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Roses & Alfalfa: A Love Story

Excerpts from The San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, July 7, 1999

Forage Crop Makes Rosebushes Thrive
by Rayford Reddell, special to The Chronicle

Alfalfa. Isn’t that the stuff that gets made into hay and is fed to livestock?

Turns out that’s only part of the story. Alfalfa can also be a big boon to gardeners – by making their roses happier and healthier.

It’s a crop with a long history. Because of acid soils and high humidity along the Atlantic seaboard, early colonists couldn’t grow alfalfa well and nearly abandoned it. But it came west with the Gold Rush and flourished, and today the crop has become so popular in California that it is known in many agricultural circles as the “Queen of the Forages.”

Besides being praised in agriculture, alfalfa has become a hit in horticulture, too, particularly in rosedom. As mulch for garden roses, it does far more than retard weeds.

As it disintegrates, alfalfa yields an alcohol, 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).

Rosarians live for basal breaks; they’re the ticket for increased vigor and flower production. An annual mulching with alfalfa nearly guarantees such spirited developments.

Some Warnings

Alfalfa hay has the same problem all hay has when used as a mulch: It mats after watering and causes runoff of water intended to drain into the ground just under rosebushes. Also, alfalfa cubes, until they disintegrate, look clumsy at the feet of well pruned rosebushes.

So, I’ve settled on alfalfa pellets, which look exactly like rabbit food even though no sugar has been added. Alfalfa meal will work even faster.

My roses have so enjoyed the nutritional value of alfalfa that for years I’ve recommended sprinkling two cups full of pellets around the drip line of all established rosebushes.

In time, pellets turn brown, but in the meanwhile they look out of place under the bushes. So I rake mulch away from the bushes, sprinkle on the pellets, and then cover them 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 an even better form of alfalfa for the rose garden: “meals.” Alfalfa meal is pure chopped alfalfa.  Because they’re chopped, however, they seem more at ease in a mulched garden than do whole pellets or the even larger cubes.

I still use about the same amount – two cups full scattered around the bases of established rosebushes. Alfalfa meal is dark khaki green, but because of their size, when well raked in, their color blends nicely with those of other mulch materials.

Last update: 07/16/2022

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