When should I add alfalfa pellets and fertilizer?

Pleasant Grove, UT

I am preparing two beds which I plan to plant next spring. I've tilled in 4 inches of organic matter, some balanced fertilizer. a little bone meal and want to add some alfalfa pellets. What is your opinion as to adding the alfalfa this fall or waiting until spring? Do you think that fertilizer added in the fall remains and becomes incorporated in the soil or is lost during the winter?

Mid-Cape, MA(Zone 7a)

Paul, I hope somebody has an answer to your question, because I always wonder about this myself. . . I keep reading about fertilizing with alfalfa or other fetrilizer (or sprinkling compost) around bulbs, perennial shrubs, etc., in the fall--but does this really do much over the long cold winter of our area? Or should we just wait until spring to do so?

North Ridgeville, OH(Zone 5b)

I add soil amendments to my beds in the fall & let the worms & microorganisms & plants incorporate everything over the months. By springtime, everything takes off.


I always added half of my determined needs in the fall just before planting the cover crop. The remaining half was applied when the cover crop got tilled in ahead of planting. My additives were all organic or mineral so it is known to have the ability to stick around for three years or longer. If you should over apply the organic content simply increases and waits until it is used. Little or nothing is ever lost in a nicely ballanced organic soil that is not in a flood plain or the middle of a surface water run off.

At some point along the way the organic content will test 5% or more. At this point you can easily move into no till with permanent mulches for the best of all gardening conditions. My highest ever organic tested content reached 17%. That was the year I grew my heaviest giant pumpkin and longest long gourd.....nearly nine hundred pounds and ninety nine inches. I had been under permanent mulch no till five years prior to growing my two best competitive items. I had been working on soil building seriously for ten years. My big secret was compost, manure and leaves in a ten to one ratio and full patch cover crops every year. It took lots of work but the results were extremely pleasing for my efforts.

Pleasant Grove, UT

Thanks for the responses. Today I put most of one of my compost bins on an empty bed. It was only partially broken down but I'll til it in tomorrow and I'm sure it will be broken down by spring. This pile was oak leaves, some grass clippings and produce trimmings we get in large quantities from serving at The Bishops Store House which is a LDS version of a food bank. Leaves are just starting to fall here and I'll save them in bins to use in compost piles next year. Wish it were as easy to improve an established bed full of plant established plants (peonies phlox.iris, etc.) as it is an empty bed. The best I can do is put a little organic matter between the plants.


As to your extablished beds. I use ground up fresh green wood because that is our best buy any way the materials availble are considered. We get a load of about seven yards for $120.00 delivered by the tree trimming companies. That puts about two inches over ninety percent of our flower beds and foundation plantings. We do this every other year to maintain about a two inch cover mulch. We are counting years in our late seventies so hired help has to be used to distribute the mulch. The only other option we see for us would be to close our beautiful beds and return them to grass. We can get this material at our municiple waste center free but it is not desirable to us because it frequently has bad weed seed content.

Flowers and foundation plantings do not need much if any fertilizer. An exception to that statement would be blueberries that produce on new growth. If you use mycorrhizae you definately need no fertilizer on flowers and foundation plantings with very few exceptions.

Pleasant Grove, UT

docgipe...enjoyed your post. Common wisdom would suggest that ground fresh green wood would need additional nitrogen to break down the wood. Your years of successful gardening would refute that commonly held view. I'm looking at 70 in the headlights but gardening keeps me sane.


Paul...........when those thoughts come out the way you have heard them folks who just do not know are doing the speaking. Anything that once lived laid on the soil immediately goes to work to create a little compost factory about half an inch thick between the soil and the mulch. If it is not disturbed it keeps on working until it all rots and is consumed by the biology in the soil. If you add to it from time to time it never goes to sleep. Like the Timex watch advertisement back in the 1950's......it just keeps on ticking.

Now if you stir it up with the soil....well that's a whole other story and can involve tying up the nitrogen or needing nitrogen in some form to more quickly make the wood pieces break down. The trick is just being lazy. Toss it on and just step back for a year or so.

Hey there...........gotcha by six years, packing oxygen 24/7 so I have to figure out the easy way to do things.


Cape Cod Gardener....................If you have a good application of ground wood or leaves I would save the pellets and organic fertilizer for the food garden. Then you could do it any time. Some folks religiously fertilize lightly with the spring garden prep chores. Often they add a bit more about six weeks later.

My personal preference is to split my additives and plant a cover crop in the fall prep. The other half goes in with the spring prep. In my later years I was no-till using permanent mulches. In this time period I just put it all on top like some in the fall and some in the spring. My mulch at that time was mostly leaves and spoiled hay. If I double cropped a row I would add a bit more to just that row when I replanted it. I had super high organic content so my additives were almost optional. I used organic fertilizer with low numbers like 4-2-4. One of my mentors taught us that the numbers did not matter so much as long as they all three did not add up to more than ten. He liked 1-1-2. I liked the 4-2-4 because it was available close to me.

Incidently I darn near always out produced my chemical slinging buddies. How much? Normally about fifty to sixty percent more food on the same amount of square feet. Remember I worked the same soil for an excess of thirty five years and never used harsh chemicals. More important my food had goodness quality in the body of the fruit that the chemical grower just simply can not get. This is a proven fact in many tests.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> What is your opinion as to adding the alfalfa this fall or waiting until spring?

Usually I believe that anything like alfalfa needs time to decompose and become soil, and hence is best added early enough to break down before the seedlings need it. Not everyone agrees - some plant in decomposing straw bales or "lasagna" layers, which I think of as humus or "duff". But apparently it works!

Another factor is "how much nitrogen was in what you already tilled under?" It sounds as if you have already added enough nitrogen that the organics you tilled under will decompose, absorbing and holding the nitrogen. BUT, if what you tilled was "too brown" and "not enough N", then it might NEED more N (alfalfa pellets) to continue decomposing without depleting existing soil N.

Either way, I would add any green stuff like alfalfa in the fall rather than the spring - just my opinion and not a very experienced one.

>> Do you think that fertilizer added in the fall remains and becomes incorporated in the soil or is lost during the winter?

Soluble or pellet fertilizer, if you use or need it, might well be partly leached away during a rainy winter. My soil stinks, the plants need all the help they can get, and I fertilize in spring and early summer, lightly but several times per month. I get a lot of rain - like plenty of runoff at least weekly. I've thought about covering my beds over winter just to keep them from being leached and eluviated excessively.

If Utah is as dry as it's reputation, and your soil isn't sandy or fast-draining, I would guess that you need not worry greatly about when to add (soluble or pellet) fertilizer. Your soil ought to hold most of what you add, especially since you have already added lots of organics, which are second only to clay particles for holding added soluble mineral nutrients.

(I mean a small amount of clay contained in well-aerated and well-draining loam. Impervious solid clay doesn't hold much of anything becuase nothing can get into it or grow in it. A little clay in well-structured soil is like an ion-exchange buffer that grabs onto mineral ions when they are plentiful and releases them gradually as they are depleted from soil water by plant roots or leaching.)

If you didn't have much organic content yet, too much sand, too little clay, too much rain, too freely draining like raised beds that water runs out of, it seems to me that anything that dissolves is subject to leaching out - either straight down if you drain well, or running off downhill if you grow on top of something poorly draining.

And I've read that most farmers and mnay gardeners believe that most crops grown in average or poor soil grow faster and larger if fertilized right before (or during) rapid growth periods. Fall fertilizer probably benefits established perennials most, not next year's plantings.

Bio-organic farmers and gardeners prefer to create good soil and not depend on fertilizing. I think that's very smart, if you can acquire or make enough mulch and compost to make rich, organic soil, and keep it that way.

I keep buying and making and hauling and spreading as much compost as I can, but I'll still be improving my base soil from "very terrible" to "poor" 5-10 years from now. Maybe by the time I reach "poor" I can rely more on top-dressing and less on turning under.

Sometimes a box of Miracle-Grow or a 20-pound bag of fertilizer is cheaper and easier to bring home and apply than many cubic yards of compost.



The problem is that it is not now cheaper to do that. It is far more easy to build the soil over a period of time.
If your soil is so bad that you can not build it you would be the first I ever observed that could not build it and gain both soil quality and crop improvement which is financial gain any way you look at it.

You can maintain sickly growth and biological destruction in your patch by continuing the use of harsh chemicals I call poison chemicals. The choice is yours. When measuring quality the quality by tested measurement of the eaten product must be considered. There are no longer any arguments in these simple decisions. The tests have all been done. The best quality food does not come from produce raised with chemicals. The comparison is not even close. In 1950 we would all die of starvation if we changed at that time. Now we know the real profits and quality come from the practices that chemical folks said would starve the world. Some still dig up that anchient claim.

I have seen a garden or two in downtown Manhattan created on the roof tops. Every grain of soil and soil building organic elements and minerals too went up the elevator one lard can full at a time. I have seen simple window boxes in the same apartments growing herbs mostly and an occasional radish or onion. Those city folks may gather up a lunch bucket full of soil in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and tote it all the way back into the city just to be able to grow a little something fresh and free of agriculture practices of this day.

A very large portion of Florida truck farms have completely converted from the chemical methods to certified organic principles. California too! They are doing quite well and expanding rapidly to meet the demand for healthy food. None of them turned a switch from poison practices to healthy patches. It took years yet they maintained profits and improved all aspects of quality in the process.

Most if not all of the gardeners I have coached were able to make visible gains the first year and significant gains by the third year. Granted these soils were not beat to near death before changes were in place.
Granted some of those gardens were well under a thousand square feet. We still have cattle manure that can be obtained easily. We have lots of suburban lawn grasses and leaves available for the asking. This is why I feel very comfortable saying, " any home gardener or small truck farm can convert to organic principles if they choose to do so".

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I think I agree with 80-90% of what you're saying, and we may be speaking somewhat at cross-puposes. I think that you are saying that a bio-organic approach is better in many ways, long-term, than relying on fertilization and hoping that soil remains productive.

I'm saying that it will take me many years to acquire and spread enough OM to bring most of my yard up from a point that literally won't even support crabgrass to the kind of rich soil quality (nutrient content, tilth, areation, drianage etc) that does not even benefit from added fertilizer.

I agree with you that any kind of decent soil needs organic content, and that lots of OM is much better than very little, until the soil reaches 5% or more OM. Always have thought that.

>> It took years

That is my own experience also, and my main point.

>> visible gains the first year and significant gains by the third year.

Exactly. I'm in year 2 1/2, and my gains have been from "very very terrible" to "bad".

>> Granted these soils were not beat to near death before

You are probably talking about abused farmland that at least WOULD grow something, and I'm taking about a plot that had ALL topsoil (and much subsoil) bulldozed off, leaving pure clay, pebbles and rocks.

If you're disputing that farmers could have any validty in their belief that crops on poor soils benefit from fertilizer, I'll agree to disagree.

If you're just saying that they would be wise in the long run to invest in LOTS of OM instead of ongoing fertilization, you may very well be right. You say there is lots of irrefutable proof about quality, and I don't know.

But the majority of the agricultural system seem not yet to be converts. Maybe there are short-sighted economic reasons playing into it, like they would have to invest more for several years, and lose profits now to gain profits and quality later. Or maybe it is all stubburn refusal to change! Maybe it is quite costly to add 6" of compost to thousands of acres, or hundreds of square miles, and their boards of directors won't approve it.

I see a lot of software business decisions being made that put short-term profits above anything, including what I think of as "quality" or "sanity"!

>> We still have cattle manure that can be obtained easily.

I wish I did also!

>> We have lots of suburban lawn grasses and leaves available for the asking

Indeed I have it on my list to do, to find landscapers and beg clippings from them. So far, the nighbors I have asked for clippings save them, and anyway, in a manufactured home park the "lawns" are more ike "postage stamps".

I live in-between Seattle and Everett, and I think "urban" is a better description than "suburban".

>> downtown Manhattan created on the roof tops. Every grain of soil and soil building organic elements and minerals too went up the elevator one lard can full at a time. I have seen simple window boxes i
>> a lunch bucket full of soil

Exactly! That's why I say that I agree about 80-90% with what you're saying. I am trying to amend several beds with diomensions ranging from 2 feet to 15 feet, one lunch bucket at a time.

Perhaps I am too ambitious, trying to create as many somewhat-adequate flower beds as I can, over the next few years, rather than just 10-20 square feet of really, REALLY rich soil that has no need for fertilizer.

Any OM I can get my hands on goes into the soil, onto the soil, or into my microscopic compost heap.
I will keep adding OM to soil until it gets to the goal that you describe - organic-rich soil.
As I approach that, I will gradually do less turning and fertilizing.
But I do want more growing space than I have, and I am impatient.

But trying to grow things in POOR SOIL works better if some NPK is made available. If you carry things home in a lunch bucket or the trunk of an Escort, results do come faster if one of those things is fertilizer.

I agree with you too little OM degrades soil structure. I want to add all that I can afford or scrounge, and all my legs can haul around, as fast as I can.

Too little OM and no added nutrients starves soil and starves plants, and hardly anything will grow - that is where I am now. Do we disagree about that?

Too much fertilizer may degrade soil. I'm willing to leave that debate to others. One side keeps talking about profit and yield per dollar and investament, and the other side talks about long-term soil helath and quality of produce and maybe yield per acre. A debate where each side is seeking different goals is likely to go on forever.

Very probably many agri-business decisions are made on the basis of short-term profit, or short-sighted profit, and not on the quality of produce or the health of people and soil.

>> " any home gardener or small truck farm can convert to organic principles if they choose to do so".

The organic practice that I agree with is "get as much OM I can and enrich my soil as fast as I can".

How much do our opinions differ?



Differ.............none. Failing to communicate in person leaves the situation a bit difficult. First I fully understand the difficulties of large acreage. I clearly at least to some degree understand what you may be up against. The large acre guys will eventually do some things better or die in their own ignorance. I try to clearly state that I speak of home gardeners and smaller truck farms.

Impatience will be an enemy you will have to deal with or it appears your self evaluation will be the dickens to deal with. You appear to have a challenge of notable difficulty. If you have as bad a condition as you indicate the biology has already had the daylights kicked and smashed out of whatever soil they put back. It would seem the OM is nearly non-existing. Anything that further hits on the remaining biology will only make the total conditions worse. You need a healthy biological community to convert the organic material. That living biology will rebuild itself up if you help it and must be rebuilt or you will surely go from bad to worse. If you intend to stay with that property there are a few simple things you can do to get better biological balance. I assume you have tiller or could rent one. You need one for a couple of years anyway.

Start small so you do not kill yourself and lose the valuable personal time we all must have. Stop just stop putting any man made fertilizer on that property. Read up on and use mycorrhizae to support successive cover crops. Plant and till in successive cover crops supported by any low number organic fertilizer. When the cover crop gets to be six to eight inches tall till them in and immediately replant the same cover crop again. Ask your garden center what a common use cover crop is available in your area. On any open soil that is not being rebuilt set the lawn mower up to not less than three inches and let the cuttings fall where they will. The taller grass will shade the weeds slowing their growth. After two or three cover crops you will be able to till and reseed the grass that your area supports. If your emotions can stand it consider a grass classified as playground or contractor light and shade. That will grow best for you and also be the least expensive. Throughout all your work stay with the organic fertilizers. Within three years you will be so pleased you will never look back.

In every community there are now organic thinking people and growers. Find one who you know by observation can walk the talk. This is very true in your area. Any specific time periods that apply to your area will need to be adjusted into this plan. I know this program will work in your area because a friend who no longer lives there did it. My son has done it on his almost urban small property in Portland. He has been there twenty years now and has a beautiful lawn and garden. This is not rocket science. You can do it if you see the possibility of having a lovely lawn and garden and really want a nice place.

Pleasant Grove, UT

Oh boy....what a wealth of information this link has produced. I'll have to read it several times to digest it all. Part of the joy of gardening is trying different things. I had a good friend who grew over 400 varieties of TB iris and a large vegetable garden for many years with great success incorporating cow manure and grass clippings into his garden each year. He replanted his iris every year, fortified the paths and planted there the following year. He never used any chemical fertilizers.Then for a couple of years his garden, especially the iris didn't do as well. A soil test showed that years of dairy manure had finally caused such a high salt content that it was the problem. He is gone now and I miss him and his wife and his sweet corn and rasberries. Today I've been tilling partially decomposed compost into an empty bed with alfalfa pellets. I t should break down more completely during our Utah winter and be ready next spring. I don't think we get enough moisture here to leach valuable things off the soil Thanks for adding to my knowledge..

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

i don't have any real "before" photos, but look at the upper-right corner for a good example.
The upper-left corner show some grass growing ... lushly, for most of my yard. That area has become pretty decent (though I did buy 4 yards of real soil in a moment of fiscal irresponsibility).

>> almost urban small property in Portland. He has been there twenty years now

Exactly! Twenty years from now I'll have decomposed thoroughly! :-)

>> Impatience will be an enemy you will have to deal with

Yes, also 90% true, except that my goal or first value is to have as many flowers as I can, as soon as I can, on a time scale of 1-2 years, not 4-8. I'm not so old that I don't buy green bananas, but planting only cover crops for three years would be a big joke on me if I kicked the bucket in Year Four!

I think that you're right: the soil would become GREAT in half or one third the time, if I spent 3-4 years doing nothing but producing OM and tilling under. And cultivating the soil instead of the flowers does have some appeal for me.

But flowers WILL grow even in very poor soil, and grow pretty well in poor soil. And I'm half way there already, in 2 - 2 1/2 years, including losing two springs to medical adventures. So the fact that I already have some beds growing some things delights me. And every year, I have "somewhat better" soil and "somewhat more" square footage under cultivation.

I may be like my bosses, pursuing short term profit (flowers) before long term quality (much better soil).

Hopefully it is only "before" and not "instead of". I expect to spend another 2-5 years making more beds WHILE improving what I have, with mixed practices: as much OM as I can, and light fertilization as needed to get short-term results from poor soil. In that time, I expect to get most of my beds up to "fair" soil.

THEN the amount of OM I can scrounge each year will ALL go into improvmeent, not expansion, and the soil will improve more rapidly - to "OK" then "good", and a year or two after that, to the "great" point that "all cover crops" would have reached several years sooner.

I will raise 2-8 times more flowers in the first 4 years if I "impatiently" try to do everything at once. Carry bags of aged manure, make compost, scrounge grass clippings ... but also grow some flowers at the same time, which is my goal.

>> the biology has already had the daylights kicked and smashed out of whatever soil they put back.

What biology? What soil put back? I exaggerate - it isn't sterile or 100.0% technical clay. Micro-fauna, bugs and worms do appear from the patches of grass and bushes, and from potting soil. But soil and sub-soil were carried away - I hope to someone who appreciated them! Picture the glaciers just having melted 3 years ago, leaving the glacial till far away. At least I have clay, not rock!

>> You need a healthy biological community
>> use mycorrhizae

Strongly agreed. You or someone else recently turned me on to that kind of innoculation in prior posts, and things like Doctor Earth or the product that boasts of its spores instead of cheap fungal hyphae fragments are on my list to acquire before spring.

Yet, awful as the open 'soil' is, just a few months of putting out shredded bush clippings has enticed a few worms and bugs to appear and do their magic.

cover crops: I was planning on a few square yards on the clay heap this fall, but got too busy to screen out the rocks first. That may have been a bad choice where imopatience set me back in the long run. But the 2-3 small beds I created or greatly improved instead, and the bare roots and bulbs I planted give me joy.

I considered putting cover crops over some annual patches, but hate to rip out exisitng annual flowers from which I want to gather seed, to get Fall Rye planted soon enough. given how the seedhads are rotting this year, that may have been a waste!

>> On any open soil that is not being rebuilt
Aside from low evergreen shrubs and some rhodies, there are only square yard patches here and there. Pick-work, then raking out the rocks and screening out the gravel, then planting cover crops would be great - but I'm doing that to the more-promising spots and making raised beds.

Are you saying to plant cover crops right into gravel and clay, maybe just scratching the surface? I can think of maybe 4-6 square yards like that, scattered around, that get any sun, and I know I won't get beds there for a year or three. Hmm. I wonder how many cubic feet of composted roots and stems I could get per year, per square yard, per weekend of prep time ... that starts to be an apporiachable tradeoff.

If I felt better about blowing $150 - $200 for some yards of "compost" that is almost entirely sawdust, I could probably advance The Grand Plan by a year, but that would require discipline and not spending on other things. Some how I spent $200 in just one month when i had planned on $50-$75. Prioritize!


Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

The upper part of that is my best bed so far - dug very deep and it got first call on the compost.

This photo is 2009, the same year I started that bed, only ~8" deep and before the 4 yards of imported topsoil:

Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA

Cory............my verbage to you is Nature's way of soil building pure and simple. I am getting the picture that you have your answers before you ask the questions. You seem to have more excuses for not doing things to help yourself than you show pleasure with intent to do anything that would greatly help you.

Ten dollars on Amazon.com will get you any one of many fine books about organic principles in paperback. At this moment I suggest that any one picked at random would serve you well.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> I am getting the picture that you have your answers before you ask the questions. You seem to have more excuses for not doing things to help yourself ...

OK, I would agree to disagree, except that I thought I was in 80-90% agreement with most of the principles you speak of, excpet that we have somewhat different circumstances and different priorities.

FWIW, everyone who knows me agrees that I am stubburn, so you and they may all be correct!

If I ever come into posssesion of really large amounts of compost, I'll use them in ways that you would probably approve of.

But I think (possibly it's self-delusion) that I do know what I want, and that our differences are more questions of what one wants or what one has available to work with, than over what works. (Except about fertilizer.)

I don't dispute anything you've said about "if you do this with huge amounts of OM, the soil will become wonderfully great in relatively few years".

And I always thought that I was eccentric for being more fond of cultivating the soil as I was of flowers! Now I realize my preference has started to lean towards the flowers, for which I thank you.

Amusingly, at least one other person in DG agrees with you, saying that I won't try new things because I didn't agree with her unreservedly about lasagna gardening, or immediatly converting to her principles. I asked some questions that I guess she took as potentially different opinions.

It's funny - she left in a huff because I really like improving the soil by turning organic matter into it, instead of growing on top of the soil in a soiless layer of mulch or peat (which is what straw bales or first-year lasagna layering seem to me).

The main appeal that straw bales or lasagna layering have for me is that I would get to put them into the compost heap, and make some real soil out of them the next year by mixing with the clay that I do have in abundance.

I'm pretty sure you have the opposite of her opinion: that I should be doing more turning of organic matter into the soil, instead of none!

But I am stubburnly insistent about only turning in all I can get my hands on, no matter what principles I fail to comply with fully enough. And want to grow flowers meanwhile.

On the other hand, disagreing now, I will bet that my soil is not "poisoned" by light use of fertilizer, if we use that word to suggest foaming at the mouth, convulsing, gasping in pain and then probably dieing.

If it means "not improving the soil structure as much as applying 20-50 times as much OM would", then I agree with you unreservedly.

"My way", the biotic component will increase much more gradually than "your way", but I will enjoy gardening in the meanwhile. And I think that "my way" will gradually converge towards being fairly similar to "your way".


Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I didn't mean to get contentious, but maybe I did.

For any ruffled feathers, I'm sorry.


Trenton(close to), TX(Zone 8a)

What started this thread? Alfalfa pellets and fertilizer? Thems are fightin words.


Cory...........there are no ruffled feathers. It is just your common practice to support your way which could in your own claims need lots of help. Horrible soil on which you can grow nearly nothing were your words.. Tilling is destructive too but for three years of backing out of your aluded mess I told you how to do it. You see my friend the solution is really quite simple. To get half ways decent within three years you need to make some change which you resist. Permanent mulch by any other name is still permanent mulch. It would just take longer, much longer to improve your situation than what I suggested. As always the choices are yours. Now I leave this whole line or whatever it is called for you to make those improvements.

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