mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen, the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac,” and the author of “Return to Nature” (Spring 2022).
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January 26, 2022 — 11:33 AM
If you’re looking to liven up your yard in the new year, you might consider adding some clover. Clover lawns are becoming increasingly popular as homeowners look to make their outdoor spaces more dynamic and welcoming to native wildlife.
While they’re not for everyone, clover lawns are pretty easy to start and a breeze to maintain. Here’s what to know about the pros and cons of this lawn type, and how to grow one for yourself.
What is a clover lawn?
Clovers are small, rapidly-growing legumes. “A clover lawn is typically a mix of clover and whichever grass type grows best in your region or climate. It can be any ratio of that mix,” explains Emily Murphy, organic gardener and author of the new book Grow Now: How We Can Save Our Health, Communities, and Planet-One Garden at a Time.
Clover was first brought into the U.S. from Europe in the 1600s and quickly started thriving across many parts of the country from there. “It grows well here–especially in disturbed areas like lawns,” says Nancy Lawson, naturalist and author of The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. Lawns dotted with clover were the norm for hundreds of years until the rise of herbicides and pesticides convinced us that lawns should contain grass and grass only; anything else is a weed.
These days, more people are starting to see the value in filling in their yards with many types of plants instead. Not only do they look more interesting than your typical turf, but wild gardens can also serve as refuges for local wildlife and havens for high-quality soil. For these reasons, clover lawns are now experiencing a comeback.
The different types of clover.
There are hundreds of species of clover, but these are the most common ones you’ll find these days:
Micro clover (Trifolium repens var Pipolina): This type of Dutch white clover has been bred to be smaller, around 3 to 6 inches. Murphy notes that it’s a popular choice for clover lawns since it tends to have a more even appearance and doesn’t clump as much. “Another nice thing about micro clover is that since the leaves are tiny, it can take more wear and tear,” she explains.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) and Sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis): These clovers produce taller, bright flowers and are not as common in residential yards. However, they can be used in agriculture for cover cropping or livestock grazing.
Benefits of a clover lawn:
1. It’ll give you bang for your buck.
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Clover seeds are a lot more affordable than other turfgrass seeds. For every dollar you spend on seeds online or in a garden center, you’ll be able to cover about 1,000 square feet of yard. Once it germinates and grows, clover can add more texture and interest to your lawn.
2. It doesn’t need to be fertilized.
Thanks to a partnership with a group of soil bacteria known as Rhizobia, clover plants are nitrogen fixers. This means they can draw nitrogen out of the air and convert it into a form that plants around it can use to grow.
Because of the plant’s nitrogen-fixing capabilities, clover lawns don’t require synthetic fertilizers–saving you more money and sparing the environment from harsh chemicals that can threaten nearby ecosystems and waterways.
3. It needs less water than a standard lawn.
Murphy explains that clover lawns can stay green in drought conditions and tend to need less water than typical turfgrass lawns. How frequently you need to water yours will depend on how much sun, rainfall, and humidity it gets. The more frequently you mow your clover lawn, the less water it will be able to hold and the more you’ll need to water it.
4. It can help fill out bare patches of lawn.
If you already have a lawn but it’s seen better days, sprinkling some clover on top of it will help it look more even. Once your clover lawn is in, it’ll also stay pretty resilient to daily wear and tear. Murphy notes that this makes it a great option for households with dogs who love to run around.
5. It supports more biodiversity than a standard lawn.
Lawns with short, uniform turfgrass or artificial turf are ecological nightmares. While they may look appealing to some humans, they don’t provide any kind of food or refuge for local critters. Clover lawns are better from this perspective, as they can attract certain bees, rabbits, groundhogs, and more.
However, Lawson notes, if attracting biodiversity is your goal, you’d be better off planting native species than clover.
Are there any downsides to a clover lawn?
1. It takes a few weeks to grow.
If you’re planting a clover lawn from scratch, you’ll need to wait a few weeks before it starts taking off. “To start a clover lawn from scratch, you have to plant it from seed. For many people, that will be the biggest drawback,” says Murphy.
2. If you aren’t into bees, it may not be for you.
If you let your clover lawn flower, it will attract buzzing bees to your yard. This might be an issue for someone who’s allergic to bees or has young children who might step on them. Keeping your clover lawn cut short will keep the bees away–but it’ll also reduce those nitrogen-fixing and biodiversity-promoting benefits, so it’s a trade-off.
3. If a wildlife-friendly garden is your goal, there are better options out there.
Lawson notes that if she were planting a wildlife-friendly, biodiverse yard from scratch, clover wouldn’t be her first pick. “On a continuum, it’s better than turf grass,” she notes, “but the best habitat will have plenty of native species mixed in.”
Native sedges, wildflowers, and low grasses will provide more food and habitat to the critters that roam in your area. A few of Lawson’s favorites include violets, spring beauties, daisy fleabanes, and low sedges like Pennsylvania sedge or Eastern woodland sedge. But she encourages you to check out resources like Wildlawn, Soft Landings, and Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Center to learn more about how to start a native lawn using the plants that thrive in your particular area.
Establishing a clover lawn.
If the pros outweigh the cons for you and you’re ready to get your clover lawn in the ground, here’s what you’ll need.
A hose or sprinkler
Grass seeds (optional)
Handheld seed spreader (optional)
An aerator (optional)
Planting from scratch:
Those who are starting without any green to speak of will want to plant their clover at the same time as a native grass. Here, Murphy walks through how to do it:
Keep your clover seeds and grass seeds separate. “If you mix them together, the clover seeds will go to the bottom,” Murphy notes, and they could clump in your yard.
Keeping the seeds apart, mix them in with a bit of compost, soil, or sand. This will make them easier to spread.
Spread an even layer of grass seeds first–either using a machine or your hands–then go back over the area with your clover seed mix.
For two weeks, you’ll want to keep the seeds very wet. Make sure they get water every day until they germinate. After two weeks, you’ll be able to water them less frequently.
Transitioning an existing lawn:
If you already have a grassy lawn that you’re hoping to fill in with some clover, planting it is even easier:
Murphy recommends first sprinkling a thin (half an inch or so) layer of fertilizer over your lawn to improve soil health and act as a natural fertilizer.
Mix your clover seeds with compost, soil, or sand. Spread them out over your compost layer.
Keep your seeds wet for those first few weeks, watering every day it doesn’t rain.
Note: Those who live in snowy areas and have very heavy, compacted soil may want to aerate their lawns before adding clover.
Maintaining the lawn.
Once you’ve put your clover in the ground, it really takes care of itself because of those nitrogen-fixing properties. It should only need water during very dry, hot periods. While it does best in full sun, it can also acclimate to shade.
You can either let your clover lawn run wild and flower to attract more biodiversity or trim it down every once in a while. It’s really a matter of preference. Re-seeding your clover lawn every two to three years will keep it looking fresh.
The bottom line.
Adding a clover lawn to your home is a great way to challenge the notion that yards have to be boring to be beautiful. By dotting yours with plants like clover, you can start to make your yard a more interesting and dynamic escape for humans and wildlife alike.
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