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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Clover makes for an environmentally sound 'lawn'

Clover is an economical and environmentally friendly, low-maintenance

Clover is an economical and environmentally friendly, low-maintenance lawn alternative. Credit: Outsidepride.com

Ah, the perfect lawn: a thick, lush, uniform carpet of even height, absent any diversity — or bare spots — and green as far as the eye can see. Until some pesky clover makes an appearance, mucking things up with its sweetly scented white or pink flowers in spring and rounded foliage all summer long.

Here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: Clover is good for your lawn.

Clover was even considered a desirable component of commercial turf seed blends in the mid-20th century. But when chemical weed-control products came along to kill crabgrass, the bane of suburbia, in the 1950s, clover became collateral damage. And then, in the quest for what became the new standard of a “perfect” lawn, Americans became obsessed with eradicating clover.

Clover naturally adds nitrogen — the active ingredient in lawn fertilizers — to soil. It’s common practice to plant it as a cover crop on farms to nourish the soil between seasons. And when it pops up naturally, that’s a clear indication that your soil is either low in nitrogen or isn’t getting enough water.

In order to thrive, turf grass requires a total of an inch to an inch-and-a-half of water each week, supplied by rainfall, supplemental irrigation or both. It’s best to water deeply but less frequently — instead of providing a daily sprinkle — to encourage deep root growth, which strengthens the grass and helps it survive when drought does present.

Nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for all plant life. When it’s lacking, nature steps in and fertilizes for you by “planting” clover. As some of its roots die — including whenever the lawn is mowed — they release nitrogen into the soil. This is preferable to applying synthetic fertilizers, which often end up at the water table, where they fortify the plants there, leading some to grow out of proportion, and mess up the ecosystem and threaten the entire food chain.

As more homeowners become educated about the negative environmental impacts of using excess nitrogen fertilizers, many are embracing their clover. Some are even planting it deliberately. Let’s face it, green is green, and when the lawn is mowed, you can’t really tell that much of a difference. My own small lawn includes clover, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I’ll be planting more come spring. Here’s why:

  • It requires little or no watering.
  • It doesn’t require regular mowing. (You can get away with mowing clover only once a year, but never later than midsummer. If you’re a stickler for uniformity, you might opt to mow it monthly during the growing season, but this isn’t necessary.)
  • It never needs fertilizer.
  • It stays green all summer.
  • It doesn’t turn brown and die from pet urine, as turf grasses do.
  • It chokes out most other weeds.
  • It grows in full sun to part shade.
  • It attracts bees and other beneficial insects that pollinate nearby plants and help keep pests in control. (If you are allergic to or otherwise concerned about bees, you can keep them away by mowing regularly when it's in bloom.)

Clover can handle some activity, but isn’t suitable for heavy foot traffic or, say, a game of touch football. It also may need reseeding every two or three years, but it’s less expensive than other grasses, which often need overseeding as well. 

If you aren’t ready to take the leap and plant a clover lawn, consider mixing some with your existing grass. The combination will improve clover's ability to handle foot traffic and reduce or eliminate the need to reseed.

Look for “micro” or “mini” clover seed, which will top out at 4 inches after some initial repeated low-mowings to “train” it to remain short and more lawnlike. It also will crowd out other weeds more effectively than Dutch white clover.

Seed should be coated with an inoculate; if they aren’t, purchase a packet of inoculate separately and apply it to seeds by following label directions. Legumes, like clover, are “nitrogen-fixing,” which means they rely on certain bacteria strains to prime their roots and supply nitrogen; the inoculate will feed the seeds without nourishing weeds that may be lurking in the soil. Wait until you are ready to sow coated seeds before purchasing them, and check package dates to ensure they were packaged within the past six months, as the inoculate loses its effectiveness over time.

Before seeding, remove any thatch to thin out the existing lawn and expose soil. Sow seed around the beginning of April, mixing it with sand or loose soil before spreading to facilitate an even application, then gently rake it in. Water very lightly every day (unless it rains) to keep soil slightly moist until clover fills in. If planting in part-shade conditions, sow double the amount of seeds indicated for the area.

If you’re not convinced, just think back on all the mowing, watering, fertilizing and pesticide applications you spent time and money on this year. Wouldn’t you rather spend your weekends relaxing with more money in your wallet, knowing you’re helping our threatened honeybees and keeping the environment clean?

Give it some thought over winter. It just might be time to stop and smell the clover.  

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