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Is Clover Beneficial to Lawns or Harmful?

A Lawn of Four-Leaf Clovers


Photo showing clover being used as a ground cover.

Photo showing clover being used as a ground cover.

David Beaulieu

Do you automatically expect to find a lawn of green grass -- and green grass alone -- in front of a suburban or rural home? For those of you who have grown up under the hegemony of grass (as discussed in my brief history of lawns), the grass lawn is practically an institution. The corollary to that attitude is that anything else growing in said space is harmful -- a "weed."

But might not clover be beneficial to lawns?

It goes largely unquestioned that grass will serve as your "carpeting" for outdoor living. But perhaps it is time to ask some basic questions about lawn care and the landscaping needs in front of a house. Are you sure the grass is greener?

Close your eyes and dream for a moment. Imagine yourself opening your front door and stepping out onto your ideal landscape. What would some of the components of such a landscape be? Well, there would probably be some bright colors to catch your eye -- bedding plants serve this purpose. To punctuate the flat expanse of green between your home and the street, you'd probably want to add some trees (or bushes) to establish a vertical dimension. Perhaps a hardscape element such as a garden arbor or a water feature will function as a focal point.

But now we come to the component alluded to above, namely, the "carpeting" for your outdoor living space. For you will need to fill in between your bedding areas and trees and focal point with something that you can walk on. While mulches and hardscape paths adequately fill this role for some people's tastes, other folks like the feel of something live under their feet. Close your eyes again and picture the ideal living carpet of green. What qualities would it have?

Ideal Qualities of a "Carpet" for Outdoor Living:

  1. It stays a luscious green all summer, without being irrigated profusely (i.e., it's drought-tolerant).
  2. It is free of weeds, obviating the need to apply herbicides. Your carpet competes so well for growing space that the competition is choked out.
  3. It doesn't need to be fertilized.
  4. It is also relatively pest-free, so that you don't have to bother spraying pesticides on it.
  5. It aerates the soil on its own, so that you don't have to worry about counteracting soil compaction.
  6. It is soft to walk on.
  7. It attracts beneficial insects, including honeybees.
  8. It rarely has to be mowed.
  9. It doesn't suffer the discoloration from dog urine known as "dog spots."
  10. And if, despite all these benefits, you should ever want to replace it with a different kind of green carpet, it helps you to do so by improving the soil on its watch. Its ability to aerate the soil and pump nitrogen into it means that succeeding generations of plants using that soil will be better off.

"Okay," you may object, "it's time to stop dreaming and get back to reality. No grass has all these qualities." Correct. But I didn't say that it was a grass. In fact, the "ideal" qualities that I just listed describe not a grass, but clover. And in this case, the ideal meets the real -- clover possesses all 10 of the qualities listed above! The question now becomes, "Why would you possibly choose grass over clover?" The 4-leaf clovers discussed on Page 2 may or may not bring you good luck, but there's no question that having clover in the lawn brings some distinct advantages.

Should clover replace grass as the "living carpet" of choice (even if only partially, in the form of a beneficial mix of grass and clover)? Does growing clover instead of lawn grasses have any disadvantages? On Page 4 we'll explore these matters and more....

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