Hairy Vetch: A Cover Crop

Kayla opening 50lb bag of Hairy Vetch

Kayla opening 50lb bag of Hairy Vetch

Kayla planted this  garden with hairy vetch on New Year’s Day.  It took her about ten minutes to plant this space with a nice cover crop.  Her ten minutes of planting will reap a lot of rewards in this garden.

Hairy vetch is a cover crop.  Cover crops are designed to:

  • improve soil fertility through nitrogen fixation (also called “green manure”)
  • provide a “living mulch” to other plants;
  • control weeds;
  • provide nutritious, protein-rich animal fodder;
  • attract beneficial predators; and
  • increase the bio-diversity of the soil.

    Bando loves to be in the picture

    Bando loves to be in the picture

In Rockport, hairy vetch is best planted between November and February.  Vetch is winter hardy, and a freeze will not kill it.  Up north, they plant vetch in August or September, before the first killing frost, and the vetch winters under a thick blanket of snow, and resumes growing in the spring when the snow is gone. 

It takes about 90 days for vetch to fully mature, and create beautiful purple blooms.  When the vetch is ready, you can cut it down for a garden full of thick mulch, and then plant vegetables in it.  By using vetch, no herbicides, soil preparation, or mulching is needed to plant vegetables.  Or, the vetch can be plowed under.  Or, animals (chickens and pigs especially) can be grazed on the vetch, to eat it to the ground.  Grazing animals on a vetch patch is one of the best things a gardener can do to improve soil health. 

Additionally, other plants can be combined with vetch.  Vetch can be used as a companion planting with tomatoes or a Three Sisters garden.  Gardeners often mix winter rye with vetch, as a premium cover crop that also makes excellent animal fodder.   

Vetch Seeds after 7 Days

Vetch Seeds after 7 Days

Nitrogen Fixation

Vetch takes nitrogen from the atmosphere, carries it down to the plant’s roots, and “fixes” it to bacteria in the soil.  The nitrogen is then available to the next crop planted in that soil.  This is called the “green manure” effect.  I slept through every science class from 1st grade through college, but this dynamic fascinates me.  Vetch adds between 90 and 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  That is an enormous amount of fertilizer created simply by growing a plant.

Modern large-scale farms use “chemical nitrogen fixation”, also called “industrial nitrogen fixation”, to add nitrogen.  In other words, they use synthetic chemicals to fix nitrogen.  This is how big corporate farms (and many small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners) fertilize their crops.

Before these chemicals were invented–basically all of human history prior to World War II–farmers used “biological nitrogen fixation”, or cover crops, to fix nitrogen into the soil.  

Thomas Jefferson, in his Farm Book and letters, writes extensively about the benefits of cover crops.  In a letter to George Washington, dated June 19, 1796, Jefferson writes, “…but true winter vetch is what we want extremely…”  Jefferson routinely rotated  vetch or clover in his gardens, plowing them under in the spring, or grazing animals on the mature crop.

Before chemicals, all farmers used cover crops and manure.   Today, it is rare to find a farm that uses cover crops and manure to grow vegetables.        

Other Benefits of Vetch

In addition to its benefits as green manure, vetch also prevents weeds by choking them out and serving as a living mulch.  Because vetch is about 20% protein, which is extremely protein-rich for a plant, it makes excellent animal fodder.  Vetch also makes a good home for beneficial predators, and keeps them patrolling the garden between vegetable plantings.  Bees love the purple blooms.

Hand Broadcast in Sweeping Motion

Hand Broadcast in Sweeping Motion

How to Plant

Vetch can be hand broadcast, which simply means to throw it across the garden.  Start in one corner and work your way across, evenly spreading the seeds.  You can cover a full acre with about 25 to 35 pounds of vetch seeds.  If you are planting a smaller area, estimate the pounds of seeds you will need for that space.  Place the seeds you will plant in a pot or bag, and carry that with you as you plant the garden.  You can use the declining volume of seeds in your pot to determine how much to cast, and thus make sure you achieve an even and adequate covering.  Save the remaining seeds in a cool place until the next planting.

7 days after planting

7 days after planting

The seeds require good seed-to-soil contact to ensure germination and root development.  Notice the seed in this picture sends a shoot up, and a root into the soil.  You should till up your garden space prior to planting, rather than broadcasting seeds into a field full of weeds or grass.  Water the vetch planting once or twice per week after broadcasting, until the plants are established.  Hairy vetch is drought tolerant, but needs some moisture to get started.   

Three Gardens Behind, Four in Front

Three Gardens Behind Kayla

A Cover Crop View

We had just moved chickens off of this 2,000 square foot garden, before Kayla went out to plant it with vetch.  The chickens had eaten down all the remnants of corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, melons, herbs, and wildflowers, to leave a completely bare space.  Then we quickly formed the rows you see behind Kayla.  We will plant Three Sisters in these rows once the vetch grows thick. 

We will give an update on this garden, and post pictures, to show how the vetch develops, and to see what kind of return we get from Kayla’s ten minutes of planting on New Year’s Day.

Finished Planting in Ten Minutes

Finished Planting in Ten Minutes

7 responses

  1. Hello, we love being on this email list! Even though we live in Port A in a condo, I still miss gardening. Do you ever allow people to come by your farm? I have bought your pork and eggs and such, from the health food store in Rockport, yummy!

    Thanks, Pam Klee

  2. Thank you so much Pam for shopping at Kimmi’s store! Thank you for enjoying our products! We are planning a farm party for the spring, we are not sure when, and that would be a good time to visit. We had a planting party in December, and it was great fun, and we will do something like this again soon, and send an update well in advance.

    I hope you are enjoying this beautiful day! A condo in Port A must be a pretty good place to enjoy it in!

  3. Recently I attended a class you taught in Ingleside. It was the best experience learning from you. I have so many questions! When and where will you be teaching your next class?

    Getting our garden ready will take some time. But for the first time it feels like we will be more successful than in the past. That’s because of you.

    At the class you mentioned planting turnips for animals to eat. If I buy the bulk 50# bags of seeds some people use for forage, are those as suitable for humans as the turnips grown from name brand packets? If so, I might pick them before turning loose the animals.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Cindy! The turnip seeds in the bulk 50 lb bag are certainly just fine to harvest for yourself OR to let pigs forage them! The bulk bags just mean more seeds, and 50 lbs of turnips seeds will make a LOT of turnips for your small garden! 50 lbs will plant a field for you!

      The brand name of seeds is not nearly as important as how well the seeds were cared for (stored at room temperature or cooler and in a dry environment). The popular turnip variety in South Texas is “purple top”. I have planted five or six different varieties, some with multiple variegated colors and some that produce smaller sweeter turnips. All were good, but my favorite for percent of seeds that sprout and vigorous growing is the purple top. Thanks Cindy!

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