As water and energy prices rise, many people are seeking alternatives to the traditional, thirsty, labor intensive American lawn. One of the most popular lawn alternatives is white clover (Trifolium repens), also known as Dutch clover or Dutch white clover.
Although many people now consider clover a weed, a healthy patch of white clover was considered a standard of excellence in lawn care until the 1950s, when the rising use of broadleaf herbicides that killed clover as well as more harmful weeds made the current grassy monoculture the ideal lawn of most homeowners. In recent years, however, clover lawns have been experiencing a revival due to their many benefits.
There are two types of white clover lawns: pure clover lawns, which are best for areas with low or moderate traffic, and mixed grass-clover lawns, which are best for playing fields and other high traffic areas.
Advantages of Clover
Clover lawns have many advantages over traditional bluegrass or bermuda grass lawns.
- Clover stays green all summer with little or no watering in most regions of the US. Clover is relatively drought-tolerant and it greens up early in spring and remains green until the first frost. In the South, it may remain green all winter.
- Clover requires little or no mowing. White clover grows just 2-8 inches tall and requires little or no mowing to keep it orderly. However, some homeowners may prefer to mow in midsummer in order to deadhead old blooms and neaten the appearance of the lawn, or to prevent blooming.
- Clover never needs fertilizer. Clover is a nitrogen-fixing legume, a plant that essentially creates its own fertilizer... and fertilizes nearby plants as well! Grass that is intermixed with clover will be healthier and greener with less effort than grass planted alone.
- Clover never needs herbicides. In fact, most herbicides kill clover. Fortunately...
- Clover out-competes other weeds. Anyone who has struggled to eradicate clover from a grass lawn can tell you how persistent it can be. Clover easily out-competes most other weeds and reduces the need for weeding or expensive herbicides.
- Clover grows well in poor soil. Clover tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions, including the poor-quality subsoil common around many new homes.
- Clover feels great on bare feet. Soft, lush, and cool, walking barefoot on a clover lawn is a luxurious treat. Clover's leaves and blossoms also have a mild, pleasant smell.
- Clover is immune to "dog patches." The urine of female dogs discolors lawn grasses. Clovers stays as green and lush as ever.
- Clover is inexpensive. Clover seed is extremely inexpensive. Average cost is about $4 per 4000 square feet. Homeowners who have been fighting clover as a weed get it for free, if they decide to stop fighting and let it grow.
Disadvantages of Clover
Clover lawns do have some disadvantages:
- Clover stains clothing more easily than grass
- Clover is not durable enough for playing fields or very high traffic areas, unless mixed with grass.
- Clover is a short-lived perennial and may require reseeding every 2-3 years to maintain an even stand in pure clover lawns. In mixed grass-clover lawns, clover will reseed itself adequately to maintain a consistent presence.
Clover and Bees
Clover is one of the favorite flowers of bees and it makes a delicious honey. However, many homeowners are wary of planting a clover lawn because they are afraid of bee stings.
It is possible to have a clover lawn without bees. If you are allergic to bees or have young children, you can discourage bees by mowing the clover regularly during its summer blooming season to prevent blooms.
However, if you are not allergic and have older children (or none at all), please consider letting the clover bloom. Bees are threatened around the world by a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). When a hive is struck by CCD, the worker bees spontaneously abandon the hive and disappear, leaving the queen and a few larvae and immature workers to starve. The cause of CCD is still unknown, it it is believe to affect hives stressed from habitat loss, parasites, and pesticide use most strongly.
Honeybees are the primary pollinators for 1/3 of all human food crops. Some crops, such as almonds, are 100% dependent on honeybees to produce. If honeybee populations continue their rapid decline, food prices are likely to increase dramatically. To learn more about this crisis, please visit Help the Honey Bees, The Pollinator Partnership, or the Xerces Society .
Homeowners can help by ceasing the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides, and letting their clover bloom. For more tips on planting a bee-friendly garden, please visit Plant a Bee Garden.
Clover also attracts parasitoid wasps, which feed on aphids, scales, and whiteflies. These wasps are tiny and harmless to humans, and will be your enthusiastic allies in controlling insect pests in the garden.
Planting and Maintenance
Clover lawns can be established by encouraging already existing clover patches in your landscape, by seeding, or a combination of both.
Clover is best seeded in early spring from mid-March to mid-April. It can also be seeded in fall. Tiny clover seeds are difficult to sow evenly - one way to improve your chances is to mix seed in with some soil, sawdust, or graded sand. If you have no clover in your lawn or nearby, you may need to add a bacterial inoculant to promote the best growth; if you have any clover in your lawn, however, the inoculant is probably already present in the soil. After planting, use a misting attachment to water daily until you can see the seedlings
Existing clover patches can be encouraged by mowing with the blades set at 1.5-2 inches, which favors clover over most traditional turf grasses. In the middle of summer, stop mowing to encourage clover flowering and seeding. Once established, most clovers are low-growing and require little or no mowing, unless you wish to discourage bees by mowing to prevent summer blooms.
Never apply herbicides to a clover lawn.
Clover is a short-lived perennial and may require reseeding approximately once every 3 years to maintain consistent coverage. It may successfully reseed naturally, however, or wild clovers may move in and take over aging stands.
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