This was the first weekend in Southern California without rain, so I was able to knock out some gardening chores. The biggest task for me every year at the beginning of spring is removing the hairy vetch that pops up. I planted hairy vetch along with daikon radishes and clover the year we first moved in to revitalize the barren soil. It’s a fantastic, fast-growing green manure and cover crop that’s easy to implement in your garden.

Hairy Vetch Identification

Botanical Name: Vicia villosa
Common Names: Winter vetch, woollypod vetch, fodder vetch
Native: Europe and Western Asia
Uses: Cover Crop, Green Manure, Nitrogen fixing legume

What’s the Deal with Hairy Vetch?

First things first, let’s talk hairy vetch. I know the name sounds unusual, but trust me, this plant is a game-changer for your garden. Hairy vetch, scientifically known as Vicia villosa, is a legume cover crop that’s been gaining some attention in the gardening world for its incredible soil-boosting abilities.

According to research published in the Journal of Crop Science, hairy vetch is a nitrogen-fixing powerhouse. This means it can take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that plants can readily absorb—a process like a natural organic fertilizer for your garden soil. It’s a champ at improving soil structure and reducing erosion. Not only do the plants love it, but since it’s the first thing that shoots up flowers in the garden, the bees and other pollinators love it.

Why Should You Grow Hairy Vetch?

You might wonder, “Why should I bother with hairy vetch?” It’s all about those sweet, sweet benefits. Picture this: healthier, more vibrant plants, improved soil fertility, fewer pesky weeds to contend with, and maybe better harvests in the garden. Sounds like a dream, right?

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland Extension have shown that incorporating hairy vetch into your garden can increase yields, reduce fertilizer needs, and improve overall soil health. After my second year, I noticed better fruit on the surrounding fruit trees when I let it grow out a bit longer, before cutting it back, and incorporating it into the soil. Plus, it’s a budget-friendly option that won’t break the bank—always a win in my book.

Planting Hairy Vetch

Planting hairy vetch is a breeze, especially if you follow a few simple steps. Research published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture suggests that sowing hairy vetch seeds in the fall, around 4-6 weeks before your first expected frost date, is ideal. Scatter the seeds over your garden bed, lightly rake them into the soil, and give them water. Then, sit back, relax, and let Mother Nature work magic.

For me, in zone 10b. The vetch will sprout from the seasonal rain, even in our driest winters. After you plant it your first year, it will come back every season from the winter’s rain. In some areas it can become a nuisance, were states consider it invasive so I would recommend checking with your local garden extension to make sure it’s a good fit. You don’t need a lot of these plants to make a big impact.

Dannie cutting back hairy vetch in the spring.
Dannie cutting back the hairy vetch in the spring of 2023

Managing Your Vetch

Once your hairy vetch is up and running, it’s essential to keep an eye on things and give it a little TLC when needed. Regular weeding and occasional mowing can help prevent it from taking over your garden.

As for termination, research from the University of California Cooperative Extension recommends cutting or mowing the vetch when it’s in full bloom but before it sets seed. This helps prevent it from self-seeding and becoming too much of a nuisance in your and your neighbor’s garden.

Harvesting the Good Stuff

Once your vetch has done its job and enriched your soil with its nitrogen-rich biomass, it’s time to put it to good use. Studies published in the Journal of Agricultural Science suggest incorporating vetch residues into your compost pile or using them as a nutrient-rich mulch around your plants. This helps return valuable nutrients to the soil and adds organic matter, which is like food for your soil microbes.

I personally chop and drop the hairy vetch about 80% of the time and pile wood chips or brown materials on top. If there is a lot of bio mass I’ll spread it in garden beds that may have not received as much cover crop or areas that may be in need of a fresh layer of mulch.

Enjoy your Improved Soil

And there you have it, a crash course in all things hairy vetch. By harnessing the power of this incredible cover crop, you’ll be well on your way to a garden that’s bursting with life and vitality.

Remember, gardening is all about experimentation and learning, so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and try hairy vetch. Who knows? It might just be the secret ingredient your garden has been craving all along.