Lawn

Planning a Micro-clover Lawn

By Larry Hodgson

Micro-clover—an extra-dwarf variety of white clover (Trifolium repens) with smaller leaves and a lower height—has been gaining ground as a lawn ingredient for the last few years. You can now readily find micro-clover seed pretty much everywhere, both online and in-store. It still remains in short supply, though, and is therefore a bit expensive, but its advantages might still make it worthwhile.

What is Micro-clover?

Micro-clover is a natural variant of white clover originally found in Europe in sheep pastures. After generations of being “mowed short” by sheep on a regular basis, some plants adapted by starting to produce, in response to an initial shearing, lower-growing foliage, therefore less exposed to the sheep’s teeth. Dutch and Danish researchers noticed this phenomenon and were successful in isolating a strain of micro-clover, ‘Pipolina’ (the name means ‘pirouette’), which is naturally low-growing with small leaves. And easily reproducible by seed.

Dwarf white clover leaf compared to micro leaf clover.
Dwarf white clover (left); ‘Pipolina’ clover (right). Photo: DLF

‘Pipolina’ produces trifoliate leaves and white flowers like the dwarf white clover usually used in lawns, but never reaches more than 6 in (15 cm) in height, even if you never mow it. (Unmowed, dwarf white clover grows to 8 in [20 cm] and more.) If you mow ‘Pipolina’ occasionally (and it can be mowed short, as low as 2 inches/5 cm), that stimulates denser, shorter growth that won’t grow taller than 4 inches (10 cm).

Its leaves are naturally about half the size of dwarf white clover leaves, even 1/3 the size when it regrows after mowing. The small leaves of the micro-clover blend better with the grasses of the lawn to help to create a beautiful green carpet.

Also, rather than forming dense patches of green here and there in the lawn as dwarf white clover tends to do, ‘Pipolina’ has, once again after an initial mowing, a more spreading habit, more readily forming a carpet for a more even effect.

However, micro-clover produces fewer flowers than a normal dwarf white clover plant, especially if it is mowed regularly. Even so, the flowers that are produced do provide food for bees and other pollinators.

The Benefits of Micro-Clover

Lawn mixing grasses and micro-clover.
  • Micro-clover is a legume and therefore lives in symbiosis with bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it available for its own growth and also to neighboring plants. That’s why even turf grasses grow better when there is micro-clover in the lawn.
  • A lawn containing micro-clover needs much less fertilizer than a lawn composed only of grasses. Moreover, fertilizers rich in nitrogen are actually not even recommended for lawns where you want to see this clover settle in.
  • Micro-clover tolerates compacted soils better than grasses and even tends to lighten very dense soils, reducing the need for aeration.
  • Thanks to its deep roots, micro-clover is significantly more drought tolerant than most grasses and will stay green even in times of drought.
  • Micro-clover grows very well in sun and partial shade. It is not a good choice for shade (nor are turf grasses, for that matter).
  • Micro-clover resists weeds better than grasses and even tends to outcompete them.
  • Unlike grass turf, micro-clover is highly resistant to dog urine and de-icing salts.
  • A lawn rich in micro-clover discourages lawn-damaging insects, especially white grubs, for whom clover is simply not a preferred food source. In fact, the beetles that produce white grubs tend to avoid laying their eggs in lawns dominated by clover, as they don’t offer their young much to eat.
  • Micro-clover is very cold hardy (USDA hardiness zone 3, even 2; AgCan zone 4 or even 3), especially where there is some snow cover during the winter.

There are also some disadvantages to micro-clover, though.

For example, micro-clover seeds germinate a little slower than grass seeds and also tend to germinate less equally. It may therefore be necessary re-sow certain spots that didn’t give good results the first time.

It’s better to use pelleted seeds, which ensure better seed distribution and better germination. In fact, many suppliers, like Gloco in Canada, sell only pelleted seeds.

Micro-clover Lawn or Mixed Lawn?

Lawn composed only of micro-clover.
Lawn using only micro-clover. Photo: NoLawns, reddit.com

Yes, you can sow a lawn composed only of micro-clover. That way a single annual mowing will be enough to maintain a lawn that may be a little uneven, but still attractive. If you mow 3 or 4 times per season, much less than for a turf lawn, you can have a micro-clover lawn that’s perfectly flat!

However, as with any plant, a monoculture of just one species is not the ideal situation. It leaves the lawn prone to diverse problems (insects, diseases, etc.) that come to fore when one single species is used. In a mixed lawn, on the other hand, if one plant has a down time, the others compensate and any irregularity won’t show.

Micro-clover, in fact, actually seems to do best when it shares its space with grasses and other plants. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since, in the wild, white clover always grows in mixed company, normally as part of a meadow.

Mixed grass and micro-clover lawn.

Another advantage of growing a mixed lawn of grasses and micro-clover: clover doesn’t produce thatch, that accumulation of dead grass roots and leaves that forms a thin protective layer on top of the soil in turf lawns. That leaves clover open to winter damage, especially in the coldest part of its range. Of course, winter damage tends to correct itself as clover fills in over the summer thanks to its wandering runners coming from surviving plants. However, empty, muddy patches in spring will be quite visible in a monoculture while in a mixed lawn you won’t notice any unequal growth nearly as much.

Installing a Micro-clover Lawn

You can sow micro-clover any time the ground isn’t frozen, but ideally at a season when the temperatures are cool and rain is abundant. That’s usually in the spring between 2 weeks before and 4 weeks after the last frost or in late summer or fall up to 4 weeks before the expected arrival of the first fall frost. In colder climates, seeds sown too late in the fall may not germinate until the following spring.

A location in the sun or partial shade in soil that retains some moisture is ideal. The soil does not need to be rich, since clover supplies much of its own fertilizer through the bacteria that inhabit its roots. Micro-clover tolerates drought once established, but still, it’s not suited to hot, arid climates. It can be successful in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 10 (AgCan zones 3 to 10), especially where nights are not unbearably hot.

Application of micro-clover seed using a spreader to an established lawn recently top-dressed.
Application of micro-clover seed over an established lawn after top-dressing. Photo: photovs, depositphotos

To overseed an established lawn with micro-clover, rake well, scratching the surface a bit so the seed can penetrate. Or top dress to add a layer of fresh soil it can root into. Sow at a rate of about 1/4 to 1/2 lb per 1000 ft2 (225 to 250 g per 90 m2). Keep the soil moist until germination.

To start a new mixed lawn, prepare the soil by weeding it thoroughly and working the soil to a depth of about 3 inches (9 cm), then rake to even it out, removing and stones and debris as you go. Ideally, you would then also top-dress with ½ to 1 inch (1 to 2 cm) of good soil, although that isn’t absolutely necessary. Mix 5% of micro-clover seeds into the original grass seed blend and broadcast sow. Rake lightly to work the seed in, then keep the soil moist until germination.

To start a clover-only lawn, follow the general recommendations for a mixed lawn (previous paragraph), but sow only clover seed. Sow at the rate recommended by the supplier or at about 1 to 2 lb per 1000 ft2 (250 to 500 g per 90 m2) of surface area.

Maintenance

The first year, water your micro-clover lawn in times of drought. There will be few to no flowers in the first year. If there are places where the lawn appears sparse, just be patient. Usually clover will cover it with its creeping stems quite quickly. If not, reseed those spots lightly.

Micro-clover lawn.
You can mow a micro-clover lawn very short, even to only 2 in (5 cm) high. Photo: thoracentesis.science

When the plants reach 4 to 5 in (10 to 12 cm) in height, mow to 3 in (7 cm) or less. They’ll react by producing the dense carpet of tiny leaves that micro-clover is famous for. It may be necessary to mow another 2 or 3 times during the summer depending on whether you tolerate a slightly uneven lawn or insist on the effect of a perfectly flat carpet.

Simply leave the clippings in place: rich in nitrogen and other minerals, they help fertilize the lawn.

From the second year on, mow as explained above and water in case of severe drought, but otherwise let Mother Nature take care of your micro-clover lawn. The lawn will need less fertilizer, and in particular nitrogen fertilizer, than a lawn composed solely of grasses.

If your micro-clover thins out in places over time—and that may happen after a few years, because the clover doesn’t live forever—, resow as explained in “overseed an established lawn” above.


Micro-clover: a new way to develop a beautiful lawn.

Article adapted from one appearing in this blog on May 11, 2016. Unless otherwise mentioned, photos from Gloco.

Garden writer and blogger, author of more than 60 gardening books, the laidback gardener, Larry Hodgson, lives and gardens in Quebec City, Canada. The Laidback Gardener blog offers more than 2,500 articles to passionate home gardeners, always with the goal of demystifying gardening and making it easier for even novice gardeners. If you have a gardening question, enter it in Search: the answer is probably already there!

10 comments on “Planning a Micro-clover Lawn

  1. Marcia Kirinus

    I’ve tried several times with no success to keep a micro-clover lawn going. I think my area is too hot and the Pecan tree gives it too much shade. Also, I did not water the first year which probably did not help. The clover came up lush in the fall when I seeded and looking amazing over the winter and spring but the summer killed it. I live in Durham, NC . We just jumped from an ag zone of 7 to 7b to 8!

    I still have seed and will try again this fall when we are out of the 90’s. Do you have any other tips? Is there anything else I can plant other than lawn, microclover that is a ground cover for our hot areas and under the massive Pecan tree? The rest of the yard is filled with pollinator friendly plants – most native. I have absolutely no lawn in front of the house – only plants which is surprisingly easier than a lawn once established.

  2. Lori Evans

    Interesting article, thanks!
    Can you elaborate on why only 5% clover seed and the rest grass seed. That’s not much clover in the mix.

    • Because it spreads densely and widely. And each plant is much bigger.

    • First, germination is usually better. Then clover is a larger plant, so takes up much more space than a grass seedlling. Then it spreads densely and widely, each plant taking up more space.

  3. I admit I like the idea of adding clover to our lawn. With a long established lawn it would have to be an over seed addition. Wouldn’t the existing grass still continue to grow at such a rate that it would outgrow the clover and still need to be mowed weekly?

  4. White clover and other clover are quite pretty as a cover crop or for erosion control. In some situations, they look like lawn. Heck, I think I would prefer white clover to lawn. I was not aware that some people are already doing this though, or that there is already a variety that is better for it than white clover.

  5. marianwhit

    We just cannot get away from a green carpet outside, can we? The habitat improvement of a non-native clover carpet over a non-native grass carpet is only marginal, and clover is highly allelopathic, happily crowding out native plants and changing the soil chemistry, then moving out of your lawn and into wild areas on wind, wheels, and feet.

    A little concern encouraged by the honey lobby and people wanting to sell stuff for a “quick solution” can create more problems long-term than it solves. Farmers use clover in their fields to keep other plants from growing because it is so hostile to other plants (allelopathy).

    To only plant for honeybees (an alien species) does not consider the kind of diversity needed by North America’s four thousand species of native bees and sort of misses the whole point of understanding the vanishing biodiversity of plant life and all the creatures that depend on it on this planet.

    Perhaps taking the time to identify native grass species to your area, grow it, and create demand for it will mean lots of local small businesses rising up to meet the need. Perhaps, knowing your local native grasses, you can collect and distribute seeds. All you have to do is to compare the diversity of life in your lawn to an actual meadow with a lot of native plants for the story of what we are doing to the planet.

    Studying my bunch grasses made me realize that many never grow taller than a foot, and they create essential winter habitat for countless insects needed by breeding migratory songbirds. Plus they are finer and softer than anything I could buy at a hardware store.

    Everything is being corporatized and mass produced, meaning everything town to town, is starting to look alike…as interesting as…a green carpet. I am glad I am old, because we are missing what is valuable yet again. If we understood the wonder we feel mentally when we see wild spaces, and realize that they are important and worth saving and propagating, we might be capable of “seeing anew and embracing a new visual aesthetic”. My aesthetic includes the full scope of plant, insect, and “higher” animal life, all of which are interdependent. We seek to eliminate all species of mice, but if there are no mice there are no hawks and owls, and if there is no native grass or nest sites there will be no mice, butterflies, or unique landscapes…just dandelions, clover, and the other plant thugs we spread all over the planet. I would like to see us value a garden as potentially a space where more than just we can live…we will be pretty lonely by ourselves.

  6. Mixed lawns are always more interesting. As a child I remember spending many hours making daisy chains from small English daisy plants that had self seeded into the lawn. Micro clover is also being promoted as a cover crop between other vegetables.

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