Turfgrass is the most popular choice for lawns, but its high demand for water and nutrients may be a deal-breaker for some. Clover is a less ravenous alternative that requires minimal watering and fertilizer application to thrive. However, not all clovers were built for lawns. Some species are more desirable for lawns.
White clover is a safe bet for people living in areas with harsh soils. White clover is the best clover for lawns if you’re looking for a low-maintenance crop that doubles up as pasture in large fields. Alternatively, micro clover is an excellent bet for a mixed lawn.
If you’re establishing a new lawn or looking to replenish a recovering lawn, we’ll help you pick the best clover based on your environmental conditions.
Clover (Trifolium spp.) is a genus of about 300 leguminous plant species. Clover plants are easily identifiable by their trifoliate leaves, with the four, five, and seven-leaf clovers being rare exceptions. The green, oval leaves are usually wide in the middle.
If left uncut, clover produces small, fragrant yellow, white, pink, or red flowers, depending on the species. This short-lived broadleaf also has smooth stems.
Most types of clover grow no longer than 30cm tall, making it a great alternative to turfgrass as a lawn ground cover plant. Clover gardeners also cite its drought-hardiness and disease resistance as key reasons they grow it in their yards.
Types of clover for lawns
With over 300 species to choose from, most clovers are either grown for fodder or as a ground cover plant. The best types of clovers for lawns include white clover, red clover, micro clover, strawberry clover, and alsike clover.
White clover (Trifolium repens) is the most popular type of clover for lawns across the globe. Its petioles are long and smooth, with three leaflets at the tip, while the leaflets are wedge-shaped and have serrated edges.
You can easily identify white clover by the whitish ‘watermark’ variegation on the leaflets. It also develops white flower heads.
This short-lived perennial spreads primarily through above-ground runners called stolons but can also spread through its seeds. White clover typically grows 8-12 inches high when not mowed.
The main reason for the white clover’s popularity is its adaptability to different soil conditions. This clover species will thrive in poor-draining, acidic, slightly alkaline, fine-textured, or medium-textured soil.
White clover also boasts excellent winter hardiness and good tolerance for waterlogged soil conditions.
White clover seed heads produce tiny, red/yellow heart-shaped seeds that you can mix with grass seed to establish a mixed lawn. While its commonly used as a lawn cover plant, you can also grow white clover exclusively for pasture.
However, White clover has poor tolerance for extreme heat and drought conditions.
Red clover, also known as purple clover, is another short-lived perennial within the clover genus. Native to Eurasia, this clover is characterized by a short taproot and vertical, hollow stems that either have hairs or don’t. Each primary stem branches severally to produce auxiliary stems that carry the leaves.
The leaf stalks on red clover each produce three leaflets that are stalk-less. The leaflets may be scalloped or serrated at the edges. A pale, V-shaped ‘watermark’ cuts across the middle of each leaflet.
Undisturbed, red clover develops pink-purple flower heads from April-October. The egg-shaped blooms measure roughly 0.4-1.25 inches wide and lack stalks. Each flower head holds 50-140 purple florets. Red clover also produces tiny yellow-purple seeds.
Red clover prefers well-draining, fine-medium textured soil. However, it will still grow in poor-quality soil conditions, including low-nutrient and slightly-acidic soils. Additionally, red clover has excellent cold-hardiness and better shade tolerance than most leguminous plants.
Due to its good cold tolerance, red clover mixes well with cool-season grasses for a lawn that stays green throughout most of the winter. It can also be grown for pasture. On the downside, though, red clover has relatively low drought resistance.
Micro Clover is a dwarf cultivar of white clover characterized by smaller leaflets and fewer blooms. Due to its low growth profile, it’s considered one of the best clovers for lawns. Micro clover plants also don’t clump up as much as traditional white clover, making it more desirable for turfs.
Micro clover also works well in mixed lawns. Compared to traditional clovers, it can form a uniform lawn alongside the grass due to its low growth profile. An even turf offers better visual aesthetics.
On the downside, micro clover borrows most of the disadvantages of its parent plant species, white clover. It has poor shade tolerance and poor heat/drought resistance.
Strawberry clover, also referred to as Trifolium fragiferum, is a perennial clover species used as a cover crop due to its extensive taproot, creeping lateral runners (stolons), and ability to thrive in moist, salty, or alkaline soil conditions.
Since it’s a long-lived perennial, strawberry clover lawns don’t need to be reseeded like a short-lived perennial clover lawn or annual clover lawn. It also has decent drought tolerance and will survive in arid areas.
Note: Strawberry clover boasts better heat and drought tolerance than white clover due to its deeper taproot.
Despite being a less-popular lawn option, this clover variety outcompetes lawn weeds better than white clover. This can be attributed to its robust growth habit. Therefore, it’s unlikely you’ll have to invest heavily in herbicides for your strawberry clover lawn.
Strawberry clover won’t do well in hot, desert climates like Arizona and Nevada since it’s bred explicitly for cool, northern climates. It makes up for that, though, with its ability to grow in poor-draining clay soils and decent salt tolerance.
Alsike clover or Swedish clover (Trifolium hybridum) is another clover species recommended for lawns. Native to Europe, this clover species spreads primarily via underground runners called rhizomes. Alsike clover has an upright growth habit and can grow up to 12.5 inches tall.
Alsike clover has several morphological similarities with red clover. However, unlike red clover, alsike clover lacks white, V-shaped ‘watermarks’ at the center of the leaflets. Additionally, the leaves and stems of alsike clover are hairless compared to the hairy shoots on red clover.
Alsike clover is a perennial, thus will reappear year-to-year, producing flower heads from May-October. The blooms start with a white shade before turning pink as they mature. Each flower head is about 0.5-1 inch wide, with 20-80 florets.
Alsike clover has exceptional frost tolerance and will remain green throughout the winter unless temperatures drop extremely low. It also does well in wet or acidic soil conditions.
Benefits of planting clover
The upsides of having a clover lawn far outnumber the drawbacks. Some of the advantages of planting clover include a reduced need for fertilizer application, minimal maintenance requirements, and ecological conservation. Clover is also edible and prevents soil erosion.
Clover fixes nitrogen into the soil.
The foremost benefit of planting clover on your lawn is that it synthesizes its own nitrogen and fixes it into the soil. The clover and other plants growing in your yard will need less fertilizer to thrive.
Clover has minimal maintenance requirements.
Clover is a low-maintenance plant compared to most cover plants. Generally, it doesn’t need to be fertilized, watered, or overseeded as often as your average turfgrass.
Clover has moisture-holding properties, and most species can withstand short droughts. Clover also chokes out weeds. Thus, you don’t have to apply herbicides to clover lawns.
And unlike turfgrasses that need to be mowed to stay healthy and develop deeper roots, clover doesn’t need to be mowed unless you find its height or blooms unappealing.
Clover is a source of food.
Both clover leaves and flowers are edible. Clover is a good source of essential vitamins and proteins. Clover blooms and leaves add a tasty twist to your salad recipes. They’re also a fun addition to your hot beverages.
Clover encourages ecological sustainability.
With a clover-blended lawn, one doesn’t have to apply fertilizer as much as they would on a grass-only lawn. Commercial fertilizers usually leach into water bodies and harm marine ecosystems. Using clover as a natural fertilizer source is a huge step towards environmental sustainability.
Clover prevents soil erosion.
Clover is a great ground cover plant that keeps lawn soil intact, especially in sloppy landscapes. Deep-rooted clover species like strawberry and red clover prevent runoff pollution by keeping the soil firm to withstand the elements.
Tips: what to look for in clover for lawn
Clover seed prices vary depending on the species. You can find a pound of clover seeds for as low as $10. You’ll need only a quarter pound of the seed of Dutch white clover to cover 1000 square feet of lawn.
Some clovers are more shade-tolerant than others, while some are more tolerant of acidic or alkaline soils. Your lawn conditions should guide you in picking the best clover for you.
Dominant weather conditions
Ensure you check your area’s weather conditions for most of the year. You can then choose whether to grow cold-season clover or invest in clover that does well in hotter conditions.