How to Plant and Grow a Clover Lawn
Alternative lawns have grown in popularity as a replacement to traditional turfgrass yards. They're a better choice for the environmental, and can end up saving you time and money on lawn care.
While there are many different ways to use ground cover to replace grass, clover is one the best species to use for its ease and affordability. It has a similar look and appeal to grass, but requires substantially less maintenance.
It's also an excellent source of nectar for important pollinators like bees, and it's easy to start or add to existing lawns. Here's everything you need to know about how to plant and grow a clover lawn.
History of Clover - Is it a Weed?
Historically, grass seed mixes contained a certain amount of clover because of the benefits of having the two co-exist. Clover is not native to the US, but was brought over as a lawn additive. It wasn't until the 1950's when pristine grass lawns were touted as the pinnacle of home ownership that clover started to get a bad rap.
It was around this time that chemical fertilizers and herbicides started to make an appearance, and various benign and beneficial species like clover became identified as weeds.
Herbicide companies planted the seed in people's minds that clover was "unsightly", raising fear in families that their flowers attracted bees which was unsafe for playing children, withholding the various benefits that clover added.
Parents wanted their kids and pets to be able to run around barefoot without worrying about bee stings, which became more important than providing beneficial pollinators with food sources throughout the growing season.
Even landscaping companies got on board with the idea that clover was problematic, and marketed it as one of the most difficult weeds to eradicate once established. Best practice was to poison the ground so nothing else could grow except the monoculture known as grass.
To this day, many homeowners think clover is something to be eradicated with weed control. Nothing could be farther than the truth, as clover extends multiple benefits to lawns, whether they are allowed to flourish alongside turfgrass, or established on their own.
Benefits of Clover Lawns
Although clover isn't a native crop, it can be used in many beneficial ways around gardens and farms without the fear of it becoming invasive. It's an easy-to-plant forage crop that can cover large areas or backyards with relatively little maintenance or cost.
Clover is a nitrogen fixer, and like other legumes, these kinds of plants are great to have around the garden or field where soils have been depleted. Nitrogen is lost during the growth process of plants, and legumes are able to pull nitrogen from the air and convert it back into the soil where it's made available to surrounding flora.
It can handle the foot traffic of busy families, and is soft underfoot just like grass is. The fear of children or pets stepping on bumblebees feeding on clover flowers is largely unwarranted: even the purest of grass lawns will have a bee or other stinging insects hiding amongst it.
Plus, the worry can be easily be assuaged by mowing clover during its flowering stages, or teaching kids about the benefits of giving bees a nectar source while being careful where they step.
Clover is a natural, organic way to use weed-control as it will choke out species you don't want like crabgrass, bindweed, and other invasive plants. It won't easily out-compete grass if you want to grow a mixture of the two.
Clover is drought-tolerant, and doesn't need supplemental water in the hot, dry summer months when grass lawns suffer. Because it adds nitrogen, you won't need to fertilize your lawn, and water retention is increased by mixing clover into grass.
Lastly, it you won't have to worry about burned patches of lawn from pet urine, as clover is resistant to the nitrogen, converting it instead of turning yellow like regular lawns do.
There are many types of clover, both annual and perennial, but perennial species are most commonly used as lawn alternatives because of their overall performance year after year.
White and red clover are the most popular varieties, and can be used for residential or agriculture purposes. Any clover has deep taproots which can help to loosen heavily compacted soil, which is often a problem in agriculture after planting monocrops.
Layering fields with any kind of clover will bring nitrogen back to depleted farm soils while doubling as an excellent forage crop for livestock.
Different varieties will flourish in various conditions, but most clover thrives in full sun or part shade without the need for fertilizing or extra care. It can be overseeded into areas that are bare or difficult to grow other plants in, as it adapts to various kinds of soil, helping depleted ones replenish themselves.
Dutch White Clover is one of the best all-around clovers for either farms or yards. It has the classic clover look and stays consistently green throughout the growing season. It does best in full sun, but can handle part shade.
Red clover boasts tiny purple flowers that some people prefer the look of over the white ones. It's slightly better at converting nitrogen, but isn't as prolific a grower as white clover, and needs to be re-seeded more often, usually every 2-3 years. Red clover grows taller than white clover which spreads horizontally like a mat.
Both species offer relatively similar benefits, with a few variations that may be better suited to your lawn or site as needed. Farmers may want red clover for its nitrogen-fixing and ease of rotating next season's crops. White clover is a more aggressive spreader that may benefit residential lawns or areas that need filling in.
Strawberry clover is a lesser known type of red clover that does well in moderate temperatures and features strawberry-shaped flowers. Microclover is a type of white clover that has been selected for specific traits such as hardiness, and characteristics more akin to a regular lawn.
Microclover produces far less blooms than regular clover, stays lower to the ground, and tolerates mowing and foot traffic better than other kinds of clover.
It retains all of the other benefits of white clover, but because of its selective breeding, it's pricier. It also turns brown in the winter, and has more trouble establishing on slopes or shady areas.
Overseeding vs. Planting New
Clover is a great choice for lawns in any kind of state, whether you want to mix in with grass or establish a new clover lawn altogether.
The main question homeowners have is whether to establish a pure clover lawn or to overseed into already existing grass lawns. The answer depends on a few factors, including simply what you prefer aesthetically, and how you use your lawn.
Some yards are merely for show and don't require softness or bee control for barefoot children and playful pets. In this instance, any kind of clover lawn would be beneficial, and even a mix of varieties could be tried to see which ones perform well.
If you already have a thriving patch of grass but want to reduce the cost and time that comes with lawn maintenance, then slowly adding in clover seed is the easiest way to get the best of both worlds.
Even with bare ground you may want a mix of clover and grass, in which a ratio of 80:20 clover to grass seed is recommended.
If you want to add clover to an existing lawn, clover seed can be added to a freshly prepped lawn site. Starting a new clover lawn takes a little more site preparation, but is relatively simple.
Planting a New Clover Lawn
If you have grass or any other plants in the area you want to convert fully to clover, suppress the growth by removing the plants and adding a layer of cardboard or plastic. You'll want to start this process before any new growth emerges, so late winter is the best time to lay down material to stop any dormant plants from emerging.
Once the site is cleared and the soil has thawed (around the middle of May for most regions), you can start prepping the soil to plant clover.
Remove any rocks, branches, and any other debris, and rake the soil to loosen it. Consider aeration if it's been heavily compacted, or allow spring rains to moisten the site. Clover is great at naturally loosening the soil once established, so you don't need to go overboard with this step.
The best way to spread clover seeds is to mix them with some triple mix soil or compost first in a wheelbarrow or other container. Add about four seeds per square inch of soil, and spread the mixture with a shovel or spreader.
Don't be tempted to spread the clover seeds by hand. This creates an uneven distribution of clover seeds over your lawn’s surface area.
Once the mounds of clover and soil has been applied, gently rake the mixture so it spreads evenly over the lawns surface, careful not to bury the seeds completely.
Soak the ground with a gentle watering, either with a sprinkler or hose attachment, and try not to walk on the area until well after germination begins.
Overseeding with Clover
Overseeding clover into existing lawns or garden areas is great when you want to thicken up sparse lawns, either letting clover eventually take over, or keeping a mixture of the two.
This is the easiest way to establish clover, and doesn't require the same amount of site preparation as starting an entirely new clover lawn does.
It can be beneficial to have both species in the lawn for a few reasons. Clover goes dormant during the winter months and dies back, leaving a bare patch of land that can get muddy during the early spring months.
Clover reseeds and spreads itself wherever it wants, and will invade into garden beds that aren't edged. Grass can help keep it in check. Essentially, the two can balance each other out nicely.
Early spring is still the best time to throw some clover seed in with grass, just before your grass starts to grow. If it's already long, mow your lawn close to the ground, or if it's relatively sparse, rake out patchy areas, and remove any thatch or dead grass.
This is a similar approach you would take if you were throwing down more grass seed; you want to expose the areas that need it, and offer the clover a good chance at germination.
Mix the clover seed with some triple mix and throw that into bare patches. You can throw clover seed by hand if you are simply mixing into an existing lawn. Gently soak the ground after planting seeds, and once again keep foot traffic to a minimum.
Keep the soil moist until you see tiny sprouts appear. Seeding in the spring means you'll get the benefit of seasonal rain showers to help with watering. Unless you experience drought during this stage, you won't need to water very often, just enough to keep things moist during the germination stage.
Even during the first year, new clover won't need to be watered as much as grass. Any intense drought may require some supplemental watering, but you can observe how its doing, and choose to moderately water when needed.
If you want the manicured lawn look, wait at least a month for the clover to establish before its first trim. If you don't want it to flower, you can mow it regularly, with your lawnmower set at 2-inches off the ground.
Otherwise, mow it at the same height you would mow the grass. Some people prefer to keep it slightly longer in the summer to reduce maintenance and the need for watering, while also protecting it from browning.
It can be cut shorter in the spring and fall months when water retention isn't as important, but just remember clover is tougher and more drought-tolerant than grass, so overall maintenance is minimal and mowing isn't necessary unless you prefer the shorn look.
Just like grass, you can leave any clover clippings on the lawn to add nutrients back into the soil and act as a beneficial mulch. You can also throw clover clippings into a compost pile to boost nitrogen content.
Perennial clover will still need to be re-seeded every so often, depending on the variety. Most need re-seeding every 2-3 years, especially if planted as a forage crop for animals.
You may find that your clover lawn establishes quickly and re-seeds itself, so in some instances re-seeding won't be necessary. Observe how the clover does after the first year, and see what sprouts once spring comes around again.
If you want a lusher clover lawn, then re-seed as much as you like, but remember that it will spread, so give it time to do so naturally.
One of the best ways to ensure that it comes back healthy and thriving is to do very little to prevent it. Don't use insecticides, herbicides, fertilizer, or any other kind of chemicals on your lawn, as that would defeat the point of planting clover in the first place - no matter how tempted you may be to treat it like grass.
Cost of Clover Lawns
Clover is cheap to purchase, easy to establish, and even easier to maintain, reducing the costs of lawn maintenance almost entirely by the second year. You can let clover go wild, never having to do any work on it at all, save for re-seeding every so often.
Clover is best purchased in seed packets, and a small 25 gram packet will cover approximately 100 square feet. Most varieties cost around $5 per packet, with heirloom or microclover varieties priced around $10-20.
Other costs will include any soil you are adding, and the little bit of water you may need to help it establish. You shouldn't need to pay for labor, as this is a DIY job that can be done in a couple hours for regular sized lawns.
Overall, you can start a brand new clover lawn for under $50, and even less if you are overseeding into an existing grass area.
Planting and growing a clover lawn is an easy and affordable project that's more environmentally friendly and sustainable than a regular grass lawn.
It will free up more time for you to enjoy your yard, instead of constantly maintaining it, so you can finally find that lucky four-leaf clover.