Clover in the Lawn: From Friend to Weed to Friend Again!

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How did such a wonderful plant as clover come to be considered a weed? Photo: life.shared.com

Here’s a quick overview of the incredible story of a simple little plant, white clover (Trifolium repens), and how it went from being the best friend a lawn ever had to being considered a noxious and despised weed to once again getting into the home gardener’s good graces. How is that even possible? Read on and you’ll understand!

500 Years of Popularity

16th century sketch of lawn bowling.
White clover was always part of a lawn, even in its early days here in the 16h Century England. Photo: northlondonbowlingclub.co.uk

Since the advent of lawns during the Renaissance, white clover has always been, along with turf grasses, the one of its main components. Until the 1950s, it was considered normal for any lawn to have a good share of clover and when the first commercial grass seed was offered back in 1780, it was actually a mix of grass and clover seed.

Gardeners had long observed that lawns containing clover were greener and healthier than those where clover was lacking. During the first centuries of lawn use, of course, no one knew why grasses always grew better in the company of clover plants, although the difference was well known. A lawn with a decent share of clover was greener, suffered less from drought and insect damage, and had fewer undesirable plants such as thistles.

Today we understand a little more why turf grasses do better when accompanied by clover.

Nodules on clover roots.
Nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots of white clover. In the photo to the right, one nodule is cut in half, showing the pinkish-red coloration that indicates nitrogen fixation. Photo: sciencelearn.org.nz

Among other things, we know a lot more about fertilization today and clover is almost a classic example of a plant that enriches the soil. Clover is a legume—a member of the Fabaceae family—and lives in symbiosis with bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available not only to the clover itself, but also to neighboring plants. That makes turf grow greener, even in the absence of fertilizer. And the extra nitrogen also helps explain the lessened weed infestations noted in clover-rich lawns. The abundance of nitrogen results in denser turf and that leaves less room for unwanted weeds.

Another detail: thanks to its deep roots, clover is more tolerant of drought than most grasses and remains green even when drought is severe. As functional lawn irrigation systems didn’t exist until the 20th century and therefore lawns were rarely watered, this was an important factor. Plus clover is very resistant to other weather-based problems, resisting damage from snow, ice, rain and even flooding. As a result, it will grow in most climates other than the very driest ones and in hardiness zones 3 through 10.

Another advantage of clover is that it’s a naturally low-growing plant needing less mowing than lawn grasses, so its presence doesn’t increase the frequency of mowing.

In addition, most serious lawn pests have a “thing” for grasses, not clover. Pests like white grubs, chinch bugs, leatherjackets and sod webworms find clover of little interest and rarely settle in great numbers in a clover-rich lawn. They prefer turf grass monocultures.

Lawn with clover flowers.
The beautiful flowers of the clover add to their appeal. Photo: 4.bp.blogspot.com

And the gardeners of ages past appreciated the presence of the magnificent little white clover flowers that decorated the vast green carpet that could otherwise be a bit monotonous.

So, for the first 500 years of the lawn’s history, no one would have thought of trying to remove clover from the lawn: it was a considered essential for healthy turf.

Turning a Friend into an Enemy

Bottle of 2,4-D
2,4-D herbicide was the first “lawn herbicide,” one capable of killing broadleaf plants, but without harming turf grasses. Photo: Mustbest.com

Then came the 1950s. A multinational chemical company, Dow Chemical, had successfully developed a new product, 2,4-D. It was a “selective herbicide”, meaning it could control lawn weeds without harming grasses. There was just one problem. It left grasses, with their thin leaves, relatively intact, but killed broadleaf plants indiscriminately. There was the potential to make billions of dollars in profit if this product (and other similar herbicides) could be successfully sold to lawn owners. But 2,4-D also killed the clover people loved. What to do?

The secret was to turn clover from a friend into an enemy. Pesticide companies decided to launch an intensive advertising campaign to convince homeowners that white clover was a weed that needed to be destroyed. They spent literally millions on advertising to persuade unconvinced gardeners.

Book on lawn herbicides
This book reveals the program designed to demonize clover in lawns. Photo: amazon.com

It wasn’t easy at first to convince experienced gardeners to give up clover. This what Dr. R. Milton Carleton, one of the discovers of 2,4-D, wrote about it:

“The thought of White Dutch Clover as a lawn weed will come as a distinct shock to old-time gardeners. I can remember the day when lawn mixtures were judged for quality by the percentage of clover seed they contained. The higher this figure, the better the mixture… I can remember the loving care which old-time gardeners gave their clover lawns. The smug look on the face of the proud homeowner whose stand was the best in the neighborhood was really something to behold.” (From New Way to Kill Weeds In Your Lawn And Garden by R. Milton Carleton, 1957. Arco Publishing Co., N.Y.)

Imagine this from the mouth of the father of 2,4-D! He concluded, however, that the situation had changed and that the time had come to abandon the use of clover as part of a quality lawn. He strongly believed that herbicides were the way of the future.

After 50 Years of Negative Press

White clover flower
The time has come to bring clover back to our lawns. Photo: plantsoftheworldonline.org

But times have changed … yet again. After more than 50 years of use, Dr. Carleton’s miraculous herbicides have been shown to be silent killers, disrupting soil microbes, birds and animals, poisoning adults, children and pets, damaging shrubs, trees and vegetable beds, and have caused enormous harm to our environment, so much so that they are now banned in several countries. So, it would appear that the time has come to put aside herbicides toxic to the environment and look back at clover as a useful, and perhaps essential, part of any beautiful lawn.

That said, it’s hard to erase 50 years of condemnation. Today’s multinational lawn treatment companies continue to promote lawn herbicides as friendly and harmless, despite abundant proof to the contrary. They have been so successful in their propaganda that most gardeners today still believe that clover is a weed when it grows in a lawn. Look it up on the Internet and you’ll see. About half the articles about clover in lawn are still about how to remove it, not how to encourage it. It’s going to be difficult to convince a lot of lawn owners otherwise.

Still, the idea of reintroducing clover to lawns is catching on and more and more homeowners are once again proud of their clover-enriched lawns. And herbicide-using lawn owners are starting become a bit frustrated with the poor results they’re getting. Insect problems, diseases, weeds, lawn dieback: it adds up to a lot of moolah for very ordinary results. 

Where I live in eastern Canada, last summer was disastrous for turf lawns. A combination of drought, extreme heat and insect infestations literally wiped out lawns everywhere. Yet, some lawns remained green and healthy with little to no care: mostly those with a lot of white clover. It was enough to make some neighbors jealous. Now, if only they could make the link between tougher, greener lawns and the presence of clover in those lawns, the battle would be largely won.

Micro-clover lawn compared to grass lawn.
Lawn with micro-clover in the foreground. Notice how much greener it is than the neighboring grass turf. Photo: whygoodnature.com

Even lawns that are entirely composed of clover are increasingly seen, especially micro-clover lawns. Micro-clover (Trifolium repens ‘Pipolina’) is a selection of white clover with smaller and denser leaves that requires even less mowing than a regular white clover lawn. The clover lawn phenomenon is popping up all over in our cities and suburbs. Probably one of your neighbors has one if you don’t already.

Don’t Let Lawn Care Companies Ruin Your Clover Lawn

If you hire a lawn care company and you’re a person who considers the presence of clover in a lawn important, it’s vital to tell them that. They still routinely use herbicides that kill clover and won’t hesitate to apply them unless you insist. They’ve even found inventive ways around laws passed to ban the use of “cosmetic pesticides” on lawns. It would be sad to see your little clover colony poisoned.

Long live clover in lawns. And long may it reign!

8 thoughts on “Clover in the Lawn: From Friend to Weed to Friend Again!

  1. Nancy Faraday

    Hi Larry. Thanks for this post. I have been planning to convert my lawn to clover and would like to use microclover, but I have had difficulty finding a supplier in Ontario. I have found one in the northern U.S., but they do not ship across the border. Do you know of any Canadian suppliers?

  2. Linda

    Totally fascinating. As someone who has a clover lawn in most of it, with moss in other areas, I have always felt guilty about not worrying about it. My parents come and look at it and politely look away. But I love the buzzing bees the flowers draw, and also the anaphalis patch that seeded in and is growing. So my lawn isn’t respectable but now I know its just out of fashion.

  3. mickthornton

    I love the white clover in my Puget Sound yard. My neighbor behind me has 3 hives. The past 5 years, I’ve been planting more pollinator friendly plants, from Rhododendrons to lavender to clover. This year I was rewarded, by my neighbor with two 16 oz jars of honey, not a day old. And trust me, I’m a laidback kind of gardener, so I let the clover get in full bloom before mowing it down to 3 inches. Plus, I can be frugal so I let my lawn go dormant in the dry Seattle summer.

  4. English daisy is a component of every lawn in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. A very long time ago, a prehistoric hippie gardener plugged it into lawns that were not already infested with it. Eventually, the maintenance crews gave up on trying to control it. Golden Gate Park would be rather ‘weird’ without it.

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