Micro-clover: a New Groundcover to Discover

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Dutch white clover (left) compared to micro-clover (right).

Micro-clover has been around for a decade or so in Europe and is slowly making its way into North American lawns as well. It’s an extra-small form of white clover (Trifolium repens), a plant most gardeners already know well. It can be used to create mixed or pure clover lawns that are shorter than Dutch white clover (the lawn industry standard) and that also require less mowing.

Benefits of White Clover

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Dutch white clover in a lawn.

Before giving specific details on micro-clover, it may be worthwhile explaining the advantages of Dutch white clover, the standard lawn clover, from which it is derived.

  1. Like most leguminous plants, clover lives in symbiosis with bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to both the clover itself and to neighboring plants. That’s why even lawn grasses grow better when clover is present.
  2. A lawn containing clover needs much less fertilizer. Moreover, nitrogen-rich fertilizers (ones where the first number is higher than the others) are in fact unsuitable for lawns where you want to see clover thrive.
  3. With its deep roots, clover is more tolerant of drought than most grasses and will remain green even as the rest of the lawn turns brown.
  4. A pure clover lawn doesn’t need mowing, but if you do decide to mow, you’ll only need to do so 3 or 4 times per summer.
  5. Clover tolerates compacted soil better than grasses do and even tends reduce compaction, thus eliminating the need to aerate.
  6. Clover is resistant to lawn weeds and even tends to smother them.
  7. Clover grows well in both sun and part shade.
  8. A lawn rich in clover tends to discourage insect pests, most of which prefer grasses. White grubs will in fact disappear from turf entirely composed of clover.
  9. It is highly resistant to dog urine: bye-bye yellow spots!
  10. Clover makes an excellent groundcover when planted between paving stones.
  11. White clover is very hardy, to AgCan zone 3 (USDA zone 2).
  12. Clover produces attractive white flowers that draw beneficial pollinators, especially bees, to your yard.

Disadvantages of White Clover

I wish I could say that white clover was the perfect replacement for a grass lawn, but it also has its flaws.

  1. It is less resistant to trampling the grass. In a location where you often walk or where kids play, a mixed clover/grass lawn is a better choice than a pure clover lawn.
  2. Clover is naturally invasive, rooting wherever its trailing stems touch the ground. That may be a boon in a sparse lawn, but it can easily spread beyond the lawn into nearby gardens. Ideally you’d contain white clover by surrounding it with a path or some other inert surface. Otherwise it may be wise to install edging around the lawn… but edging that is not only underground, but also extends about 4 inches (10 cm) above the soil. This will stop the creeping stems that will otherwise crawl right over a typical lawn border.
  3. White clover prefers soil that is somewhat moist, but not sites that are flooded for any significant amount of time. Good drainage will be needed.
  4. Although some suppliers claim white clover is“adapted to dry soil”, that’s stretching things a bit. Yes indeed, clover will tolerate an occasional drought and look fine, bit it will certainly not thrive in soil that is constantly dry. (Try a thyme lawn where dry conditions are a problem.)
  5. Also in the false claims category, although some suppliers insist that white clover is shade-resistant, in fact, it will not grow well in shade: it will sprout there, but it won’t thrive. (Of course, lawn grasses won’t grow well in shade either.)
  6. Clover will not tolerate lawn herbicides designed to control broadleaf weeds. These will kill anything with broad leaves, even desirable plants like clover. Do not spray herbicides on a clover lawn!
  7. The famous grass stains found on children’s clothes after they play on turf are actually not from grasses, but from clover.
  8. Sometimes advantages are also disadvantages. Above, I highlighted clover’s “attractive white flowers” that “draw bees to your yard”. You might appreciate flowers in your lawn, but there are a lot of people who react with horror at the very idea that their lawn will burst into bloom. They want it all green all the time. And then there are the anti-bee people They may have their reasons (allergies, fear of bees, etc.), but what can I say? Bees love clover flowers and will flock to a clover lawn when it is in bloom. Of course, you can always mow a clover lawn just before the plants come into bloom and if you eliminate the flowers, bees will go elsewhere.

What About Micro-clover?

Now for micro-clover.

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A micro-clover lawn.

It is simply an extra dwarf white clover (Trifolium repens), not reaching more than 6 inches (15 cm) high even if you never mow it. And if you mow occasionally, it will top out at 4 inches (10 cm). Its leaves are twice as small as those of white clover, three times smaller if you mow (regrowth gives even smaller leaves). It is not a heavy bloomer and, unlike standard white clover, if you mow micro-clover only occasionally, it will not bloom at all.

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A mixed micro-clover lawn cropped very short… and looking fab-u-lous!

Micro-clover was developed for use in mixed lawns, to be added to grass seed blends, because it is more tolerant than the Dutch white clover to the very low mowing height so many homeowners insist on using on their lawns. In fact, even if you mow your lawn to 2 inches (5 cm), a height considered “scalping” in lawn care circles and which would rapidly kill taller clovers, micro-clover will actually thrive. In fact, to a certain degree, the lower you mow it, the denser it will appear.

Although micro-clover was designed for mixed lawns and some sources warn against using micro-clover on its own, in fact, it has been tested as a stand-alone groundcover/lawn and does fine when used that way. And if a 6-inch (15 cm) lawn with a few flowers and a bit of bee traffic is not a problem for you, you could actually forgo mowing a micro-clover lawn entirely.

There are several micro-clover cultivars, but ‘Pipolina’ seems to be the only one that is available in North America. It is rarely available in local garden centers. You pretty much have to have it delivered. Here are a few suppliers that will ship seed to you:

Sowing Micro-clover

You can sow the micro-clover at pretty much any season, but ideally in the spring or early summer, when temperatures are still cool. If you plant it too late in the fall (October), it may not germinate until the following spring.

To overseed an established lawn with microclover, rake well, scratching the surface a bit and 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 topdress with ½ to 1 inch (1 to 2 cm) of good soil, although that isn’t absolutely necessary. Mix 5% of mini-cover 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 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.

From the second year on, simply let Mother Nature take care of your micro-clover lawn. In particular, you will not normally have to fertilize it or if so, only every 2 or 3 years with a slow-release fertilizer low in nitrogen.

Mow a grass and clover lawn when the grass needs it. For a clover-only lawn, you really don’t have to mow at all. However, if you want extra-small leaves or to get rid of the flowers, mow every 3 or 4 weeks. When you mow, simply leave the clippings on the lawn. They’ll quickly decompose and help feed the lawn.

Finally, weed manually if intruders appear… but usually micro-clover is a sufficiently dominant plant to crowd out weeds all on its own.

Good luck with your micro-clover lawn!

 

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