Lawns are a waste of resources. Consider the time, effort, fuel, and money we spend to create a carpet of grass, which has no functional value. Why not replace the grass with clover? It tops out at six inches and provides flowers for bees and fodder for animals (it is high in protein, and chickens love it). It doesn’t stand up to traffic as well as grass but it takes much less maintenance than traditional lawns. Clover plants live for two years, so the lawn needs occasional reseeding, but if left to flower, the clover does much of the work on its own.
But First, A Story
Once upon a time, grass seed was mixed with clover seed. Clover was not seen as a weed; as a legume, it adds nitrogen to the soil (it is now used as a cover crop to enrich fields over the winter). But then World War II happened. During the war, the American war machine produced tons of nitrogen-based explosives for use in bombs. As the war drew to a close, we had nitrogen-producing industries without a market. Factories were converted to produce fertilizer instead. Now cheap nitrogen fertilizer hit the market and in the rush to keep up with the Jones, the pure grass lawn became the hallmark of the American middle-class home.
How to Convert Your Lawn to Clover
First, you’ll need to kill your grass. You can do this in a few green ways, but first you’ll want to mow it down as low as possible. One way is to till up the top six inches of soil, rake off the biomass, and let it sit for two weeks. Whatever survives the initial tilling will sprout and you can then quickly hand weed what’s left. Another option is to put black, opaque plastic over the area during a sunny week. The heat and lack of light will starve and cook the underlying grass. Alternatively, you can cover your entire lawn in wet newspaper (8-10 layers thick) and achieve the same results without using plastic. You might get some spring back, though, if the grass or weeds have well-established roots. Combining these methods is probably the safest bet.
Second, you’ll have to find clover seed. Usually this is sold at garden shops, but call ahead because not all places stock this “weed.” The suggested application rate of 2-3 pounds per acre is too low for replacing grass (it seems to be the application rate for sewing alongside grass, which is an option if you want to go that route). I use about a pound for each 200 square feet. You can see the results a week after application in this photo.
Before applying the seeds, I stir up the top inch or so of topsoil with a gravel rake. I broadcast the seeds by hand and then use a leaf rake to mix them in the top of the soil. You can trample the seeds in by walking around your lawn. You can also spread straw (not hay, which has seeds) over the ground to prevent erosion if you expect rain. Straw will also keep off birds who might try to eat the seeds. If you don’t trample or use straw and get a large rainstorm, all your seeds will be washed into the low-lying areas where you’ll get pockets of too many seeds and bare high spots.
Water regularly until the plants are established. I usually hit the seeds once a day in normal conditions, but more if it is hot and dry or less if it is cool and moist.
Maintenance is simple. At a minimum, you top seed (throw seeds down on top of established plants) in the spring and fall at a much lower rate, something like a pound per 800 square feet. Clover might develop bare patches if chickens, rabbits, or deer have their way. You can see in my photo here that I need to top seed my yard. If you want to mow the clover, you can once it is fully established. If you let it go to flower and seed, it will do some of the reseeding for you. It develops a web of roots that will help keep your clover lawn looking lush. If you leave the clover to its natural length (about 6 inches high), it will smother weeds. If you mow it, you’re more likely to have to fight to keep it covered in clover. The point, after all, is to not have to mow anymore. You do not need to fertilize clover, but be sure to plant it at least two months before a frost so the plants can become established (the more time the better).
A Note About Feeding Animals
If you’re letting your chickens or rabbits eat the clover, you’ll have to manage them. Don’t let them free range on the clover all the time or they will reduce your yard to a desert. I let my chickens out on one side of the yard for an hour each morning and then herd them back in their run. After a few weeks — once that side looks a little tired — I switch them to the other side while the first side regrows. Note that humans can eat clover in reasonable amounts (usually young shoots as an addition to salad), but some folks are allergic, so test yourself before you eat it.* It goes without saying that you don’t need to apply chemicals or fertilizers to clover.
A Warning About Bees
Clover flowers will attract bees, which is a good thing unless you are allergic, taking a barefoot stroll, or a dog who uses the lawn. Neither my dog nor I have been stung by a bee in the clover. Usually the foragers won’t bother you unless you’re really getting in their business. Stepping on them may be enough to provoke a sting, though, so use common sense when the clover is flowering.
And a final close-up picture for good measure.
*I am not a medical doctor and the following test is given with no warranty whatsoever. Use at your own risk. The way I was taught to test whether or not I was allergic to plants was the following. After each step, wait 24 hours for a reaction. 1) Rub a small amount on the forearm to see if rash develops. 2) Rub a small amount on the lips to see if a rash, tingling, or any other reaction happens. 3) Hold a small amount in the mouth and spit it out, tasting and feeling for any reaction. 4) Chew a small amount and spit it out. 5) Chew and swallow a small amount. 6) Eat a slightly larger amount. Again, wait 24 hours for each step and stop if any reaction (rash, tingling, stomach upset, etc.) occurs.