per acre of crop. If you want to be sure your vetch gets a good start, higher seeding rates will help.  

Troubleshooting

V. villosa in the wild
V. villosa in the wild. Source: Radu Chibzii

Planting vetch cover crops is fairly easy, and the plants have very few problems. But, there are a few potential issues you may run into with the crop as a whole.

Growing Problems

Hairy vetch, like some other cover crops, may have the potential to become invasive. Keeping the vetch vines under control is crucial, especially if you have significant amounts of them. Remove their tendrils from other plants and trim them if they’re spreading over too much land.

If you’d like to keep it under control, do the following. When you’re planting seed, try to sow in smaller amounts if you know your seed will germinate easily. Then ensure you cut it down either in summer, fall, or winter before it goes to seed. This will help you keep other weeds out of the garden while controlling the spreading of seed beyond the planting area.   

Vetch should be grown in moist soil and shouldn’t be allowed to get too soggy or too dry. Wilting or brown leaves are a sign of distress. Feel the soil and take note of your recent watering or rain schedule to figure out if water intake is the problem.

Too much nitrogen might be an issue for your vetch crop if you added fertilizer to the soil. Vetch leaves may turn brown or dark green and start to curl or look weak. Leaves may also turn yellow if they receive too much nitrogen and not enough other nutrients. Water your vetch deeply to help flush out excess nutrients, but be sure the water can drain away, or you’ll risk overwatering your plants.

Pests

Pests aren’t always an issue on hairy vetch, but there are a few you should look out for. They can be susceptible to root-knot nematodes and soybean cyst nematode. Prevention is key and relatively easy – nematodes can’t move around without water, so ensuring that your soil drains well and doesn’t hold excess water is the best way to keep nematodes off of your vetch. 

You can also fight fire with fire, or in this case, fight bad nematodes with a beneficial nematode called Steinernema feltiae (Sf), which is a predatory nematode that feeds on many pests, including root-knot nematodes.

Hairy vetch may also be susceptible to cutworms and southern corn rootworms, both of which can be fought off underground with beneficial nematodes. The Sf nematodes previously mentioned can kill cutworms, and Heterorhabditis bacteriophora (Hb), can kill rootworms. You can also treat cutworms and rootworms with organic or inorganic pesticides or by removing them by hand when you see them.

Two pests that are more difficult to remove by hand are spider mites and the tarnished plant bug. You can wash them off with water, but because they’re so small, you might miss a few. Pesticides like neem oil work well to get rid of these, but staying diligent about weed control and consistent water will help keep these pests at bay.

Finally, the vetch bruchid is another insect pest of these plants. Hailing from the weevil family, vetch bruchids damage the plant’s seed pods as they burrow into the pod and lay eggs. These eggs hatch and larvae eat their way out of the pod as they develop. There are no known treatments for this pest that don’t involve harming beneficial insects. However, unless you live in Oregon, you won’t have to deal with this pest.

Diseases

Diseases usually only show up if there’s a growing problem. Chocolate spot is a fungus problem caused by a kind of fungus called Botrytis. Powdery mildew is another fungal disease that shows up when the leaves get wet.

Hairy vetch can contract other diseases that are plaguing your garden, including downy mildew, anthracnose, and rust diseases.

Most diseases can’t be treated, so you’ll have to throw out infected plants to prevent them from spreading. Prevention is your best bet. Make sure the soil isn’t too wet, and that excess water can easily drain away. Prevent fungal diseases with fungicides, and by making sure your plants aren’t overcrowded. When you water, keep the water on the soil and away from the leaves to lower the chances of diseases spreading.

Frequently Asked Questions

Fading Vicia villosa flowers
Fading Vicia villosa flowers. Source: Miguel Angel

Q: What is hairy vetch good for?

A: Hairy vetch is good for increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil, attracting pollinators, and promoting weed suppression. But it’s also good for planting just to see the pretty flowers!

Q: Is hairy vetch invasive?

A: Hairy vetch is officially invasive in a few states. It has invasive tendencies because it’s a climbing plant that has an easy-to-germinate seed, but when carefully pruned, it won’t harm your garden.

Q: Does hairy vetch come back every year?

A: Hairy vetch is an annual that will only come back if it drops seeds. The plants will die each year.

Q: Is hairy vetch poisonous to humans?

A: Vetch seeds are poisonous to humans and shouldn’t be eaten. Hairy vetch seeds are some of the most toxic.

Q: Is hairy vetch toxic to dogs?

A: Dogs shouldn’t be allowed to eat hairy vetch. Although it’s used to feed livestock, eating too much can cause animals to get sick. It’s safest to keep your dogs away from it.

Q: Do bees like hairy vetch?

A: Bees and other pollinators love hairy vetch, so planting it is a great way to bring pollinators to the garden.

Q: What is the difference between hairy vetch and common vetch?

A: Hairy vetch is more winter-hardy than common vetch and produces more seeds. If you live in a cold climate, planting it in late summer (late July or early August) will allow it to grow over winter.

Q: Can hairy vetch be mowed?

A: You can mow hairy vetch to turn it into manure or compost to improve the soil or to get rid of it. Mow it before it develops seeds to prevent them from coming back.

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