I just picked the first violet blue flowers of the hairy vetch that was creeping along the road, its ladder like leaves following curling spirals. I noticed that a few plants had already found purchase on lupine spires; in my garden the delicate leaves and tendrils of the vine are just beginning their spiral ascent into deep green.
Here in Maine the plant begins to bloom in June and I make sure that I have some sprigs in my flower garden each year because long after deep blue is just a memory by mid-summer, hairy vetch provides my garden with blue and my fiery late summer bouquets with a delightfully deep contrast. The plant looks especially beautiful twining among a riot of colorful day lilies. I also love to watch its growth habits, the way its intriguing tendrils meander over the tops of other flowering plants seeking the heat of the sun.
Last year in New Mexico I planted Hairy vetch in the spring because the plant is a nitrogen fixer and the desert soils of Abiquiu are low in nitrogen. What follows is an excerpt from my journal:
“Here it is almost mid October and my Hairy vetch blooms on with its glorious violet blue color. Bees, and cabbage butterflies are still seeking its sweet nectar. So far, these plants defy the frost. Mine is sprawling on top of all the other wild weeds providing a crown of deep blue around my little pond.” This climbing vine is not for everyone; its wild roaming habits make it unwieldy and those folks that need a tidy garden will not be drawn to this plant.”
It is true that gardeners need to beware of the vetches tendency to climb over every plant in sight! However, if the gardener is anxious for pollinators, planting a crop of vetch will become a source of great pleasure. Keeping vetch nearby draws down hummingbirds, bees, moths, and every other insect I can think of. In both Maine and NM and everywhere else where the plant grows wild the seed pods appear in the fall and the legume re –seeds itself with ease.
This year in Abiquiu I didn’t put any vetch in and when I left in April almost every place I seeded last spring had tender green vetch tendrils appearing. It’s important to note that this legume is not parasitic although in some areas like New Mexico it can look as if it’s smothering other plants.
Although it tangles itself into knots as it grows I am happy to say that vetch is the easiest plant to remove. Here in my perennial flower garden I can pull it out anytime during the season that it becomes annoying. Best of all, the dried remains can become part of winter’s cover, re seed an area in fall or spring, or end up in a compost heap. Last fall my two little pear trees had vetch wrapped around them and early in April I was delighted to see tiny green tendrils peaking out from beneath the cottonwood bark that I also use as mulch for my trees.
Introduced from Europe as a rotation crop (it is now considered native to parts of this country), Hairy or woolly vetch has since become an established weed in many areas, especially along roadsides, waste areas, and in croplands. Many, of course consider it an “invasive” which I translate as a plant that has found a way to adapt in these times of Climate Change. A plant to be celebrated not demonized!
The cover grows slowly in fall, but root development continues over winter. Growth quickens in spring, when Hairy vetch becomes a sprawling vine that can exceed 12 – 15 feet! Field height rarely exceeds 3 feet unless the vetch is supported by another crop like my giant five foot Abiquiu weeds. Its abundant biomass can be both a benefit and a challenge. The stand smothers spring weeds, another reason I love it, and it can help replace all or most nitrogen fertilizer needs, but because it breaks down quickly, the plant will not provide lasting mulch.
Additionally, the plant’s roots anchor the soil, reducing runoff and preventing soil erosion. 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.”
Curiously, vetch was once a commonly cultivated plant that fell out of favor over time… Most of the plant is edible and some species actually taste quite good in salads when they are small. The young shoots can also be cooked.
Few legumes (pea family) can match Hairy vetch for versatility. Widely adapted and winter hardy it requires virtually no care to thrive. However, in Abiquiu, I have found that it requires supplementary watering, a practice I have never engaged in before becoming a desert lizard!