The Truth About Clover in the Lawn

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Robert Pavlis

Adding clover to lawns is becoming very popular and it sounds so beneficial for pollinators. Unfortunately, the benefits are not nearly as good as claimed. If you are thinking of creating a clover lawn, you need to read this post. It could save you a lot of time and headaches.

clover lawn with dirt on it in the shape of a heart
The claims for clover lawns are wishful thinking.

What Is A Clover Lawn?

A clover lawn can consist of only clover or a combination of clover and different types of turfgrass. Clover is a dense ground cover that it also known as a shamrock trefoil. It forms a nice green mat and spreads by stolons  and seeds. There are several species of clover and at least one will grow in most environments. The foliage dies back in colder winters like other perennials and new leaves are produced in spring. It is evergreen in milder climates and seed germination takes place during cool, moist periods in spring and fall.

Some see clover as a positive feature in the lawn and encourage its growth while others see it as a weed and want to eradicate it.

Claims for Clover Lawns

Why would anyone want a weed in their lawn? It is claimed to have some positive features that make it a good alternative to grass.

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  • Provides flowers for pollinators.
  • Fixes nitrogen from the air, reducing the need for fertilizer.
  • More drought tolerant than grass and therefore requires less watering.
  • Requires less maintenance than grass.

Although many gardeners have been led to believe these claims, they are not completely true as I’ll discuss below.

Lawns with a mixture of grass and clover are more popular than clover-only lawns. The latter are trickier to get established, don’t look good in winter and early spring because of a lack of green growth, and don’t handle medium to heavy foot traffic.

two panels, left one labeled mid-summer showing green clover surrounded by brown grass, right one with green grass and bare spots, labeled early spring.
In mid-summer the grass is dormant and the clover is still green. In early spring after snow melt the grass is green and the clover has not started growing, at least in zone5 and colder. Source Good Nature, and Super Sod

Clover Naturally Grows in Lawns

If you do nothing to encourage clover it will naturally show up in your lawn. Clover grows in conditions that are not perfect for grass growth such as the following.

The Soil is Deficient in Important Nutrients, Especially Nitrogen

Clover grows better in low nitrogen situations since it is able to fix nitrogen from the air. Grass on the underhand just suffers. Regular fertilization will grow better grass which in turn outcompetes clover.

Mowing too Short

Some homeowners lower the cutting height on mowers, thinking this will result in less frequent mowing, which is a myth. As a result clover grows better. On the other hand longer grass shades the soil and keeps weed seeds from germinating.

The Grass Doesn’t get Enough Water

Stressed grass is less dense, leaving room for clover and other weeds. As summer dries the soil and grass goes brown, the clover will stay green. Many people claim that clover has deeper roots than turf but I don’t think that is true. For example, white clover has shallow roots, but it does make a tap root. Turf can make deep roots if watered correctly. It is true that turfgrass is stressed sooner as soil dries.

The Soil is Compacted

Clover tolerates compacted soil better than lawn grass.

Nitrogen Fixing Clover

Clover is a legume and forms a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria resulting in the formation of nodules on the roots. The bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into a plant-available form, a process called fixing nitrogen. Statements such as, “clover takes nitrogen out of the air and makes it available to your lawn” are wrong for two reasons.

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Myth 1: Clover fixes nitrogen.

Truth: The rhizobium bacteria fix nitrogen, not the clover. For various reasons including a lack of bacteria and high soil nitrogen levels, clover may not even form nodules in which case no nitrogen is fixed.

Myth 2: Some of the fixed nitrogen is passed over to the grass which in turn grows better and requires less fertilizer.

Truth: Almost all of the fixed nitrogen is used by the clover and very little ends up in the grass. Some nitrogen is released to the soil once clover is mowed or when the clover plant dies. Growing clover in the lawn does not significantly reduce the need for fertilizer.

Nitrogen fixing helps clover grow in poor, low fertility soil but it is not a reason for growing a mixed lawn.

Myths About Clover Lawns

Claim: Clover Lawns Need Less Mowing

This claim is common but it  is not true. When clover and grass are mixed, the lawn needs just as much mowing as a clover-free lawn, and maybe even more. In summer, a cool-growing lawn goes dormant and does not need to be mowed. With clover in the lawn it might need to be mowed even when grass is dormant.

Claim: Clover Lawns Don’t Need to be Fertilized

This is not true for several reasons. As explained above, the fixed nitrogen is not passed to the grass so it still needs to be fertilized to grow well. The second reason is that nitrogen fixation only provides nitrogen. It does not provide the other 23 nutrients plants need. If soil is deficient in any of these other nutrients it has to be added as part of the fertilizing process.

When legumes such as clover are stressed by nutrient deficiencies the plant stops supporting the rhizobium bacteria which in turn stop nitrogen fixation. Fertilizing can be critical for maximizing nitrogen production.

Claim: Clover is Drought Tolerant and Does Not Need to Be Watered

This is only partially true. As things get dry in summer, grass goes dormant and returns with cooler weather and/or more water, but it is very drought tolerant (i.e. it does not die). When things get dry, clover stays green longer than grass, but at some point it dies and does not return. It is actually less drought tolerant than grass.

Claim: Clover Grows Great Where Grass Struggles

Both clover and turfgrass need about the same conditions and cultural care. If grass is not growing well in an area, it is unlikely that clover will do much better. If you struggle growing a good grass lawn you will also struggle growing a clover lawn.

Are Clover Lawns Good for Pollinators?

Clover lawns have caught the attention of many gardeners who want to increase biodiversity in their garden. They want to attract pollinators that are not interested to turfgrass. The flowers on clover attract pollinators so it must be a good choice, right? Maybe.

Some types of clover do flower and the flowers do attract pollinators, but they only attract specific ones. White clover which is the most popular type used in North America, is a non-native plant there and it’s invasive. That means two things. It will spread from your lawn to natural areas where its not good for the environment and it only attracts generalist pollinators. Many of the native pollinators, especially native bees, are not generalists, so they are not attracted to white clover.

A study by the University of Minnesota found that white clover attracted 56 bee species out of their 400 native bee species. It also attracted other pollinators including butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and wasps. Clearly white clover is better than turf for pollinators, but it is not nearly as good as a diverse garden, especially if the garden includes native plants. “Wild bees are apparently a negligible factor in white clover pollination; nevertheless, Osmia, Halictus, Tetralonia, and Bombus are especially fond of white clover blossoms”. The most prominent pollinator on clover is the honeybee and they don’t need our help.

There is a trend towards using microclover, but this clover produces few flowers, so it is not much better than turfgrass for improving insect diversity.

If your goal is to increase biodiversity in your garden, you are better off reducing the size of your lawn and planting more gardens.

Rusty patched bumble bee on white flower
Rusty patched bumble bee, source Heather Holm

The Pros and Cons of Clover in the Lawn

What are the pros and cons of a clover lawn?

Pros

  • Clover naturally grows in lawns. Accepting it and letting it grow reduces herbicide use on lawns.
  • Its flowers do attract bees and other pollinators.
  • Clover is mostly disease and pest resistant and is very low maintenance.
  • It chokes out other common lawn weeds, so a mixed lawn might have fewer other weeds like dandelions.
  • Dog urine affects clover far less than grass and results in fewer brown spots.

Cons

  • Clover doesn’t stand up to heavy foot traffic as well as turfgrass.
  • Mixed lawns don’t stay mixed. The clover tends to form large clumps of only clover so rather than a mixed lawn you end up with grass areas and clover areas resulting in a spotty appearance. Eventually, clover will outcompete the grass and turn it into a clover only lawn.
  • Clover is not evergreen and goes underground in winter like other perennials, resulting in bare spots in spring. In summer the grass goes brown and dormant while the clover remains green. Grass is green in winter but the clover has died back leaving bare spots that can lead to erosion.
  • Clover spreads easily and is harder to remove from flower beds than turfgrass.
  • Attracts honeybees and other pollinators which is seen as a negative by people with allergies. Micro-clover produces few flowers.
  • Clover does not do well in shade, where shade tolerant varieties of grass do much better. It also does not do well in dry cold climates.
  • You can not use herbicides to control broadleaf weeds because they also kill the clover.
  • Clover is a short-lived perennial and may need to be over seeded every couple of years. In my experience white clover seeds enough on its own that it does not need to be reseeded.

How to Get Rid of Clover in a Lawn

So, what can you do to get rid of clover in your lawn? The best approach is to grow really strong grass. Healthy grass keeps clover from getting a foothold. Mow high, water regularly and feed properly.

Small amounts of clover can be pulled by hand, but that is very tedious work. A better option is a broadleaf herbicide containing dicamba, clopyralid, fluroxypyr, or quinclorac.

Corn gluten is an organic option and can be used as a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent clover seed from germinating. It does work but needs to be applied following instructions exactly. This approach is fully described in Corn Gluten Meal – Does it Work For Weeds?

There is a myth floating around about controlling clover with ammonium sulfate. The story claims that adding ammonium to the soil stops the nitrogen fixing bacteria and the plant suffers. This is a myth. It is true that high levels of nitrogen can prevent nodule formation, but once they are formed nitrogen fixation continues in the presence of high levels of soil nitrogen. Secondly, bacteria in soil quickly convert ammonium into nitrate, and clover can absorb both through of these their roots which will help them grow. In fact, clover seedlings rely almost entirely on soil nitrogen until the nodules form.

Best Clover Types for Lawns

There are several different kinds of clover that can be used in a lawn. They are all legumes.

White (Dutch) Clover

The most common clover in North America is white clover, also called Dutch clover (Trifolium repens). It is is a perennial that is native to Europe and is a common weed in lawns. Before the introduction of broadleaf herbicides in the 1950s it was a standard part of a lawn and most turf seed mixes included some white clover. After the invention of herbicides it was considered to be a major lawn weed. It is one of best clovers for foot traffic, is hardy in USDA zones 3-13 and matures at 8-10 inches tall. It is evergreen in zone 6, but goes dormant in zone 5 and colder. As the name suggests, it flowers with prominent white flowers that attract mostly honeybees.

Microclover

Microclover or micro clover, is a small leafed variety of white clover (Trifolium repens var. ‘Pirouette’ and ‘Pipolina’). It is a shorter plant (4 – 6″ tall), has smaller leaves and fewer flowers. Microclover is also less aggressive and is less likely to take over turfgrass.

a lawn with small clover plants in it
Tall fescue lawn with microclover in it, source: U. of Maryland Extension

The seeds of this clover are more expensive and not as readily available. Since it has fewer flowers it attracts fewer bees which can be seen as an advantage or disadvantage. It is more tolerant to low mowing then white clover.

Red Clover

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is also a perennial, is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8 and grows 12-18 inches tall. It mixes well with turfgrass as well as other clover types.

Should You Grow A Clover Lawn?

It is probably best not to grow an all-clover lawn. It takes time to get established and since the plant dies back in winter it looks crappy for part of the year.

Allowing clover to invade your lawn and learning to live with it is probably your best option. Slowly over time your lawn will contain more and more clover. If you take better care of the lawn, the clover will spread more slowly.

Overseeding an existing lawn also makes sense especially if the grass is not very thick. Microclover will give you the nicest looking lawn but does very little for pollinators. For that reason, white or red clover are better options.

How to Plant a Clover Lawn

The actual planting process has been described in How To Add The Right Clover To Your Lawn.

FAQ About Clover

Q1. How long does it take for clover to germinate?

It takes 3-7 days to germinate depending on the temperature. That is slower than turfgrass.

Q2. What is the best time to plant clover?

It’s best to plant clover in early spring even when the ground is still frozen or mid-fall. Pick a time when it is cool and there is lots of moisture in the soil.

Q3. Will clover invade my garden?

Yes, and it grows faster in a garden bed than cool growing turfgrass.

Q4. Should you get rid of clover?

There is no right or wrong answer. If you want a perfect manicured lawn, clover is a weed and should be removed. However, there aren’t good arguments for having this kind of lawn for most homes. Some clover in the lawn looks quite good and provides a useable green carpet for most activities, in which case you can leave the clover.

Q5. Why do I have so much clover in my lawn?

Clover outcompetes turfgrass and eventually takes over the lawn, especially if you are not providing perfect lawn maintenance, including water and fertilizer.

Q6. When should I spray my lawn for clover?

You can spray for clover any time, but early fall is best. It is also a good idea to overseed with grass after spraying to fill the holes left by the dead clover.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

6 thoughts on “The Truth About Clover in the Lawn”

  1. Thanks Robert, for taking up this topic.

    Surprised you talked of neither how allelopathic clovers are, and the issues of pollinator “hijack” and native pollinator network disruptions. Bees on introduced plants are not fulfilling their evolutionary role in an ecosystem…they are pollinating invasive plants meaning they seed and the plants they evolved to pollinate are not visited. THANK YOU for acknowledging that white clover is invasive…ALL of the introduced ones are in my part of the world and are spreading rapidly down every road and trail into wild landscapes. The invasive plants thus have a huge advantage in reproduction because a) they have few to no co-evolved predators where they are not native, b) the bees are using their limited energy on the introduced plants, meaning native plant reproduction is compromised…the law of opportunity cost is at play here…bees cannot be two places at once, and c) they spread rapidly asexually as well.

    So why does this matter? Because thousands of species of folivores (mostly moths and butterflies) which are often very host specific no longer have the plants they co-evolved with to eat…not the right mouth parts, not the right defensive body chemistry…and they simply disappear. Why does this matter? Because they feed birds and other animals the protein they need to produce young. 96% of songbirds depend on the insect life in our gardens, and we provide them with a food desert.

    By “pushing back” in my garden, planting wild strawberry, calico aster, grey goldenrod, and native grasses on my open meadow area (read as “ex-lawn”) my pollinator diversity is improving but so are my birds, because they require the native grasses for nest materials, and the essential lepidopterans have food and winter cover in my “mowed once every 1-3 year” meadow of mixed native plants.

    Bonuses are also interesting fungi (a scarlet wax cap is a beautiful thing), ragged fringed orchids, and blue eyed grass (not a grass, but a plant like a tiny iris with a beautiful blue spring flower that lawn mowers obliterate in that it cannot make seed if its flowers are beheaded).

    I have had to put effort into removing earthworms, and introduced molluscs such as European amber snails too for my small native plants to survive…but the flock of overwintering goldfinch and juncos (year round enjoyment of my garden), and the interesting migratory birds are more than worth not having a boring green carpet that looks like a living room. Instead, I get billowing grasses, and hoarfrost in multicolored twinkles, beautiful tiny dew drops, and waves when the rain bends the grasses over. I’ll never go back.

    A warning…once you put clover in your yard you are stuck forever with it when you realize your good intentions backfired for lack of “knowing thy plant” before the planting of it…there are no simple solutions. Caring about the planet means chosing native plants first, and preferably wild open pollinated stock. I spend more and more “gardening time” along the roads trying to keep my ditches from being overwhelmed by introduced lawn grasses, clovers, and about 30 other bad and introduced weeds.

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  2. Unless you are Irish I see no long term benefit in a 3 leaf clover lawn

    Clover is best kept for Saint Patrick’s day for Good luck, give a sprig of 3 clover to your mates

    Wherever you go and whatever you do, may the luck of the Irish be there with you.

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  3. Thanks Robert for another very informative article.
    Honey bees often buzz about on the weed clover in my lawn. They are a problem if your kids/grandkids want to run around barefoot on the lawn.

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  4. here’s a paragraph from our 2023 annual report: Lawn flowers – Crusade #543b: Coming back across New Brunswick & Quebec we saw lots of billowy growth forms of Trefoil & White Clover, in places where there weren’t many or any on nearby lawns. Especially since Ontario banned recreational herbicides in 2009, many species, beyond the traditional Dandelions have moved into lawns, evolving low-growing forms that can bloom below the swath of the mowers. Future action: Get volunteers to take multiple samples of the low-growing species – Trefoil, Heal-all, Buttercup, Hop-clovers, Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum), and Mouse-ears – and plant them together in their lawns, so when they breed they’ll combine the low-blooming genes of the different populations, and produce strains that are consistently lower and more colourful.

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  5. Very informative post. Regarding broadleaf weed control in a mixed grass/clover lawn, I walk the lawn twice each season and spot-spray dandelions, broadleaf plantain, etc. Works pretty well, uses way less herbicide, and damage to the clover is minimal.

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