Eight Reasons to Plant a Clover Lawn: Adventures in Sustainable Suburbia

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I don’t blog a lot about blogging here; it’s just not my thing. But I’ll say that, what with the new Pinterest algorithm changes and blah, blah, blah….page views are way down lately for a lot of DIY blogs, mine included. This is kind of a bummer, so if all of you reading could do me a favor and spend a few minutes hitting refresh forty times or so, that would really help me out and give me a big confidence boost. Thanks.

No, but really: I’ve been racking my brain, trying to think of ways to get my page views back to their former glory.

And finally it hit me.

I haven’t been writing nearly enough about the Malthusian theory of population or about the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process!

Well. We’re going to remedy that right here and now, in this very post!

Let’s start with a short history of clover. Clover has long been used by farmers both in fields for livestock to graze on and as a cover crop to restore soil in between plantings of cash crops. And, according to my sources, clover seed was a common component in grass seed mixes up until World War II. It was perfectly acceptable to have clover mixed in with your grass.

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Then, after World War II, the suburbs started growing rapidly, and subdivisions with streets full of cookie cutter houses with cookie cutter perfect lawns became A Thing. And people started buying herbicides to help fulfill their perfect lawn dreams. The herbicides killed dandelions, and crabgrass, and…..clover.

I guess from there clover was considered guilty by association: why would the clover just lay down and die with all those other weeds if it wasn’t just as evil as they were?!

And so now, if you google clover lawn, a lot of what pops up is advice from companies that sell herbicides about how you can get rid of your clover. Which you have to do if you live in a subdivision with an HOA that’s prejudiced against clover.

But the thing is…..clover is FABULOUS!

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Here are some of the reasons you want clover in your lawn, according to the whirlwind Clover 101 course I’ve put together for myself over the past few days:

Clover competes well against other weeds: I mean, if you want to call clover a weed at all, which I don’t. But, either way, it’s stronger and more powerful than the weeds you don’t want in your lawn and it will kill them dead! Or anyway, it will make life harder for them and thus easier for you.

Clover makes nitrogen for your soil: This is the part where I talk about Malthus. So Thomas Malthus was an English economist in the late 18th/early 19th century who’s most famous for his theory about population growth. Basically, he said that human population growth happens way faster than we humans can come up with ways to produce more food and that the end result is that we’ll run out of food and everyone will die. Not everyone, but a lot of people.

You might have noticed that this hasn’t happened yet. In fact, these days when people die from starvation, it’s generally because food costs too much, not because there’s not enough of it in the world (which is a whole other thing, but it’s not what Malthus said was going to happen). Malthus didn’t anticipate the big advances in agricultural that we’ve made in the past couple hundred years.

Like, for example, nitrogen fixation. Plants need nitrogen to grow, and soil that’s deficient in nitrogen is a major problem if you’re in the business of trying to make them grow. As the industrial revolution got going and population started to shoot up in the 19th century, finding sources of fertilizer became an increasingly big deal (think about how we all feel about oil today) and people went to war over bat guano. For real.

But the thing is we are, literally, surrounded by nitrogen. It makes up about 80% of our air. Only no one knew how to get it out of the air and use it until a guy named Fritz Haber came along. Then some chemistry happened and now we know how to get all the nitrogen we want and that’s why we don’t have wars over guano anymore. Which is good, because there are so many other things to have wars over that who has time for that, am I right?!

I’ve read estimates that 30-50% of the world’s population today is only able to be here because Haber figured out nitrogen fixation. I remember first reading something to this effect a few years ago in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and thinking it couldn’t possibly be right. I’d never even heard of Fritz Haber and nitrogen fixation; how could I, a well-educated adult human who eats food, have missed out on learning about this thing that happened only a hundred or so years ago and basically made modern civilization as we know it possible? And yet there it is.

The story definitely isn’t complete until I mention that Fritz Haber was a terrible, terrible person. (Okay, the story’s not complete anyway; this is a very rough sketch I’m giving you here, as you probably figured out when I explained away a Nobel Prize’s worth of science with “then some chemistry happened.”) Haber wasn’t in the nitrogen fixing business to feed the world, he was in it to kill people. He’s known as “the father of chemical warfare” and his work helped the Germans kill tens of thousands of people with poison gas during World War I. Science is complicated like that.

So Malthus was totally wrong! Or he was totally right, only his timing was off. It depends on who you ask. Chemical warfare aside, there are some major drawbacks and environmental consequences to using all these fertilizers and herbicides that we didn’t know how to make yet back when Malthus was around.

Don’t know enough about Malthus or Haber yet? The Green brothers can help you out:

Crash Course on Malthus

Crash Course on Haber

All of this has something to do with why you should plant clover, but probably not all that much, honestly. I just think it’s fascinating and wanted to talk about it. For the page views. But clover does do a great job of making your soil more nitrogen rich, without you even having to go to all the trouble and expense and ethical compromise of buying a bunch of fertilizer or invading a guano rich island.

Clover loves crappy soil. In fact, if you google “clover lawn” one of the first results will be from a company that sells chemical fertilizer explaining to you how you can discourage clover in your lawn by dumping a bunch of their fertilizer on it. The clover will have nothing to do then and will slink off to some lawn where it feels more needed, you see. Perhaps I’m not thinking like a fertilizer company PR person here, but it seems to me that it makes more sense to save your money and just let the clover do its job.

That second point got kind of long. Let’s move on.

Clover is pretty: I know some people disagree on this point, but that’s only because they’re wrong. Clover is adorable, with its pleasing arrangement of three leaves and its unobtrusive low profile and its white blossoms.

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Any time your kids are bored, you can send them out to hunt for four leaf clovers

Clover stays green year round: We have bermuda grass in our front yard (well, and weeds. And fescue that’s migrated over from the neighbors’ houses). I appreciate that bermuda grass is so drought and heat tolerant and doesn’t require constant watering and babying like some grasses….but it looks yellow and dead for most of the year.

Clover doesn’t mind being peed on by dogs: Still stays green!

Clover can provide you with a sense of moral superiority: Right now? Our yard is kind of….ugly. It’s not the ugliest yard in our neighborhood, but it is the ugliest yard in our immediate area of the neighborhood, because we’re surrounded by people who hire lawn people to come out and take care of things for them and spray their grass with lots of chemicals to kill all the weeds. The guy who does the lawn across the street from us actually cuts it into one of those criss cross patterns like a baseball field. We cannot compete with that. Partially because lawn service is really, really expensive, and partially because I don’t want to spray our yard with tons of chemicals. But I’d rather not be known as those people in the neighborhood who just don’t give a crap.

I have no problem at all, on the other hand, being known as those hippies who want to take care of the honeybees. If anyone complains about my beautiful clover, I can just say, “I think what you mean to say is ‘thank you for saving the world.’ You’re welcome.”

Which brings me to my last point:

Bees love clover, and the bees need our help! They probably need even more help than I can give them by planting clover. Sorry, bees: that’s all I’ve got for you!

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So what have I done with all this information I’ve been collecting about how awesome clover is? So far not that much.

But! I have big, big plans!

I noticed this spring that our back yard is already getting to be pretty clover intensive. And I remembered reading some of these great things about clover earlier, so I started doing some research, and, what with my poor impulse control and all, I had a big bag of clover seed at my house within a couple of days, thanks to Amazon Prime.

There are different varieties of clover, but I went with the most common kind, White Dutch Clover (if you already have some clover in your yard, that’s probably what you have):

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I’m going to do a follow up post later on to tell you how things go with the great clover lawn experiment. We did spread some seed around in our front yard, but I’m not sure it’s going too well (or it might be going great. There’s some stuff growing that might or might not be baby clover), and we’ve been too busy this month to really baby it the way we should (by “baby” I pretty much mean “actually remember to water every day”).Β  We’re not trying to do a full clover lawn (which I understand is probably not a good idea for most people, but I couldn’t get a good idea of why); the plan is to overseed our exisiting grass with clover, so that we have a nice blend of the two.

Here are the before shots. In the front yard (this picture is blurry only when I upload it. I can’t figure out why, and it’s driving me insane), you can see a small patch of clover in the foreground near the driveway, and there’s another one over by the house:

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There’s a lot more existing clover in the backyard, but the backyard as a whole is very patchy and terrible. With lots of awful soil just itching for some clover to come along and help it out:

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We have a lot of travel coming up, so it may be a little while before we really make a serious effort with our big bag o’ clover seed. But look for part two of this series sometime in the next few months!

Maybe you’d like to pin this?

Advantages to overseeding your lawn with clover seed


Comments

Eight Reasons to Plant a Clover Lawn: Adventures in Sustainable Suburbia — 27 Comments

  1. You crack me up for so many reasons. Who knew a post like this could lift my spirits. I even forwarded it to my husband. It does fascinate me though how female dog pee makes the grass greener and grow better. And as a child who grew up with plenty of clover in my parents yard I do have to say the bees did get to me way to many times when I didn’t wear shoes. I can’t even remember how many bee stings I had in my feet πŸ˜‰
    Good luck with your clover lawn.

    • I’ve never heard that about female dog pee! I’m going to have to follow the beagle around now and note where she pees πŸ˜‰

  2. I don’t remember how long ago it was that I first encountered the “clover is a weed” thing, but it was well into the seventies, and I’m still flabbergasted. When I was growing up the standard lawn mix, available at any nursery, was two-thirds bluegrass, one-third clover. Somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention, that changed.
    My father, on fertilizing established lawns: “It just makes it grow faster so you have to cut it more often.”

    • Your father is very wise :). Now that I’m paying attention, I noticed that the grass at the city park near us is pretty well overrun with clover, and that made me happy.

  3. I got a bee sting from clover too! On the palm of my hand, when I was in first grade. So watch out for the bees, who need our help but don’t appreciate when we step on them with bare feet or put our hands down on them while we’re crawling around on the lawn. Bees are so unreasonable.

    • They really are. Milo actually got stung today. on his foot. But, really, he should have been wearing shoes, so I couldn’t feel TOO sorry for him. Not being able to go barefoot in the backyard is a small price to pay for helping to secure our food supply for future generations!

  4. I was fascinated by that part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma too!! This is an awesome post. Our lawn is a good candidate for being covered by clover too! I think it’s pretty.

  5. I’m laughing so hard at this – “For the page views.”I think this is very cool – and my poor father would have heart failure if we did it. But, we also don’t worry about grass since there’s 17 acres to deal with and there’s no way I care about having a well-groomed lawn for our neighbors, who are cows.

    But I love your idea and I look forward to seeing it come together.

    • I’m anxious to have a follow up, too! I’m not sure my first half-hearted attempt at seeding did very well; I’m going to try to be patient and try again in fall when the temp is better for growing.

  6. This is so interesting! I would have thought about clovers that way but I’m definitely going to let them grow in my yard now that I know. I’m not huge on having the β€œperfect lawn” but rather something I like and something for my kids to play on! Thanks for sharing!

  7. This was the most entertaining thing I have read all day. Thank you Gretchen! It’s so bizarre to me, this whole manicured lawn world we live in here in suburbia, kinda crazy how we all do it because it’s what’s done. Clover IS adorable, I agree, and green!, and the lack of chemicals sounds might fine to me! Thank you for this thorough argument for it!

  8. I’ve been pushing for planting clover > grass with my landlady. Grass is a greedy expensive little plant that does NOTHING but make me have to pull out the mower every two weeks (because I refuse to do it weekly). We actually have a few large patches of clover, but on the patchy areas she keeps scattering plain old grass seed (and the birds love her for it). I’ve been conjuring large low maintenance flower beds and a dry river bed just to cut down on the acreage we currently have to mow. More dirt digging and flowers for the bees and less pushing behind that loud smelly appliance. I’m keeping this post bookmarked to push my argument on seeding more clover!

    • Good luck with your quest for clover! I’m waiting for fall to really try mine; right now it’s so hot and dry here that almost nothing is growing; we haven’t needed to mow the lawn in a month!

  9. Love this post! I have always loved clover lawns – they were the ones we grew up with! As far a herbicides, my husband’s philosophy has always been, “Weeds are Mother Nature’s way of keeping the soil in place”. I actually find many of the flowers of ‘weeds’ quite pretty, and clover is no exception!

  10. Love the post! I just a week ago put out 5 lbs of white clover seed. I felt sure everyone around me will think I.m crazy so I put it in an area that only the bee’s and I would see. But after reading you post I’m going to order another 5 (or 10lbs) and improve the front also!
    Thanks, loved your writing!

    • Thank you! I still have to reseed my front yard….I was going to in the fall, but then we were having a drought and I didn’t want to have to water it so much. But it’s on my list for March πŸ™‚

  11. Clover has taken over my front yard which wouldn’t be a problem except that it is SO happy it’s invasive! It’ll grow right over my flower beds, swallow my thyme, crowd my baby roses…awful. I’m smothering it with tarps so I can plant a more well-behaved groundcover, but now I feel guilty about it. x_x

    I’ll leave all the clover in the backyard though!

    Thanks for the fun post!

    • Oh dear! Don’t feel guilty–clover seems to do pretty well for itself; it can handle being restricted to your backyard where it’s not bothering anyone, I bet πŸ™‚

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