Birdsfoot Trefoil Uses: Planting Birdsfoot Trefoil As Cover Crop

Bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Image by rbiedermann

By Jackie Carroll

If you’re looking for a cover crop for difficult soil, birdsfoot trefoil plant may be just what you need. This article discusses the pros and cons of using birdsfoot trefoil as a cover crop, as well as basic growing techniques.

What is Birdsfoot Trefoil?

Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a plant with several agricultural uses. At least 25 varieties are available. Buying seeds from a local supplier ensures that you get a good variety for your area. For farmers, birdsfoot trefoil uses include:

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  • crop for cutting as hay
  • livestock forage crop
  • cover crop plant

Home gardeners grow birdsfoot trefoil as a cover crop. There are some advantages to growing this uncommon plant instead of traditional cover crops such as alfalfa and clovers. Birdsfoot trefoil plant is a good choice for difficult locations with wet or moderately acidic soil. It tolerates moderate levels of salt in the soil as well.

Birdsfoot trefoil also has some clear disadvantages. When the soil is good enough to grow alfalfa or clovers, these crops are better choices. Birdsfoot trefoil seedlings aren’t very vigorous, so the crop takes time to become established, and may become overrun with weeds before it takes off.

Growing Birdsfoot Trefoil as Cover Crop

If you’ve never grown birdsfoot in the location before, you’ll need to treat the seeds with an inoculum so that the roots can fix nitrogen. Purchase an inoculum labeled for birdsfoot trefoil and follow the package instructions, or use treated seeds. You won’t need treated seeds in subsequent years.

The best time to plant is in early spring, but you can also plant in late summer if the soil is damp enough. The seedlings need consistently moist soil as they become established. The advantage of planting in late summer is that there won’t be as much competition from weeds.

Smooth the soil and then firm it up before broadcasting the seeds over the planting area. Firming the soil with a roller as you would when planting grass improves germination by ensuring the seeds com in firm contact with the soil. Make sure the soil stays moist. A light sprinkling of soil over the top of the seeds improves germination.

Since it is a legume, birdsfoot trefoil contributes nitrogen to the soil. Although it doesn’t need nitrogen fertilizer, it may benefit from the addition of phosphorous. As long as the soil stays moist and the plot doesn’t become overrun with weeds, the crop is carefree.

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