Ah, the backyard lawn, that controversial patch of greenery adored by some and shunned by others. Restricted to the aristocracy before mechanical mowers made them possible for humbler folk, lawns have become the norm of boulevards and subdivisions alike. But how ‘green’ are they?
On the one hand, lawns require large amounts of water to survive. They are monoculture crops that provide minimal benefits to nature. On the other hand, lawns are ground covers that can prevent the encroachment of unwanted or invasive weeds. They also generate oxygen, provide a lush carpet for children’s barefoot play, and offer a pleasant setting for active summer living—badminton anyone?
However you feel about lawns, one thing is certain: you can make yours more sustainable by considering clover. Before chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, the humble clover plant was a common resident in backyard lawns across the country. Almost everyone’s had some clover growing in it—and some lawns were entirely made of clover. There were good reasons for this.
Not only is clover a leguminous plant, meaning that it can fix nitrogen from the air and release it slowly to the other plants in your lawn, it also stays green longer and needs less water than conventional grasses. Whether you are establishing a new lawn or maintaining an old one, there are great reasons to add clover to your mix.
Benefits of a Clover Lawn
- Clover is affordable and easy to grow.
- A nitrogen-fixing plant, clover brings nutrients to your soil and requires no fertilization. When mixed with other grasses, clover can reduce or eliminate the need for regular fertilizing.
- Clover is drought tolerant and grows despite lack of water once established. This contrasts starkly with traditional lawn grasses, which usually need watering all season long.
- Full sun or partial shade? Clover is tolerant of many conditions and outcompetes other weeds. Some of the newer micro-clovers are even more tolerant of shade and can grow in high-traffic areas.
- Clover is versatile. Add to a regular lawn to help invigorate tired turf or plant a full clover lawn on its own for lush, year-round greenery (depending on your geographical location).
- Wildlife such as bees and deer love clover. If you’d rather not have bees visiting, simply mow your clover before it blooms.
- Say ‘good-bye’ to burn marks—clover will not turn yellow as quickly as a regular lawn when pets are around.
To be sure if a clover lawn is right for you, contact your local garden center to ask about the success of clover in your region. Most landscape professionals recommend a ratio of 15-20% clover seed to 80-85% drought-tolerant grass seed suitable for your area and location. Since clover is not as hardwearing as grass, a mix ensures your lawn will withstand foot traffic and won’t need regular reseeding. However, new micro-clovers developed in the last few decades offer more resilient varieties that many people are choosing to sow in much higher concentrations—up to 100%. Whatever mix you choose, the balance of clover and grasses will change over time and reach an equilibrium that works well for your soil type and local conditions.
Which Type is Best?
The two varieties most commonly used in lawns are Dutch (or dwarf) white clover (Trifolium repens) and more recently, micro-clover (Trifolium repens var. Pipolina, for example). Here’s what you need to know about these options:
Dutch white clover:
- Usually needs reseeding after 2-3 years.
- Stays green all year round (depending on geographical area).
- Blooms when mature, providing food for bees.
- Does best with 4-6 hours of sun daily.
- Seeds at a rate of about 1lb per 1000 square feet.
- Is fairly shade tolerant, though does best in areas with sun.
- Can be mowed shorter than white clover.
- Is tolerant to more foot traffic.
- Produces about 90% fewer blooms than Dutch white clover.
- Turns brown in winter due to dormancy period.
- Seeds at a rate of about 1lb to 300-600 square feet.
Things to Know Before You Start
Clover does best when planted in clay or sandy loam soils with a pH between 6 and 7. To find out your soil’s pH, use a soil test kit or a pH meter. If your soil isn’t in this desirable range, you can adjust the pH using lime (to make your soil more alkaline), or peat moss (to make your soil more acidic).
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The best time to plant clover is after the last frost in spring, when rains will help you establish new crop and competing grasses haven’t yet taken hold of available nutrients. Fall planting may also be a possibility if you live in an area with mild autumn weather. Temperatures should remain above 40˚F (4˚C) for the clover to take hold before winter.
As noted above, lawn specialists recommend using both clover and grass seed to establish the healthiest lawn possible. However, don’t spread these different types of seeds together. Since clover seed is so small and dense, and usually clumps together at the bottom of the spreader or seed bag, spreading with grass seed usually results in uneven coverage. Instead, determine your desired ratio of clover to grass and spread separately.
Planting Your Clover Lawn
Overseeding a Clover Lawn:
To add clover to an already established lawn, begin by mowing close to the ground and raking out any thatch that developed over the previous growing season. If your lawn needs aerating, now is the time. Your clover seed will benefit if sown after a thorough aeration. Mix your chosen clover seed with fine sand, sawdust, or soil, and broadcast over desired area. If you are seeding a large expanse, you may want to use a broadcast spreader on the smallest setting. However, keep in mind that many spreaders don’t accommodate seeds as small as clover.
Once planted, water your clover seed every day for two weeks. This will give the seeds adequate moisture for sprouting and help them get a good start in their new location. Be sure to keep deer and other clover-eating animals off the lawn.
The key to giving clover a boost over competing grasses is to cut back on nitrogen-based fertilizers. Since clover fixes its own nitrogen, it will thrive even if this nutrient is lacking (while grasses usually won’t). Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are important, however, so choose a fertilizer with a low nitrogen component in favor of P and K.
Planting a New Clover Lawn:
If you are establishing a new lawn, prepare your soil several weeks in advance by removing weeds, stones, and other debris. Rake or till the top layer of soil to loosen the substrate and then water the area to encourage any remaining weeds to sprout. A day or two before planting your lawn, remove any newly sprouted weeds and rake to a smooth, even texture.
Mix your clover seed with sand, sawdust, or fine soil to make spreading easier. Use a broadcast spreader (if you can find one that accommodates clover) for large areas to ensure even distribution. Do not fertilize. Follow with grass seed if using.
Rake the planted area to lightly cover the seeds. They won’t sprout if buried too deeply. Compress with a roller or by walking over the area. Water regularly until established.
Before trimming your lawn for the first time, wait until the clover drops its seeds, and then cut fairly close, about 2″ from the ground. This will also favor the clover over the grass, and help the clover plants establish their roots. Leave the clippings on the lawn (they are a valuable mulch). Once the clover begins to thrive, you can reduce the mowing by letting your lawn grow to 3″. You can always overseed with clover if the grass starts taking over.
Other Things To Consider
- Never use herbicides on a clover lawn. Your clover won’t survive!
- A new clover lawn won’t usually flower until after its first year. After this time, mow once weekly to control bloom coverage (if desired).
- If you don’t already have clover growing somewhere in your area, you may need to inoculate the soil to prepare it for the clover seed. You can buy inoculant from your local garden center. Mix into your prepared soil or broadcast with your clover seed at planting time. Some clover seed comes encased in inoculant.
Adding clover to your existing lawn or planting a new lawn with clover in the mix will help reduce the impacts of your little patch of green. With fewer requirements and care, and more time for enjoyment, a clover lawn is a natural choice for your overall sustainability solution.