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Zone 3 Garden Life: Clover Lawn? Why not!

Dutch White clover (left) and Creeping Buttercup (right)

I have recently been asked several times about clover as an alternative to a grass lawn. I am afraid I am not a turf specialist, a greens keeper or a hay farmer. I can only offer my experience and opinion.

This is what I know. I have had Clover, Black Medic, Creeping Buttercup and Violets in my ‘lawn’ for years. Every year my husband and I wrestle with what to leave and what to remove. I personally have no real objection to any of these plants except Black Medic (clover like with yellow flowers) in my ‘lawn’. My least favourite is Black Medic, which is a member of the clover family, because it is more aggressive getting into flower beds, dry ones especially. I find I must watch to make sure it does not creep into areas where it is not welcome. As it is an annual I must get on it early in the season before it flowers.

We hand dig the dandelions mostly because we don’t want them taking over flower beds or the grassed areas and they are rather ‘loud’ intruders. They are not a major problem, however as the garden is very full of other plants.

Small yellow and white flowers are rather pretty in the lawn. The clovers are not as prolific or aggressive as dandelions and are easily mown flat. The Clovers, which I like, do not grow in the shaded areas however and neither does the Creeping Buttercup. The Violets and Scilla siberica (tiny blue flowered bulbs) have naturalized in the shaded areas of mown grass.

 The reason we wrestle about what to do is only because of tradition. Lawns used to be a subject of pride. Well, I am now more proud of my mixed lawn and my husband is coming round. I believe we must change because with climate change and the drought we have experienced over the last few years, we soon will not have the water supply to put on grass. Clover will tolerate drought very well.

Unless you have good reason to be surrounded by a golf course-like lawn, I see no reason to worry about these wild and cultivated clovers. Their habit is creeping and flat. They are drought tolerant. They stay green without watering. They introduce nitrogen to the soil. They do not need fertilizer. They tolerate foot traffic and do well on poor soil. They do not need fertilizing. Clover is far more sustainable and environmentally friendly, labour wise and money wise than a ‘fine’ lawn. Accepting the clovers means no more herbicides, which for us and our resident toad is huge.

So should you seed a new area with clover instead of grass? The answer is totally up to how confident and brave you are to try something progressive, new and possibly shocking to the neighbours. What should you do with an established lawn? If you want to try introducing clover, you could try allowing intrusive clover plants to remain and just keep mowing. Forget the weed killer. Several species of clover and micro clover are now available for seeding and could be over seeded into the existing lawn. It is the white flowering Dutch Clover and Micro Clover most commonly recommended for lawn use. Red flowered Clover is taller. I was reading about a product called ‘Bee Turf,’ which I feel is far more appropriate terminology as it describes what clover and the other wild flowers in the mix, provide. If starting a new lawn with just clover, it will need watering to get established but will be much more drought tolerant, impressively so, once established and will require less mowing. Be wary of shade however as it may not survive.

A fine lawn requires much work in its preparation to establish a good roots system and the soil to sustain it.  The grasses used in turf require a healthy loam that will retain moisture. Most of the natural soils in our Rocky Mountains do not have natural soil like that. Many areas require soil to be hauled in or vast amounts of amending materials such as humus, bark chips, compost for water retention and sand for drainage, all of which need to be well incorporated into the existing soil. On top of that fertilizer and herbicides need to be used to keep that healthy pure green velvet look. By accepting a clover lawn, much of that can be let go. Levelling the area and adding some amending materials would still be advantageous. The usual establishment procedures would need to be followed but once established a clover lawn is purported to be far less work. .

 Our lawn was originally purchased turf and has remained as a fairly tough lawn for forty years. We had prepared the subsoil well. It does however have a lot of other plants in it now. We have pretty much resolved to allow the transition to take place naturally. We will keep mowing but let nature determine what moves in. We only need our lawn as a space from which to view the flowers and trees. Our grandchildren used to play on it but the dogs don’t care what it looks like or how easy it is to run on and it looks perfectly acceptable when mown and trimmed at the edges.

 One of the most effective methods of keeping a lawn looking great is simply to trim the edges, whether the actual grass or clover is left long or kept short.  With neat clipped edges, a meadow looks fantastic and this is a very popular trend in Europe.  What were once grassy swards are now wild grass and meadows of wild flowers with a neat edge and a curvy or straight path mown through. Many areas of grass and home lawns in Europe are full of daisies and clovers. Doggy doo detail is lot easier of course if the lawn is flat so allowing the grass to get too long is not for every home.

In my own garden and as part of a gentle transition, I had to remove some overly shaded vegetable beds, so in their place I have allowed a mini meadow to take over. The lovely thing about this is that the crocus have naturalized in the area and come up through the wild grasses along with other assorted plants, to greet us cheerfully each spring. Leaving their foliage means the bulbs receive plenty of nutrition to build up their corms and multiply. What I have discovered is that grasses establish themselves quite well, when they are not mown but allowed to go wild and self-seed. We will continue to mow the rest of our mixed lawn flat but it really does not have to be. Change takes time!

There are many articles on clover lawns to be found on the internet and to choose the best clover, it would be wise to talk to the nursery people who are in touch with suppliers and newest mixes and varieties. Even though clover lawns have been around for a long time they have become increasingly more popular in recent years for good reason. The Bee Turf mix was developed at the coast and I would question how well the wild flowers will do over our winters although it is advertised as being hardy for Zone Three. It would be fun to try it.

I do not have the experience of seeding a clover lawn. With the experience I have gained in my own garden however, I would advise, if you wish to try, is to seed a mix of grass and clover. If over seeding clover, I would advise roughing up the turf and raking the seed in well to help it get well in to the soil. Watering of course would be necessary for germination and establishment. The Bee Turf product advertised is marketed as being suitable for Zone Three but again I can’t believe it would tolerate full shade, which is why adding grass seed might be a wise choice. To achieve a smooth flat area for the clover/grass lawn to be established, levelling will still be required and if sand and some fibrous material such as fine bark, sawdust or compost is mixed in with the native soil, the lawn will establish faster and stronger. There is always the option of bring in some topsoil.

I have no doubt many would like to hear your experiences with clover lawns so please respond to