11 Important Things to Know About Clover Lawns
A clover lawn provides many benefits: less watering, less mowing, natural fertilization, and the attraction of wildlife and pollinators. Is a clover yard right for you? Here's what else you need to know.
America’s biodiverse meadows of days gone were slowly converted to French- and English-style monoculture lawns featuring mostly turf grass. By the late 1800s, the neatly trimmed, aesthetically pleasing grass lawn became a symbol of wealth. The invention of the lawn mower, as well as planned communities designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the designer of Central Park) and other landscape architects, further cemented the trend in the U.S.
While manicured monocultural lawns may look nice, they have drawbacks, such as depriving pollinators of food and habitat and requiring greater water consumption, maintenance, and chemical treatment than a clover lawn requires. Keep reading to learn more about clover lawns and whether or not it’s a viable option for your outdoor space.
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1. You can mow significantly less often with a clover lawn.
A clover yard only needs to be mowed a few times a year, as opposed to the weekly mowing required by most grass lawns. This is because a white clover lawn grows only 2 to 8 inches tall. Some homeowners like to mow their lawns midseason to tidy it up and deadhead flowers. Having a mowed clover lawn in place 4 to 6 weeks before the first frost can help winterize your lawn, but there’s no need to spend every weekend mowing as you would with turf.
2. Clover requires minimal water compared to traditional grass.
Not only do clover lawns require less mowing, but they also need less watering than most grasses. That’s because clover grass is drought-tolerant—yet it might stay green year-round, even in northern hardiness zones.
Turfgrass, meanwhile, needs an inch or more of water per week. Besides wasting a precious natural resource—water—regular and heavy watering can result in runoff of pesticides and other chemicals, which pollute our waterways and poison wildlife. Clover has much deeper roots than turf, so planting clover instead of grass means you’ll spend far less time and money watering your lawn.
3. A clover lawn doesn’t need to be fertilized.
Because clover is a legume, it takes nitrogen from the air and transfers it into the ground, where the gas improves nearby plants and soil quality. Clover is a benefit to yards with poor soil, and it can thrive in compacted or poorly draining soil.
If your lawn is a mix of grass and clover, the grass will be greener and healthier and won’t need fertilizing. Clover doesn’t require any additional fertilizer either!
4. In areas with heavy foot traffic, clover isn’t as durable as grass.
By itself, clover doesn’t hold up well to repeated heavy foot traffic or playing fields, However, when blended with turfgrass, it can make a strong lawn and take occasional heavy traffic. If you have white clover ground cover, it can appear patchy and bare in heavily traveled areas. One of clover’s few downsides is that it stains clothing more than turf. Another drawback is that it’s a short-lived perennial and, as such, may require reseeding every 2 to 3 years.
5. There’s no need for herbicides or pesticides with a clover lawn.
White clover (aka Dutch clover) crowds out weeds, thanks to its dense roots and fast growth, so there’s no need to use herbicides on a clover lawn. In fact, most herbicides kill clover, so they should be avoided. Clover forms dense clumps that spread by their secondary roots and will out-compete broadleaf weeds, so it effectively acts as its own herbicide.
Clover also attracts beneficial insects, including pollinators, and wildlife such as rabbits, so avoid applying pesticides on clover out of caution. Frequent use of broad-spectrum herbicides and pesticides (particularly synthetic pesticides) can be toxic to people and animals, and it can negatively impact local ecosystems and waterways.
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6. Clover seed is highly affordable.
White clover seed for lawns costs an average of about $4 per pound. This means that it can cost as little as $1 to seed 1,000 square feet. Combined with the fact that clover requires little in the way of watering, mowing, and pest control, clover lawn seed can be an economical option compared to many traditional grass varieties.
7. Clover lawns can spread without high maintenance.
Will clover take over grass? If your grass is thin or brown, it’s possible that clover can take over those areas of your lawn—especially if they’re shady. However, because clover adds nitrogen to the soil, it’s more likely that it will help your grass stay healthy instead of competing with the rest of your lawn.
8. You can skip aerating with a clover lawn.
Turf benefits from regular core aeration, which is either time-consuming to do yourself or expensive if you hire a lawn care company. Because clover is considered a living mulch, it provides nutrients to the soil and helps it resist compaction. Decomposing clover roots leave macropores in the soil. These attract earthworms, which help keep the soil loose (and, therefore, in need of no aeration) and reduce thatch buildup.
9. Clover lawns attract beneficial insects.
Clover lawns attract bees and other pollinators, including butterflies. Many of these species are necessary for our survival, but they are facing dwindling numbers due to habitat loss and pesticide use.
The drawback, however, is if you or your children tend to walk barefoot, there’s a small chance you could accidentally step on a bee and get stung. To prevent that, plant microclover, which produces fewer flowers than Dutch white clover, or mow before the flowers bloom. Mowing flowers off, however, negates the benefit of providing food and shelter for pollinators.
10. Clover is more drought- and shade-tolerant than most grasses.
Depending on the region, clover is semi-evergreen or evergreen and tends to thrive in full sun to partial shade. Meanwhile, some turfgrasses scorch in the summer sun, while others become spindly in partial shade.
White clover is a moderately drought-tolerant ground cover if the plants are spaced out. If they’re planted too closely together, they tend to compete for water. In that situation, they don’t do as well during droughts. This is one reason why clover does so well when mixed with grass. Clover provides shade to the soil, reducing water evaporation, and helping grass survive periods of drought.
11. Clover is soft underfoot and doesn’t discolor from pet urine.
Clover is soft and cool, providing a “carpet” for barefoot walkers. That invites grounding, or earthing, which studies show is beneficial for human health because the electrical connectivity with the earth restores the immune system, much like antioxidants do. Even more alluring is the sweet smell that emanates from the flowers.
Additionally, when a dog’s got to go, a dog’s got to go. While dog urine can discolor most grasses, clover isn’t affected by it and will remain green and attractive.
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Types of Clover for Lawns
What does clover look like? There are many types of clover, most of which are similar in appearance. Each clover stem will have three small petal-shaped leaves (four if you’re lucky!) with a white “V” or crescent. Here are two of the top low-maintenance clover varieties for lawns.
White Clover: Also called Trifolium repens or Dutch clover, this variety typically grows taller than microclover. It’s the most popular clover seed for lawns, but it can also be planted as a perennial cover crop, ground cover, or for erosion control. Its familiar round, white, and fragrant flowers dot the landscape of a clover lawn.
Microclover: This dwarf variety of Dutch white clover is lower-growing with smaller leaves and fewer flowers than its relative. Unlike regular Dutch clover, it doesn’t grow in clumps, grows more slowly, and is less aggressive at crowding out other plants.
How to Plant a Clover Lawn
Although it can sometimes reseed itself, it’s beneficial to know how to plant clover, especially since you might have to replant it every 2 to 3 years.
Start in early spring (mid-March to mid-April) to allow clover seed time to get established before cold weather arrives. Follow these simple steps on how to grow a clover lawn:
- If you want an all-clover yard, remove the grass in your lawn to eliminate competition. If you’d like a mixed lawn, seed the clover over the top of the grass.
- Rake or scratch the surface of the area where you want to plant.
- Sow clover seed at roughly 6 to 8 ounces per 1,000 square feet. The seeds are small, so do your best to maintain this level of distribution across your lawn.
- Water lightly or mist the soil after seeding and regularly until the clover establishes itself.
- Do not fertilize your clover lawn, as it’s unnecessary.
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