Gone are the days when turfgrass reigned supreme as the go-to groundcover for lawns. Gardeners are now embracing the idea of a greener alternative – clover. This low-maintenance and environmentally friendly option is gaining popularity as a lawn substitute or additive. Read on to discover the advantages of clover as a lawn alternative and learn how to incorporate the right clover into your lawn.
The Revival of Clover in Lawns
It’s interesting to note that clover used to be a welcome sight in North American lawns until about 70 years ago. In fact, it was a standard component of grass seed mixes. However, in the 1950s, chemical manufacturers seized the opportunity to market herbicides that selectively targeted and eradicated clover, dandelions, and other unwanted plants while sparing grass. Homeowners, at the time, were not bothered by the loss of clover since it tended to outcompete their grass. Moreover, bees were not as popular as they are today, and people were glad to be rid of the bees that frequented the clover throughout the summer.
Over time, the ideal of a pristine turfgrass monoculture took hold. However, with the rising costs of lawn care and a growing environmental consciousness, many gardeners are now welcoming clover back into their lawns.
The Advantages of Clover as a Lawn Alternative
Clover, belonging to the Trifolium spp. family, is considered a low-maintenance substitute for turfgrass. It requires minimal watering, virtually no fertilizer, and has the ability to suppress weed growth. Clover thrives in conditions that would turn turfgrass brown and brittle, such as drought and poor soil. Additionally, unlike cool-season grasses, clover maintains its lush green appearance throughout the summer.
The resilience of clover allows it to repair damaged sections of the lawn caused by salt, pets, and drought. As a member of the legume family, the roots of clover foster nitrogen-fixing bacteria, resulting in high levels of nitrogen in its stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds. When clover is mowed and the clippings are left on the soil or turned into compost, it provides a natural nitrogen boost, along with additional organic matter and nutrients for your lawn.
In addition to requiring less water and fertilizer, clover lawns also contribute to a healthier environment by producing an abundance of flowers that attract and feed bees, particularly honeybees and bumblebees. Reed clover, in particular, is favored by bumblebees. Clover seeds also attract songbirds. Unlike grass, clover does not yellow in response to pet urine.
The Downsides to Incorporating Clover into Lawns
While the drought resistance, self-fertilization, and luxurious growth of clover may be desirable qualities, they can also pose challenges. If your grass is not healthy and well-established, there is a risk of clover outcompeting and choking out your grass. Clover also tends to produce seeds extensively, which can end up in flower beds and between paving stones. Its rapid spread into flower beds also necessitates frequent lawn edging.
One major downside to having clover in your lawn is that it dies back during winter and regrows in spring, like other perennials. This results in bare soil that becomes muddy and susceptible to erosion from snowmelt, rain, and foot traffic. In contrast, turfgrass goes dormant during extreme weather conditions but still protects the soil beneath its brown blades. Furthermore, the dense mat of turfgrass roots can withstand more wear and tear than clover, making it better suited for high-traffic areas.
Overall, while it’s hard to beat turfgrass in terms of year-round walkability, incorporating clover into existing grass is a better option if you’re seeking a low-maintenance, lush lawn in a high-traffic area. Many gardeners have come to appreciate the varied textures and visual appeal of mixed grass and clover lawns.
Adding Clover to Your Lawn
The simplest way to introduce clover to your lawn is through overseeding. Spring is the optimal time to sow clover seeds, ideally before your grass begins to grow again, allowing the clover to establish itself with less competition. It’s even possible to sow the seeds in partially frozen ground as they can find their way into cracks. Late summer and fall plantings are also viable, but the plants must be adequately established before winter to avoid being killed off.
To prepare your lawn, remove any thatch buildup by raking. Next, evenly distribute the clover seeds across your lawn. Since the seeds are tiny, it’s better to sow them by hand rather than using a broadcast spreader. If you prefer to use a spreader, mix the seeds with soil or sand to facilitate thin and even distribution. The amount of seed required depends on how dominant you want the clover to be, ranging from 2 ounces to 10 ounces per 1000 square feet. The germinated seedlings should be watered daily for approximately two weeks to prevent them from drying out.
If you’re starting a new lawn or wish to overseed with grass, consider using a ratio of approximately 1 part clover seed to 15 parts grass seed (by volume), or 15-20% clover seed to 80-85% grass seed.
For low-traffic areas where only clover is desired, 18 ounces (500 g) of clover seed per 1000 square feet should be sufficient.
Ordering more seed than you actually need is wise, as this will allow you to fill in any bare patches that may occur.
Alternatively, you can allow wild clover to naturally colonize your lawn over time by refraining from weeding or using herbicides.
Different Types of Clover for Lawns
When creating a clover lawn, perennial clover is typically used. Annual clover is reserved for regions with extremely hot summers.
The most popular species for lawns in Zones 3 to 10 is white clover (Trifolium repens). It is also the most widely cultivated clover in North America. Numerous cultivars with varying sizes, growth habits, and even unique colors, such as black-leaved clover (Trifolium repens ‘Purpurascens Quadrifolium’), are available.
Other favored clovers include strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). Strawberry clover, suitable for Zones 3 to 9, was specifically bred for colder climates and is more robust and weed-resistant than white clover. On the other hand, red clover, ideal for Zones 4 and above, is taller and shorter-lived in warm climates, and does not fare as well in wet soil.
In recent years, microclover has garnered attention, particularly white microclover (Trifolium repens var. Pirouette). This variety has a shorter growth habit, blending seamlessly with turfgrass and giving the lawn a uniform green appearance even when the grass turns brown. Its dense, low growth also acts as a natural weed deterrent, and it is more resistant to foot traffic. Additionally, microclover produces fewer seeds, making it less invasive than white clover. It is worth noting that microclover does not flower, making it an ideal choice for those with pollen allergies.
Occasionally, microclover may revert to its larger white clover form due to cross-pollination or natural plant reversion.
In conclusion, incorporating clover into your lawn offers numerous benefits, including reduced maintenance, eco-friendliness, and the attraction of bees and songbirds. Whether you choose white clover, microclover, or any other variety, adding this resilient groundcover to your lawn is sure to enhance its beauty and environmental value.