A picture-perfect lawn, for decades the centerpiece of a well-tended American yard, is still the gold standard, but perhaps it shouldn't stay that way. The decline of pollinator populations, as well as the resources and effort needed to maintain turfgrass, plus the pollution it creates, have caused many people to rethink their lawns. Enter the clover lawn, a low-maintenance sustainable alternative to conventional turfgrass.
Learn about the pros and cons of clover lawns, and how to establish one in your yard.
What Is a Clover Lawn?
A clover lawn consists of either only clover, or of a combination of clover and turfgrass. Because of its dense growth habit and its broad leaves, the visual appearance of a clover lawn is similar to the carpet look of a conventional turfgrass lawn. Clover lawn has a soft, cool feel when you walk on it barefoot.
Benefits of a Clover Lawn
Clover lawns have numerous benefits, including infrequent mowing, minimal watering, no fertilization needs, and reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides. Clover also attracts pollinators, is pet-friendly, and helps with erosion control.
Unlike a conventional turfgrass lawn, a clover lawn only needs to be mowed a couple of times a year, as it only grows 2 to 8 inches tall. Most people mow it in mid-summer after the clover has bloomed and has dropped its seeds, and again four to six weeks before the first fall frost. Any additional mowing is optional.
Except during its establishment phase, a clover lawn does not need watering as clover has deep roots that draw moisture from deeper in the soil.
No Need for Fertilizer
Clover is botanically a legume. As such it can grow in poor soil and does not need fertilization. It is a nitrogen fixer—clover has the ability to absorb nitrogen in the atmosphere and transform it into nitrogen that can be used by plants.
No Herbicides or Pesticides
Because clover is such as vigorous and fast grower, it chokes out other weeds and makes herbicide unnecessary. The clover types used as turfgrass are also not prone to attacks by serious pests, such as lawn grubs.
Blooming clover attracts bees and other pollinators, which play a crucial role in our food web and whose numbers are dwindling because of widespread pesticide use and habitat loss. A clover lawn is an important contribution to preserving biodiversity.
If you add up the costs of lawn (grass seed, watering, gas for mowing, fertilizer and other chemicals, aeration) a clover lawn is more economical than turfgrass.
Unlike turfgrass, dog urine does not leave unsightly discolored or brown spots in the lawn.
Clover can grow in compacted soil; its deep roots help with erosion control and naturally aerate and loosen up compacted soil so there is less rainwater run-off.
Disadvantages of a Clover Lawn
Although clover lawns are mainly beneficial, there are a few potential drawbacks to consider, including an increased presence of insects and a poor ability to withstand foot traffic.
Blooming clove attracts bees and other insects that sting in defense. If you have children who play on the lawn, or you like to walk on it barefoot, plant microclover, a type that has fewer flowers. Mowing the clover lawn before or when the flowers are in bloom out of concern for stings is detrimental to your lawn being a food source for pollinators.
Clover alone does not hold up to foot traffic the same way as turfgrass but when combined with turfgrass, it makes a strong, walkable lawn that can withstand heavy traffic better.
Types of Clover for Lawns
Among the many different types of clover, the two mainly used for lawns are white clover and microclover.
- White clover (Trifolium repens), also called Dutch clover is the most popular clover seed for lawns. It has round, white, and fragrant flowers. While it is a rather short-lived perennial, it easily reseeds itself, so you don’t have to overseed the entire lawn, only the bare spots.
- Microclover is a dwarf variety of Dutch white clover. It is lower-growing, has smaller leaves, and fewer flowers. It does not grow in clumps, is less fast and less aggressive than white clover, therefore it is often planted in combination with turfgrass. Popular varieties include ‘Pirouette’ and ‘Pipolina’.
One disadvantage of microclover is that it is has poor shade tolerance and isn’t very tolerant of high temperatures and drought. In the height of the summer, when cool-season turfgrasses such as tall fescue turn dormant, it dies, which increases the likelihood of weeds filling the empty spots unless you reseed it promptly. Also, after the winter, there might be bare spots that need to be reseeded in the spring.
Mixing Clover with Turfgrass
Clover, especially white clover, is a vigorous grower. The plants compete with each other for water especially when planted densely and won’t do well in a drought. Clover and turfgrass such as tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass, however, are good companion plants. Clover shades the soil, reduces water evaporation, and thus helps turfgrass survive periods of drought, as well as eliminating the need for fertilizer.
How to Plant a Clover Lawn
Clover needs constant moisture to germinate. Sow it in the early spring in March or April.
- As the combination of turfgrass and clover (and not an exclusive clover lawn) is the way to go, leave existing turfgrass in place but prepare it for the clover. Mow the grass shorter than usual, about 2 inches, so the seeds can reach the soil. Remove any thatch and rake or scratch the soil surface.
- The seeding rate for white clover ranges from 2 to 8 ounces per 1,000 square feet. For white clover, most seed suppliers recommend 1 pound per 1,000 square feet. The seeds are tiny, which can make even broadcasting challenging but try your best not to cluster them.
- Water the seeded areas lightly with a spray nozzle and keep them evenly damp at all times, or else they won’t germinate. Daily watering is required in the absence of rain. Germination takes about one week, less in warm weather. Watering in the early evening will keep the seeds moist overnight and speed their germination. A second, light watering during the day can also guard the seed against drying out. Keep at the watering until the seed has gotten its roots down a couple of inches, usually a couple of weeks.
Lawns and Microclover. University of Maryland Extension.