Why and How to Plant a Clover Lawn
As homeowners look for more environmentally friendly lawns, clover lawns are making a comeback. A clover lawn may be a mixture of grasses and clover--or it might be an all-clover lawn.
Until about 60 years ago, clover was a standard part of grass seed mixes. Clover is a legume and can convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into fertilizer using bacteria in its root system. Clover in grass seed mixes reduced or even eliminated the need for additional fertilizer. As uniform grass lawns became popular, homeowners began using weed control products that killed both weeds and beneficial clovers.
Clover lawns offer many benefits over a grass lawn, but there are some disadvantages too. Read on to learn more about clover lawns, when to plant clover lawns and clover lawn care.
Benefits of Planting Clover Instead of Grass
Growing a lawn of clover instead of grass offers many benefits. These include:
- Reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizer. Clover thrives in poor soils and converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into fertilizer. In mixed grass lawns, grasses can use this nitrogen to help them grow.
- Eliminates the expense of herbicides. Clover has ground-covering properties and can choke out or reduce the amount of weeds in the lawn.
- Stays green in the summertime. Clover can handle some dry spells and heat better than grasses.
- Attracts beneficial insects, including bees. This may be a disadvantage if a family member is allergic to bee stings.
- Requires less mowing. White clover usually only grows up to 8 inches tall. Homeowners with all-clover lawns may mow periodically to keep the lawn at a more uniform height.
- Costs less to incorporate into your lawn. White clover seed is inexpensive--and you'll also have savings from not using herbicides and fertilizers.
Disadvantages of Clover
While clover lawns have many benefits, there are some cons to the clover lawn.
- Doesn't hold up to foot traffic. Grass tends to be more durable.
- Short-lived perennial. Often needs to be reseeded every 2-3 years--especially to maintain all-clover lawns.
Mixed Grass Lawn vs. Pure Clover Lawn
When considering mixed grass lawns versus pure clover lawns, consider how your lawn is used. If you have quite a bit of foot traffic in the lawn, then mixed grass is a better option. If you have an existing grass lawn, it's easier to incorporate clover into an existing lawn than starting over with an all-clover lawn. If you want a lawn that requires minimal mowing, a pure clover lawn is the way to go.
Best Clover Varieties for Lawns
The two most common types of clover are White Dutch Clover and red clover. Because it is low growing and tolerates summer heat better, White Dutch Clover is usually used for lawns. Red clover is a biennial, grows taller and is often used as a cover crop. Microclover is a dwarf variety of white clover that is lower and slower growing than White Dutch Clover and has fewer flowers and smaller leaves. The best clover for lawns is White Dutch Clover or microclover.
How and When to Plant a Clover Lawn
Planting clover lawn is best done in early to mid spring (March/April) or the fall. If adding clover to an existing lawn, spring is the best time. Planting clover in summer is not recommended.
For an all-clover yard, remove the grass in your lawn. If you want a mixed clover lawn, aerate the lawn and mow the existing lawn very short. To germinate, white clover seed needs contact with the soil.
Sow clover seed at a rate of 4 to 6 ounces per 1,000 square feet. Because white clover seed is small, it can be mixed with sand and put in a seed spreader. A handheld broadcast spreader makes the job easier.
Lightly water the soil after seeding and regularly water until the clover establishes itself.
Clover Lawn Care
Once established, clover lawns are fairly easy to maintain. They require no additional nitrogen fertilizer. Because most herbicides for lawns kill clover, avoid using herbicides. Mowing at higher heights in the summer encourages more clover blooms. If you want to discourage blooming, mow at lower heights. All-clover lawns often need reseeding after 2-3 years.
Q. I like your idea of using corn gluten meal in the fall to prevent lawn weeds, but I don't want to get rid of the clover in my lawn—in fact, I'd like to have more of it. Should I not use corn gluten meal?
---Al in Mt. AiryA. The short answer is that clover grows best in poor soil; so to help it compete well with the grass, you would not directly fertilize your turf. Instead, use a mulching mower; the pulverized, nitrogen-rich grass clippings (and in your case, the even more nitrogen-rich clover clippings) these specialized mowing machines return to the turf will give your lawn—including the clover—a gentle feeding every time you mow. (Conversely, if you want to decrease the amount of clover in a cool-season lawn, you would feed it with corn gluten meal in the Fall and in the Spring.)
Q. I know most people want to kill the clover in their lawns, but I want the opposite—to lose the grass and get the clover to take over. Do you have any advice on creating a clover lawn?
---Mark in PhiladelphiaAre there any down sides to having a "lawn" of clover?
---Martin in Wilmington, DEWe're trying to establish Dutch White clover as a lawn. It's taking a while (and summer wasn't the smartest time to plant, but keeping the soil moist has helped a lot). The problem is that it's getting overrun with weeds, which we diligently pull; but I'd have to quit my job to really keep things under control! The sassy guy in the garden center at Lowes said that tilling just makes weed problems worse, and that any pre-emergent weed killer will "salt the earth" and prevent us from growing anything for a year or more. He was right about the tilling, but we need a way to kill the weeds before they sprout that will still allow our clover to grow from seed.
---Misha in Rancho Cucamonga, CAA. Let's begin with a clear look at the plant in question. There are three true members of the clover family: White (sometimes called 'Dutch clover'), Red, and Crimson (yes, Tommy James & The Shondells fans, there really is a Crimson Clover).
Alas, Crimson clover would not make a good lawn; it's an annual plant that dies at the first frost. But it's a dramatic one-season plant, growing up to three feet tall with beautifully colored blooms that attract lots of pollinators and beneficial insects. It's used by farmers—and savvy gardeners—as a green manure/cover crop. Its deep roots naturally aerate the soil, and after it dies, the above ground growth is either plowed under to nourish the following year's crop or just left on the ground to release its nutrients slowly without any tilling.
Red clover is biennial—a plant that lives for two seasons. It grows tall—two to three feet—grows fast, loves cold, hates heat, does not attract pollinators and grows in the worst soils. It's also used almost exclusively as a soil- and drainage-improving cover crop/green manure.
White clover is the best choice to try and grow instead of a lawn or for seeding into a lawn. (In fact, white clover was a deliberate component of virtually all grass seed mixtures up until the 1960's.) It stays fairly low (topping out at around a foot), can be mowed just like a lawn, handles foot traffic better than the other clovers and tolerates summer heat better. But, like cool-season grasses themselves, white clover still doesn't like hot summers, and may need a lot of water to survive them. (Typically, clover needs more water than lawn grasses.) It's also slow to establish; and although 'technically' perennial, isn't very long lived. That means—like the shade-tolerant cool-season lawn grasses—it should be over seeded or freshly seeded every couple of years. The flowers do attract bees, so sting-allergic people should avoid it and the rest us should not go barefoot on it.
Because white clover does behave so much like a cool-season grass, I suspect it would do also best when the seed is sown in late summer—when the heat is abating but the soil is still warm. (As with the cool-season grasses, Spring sowing require you to wait until the soil temp is at least 60 degrees; and by then, stressful summer heat is generally right around the corner.)
To help clover be a lawn rather than just be a part of one, you should add as little direct nutrition to the soil as possible. Clovers have the ability to form a symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria that enables the plants to take plant feeding Nitrogen out of the air, and so they kind of feed themselves. (To make sure that this 'nitrogen fixation' takes place, purchase a clover-specific inoculant and use it at planting time.)
To start out relatively weed-free (with a big tip of the YBYG hat to the guy at Lowe's who bad-mouthed chemical herbicides; he's my new hero!), make a 'stale seed bed'. Till the area about a month before planting time (which is ideally mid-August for both white clover and the cool-season lawn grasses), rake away as much of the old green as possible, level the soil, water daily to encourage all of the weed seeds you uncovered and then planted to sprout, and then slice off the resulting weeds with a sharp hoe two weeks later.
You should then be able to sow your inoculated clover seed, cover it with weed-seed-free top soil and have a good start on a clover-ishous lawn!
Oh, and one final note—chemical herbicides do 'salt the soil' and make it difficult for any plant to thrive, but the natural pre-emergent herbicide corn gluten meal actually improves the soil, long term. You just have to remember that, being a pre-emergent, it does prevent all seeds from sprouting for about six weeks after it's applied—but that's its job!