Growing hairy vetch in gardens provides a number of benefits to home gardeners; vetch and other cover crops prevent runoff and erosion and add organic matter and important nutrients to the soil. Cover crops such as hairy vetch also attract beneficial insects to the garden.
What is Hairy Vetch?
A type of legume, hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) is a cold-hardy plant belonging to the same plant family as beans and peas. The plant is sometimes planted in spring, especially in agricultural applications. In the garden, hairy vetch cover crops are usually grown through the winter and plowed into the soil before spring planting.
Hairy Vetch Benefits
Hairy vetch absorbs nitrogen from the air as it grows. Nitrogen, a critical nutrient required for plant growth, is often depleted by repeated cultivation, poor soil management and use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. When a hairy vetch cover crop is plowed into the soil, significant amounts of nitrogen are restored.
Additionally, the plant’s roots anchor the soil, reducing runoff and preventing soil erosion. An added benefit is the plant’s ability to suppress early growth of weeds.
When the plant is plowed into the ground in spring, it improves soil structure, promotes drainage and increases the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and moisture. For this reason, hairy vetch and other cover crops are often known as “green manure.”
Hairy Vetch Planting
Growing hairy vetch in gardens is easy enough. Plant hairy vetch in late summer or autumn at least 30 days before the first average frost date in your area. It’s important to provide time for the roots to establish before the ground freezes in winter.
To plant hairy vetch, plow the soil as you would for any regular crop. Broadcast the seed over the soil at the rate recommended on the seed package – usually 1 to 2 pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet of garden space.
Cover the seeds with about ½ inch of soil, then water well. The plant will grow vigorously throughout the winter. Mow the hairy vetch before the plant flowers in spring. Although the purple blooms are beautiful, the plant may become weedy if it is allowed to go to seed.