Turfgrass is losing its status as the golden child of groundcovers as gardeners look towards greener pastures. Clover has been getting a lot of buzz as a low-maintenance and eco-friendly lawn alternative or additive. Keep reading to find out what to expect from clover as a lawn alternative and how to add the right clover to your lawn.
Clover And Lawns Go Way Back
Until about 70 years ago, clover used to be welcome in North American lawns and was always present in standard grass seed mixes. In the 1950s, chemical manufacturers started aggressively marketing herbicides that would leave grass intact but would kill clover, dandelions, wild violets, and other plants we consider weeds today. Homeowners didn’t mind the loss of clover because it did outcompete their grass. Plus, bees weren’t as popular back then as now, and people were happy to be rid of the bees that hovered over the clover all summer.
Somewhere between then and now, a pristine monoculture of turf became the ideal. But with rising prices for lawn care and more environmentally conscious values, some gardeners are welcoming clover back into their lawns.
Advantages To Clover As A Lawn Alternative
Clover (Trifolium spp.) is considered a low maintenance alternative to turfgrass. It requires little water, practically no fertilizer and it’s vigorous enough to choke out weeds. Clover thrives in conditions that would make turfgrass brown and crispy, such as drought and poor soil. Plus, unlike the cool season grasses used in lawns, clover will stay green and soft all summer.
Clover’s resilience also means it can be used to heal parts of the lawn that have been damaged from salt, pets, and drought.
As a member of the legume family, clover roots foster nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which lead to high levels of nitrogen in the clover stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. Clover can be mowed, and if left on the soil or made into compost, you’ll get a free boost of nitrogen, organic matter, and other nutrients for your lawn.
On top of using less water and fertilizer, clover lawns also help the environment by producing an abundance of flowers that attract and feed bees, mostly honeybees and bumblebees. The latter prefer reed clover. Clover seed also attracts songbirds.
Unlike grass, clover does not yellow in response to pet urine.
Downsides To Clover In Lawns
The fact that clover is drought resistant, self-fertilizing, and lush can become a pain rather than a positive. If your grass isn’t healthy and well-established, you run the risk of clover choking out your grass. Clover also tends to produce seed aggressively, which can end up in your flower beds and between paving stones. Using runners it spreads quicker into flower beds than grass, increases the need for frequent lawn edging.
The major issue with clover lawns is that clover dies back in winter and returns the next spring, like other perennials. The result is bare soil in spring that ends up muddy and vulnerable to erosion from snow melt, rain, and foot traffic. Turfgrass, on the other hand, goes dormant when it’s hot or too cold, but will still protect the soil beneath its brown blades. Plus, turf makes a denser mat of roots that can take more of a beating than clover, making it better for foot traffic.
Overall, it’s hard to beat turfgrass in terms of year-round walkability. If you’re looking for a lower maintenance, lush lawn in a high traffic area, you’re better off adding clover to existing grass than replacing your turfgrass with clover. Gardeners have even come to appreciate the mosaic of textures in mixed grass and clover lawns.
How To Add Clover To Your Lawn
The easiest way to add clover to your lawn is by overseeding. Spring is the best time to seed clover – ideally before your grass starts growing again so that the clover can establish with less competition. The ground can even be partially frozen because the seeds will fall between cracks in the earth. Late summer and fall plantings are also possible, but there is a chance that the plants will be killed if not properly established before winter.
Rake your lawn to remove thatch buildup and then distribute the clover seed evenly over your lawn. The seeds are very small so it’s better to do it by hand than with a broadcast spreader. If you want to sue a spreader, mix the seed with soil or sand to make it easier to distribute thinly. The amount of seed depends on how dominant you want your clover to be, ranging from 2 ounces to 10 ounces of seed per 1000 square feet. The lawn should be watered every day for about 2 weeks so that germinated seedlings don’t dry out.
If you are starting a new lawn, or want to overseed with grass, you can use about 1 part clover seed for 15 parts of grass seed (by volume), or a ratio of 15-20% clover seed to 80-85% grass seed.
If you have a low traffic area and want to use clover only, use 18 ounces (500 g) per 1000 square feet.
It’s always a good idea to order more seed than you need and reserve some to fill in any bald spots.
Alternatively, you can let wild clover naturally colonize your lawn over time if you stop weeding or treating it with herbicides.
Different Types Of Clover For Lawns
Almost all clover lawns are made using perennial clover. Annual clover is only used in areas with extremely hot summers.
White clover (Trifolium repens) is the most popular species for lawns in Zones 3 to 10. It’s also the most widely grown clover in North America. There is a wide range of cultivars to choose from with different sizes and growth habits, and even striking colors like black-leaved clover (Trifolium repens ‘Purpurascens Quadrifolium’).
Other popular clovers include strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). Strawberry clover (zone 3 to 9) was bred for colder climates and is more robust and resistant to weeds than white clover. Red clover (zone 4 and up) is a taller variety that is short lived in warm climates and does not do as well in wet soil.
Lately, microclover is getting more interest than regular white clover. One common variety recommended is white microclover (Trifolium repens var. Pirouette). Microclover has a much shorter growth habit, so it blends in with turfgrass, making the lawn look uniformly green even if the grass turns brown. The dense, low growth habit makes it a great deterrent for weeds and it is more resistant to foot traffic. Plus, microclover is said to be less invasive than white clover as it tends to produce fewer seeds. It does not flower which is good news for people with pollen allergies.
There are cases of microclover reverting to the standard white clover size. This may be due to cross pollination with white clover or simply the plant returning to its original form.