Alfalfa & Roses – A Love Story
by Rayford Reddell

Alfalfa is the only forage crop known to have been cultivated prior to the time of recorded history. Although no one is certain, it’s generally believed to have first been grown in Iran, then, thanks to the Persian legions, in Greece. The invaders praised the nutritional value of alfalfa loudly for how well it filled out their chariot horses and how quickly it fattened their cattle. Soon, alfalfa grew in Italy; throughout Europe. Its debut in America, however, was anything but stellar.

IMG_6842_smBecause of acid soils and high humidity along the Atlantic seaboard, early colonists couldn’t grow the crop well and attempts to cultivate it were almost abandoned. Then, the 1849 California gold rush hit surprise paydirt when it was discovered that alfalfa grows as well in the western United States as it does anywhere in the world. Not only was considerable research promptly conducted to learn how to properly fight diseases and insects, cultural practices were put into place that guaranteed the production of more forage and seed. Today, the crop has become so popular in California that alfalfa is known in many agricultural circles as the “Queen of the Forages.”

Besides being praised in the world of agriculture, alfalfa has become a hit in horticulture, too, particularly in rosedom, which is why I sing its praises as a mulch for garden roses. It does far more than retard weeds.

IMG_6845_smAs it disintegrates, alfalfa yields an alcohol called triacontanol to which roses take a particular shine. When it reaches their roots, roses act as though they’ve been aching for a stiff drink and manifest their appreciation with basal breaks, rosarian lingo for new growth emanating from the bud union (the landmark created by budding hybrid roses onto rootstock). We rosarians live in hopes of basal breaks, they’re the ticket for increased vigor and floriferousness. An annual mulching with alfalfa virtually guarantees such spirited developments.

Be very careful, however, in selecting the form of alfalfa you intend to admit to your garden. Never even consider any form of alfalfa with the additives such as sugar, essential in rabbit food.

Although I’ve had no difficulty locating alfalfa in it’s pure state (no additives), I never entirely approved of the main three forms in which it was commercially available. Alfalfa hay has the same problem all hay has when used as mulch, it mats after waterings and causes run-off of water intended to drain into the ground just under rosebushes.

I don’t like alfalfa cubes either, but not because they’re not nutritious, they are, once they break down, that is. Until they disintegrate, however, they look clumsy at the feet of well pruned rosebushes.

So, I’ve always settled on alfalfa pellets, which look exactly like rabbit food even though no sugar has been added. My roses have so enjoyed the nutritional value of alfalfa that for years I’ve recommended sprinkling two two-pound coffee cans full of pellets around the drip line of all established rosebushes.

IMG_6864_smEven though I never considered withholding it, I’ve always slightly resented pelleted alfalfa , not because of its khaki green color that makes it look like foreign matter compared to other mulch materials, which are usually some shade of brown. In time, pellets too, turn brown, but in the meanwhile they look out of place. So that I don’t have to watch them break down more slowly than I like, I rake mulch away from bushes, sprinkle on the pellets, then cover them again with additional mulch materials (compost, wood shavings, or aged fowl manure). My roses love me for the slightly labor-intensive effort.

Only recently did I find the perfect form of alfalfa for the rose garden “fines.” Technically, fines are “of no impurities, refined.” Fines could also be called chopped alfalfa cubes because that’s precisely what they are. Because they’re chopped, however, they seem more at ease in a mulched garden than do whole pellets or the even larger cubes.

Fines are difficult to locate, however, except from large alfalfa growers, who usually require substantial minimum order. You can make your own, of course, especially if you have access to a shredder. As it happens, I garden next to a dairy and the staff uses shredders regularly and shred a batch of cubes for me.

I still use about the same amount: two two pound coffee cans full, scattered around the bases of established rosebushes. The glory of using fines is that they’re so easily mixed into existing mulch. Like alfalfa pellets, fines are dark khaki green, but because of their diminutive sizes, when well raked in, colors blend nicely with those of other mulch materials, even compliment them before they, too, turn brown.

Handling Basal Baskets

If you intend to allow alfalfa to stimulate new basal breaks in your rosebushes, you should know how to properly handle such wondrous growths. The special treatment I recommend may seem painful at first, but not after you witness its rewards.

If basal breaks are allowed to develop all on their own, they produce a candelabra of bloom on a thick stalk and may be so heavy that you have to stake them. The main problem, however, is that they’re unwielding and produce inferior blooms. To prevent this and to get a dividend, do what rosarians call “snapping.” When new main canes are twelve to fifteen inches tall, pinch them back a few inches. New growth is so pliable it can literally be snapped off. Until you get a natural feel for snapping by hand, I suggest using shears and making cuts at the tried-and-true spot above a set of five leaflets pointing away from the center of the bush. Snapping does wonderful things. First, it makes what would have been a candelabra a manageable long-stemmed rose. Also, because the bush is so frisky with the vigor of new growth, a second shoot soon develops just under the first. Third breaks often occur, too, but even if they don’t, two healthy stems are surely better than one.

If you long for new rose basal breaks, try alfalfa in any of its traditional forms: hay, cubes, or pellets. Nurseries specializing in roses carry them, as do many feed stores (just make certain that you don’t end up with sugary rabbit food).

Best of all, if you can get your hands on some alfalfa fines, give them a try. However you apply it, your roses are bound to bless you for an annual feed.