Anybody tried alfalfa as a groundcover?

Hi all,
Has anyone following this newsgroup tried to use alfalfa as a lawn/groundcover plant? I'm trying it now (in the Central Valley of California, USA) and it seems promising. If anybody can offer experiences or insights I'd be grateful.
The variety I'm using is called Nomad, developed for direct grazing on non irrigated rangeland. It tolerates (at least for the first season) being mowed at 2" height and makes a reasonably neat lawn. Unmowed it'll look weedy, with stems about a foot high, but that's not a problem unless it gets into flowerbeds.
The only disappointment so far is that the flowers are yellow, which looks like many common weeds. Purple flowers found on "industrial" alfalfas are much more attractive and can be spectacular in mass.
If anybody's tried something of the sort I'd be grateful for your experience.
Thanks for reading,
bob prohaska
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hi Bp,
i use alfalfa as a green manure source, which gets chopped once, twice or three times a season depending upon how much energy and time i get for the task.
90% of what i chop is left behind to help improve the soil structure and keep the worms fed. it is helping a great deal.
i've observed alfalfa (the regular kind with the purple flowers) growing in grass lawns and it's ok if kept trimmed on a regular basis.
songbird
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What mow height do you use?
Thanks,
bob
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User Bp wrote:

sometimes two inches or less, but like you say in your first post, it does have a woody stem when cut infrequently and would hurt to walk on barefoot.
the neighbor has a clump or two growing in his lawn that gets mowed regularly and it seems to be ok.
i like it because it does get purple flowers, but they don't show up much at a distance, however the smell is divine.
mine is mixed with birdsfoot trefoil (a bright yellow flower), the patches are just now starting to bloom so it is looking like bee heaven out there.
songbird
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A slightly prickly surface is probably ok, it may help to discourage dogs.
What is the name of the variety you're using?
Many thanks,
bob prohaska
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User Bp wrote:

heh...

it was the generic alfalfa that was sold in bulk by a local grain elevator. i'm not sure it has a variety name. grows to 18-24 inches if not cut. it will likely be a long time before i get back to them to check it out, but i'm sure you can find generic alfalfa almost anyplace there is a grain elevator/feed store.
in order to get it going in an established field or grassy area you'll need to disturb the soil enough that it can get going, it is not a fast grower at first, i often plant it as a mix with other cover plants (golden flax is pretty, buckwheat is a great cover crop and the bees love both of them when they are left to bloom). i'd avoid red clover in the mix.
songbird
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Agreed on the red clover, it didn't do well.
I've taken to putting alfalfa seed down each time a weed is dug up. The issue of how well the alfalfa is doing got a little confusing lately. Trefoil plants that looked like alfalfa but had yellow flowers began to appear in numbers in the yard, and I declared success. Then, some pot-grown alfalfa (whose identity is much more certain) revealed purple flowers. No purple flowers yet in the lawn. I'm not sure what the story is at present. Maybe it'll bloom later, maybe it all got eaten. Snails, slugs and sowbugs seem to be major problems. I'm trying to avoid chemical warfare, mostly for sake of the earthworms. Principles of sustainable horticulture might have to be sacrificed on the alter of expediency.
8-)
Thanks for reading,
bob prohaska
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User Bp wrote:

it did too well here and took over any place it could. i suspect we get a fair amount more of rain than you do.

i was wondering about what you were calling yellow flowers alfalfa as i'd never heard of that before. glad that confusion is figured out. :)
the alfalfa here blooms a week or two later than the trefoil (our alfalfa just started blooming this past week).

it may take more time to get established or just be too arid for it to get going without irrigation (or both). i didn't see any blooms on the alfalfa i seeded in one summer until the following year.

if you have snails, slugs then you have a lot more moisture than i was figuring... hmm, but believe me they are not usually a problem with a field as the other creatures will eat them (snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, etc.).
i would consider it a good sign that you have all this life going on. no need to use chemicals, if you want to cut down on snail and slug populations then you need to get less moisture, which would mean more frequent and lower trimming. which to me is rather defeating the purpose of having a field of such plants. i want them to grow, put down the deep tap root, and then once in a while they get clipped to simulate grazing and that pulse of roots dying back and then regrowing, along with the nitrogen from the decaying leaves and stems, well it all goes to feed the worms and soil creatures and that is visible after several years.
the patch i'm growing did not have any organic matter on top of the soil as it was sloped and very compacted, it mostly grew queen-annes-lace and a mix of other weeds, some of them i didn't want spreading into other gardens (sow thistle, globe thistle,...), it was also starting to form an erosion gully. after i did a bit of tilling to break up the surface so that i could have enough soil to move to level it then it was planted with alfalfa and trefoil. i kept it weeded the rest of the season and forgot about it for the winter. what i did not know was that mouse-eared chickweed and a small blue flower were going to take over growing underneath the snow. by the next spring all the initial seedlings were being smothered by the undesired weeds. so i spent some time the next spring weeding around the edges and gradually getting inwards and through the whole patch to get rid of most of them. so the alfalfa and trefoil could get well established before the heat of the summer came along.
a year later i made the mistake of scattering garlic scapes/bulbules throughout the patch. since then i've harvested a lot of garlic from there and decided to take it all out when i come across it. between digging most of what i could get out last year and going through it again this spring i've reduced the garlic population by quite a bit, but it will probably take a few more years to remove all of it.
when i'm removing garlic i'm also opening up small patches to be planted and so i seed them in with daikon radishes, turnips and whatever else veggies that may be interesting to grow. this is unfenced area so can be raided by plenty of wild- life, i'm trying to grow things outside the fenced gardens to keep some of the critters from being so interested in the fenced area. so far it is helping, but always more to keep doing to continue the experiments and increasing diversity.
oh, and i forget to mention before that if you let the alfalfa and trefoil grow longer so that i they get a fairly woody stem before trimming them back then you get those stems as a longer lasting organic mulch on top of the soil. trim sooner and they get eaten to nothing by the worms/etc fairly soon, but it also depends a lot upon your soil moisture, rains, etc.
also, i'm not sure what the problem with pill bugs might be, they tend to eat only decaying organic matter or very ripe fruits that hit the ground. not much else that i've noticed. i don't consider them pests, they tell me that i've not picked the strawberries often enough. i just knock them off the berry if it is otherwise sound and then trim off the chewed part when prepping the berries.

:)
it's a fun topic for me as i keep trying different things and enjoy watching how the soil improves. before in that same area there wasn't much worm activity or organic material on the surface, now it has a fair amount of stems slowly decaying and much more worm and other life going on.
i keep telling myself that i should get a series of pictures i've taken over the years of the patch posted to my website, but as of yet... it's a winter or rainy day project...
still you can see some pictures of the patch in question at the website www.anthive.com in a few places (look for NE corner shots).
songbird
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There are yellow-flowered cultivars of alfalfa, usually called medicago falcata, or Siberian alfalfa. I still don't know what the yellow flowers are, but on close inspection the leaves are slightly more rounded than those of the alfalfa

I hope you're right!

The climate here is Mediterranean, 19" rainfall in a typical winter, this past year was only 10", but irrigation is heavy. Frost a few times each winter but no snow. Standard subdivision, single-familiy homes on 1/4 acre lots, mine's a little smaller. That really puts a crimp on the small insectivores. No skunks, no possums, never seen a mole or shrew. Lots of squirrels, some roof rats, plenty of birds (all day active) so the snails, slugs and whatnot have close to a free pass.

Here we do such things by turning down the sprinkler timer 8-)

Your point about several years is well-taken. I'm trying to gently shift a 50+ year old lawn to a new paradigm. It isn't a quick project.

The heavy irrigation common around here produces loads of pillbugs, which do seem to attack certain things. Clover survived about a week before disappearing _during_daylight_hours_ when only pillbugs were seen to be active. By that evidence I charge them....

The place looks much wetter than around here, unless you're irrigating at least an inch per week.
Thanks for reading,
bob prohaska

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User Bp wrote:

ah, ok, thanks. :)

:) it can be as simple as just mowing once in a while when it looks ragged. the natives and wind-blown seeds that can adapt to that regimen will then dominate and cycle with the rainfall.

hmm, never seen that happen here on all clovers, but some clovers will die back after they grow and bloom, in the hot part of summer here our white clover does that for a while and then pops back in the cooler fall or when more rains come.

the heavy soil holds water or keeps it from soaking in quickly.
we average about 3 inches of rain a month, but do have bouts of drought at times. i don't usually irrigate anything but the main fenced gardens and any new plantings or seedlings i want to make sure will make it. otherwise, yes, we're right in the middle of two flowing drainage ditches and a high water table most of the time. those ditches are like wildlife highways, we rarely go a day without seeing some kind of creature.
songbird
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