The American obsession with a pristine, green lawn presents a few problems. That green lawn requires a lot of work to maintain and is a huge drain on resources. Lawns in the U.S. are the country’s largest irrigated crop, consuming more land than any food crop. Besides hogging resources, the solid carpet of turfgrass we’ve created also hurts wildlife by discouraging biodiversity and creating runoff that pollutes waterways.
There are benefits to having a yard full of grass. And it’s possible to have a gorgeous, biodiverse lawn that benefits the environment. It just takes a little rethinking about what makes a lawn, including reconsidering clover — a plant that we redefined as a weed after WWII.
Embracing clover as a mainstay of your lawn can tip the balance back in an eco-friendly direction. You’ll also benefit from a lower-maintenance, self-fertilizing green lawn.
Choosing the Right Clover Strategy
The benefits of clover are vast. It’s drought-tolerant and self-fertilizing. The plant absorbs nitrogen from the atmosphere and returns it to the soil. In other words, it creates its own fertilizer and fertilizes nearby plants. When you mix it with common grass types such as Kentucky bluegrass or fescues, it creates enough nitrogen to eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.
Clover provides forage for pollinators such as bees. It also looks magical and you may find your neighbors admiring it. Just make sure you choose the variety best suited to your needs. Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) or micro clover (Trifolium repens var. Pipolina) are the best species to incorporate into your turf. Dutch white clover stays green year-round, while micro clover turns brown during the winter. Micro clover is more tolerant of foot traffic and blooms 90 percent less than Dutch white clover. That means fewer bees and less support for pollinators.
Most people are happiest with a combination of turfgrass and clover. While some perform aggressive lawn makeovers to completely convert to clover, that isn’t necessary. If you already have a lawn, you can overseed it with clover and gradually let the clover take over.
To establish a mixed grass/clover lawn, you can sow clover seed into the lawn, encourage existing clover patches, or both. Encouraging existing patches is as easy as mowing over clover with the mower blade set low, between 1½ and 2 inches. This will allow the clover to take over by weakening the grass.
Sow seed in spring as soon as the last frost has passed. Dutch white clover should be seeded at 1 pound of seed to 1,000 square feet, and micro clover needs double that. After you seed, water the lawn daily until seedlings are visible, and then only once in a while, as needed.
Maintaining a Clover Lawn
There’s no need to fertilize a clover lawn. It takes care of that for you! It is also imperative that you do not apply broadleaf herbicides to a clover lawn unless you want to kill it. Your irrigation bill should drop, as this classic “weed” is drought tolerant. Try irrigating every other week in summer and see how it performs. A bonus? You only have to mow a clover lawn once a month to keep it looking tidy. Other than the frequency, just mow clover the same way you would mow a regular grass lawn.
The very same weeds that homeowners have been struggling to eradicate might be the answer to the low-maintenance, green lawn you dream of. Unlike typical turfgrasses, a clover lawn reduces water use, eliminates the need for fertilizer, cuts time spent on lawn care in half, and increases biodiversity. Plant it right and enjoy a future where your lawn is part of the solution rather than contributing to the lawn problem.
About the Author
Alexis Jones is a freelance writer whose work appears on the LawnStarter blog and other publications. An amateur landscaper who prides herself on being eco-friendly, she uses only native plants to encourage biodiversity and wildlife-friendly backyards.
Feature image courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0