We’re Thinking Over Why We Kill Clover
Clover hasn’t always been the bane of every lawn lover’s existence.
Sure, ripping it out (or spraying it) as soon as it creeps into your perfectly manicured turf might be a good way to fit into your neighborhood nowadays. But this lawn care tidbit could surprise you: Several decades ago, killing clover was not at all in vogue. It was a standard part of grass seed mixes.
With more homeowners today avoiding the use of pesticides, it’s likely clovers could come back in style again as (drumroll) a wonderful part of your lawn. Shocked and awed? Why would anyone want to reintroduce what’s considered a weed back into their lawn?
Looking to plant a clover lawn? Here are our top picks for clover seed:
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A victim of bad branding
Here’s the short answer: Clover wasn’t always considered a weed. It just got branded as one.
Clovers — specifically Trifolium repens — have for centuries been domesticated ground cover plants or livestock forage plants. Clover is a legume, in the same plant family as peas, beans, and peanuts. Its common names include white clover, white Dutch clover, Dutch clover and ladino clover. While it is native to the Mediterranean, it was introduced into the United States early in the colonial days. By 1747, it was common enough that Benjamin Franklin noted red clover’s value in improving pastures. Today, it grows readily from Canada to Texas, from Florida to Alaska.
Unfortunately, most homeowners don’t know (or have forgotten) this fact. Most won’t see a useful plant as we might see in its close relatives — the same goes for red clover, Trifolium pratense, white clover’s bushier cousin.
Still think clover is useless or ugly? Let’s ask a professional.
Melissa Sharapova is an expert on permaculture and landscaping, with two degrees (landscaping design and botany) and three Permacultural Design certifications, plus over 25 years in the horticultural industry. Says Sharapova, “In addition to being beautiful with small, round, cool green leaves and white (or pink) flowers, clover provides many ecological services.”
Clover’s many lawn care benefits
As she walks me through the list of everything clover is capable of for lawn health, the benefits are staggering. “Clovers are a beneficial addition to turfgrass because they fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil fertilizer, with the aid of root nodules [and] colonies of symbiotic bacteria,” says Sharapova.
“Clover also draws up and accumulates trace minerals. When clover decomposes, it makes the minerals available to the lawn grass and soil life. The grass becomes more disease resistant because of the health benefits of clover.”
In effect, making friends — not enemies — with clover means reducing the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and any chemicals one might use to keep disease at bay. This could save people a pretty penny, and it also makes clover way better for the environment than grass-only lawns.
Sharapova adds, “Including clover in a lawn can eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizer, which then reduces nutrient runoff into local streams and aquatic habitat…[it] can reduce erosion.”
‘You Couldn’t Find a Lawn Seed Mix Without It!’
Other experts on the subject have similar things to say. According to Jeff Lowenfels — author of influential gardening guides “Teaming With Microbes” and “Teaming With Fungi” — through his 40 years as a gardening columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, clover was in fact considered so essential for lawns back in the day that it was a standard, even necessary, component in lawn seed mixes. Says Lowenfels, “You couldn’t find a lawn seed mix without it!”
Turns out clover does some of the “weeding” for you, too. As a dense ground cover plant, clovers — though they are also broad-leaved — are exceptional at crowding out other broadleaf plants such as dandelions, violets, and other plants that commonly populate lawns.
“Clover … crowds out broadleaf weeds because it quickly forms clumps that spread by secondary roots, or stolons,” says Sharapova. In agriculture too, clovers are common and successful “cover crops” according to studies like this one in 2015 . When sown in between major crop plantings, they keep weeds down on farm fields for the upcoming year. This helps cut down on herbicide use and costs, too.
And though you maybe wouldn’t expect them to be, clovers are kind to grasses. Even today, you’ll see many lawns and fields where clovers and grass coexist peacefully, side-by-side— and grasses even return some favors to clovers, especially when it comes to a lush and beautiful lawn.
Says Sharapova, “White clover can withstand foot traffic, but will do so better mixed with grass.” Music to many lawn-lovers’ ears, she adds: “Clover will stay green all summer long.”
But what happened along the way to transform clover from valiant lawn companion to enemy of the suburbs, deserving removal root and stem?
The War on Clover
About 60 years ago, a war began on broadleaf plants. The ones who waged it: gardening and agricultural chemical companies, the very same who create herbicides we use today. These herbicides tend to have no effect on grasses — but they kill everything else, clovers included.
Says Sharapova, “Prior to World War II, lawn grass seed mixes actually contained clover seed. [But] by the 1950s, with aggressive marketing by chemical companies of synthetic herbicides … clover became identified as a weed.”
It’s not too late to dump the chemicals and reintroduce a springy, soft, green carpet of clover back into your lawn. It’s cushy to the feet, aids in both weed control and erosion control, with white flower heads attractive to honey bees. Sharapova tells us how.
Planting Tips for White Clover
White clover “is the most common clover grown in lawns because it is the lowest growing and hardy,” Sharapova says. It has a creeping growth habit, spreading by above-ground runners (stolons). “It is best to sow clover early in the season (late March-April).” She also suggests early spring months — mid-April to mid-May — as ideal times, with late summer and September being second-best. Clover plants like cool, fertile soil with adequate soil moisture. Its root system rarely goes more than 2 feet deep,, which makes it good for relatively shallow topsoil.
White-clover seed comes in many varieties and is readily available by mail order or at local gardening stores.
“Mow the existing lawn short and rake out any thatch buildup so that the small clover seed has contact with the soil,” she says. “Mix the tiny clover seed with sand, compost, or soil to aid dispersal. 1-2 ounces of clover seed is needed for every 1,000 square feet of lawn.”
The rest is nature’s work. Lawn owners can sit back and, over the next season or two, see a 5% to 10% clover cover establish in their lawn— and experience the return of something natural, helpful, and beautiful that maybe we shouldn’t have been so hasty to get rid of in the first place.
Adrian White is a certified herbalist who co-owns an Iowa organic farm specializing in organically grown produce and gourmet mushrooms. Her articles have been published in Healthline, Rodale’s Organic Life, The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Good Housekeeping.
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Plant Clover to Improve Soil Health
Clover’s reputation has waxed and waned over the last century: clover was considered a sign of a well-managed lawn, but once broadleaft herbicides hit the market, clover came to be considered a weed. Today, gardeners are growing wise to the plant’s many benefits! Plant clover in your yard, meadow, or garden, and it will work hard to improve soil health, stabilize your soil, attract pollinators and beneficial insects, and promote a healthy lawn and garden. Not to mention, cover is edible as well! Where will you plant clover in your landscape?
Plant Problem-Solving Clover Almost Anywhere
Clover is versatile!
With a number of species available, there is a clover for almost any planting situation. Some species thrive in full sun while others grow under shady conditions. One clover may prefer dry soils while others perform well in water-logged sites.
Try mixing clover into a wildflower mix or sowing as a cover crop in your fruit and vegetable gardens. You can plant clover as a component of wildflower meadows, or sow seed directly over your lawn. Many growers plant clover beneath fruit-bearing shrubs, vines, and trees to improve pollination and condition soil.
Clover is easy and affordable to grow from seed!
It’s easy to add clover to your lawn, to take advantage of its many useful attributes. It’s especially helpful for filling in bare patches of lawn or areas where it’s difficult to grow grass.
Sow in spring after the threat of frost has passed or in autumn, depending on plant species and your location.
Seed can be sown directly over established turf grasses. Mow your grass at a low setting and gently raking out any built-up thatch. Then mix seed with sand, sawdust, fine compost, or soil, to make even distribution easier. Broadcast seeds over the planting area. After sowing, water the planting site deeply, and keep the soil surface moist until the clover germinates (about 4-6 weeks).
Clover looks great anywhere you plant it!
Clover grows very quickly, bringing with it unexpected beauty. In lawn areas, clover fills empty, brown patches and keeps lawns looking green and lush throughout the season. Plants bloom in a variety of colors, from pink and purple to deep crimson.
Flowers are produced over a long season and attract the beauty of butterflies to the landscape. Plant clover in large masses to cover bare soil or add ornamental interest in fields and weedy areas.
Soil-improving clovers can be planted with wildflowers to create a beautiful effect, as seen here with Crimson Clover.
Plant Clover to Improve Soil Health
There is so much that clover does to improve your soil health!
- Clovers produce a combination of tap roots and fibrous roots that help aerate the soil and improve friability, or the loose texture of soils, while also keeping weeds at bay.
- Clovers can protect soil from wind and water erosion.
- When used as a cover crop or green manure, decomposing clover adds large amounts of organic matter to the soil.
- Clover also adds nutrients to your soil, and reduces your need for fertilizers.
- Clover acts as a natural mulch to protect your soil.
Clover is a legume crop, belonging to the bean and pea family of plants. Legumes perform a unique service among the plant world: nitrogen fixing. They transform nitrogen gas, found in air pockets of soil, into organic compounds that can be used to help fertilize plants. They do this by partnering with beneficial bacteria in the soil called Rhizobia, which grows in rounded nodules along the plant’s roots. Once legumes fix nitrogen, surrounding plants can use the nitrogen compounds to fuel growth.
This process rejuvinates nutrient-poor soils and reduces the need for fertilizers. Planting clover therefore helps you save money on soil amendements, leads to healthier plant growth, and protects waterways from being polluted by fertilizer runoff. Farmers have long used clover as a rotation among their crops. Gardeners can use clover as a green manure or cover crop, too!
Another way to gain the benefits of nitrogen fixation is to plant clover among other plants. This can be done by incorporating clover into lawns, mixed plantings, or sowing clover as a living mulch or groundcover.
In addition to fixing nitrogen, a living clover mulch keeps soil moist and cool. Lush green cover intercepts the sun, which helps to moderate soil temperatures and reduce evaporation.
Clover’s strong root system and dense groundcover will also suppresses the growth of weeds, reducing the need for herbicides.
Plant Clover to Attract Pollinators & Beneficial Insects
Pollinators love clover!
Clover is one of honeybees’ favorite foods. If you’ve eaten honey, it was most likely clover honey! Providing food for honeybees reaches far beyond the production of nature’s sweetener — feeding pollinators is critically important to crop production on any scale, from large farms to our own gardens. Around one in three foods we eat depends upon honeybees for pollination!
Unfortuantely, honeybee populations are in decline, and scientists link this loss to the eradication of clover, dandelions, and other flowering “weeds” from lawns across the country. Planting clover in your lawn and landscape is one way to help boost the honeybee population! You will also find many other types of native bees visiting clover blossoms, including bumblebees, which are also important pollinators.
You can feel good about planting clover to provide habitat for native bees and honeybees, and your garden will benefit from these winged visitors, too. Just like commercial crops, many fruit and vegetable garden plants require bees for pollination. By planting clover among our crops, we invite bees into the garden to pollinate our plants, which will help boost their productivity for more delicious food to harvest.
Why do we love beneficial bugs?
In addition to pollinators, other beneficial insects are attracted to clover. Helpful garden predators such as ladybugs, minute pirate bugs, lacewings, and parasitoid wasps (specialized non-stinging predators), will feed on the nectar and pollen of clover. These bugs are beneficial because they feed on aphids, whiteflies, scales, cabbage worms, and other garden pests that can be harmful to your plants. When we plant clover and other flowers to attract these natural predators, we take a big step toward managing pest problems in the garden — without the use of chemical herbicides, which are harmful to people, plants, and animals!
The Benefits of Clover, Dandelions and Lawn Weeds
Kelly Burke is a professional turf manager for a manicured corporate campus in New England. He is accredited in organic land care and is a licensed pesticide applicator. He formerly managed the turfgrass as a golf course superintendent and has held several senior management positions at private country clubs overseeing high maintenance lawns.
The Spruce / Valerie de León
The many plants we consider weeds are hated for the simple fact that they grow where we don’t want them to, and they do so with considerable vigor and tenacity. In many ways, the plants we call weeds are genetically superior to the landscape plants we find more desirable since they thrive so readily. But a great many of these so-called “weeds” have other uses that we overlook in our frenzy to eradicate them from our lawns and gardens. Two such plants are clover and dandelions.
Clover as a Lawn Grass
Clover is usually considered a weed and is fought with herbicides and other remedies by homeowners and landscape professionals in their quest for a perfect lawn containing nothing but turf grasses. A little reflection and botanical knowledge though can show you that white clover can be an ideal component within a blend of turf grasses. The fact that clover is a legume means that it actually makes its own nitrogen and fixes it in the soil. Not only does clover not require any nitrogen fertilizer, but it also supplies nitrogen for other nearby plants. Add this to the fact that clover is drought-tolerant, and we soon begin to wonder why we don’t want clover in our lawns.
In fact, clover actually was an intentional part of the typical American lawn prior to World War II. At that time, clover was a part of widely available seed blends, along with fescues, ryegrasses and Kentucky bluegrass. Because of its ability to thrive in poor soil, fix its own nitrogen and survive in drought conditions, clover was deliberately added to grass mixes in order to aid in the growth of the surrounding grasses.
It wasn’t until shortly after WWII, with the advent of suburbia and naiveté towards the new world of chemicals, that clover became stigmatized. Although clover is different from weeds like and plantain, it was still broadleaved and succumbed to the new weed killer chemicals being sold to the public. It wasn’t long before the chemical manufacturers were able to convince everyone that clover was bad, too— just another weed to eliminate in the quest for the perfect lawn.
The Botany of Clover
The most common clover for lawns is the white clover (trifolium repens) commonly found in fields, ditches, roadsides and anywhere else it has managed to take hold. Characterized by its three-part leaves and white and pink-tinged flowers, clover is low growing and maxes out at about six inches with the flowers usually rising above the leaves. Red clover (trifolium pratense), named for its dark pink flowers, is also abundant in the wild but is less desirable as a lawn due to its higher growth habit—up to 14 inches.
Agricultural Uses for Clover
Several species of clover are widely used as forage crops for domestic animals and as a soil-improving crop in agricultural farming. Easily grown in a variety of conditions and high in nutrients, clover makes an ideal field crop for cattle and other grazing livestock. Clover’s ability to fix nitrogen from the air enriches the soil, adding nitrogen for the following year’s crop.
Bees and other pollinators are extremely attracted to clover flowers, and clover is an integral part of their life cycle. While a lawn teeming with bees may not be for everyone, it is also a boon to larger environmental concerns.
Reasons to Use Clover in a Lawn
In recent years, clover has been reexamined, and many plant scientists and some homeowners are recognizing its virtues as a component in lawn grass mixtures—or even as a replacement for turf grasses:
- Clover is among the first plants to green up and thrive in the spring, and it retains its green color even in drought conditions.
- The low growth habit of white clover means it can go without mowing all season long if desired. A clover lawn needs only to be mowed a couple of times a year to maintain its appearance.
- Clover is the ideal lawn surface for homes where there is little activity on the lawn and the desired result is more aesthetic than functional.
- For high activity lawns, clover blends are making a comeback and can once again be a part of the lawn mix along with grass seed. A lawn seed blend including clover is ideal for an all-purpose, low-maintenance lawn, especially in poor soil.
- People wanting a more natural lawn maintenance regimen or people in areas affected by pesticide bans benefit from adding clover to the lawn.
Dandelion as a Hated Lawn Weed
The number one most hated weed in America is the lowly dandelion. Where previous generations would make salads and wine with the dandelion, we now try our very best to eradicate it by all means necessary. The dandelion is hated by homeowners and gardeners precisely because of its genetic superiority: it is a prolific reproducer that can infest a lawn in very little time.
Years ago, lawns were usually a blend of grass species, clover, dandelion, and other plants but such practices are now long out of style, and a lawn with such diversity is usually frowned upon or even outlawed by local ordinances or homeowner association regulations. The chemical industry has also played a large part in promoting the idea that the only good lawn is one that consists of 100 percent turf grass. The dandelion is a casualty of that mentality. Yet who doesn’t smile in the spring when seeing a wild meadow brightened by the “wildflower” known as the dandelion?
The Botany of the Dandelion
Easily recognizable by its yellow flower, white puffy seed head and distinct, jagged leaves, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a typical broadleaf weed emerging in the early spring with continuous flowering beginning several weeks later.
Dandelions can reproduce both from their taproot and by seed. This perennial weed will germinate from seed all season long and can be very persistent and competitive in a lawn. Dandelions can grow in most conditions and soil types.
Eliminating Dandelions With Chemicals
Dandelions can be spot-treated with a broadleaf chemical herbicide containing triclopyr or a mix of MCPP, 2,4-D, and dicamba. For most effective control, treat early in spring before the first generation goes to seed, then continue to spot spray as needed throughout the season.
Weed-n-Feed products can also be effective dandelion killers but are outlawed in much of Canada and are increasingly seen as an irresponsible way to handle weed control. Weed-n-Feed products deposit large quantities of chemicals on lawns that can then make their way into water supplies.
Natural Dandelion Control
A major grievance about dandelions is their ability to travel. Their ubiquitous seeds float freely on the wind and your best efforts at keeping them off your lawn can easily be stymied by neighbors who are not as diligent at their own weed control efforts.
Dandelions thrive in thin, weak turf so providing conditions favorable to turf growth is the best way to naturally control them. Practicing organic weed control is more about prevention than control. If the dandelions have gone to seed, collect lawn clippings to prevent spreading. Dandelions can be dug out by hand, but to be effective the entire root must be removed to prevent the plant from regenerating. Using a “weed-popper” tool on a moist lawn is an effective practice.
Dandelions love soil with low calcium levels, low pH and high potassium, so a common-sense solution preventive measure is to have your soil tested and to add calcium and lime if necessary.
Control Dandelions by Eating Them
Looked at from the longer vantage point of history, dandelions are better known as a food source than as a lawn weed. For centuries, people have known the health benefits of ingesting dandelion. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and are known to have medicinal properties to treat everything from digestive disorders to eczema and arthritis.
Dandelion leaves are known to be slightly bitter and have a spicy quality similar to arugula. As such, they are great in salads, on sandwiches or steamed and served like any other leafy green. The root can be used as a coffee substitute and the flowers are used in salads and as a garnish. There are many dandelion recipes including cream of dandelion soup, dandelion syrup, and dandelion wine.
Dandelions are best harvested in the spring when the shoots are young and tender. Avoid picking dandelions near roadsides or other areas where they may have absorbed pollution or pesticides.
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.