Hairy Vetch: A Cover Crop that Loves the Cold

David Bernal + photo

David Bernal

Oct 16
3 min read
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The first day of fall is already a month gone and it's never too soon to begin preparing next season's bountiful harvest. Many gardens have already been hit by their local frost date and are calling it a season until February's seed prep. Yet several home gardeners are unaware there's still plenty to be done in winter despite a bitter layer of frost or snow. The absolute easiest way to ensure an abundant summer is to replenish the soil's nutrients now during these cold idle months. A healthy garden will naturally expend its nitrogen throughout the warm seasons and these levels can be organically replenished in the winter with the preparation of a Hairy Vetch cover crop.

Vicia villosa, or more commonly known as Hairy Vetch or Winter Vetch, is a truly under-appreciated member of the legume family and is a vital mechanism in the earth's Nitrogen Cycle. Legume plants, such as Hairy Vetch, consume nitrogen in the atmosphere from decomposition, animal manure, and volitization. The universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota co-authored the Alternative Field Crops Manual which measures the Hairy Vetch as supplying 60 – 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre over the winter. Novice hobbyists may waste hundreds of dollars in bagged nitrogen-rich soils when more experienced gardeners and commercial farmers know to invest a fraction of that cost into a winter cover crop, such as Hairy Vetch seeds. This frost-hardy annual is best cut in the spring and left untilled to help retain water, nutrients, and tolerance to erosion and disease.

Vicia villosa is the most winter-hardy of all commercial vetches yet also boasts several spring and summer benefits too. Hairy Vetch is the only variety of 150 vetch species that will reach summertime maturity when planted the previous fall. Hairy Vetch was initially grown in Europe as a foraging crop for livestock, but was found to be effective against water runoff and soon cultivated to maintain the integrity of riverbanks, roads, and large-scale gardening rows. Hairy Vetch is a popular companion to grow alongside tomatoes as an alternative to crop rotation in small or limited conditions. Tomato seedlings are best planted among the Hairy Vetch crop in the spring for nutrient-rich mulch and truly organic weed control.

Hairy Vetch legume seeds promise some of the brightest, hardiest, and most exclusive blooms the winter has to offer. Hairy Vetch cover crop matures as vigorous 12 – 24” tall uprights which will vine with trellis support as high as 36 – 72” tall. This essential and tolerant grow is still delicate enough to dazzle your garden with a wintery mix of blues, violets, and indigo in several dozen 1 – 2” classic trumpet-shaped blooms. Hairy Vetch is easy to grow from seed and can be successfully sown in any season offering year-round blooms as well as performing an important role in your garden's ecosystem. Hairy Vetch cover crop is one of the hardest working, economical, yet gorgeous and eye-catching blooms a garden could hope to grow this winter.

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1 comments

Mark Hilliard

I’m in charge of the University’s community garden. We have appx 500 sq. feet of raised bed growing space and I like to put in a cover crop every year. Can you tell me how much of the hairy vetch I would need for 500 sq ft? And the cost? Last year I used a polycultural crop of tillage radish, Austrian winter peas, oats, rye and wheat. The radish and peas never germinated. Will vetch germinate this time of year in the lower Panhandle of Texas?


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