A much-loved food source of livestock and humans for centuries, alfalfa is often dubbed “the Queen of forages” due to having the highest nutritional value of any crops grown today.
Depending on your space and needs, home gardeners such as yourself might want to grow year-round alfalfa for animal feed, for delicious sprouts or microgreens, or simply for a cover crop to enrich your soil.
Whatever your purpose with alfalfa, we’ll help you take it from seed to harvest with this guide to varieties, germination and planting, growing for personal consumption, and more!
Alfalfa at a Glance
As a cool-season, drought-resistant plant, the commonly available pure alfalfa variety can tolerate most garden conditions and grows to an average height of up to 1 meter, making it suitable for both cover crops and personal culinary use as sprouts.
For the benefit of farmers, certain varieties have been developed to provide higher yields, improved forage quality, fall dormancy rating (ability to survive winter with limited injury), or tolerance to a specific insect or disease.
Depending on your unique growing purpose, certain characteristics of the following alfalfa varieties may better suit your needs:
- Organic ‘Allstar’ – High yield; high-quality forage; resistant to fusarium and bacterial wilts, anthracnose, and phytophthora root rot; fall dormancy: 3.0; seeding rate: 18-20lbs/acre.
- ‘AmeriStand 446NT’ – Excellent yield, highly resistant to nematodes and pea aphids, highly resistant to root rot and bacterial wilt, fall dormancy: 4.4, seeding rate varies.
- ‘AmeriStand 455TQ RR’ – Excellent forage quality, fast recovery for frequent harvesting, improved salt tolerance of germinating seeds, seeding rate: 15-20lbs/acre.
- ‘Sand Lucerne’ (Medicago sativa L. nothosubsp. varia) – High yield, good forage crop, fall dormancy: 2.0, seeding rate: 17-33lbs/acre.
- ‘AmeriStand 435TQ RR’ – Excellent yield; abundant leaf mass; resistant to spotted alpha aphid, nematode, and pea aphid; fall dormancy: 3.1; seeding rate varies.
- ‘Alfagraze 600 RR’ – Excellent yield and grazing potential, highly resistant to nematodes and fusarium wilt, fall dormancy: 6.0, seeding rate varies.
Best Places To Buy Alfalfa Seeds
Alfalfa Seed Planting & Germination
1. Choose Ideal Planting Site & Test Suitability
Starting in spring for cool climates or early fall for milder areas, choose a spot of well-draining soil that receives full sunlight. Between 6.6 and 7.7 pH is ideal, so test your soil’s levels first.
Purchase seeds already inoculated with rhizobium bacteria – this corrects the bacteria balance in the soil for successful symbiosis.
2. Prepare Soil Bed for Sewing Seeds
Loosen the top 10 inches of soil with a rake, removing all weeds, rocks, and debris from the bed.
Enrich the soil bed with 2-5 inches of compost as needed to correct soil pH (younger compost = acidic, mature well-rotted compost = neutral/alkaline).
Rake the bed lightly in one direction to create furrows for planting.
3. Plant Seeds & Water Well
Sprinkle the seeds 4-6 inches apart – using about 10 grams per 10 square meters – and space each row 18-24 inches apart.
Cover the seeds lightly (½ inch deep) by gently cross-raking the area with a fork/rake. Water area gently to keep the soil moist.
Seeds should begin germinating within 7-10 days.
4. Thin Alfalfa Seedlings Once They Reach 6-12 inches
Once the young sproutings reach 6-12 inches tall, cut back some of the seedlings at soil level to reduce crowding. Continue watering at soil level.
5. Harvest Alfalfa Early for Livestock or Allow To Mature
If growing for livestock feed, harvest before the plants begin flowering for optimal nutrient content and digestibility – look for good green color, leafiness, and pliable stems.
Otherwise, allow alfalfa to grow until purple flowers bloom (60-90 days after planting) and cut the stalks at soil level with sterile pruning shears to keep for mulch.
Turn the top 5 inches or so of soil over, burying any alfalfa crop residue in the bed in prep for next season’s planting.
Growing Alfalfa Sprouts in Water To Consume
- Rinse 2 tablespoons of alfalfa seed to remove any debris and place them in a wide-mouthed sprouting jar.
- Add ½ cup of tepid water to the jar and cover with cheesecloth or mesh jar lid. Allow them to soak overnight (8 hours) in a cupboard or low-lit area.
- After soaking, strain the seeds, and turn the jar on its side to spread out the seeds.
- Rinse the seeds with tepid water 2-3 times daily, shaking the jar gently and draining in between. Repeat rinsing and draining for a further 3 days without soaking overnight, and leave the jar on its side.
- Sprouts should begin forming in 3-5 days. Once they do, move the jar in a spot of indirect sunlight to promote leaf growth and continue rinsing until they reach 3 inches.
- Once large enough, drain them well and place in a food container where they’ll keep in the refrigerator for several days. Rinse before consuming.
5 Tips for Growing Alfalfa From Seed
- Keep the bed weed free until alfalfa plants reach at least 5 inches tall to eliminate growing competition from summer grass.
- Ideally sow the seeds any time after the last frost date in spring or a month before the frost date in fall.
- Don’t grow alfalfa in an area where herbicides have been used in the past 18 months as residual salts may stunt/kill emerging seedlings.
- Ensure water-grown alfalfa sprouts are fully drained throughout the process to prevent mold growth.
- Add a pinch of sea salt when first soaking the seeds to reduce enzyme inhibitors and speed up germination.
Growing & Caring for Alfalfa
Now that you know how to plant your alfalfa seeds and help them germinate into seedlings, it’s time to keep that grower’s success on a roll!
From perfecting your watering schedule to using the best soil, you need to make sure your garden environment is providing everything your alfalfa needs to prosper.
Ensure the soil drains well (doesn’t pool after heavy rainfall).
If this sounds like your garden soil, amend it with plenty of loamy soil and organic matter like shredded leaves and compost – the latter of which will help neutralize pH levels.
In preparing the soil bed, make sure it is fairly smooth, firm and free of large clumps as alfalfa roots can break up in rocky soil.
Other than sprouting alfalfa indoors which requires indirect sunlight, alfalfa grown outdoors needs a planting site that receives full sun for most of the day.
A spot in your garden that gets at least 6 hours sunlight in fall and around 8 hours in midsummer is ideal.
Keep an eye on your garden from morning through to dusk to see which area catches the most rays.
Watering & Fertilizing
Ensure the soil bed is watered enough to remain moist while the seeds germinate, and keep this consistent once the seedlings develop.
Don’t let the soil dry out or become too soggy by checking the first few inches with your finger every few days.
Soak the soil with an inch of water during especially hot/dry periods. A rain gauge can help prevent overwatering.
Agricultural alfalfa crops benefit from high phosphorus and potassium fertilizer in the fall to increase yield, but as long as your garden soil is near neutral, fertilizer won’t be necessary.
Alfalfa Plant & Seed Common Questions:
Can You Eat Alfalfa Seeds Raw?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uncooked alfalfa should be avoided due to the risks of food poisoning from salmonella, listeria, and E.coli present in raw seeds.
Children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are at particular risk from illness.
How Long Do You Soak Alfalfa Seeds?
Alfalfa seeds should be soaked for an overnight period of at least 6 hours to encourage germination and swell nicely, but 8 hours is preferred. Soaking for 12 hours is also acceptable.
Can You Soak Alfalfa Seeds Too Long?
Alfalfa seeds should not be left to soak longer than 24 hours or the seeds can turn sour and begin to decompose.
Note that soaking seeds in hot or warm water as opposed to the recommended tepid will decrease the soaking time.
What Are the Best Alfalfa Seeds To Use for a Cover Crop?
Generic organic alfalfa and Summer alfalfa make an excellent cover crop due to their natural ability to manage soil erosion and improve soil fertility by increasing nutrient levels.
These varieties also decrease the need for synthetic fertilizer.