Is clover the secret to a perfect lawn?

Photo by Pam Baxter Clover may be a better alternative than grass.

The plush, velvety American lawn gets a bad rap these days, but it’s not without some justification. That uniform green, tempting call to going barefoot comes with a variety of costs: herbicides, pesticides, consumption of fossil fuel, erosion, habitat loss, water use, and runoff contributing to small-stream flooding.

A showcase lawn requires a lot of care. One of the main reasons for this is that the turf-type grasses we grow here are not native. We also expect a single type of plant to provide constant growth, robustness and color from spring through fall.

Grass has shallow roots and most grasses suited to our area go dormant during hot weather and/or drought conditions. If you want a green lawn all summer and rainfall is scarce, you’ll have to water it.

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Mowers contribute heavily to air pollution. According to the website of the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, operating a typical (four horsepower) gasoline-powered lawnmower for one hour produces as much smog-forming hydrocarbons as driving an average car between 100 and 200 miles under average conditions.

Finally, grass represents a monoculture, and one that we never even allow to go to seed. And, if we use a bagging mower, the soil never sees the benefit of nutrients recycling into it. Thus, the perfect lawn sucks up nutrients, requires poisons, and gives nothing back except a certain beauty.

Our area falls into what the lawn industry terms “cool season.” This designation is characterized by cold winters and warm to hot summers. Occasional summer rains are usually not enough to prevent grasses from going dormant during dry to drought periods. Cool-season grasses include Kentucky Bluegrass, Annual and Perennial Ryegrass, and Bentgrass. Since no one grass does well in all areas, typically a mix of several types is used. For example, perennial ryegrass, mixed with Kentucky bluegrass will fill in shady areas where the bluegrass does not do well.

I’ve been thinking about lawns this spring, but it’s not the perfect ones that have caught my attention. Rather, I’ve been intrigued by the unusual amount of clover I’m seeing, both in my own yard and also in many of my neighbor’s.

Interestingly, an article on the website of Organic Gardening magazine says that Dutch clover is actually “the secret to having a great lawn without chemicals;” and, until about 1960, clover was an important component in fine lawns. “Clover is drought-tolerant, virtually immune to diseases, and distasteful to common turf insects. And it generates its own food by fixing nitrogen in the soil.”

What could be more perfect than a low-growing plant that makes its own fertilizer? The problem came with the arrival of broadleaf herbicides introduced after World War II. “Broadleaf” meant that in killing weeds like dandelions, clover was killed too, leaving unsightly bare patches in lawns. “Today,” says the article, “virtually all seed companies omit clover from their mixes.”

The bottom line of the article, however, is that you can have a natural lawn that doesn’t require chemical assistance, but you have to be willing to accept a lawn that is not the uniform blade-on-blade lawn that we’re encouraged to strive for. Here are the steps it offers:

1. Stop fertilizing. Turf needs a lot less nitrogen than you think. Use an organic source.

2. Add clover and other grasses.

3. If you water, water deeply, and less often to encourage deeper roots.

4. Apply milky spore against insects, and corn gluten meal against weed seeds.

5. Enhance your soil by top-dressing with compost (one-quarter-inch deep or less).

More details at www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/5-steps-better-back-yard?page=0,0. Note: One thing the article doesn’t address is weeds that infiltrate by vining and setting down roots, like ground ivy. Another is that clover attracts bees, so be careful if going barefoot.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pcbaxter@verizon.net, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.