A patch of greenery seems an odd thing to get worked up about, but lawns are the focus of some pretty strong opinions. For decades, a carpet of close-cropped turfgrass was the only acceptable option in many neighborhoods. That attitude has begun to shift due to the environmental impact of a perfect lawn. One hot new trend is the microclover lawn to supplement or replace grass. Microclover is an all-natural lawn alternative, though it's not necessarily right for everyone.
A microclover lawn is simply one that's planted with microclover, either alone or in a mixture with grass seed. Because it's drought tolerant and low maintenance and it supports pollinators, it's a more environmentally conscious choice.
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The Problem With Lawn Grass
Your existing lawn is probably a monoculture – a single-species planting – of turfgrass, though the actual grass used will vary depending on where you live. Kentucky bluegrass, zoysia, fescue, Bermuda grass, perennial ryegrass and many others are common choices. The problem is that keeping up a spread of grass is a lot of work. Conventional lawn care means you'll need to mow, aerate, remove thatch, fertilize, apply herbicides and pesticides and water it regularly.
Many of those things carry an environmental price tag. Fertilizers and herbicides end up in groundwater and have cumulative effects downstream. Pesticides kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Water use is a growing issue in drought-stricken regions, and yard machines belch greenhouse gases. Most importantly, by definition, a perfect lawn has no biodiversity. It's intended to support only one form of life: your grass.
What Is a Microclover Lawn?
Clover has often been a part of real-world lawns. You may think of it as a persistent weed, but it was regularly included in lawn seed mixtures until the rise of broadleaf herbicides. Those killed clover along with the weeds, so clover fell from favor. However, there's a lot to like about clover in your lawn. It stands up to foot traffic and dog waste, it's drought tolerant, and it's green even when your grass goes dormant. Most importantly, it's a nitrogen fixer like other legumes. It takes atmospheric nitrogen from the air and puts it into the ground, making your soil fertile.
The most common clover you'll find in lawns is Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens). It grows to about 8 inches in height and produces lots of white flowers, which bees and other pollinators love. That makes it just tall enough to look untidy in a lawn, and it doesn't like close mowing. Microclover is a specific type of white clover – Trifolium repens var. 'Pipolina' or var. 'Pirouette' – that's been selectively bred to stay about half the normal height. The clover leaves start at about half the normal size as well, but after mowing, they will become even smaller. That compact growth habit gives it the same "green carpet" appearance you've been striving for with your existing lawn but with less maintenance.
A microclover lawn simply means that you've chosen to plant this low-growing form of clover instead of grass or in a mixture with grass. It has a lot of advantages. The clover's deep roots help break up compacted or clay-heavy soils. Clover outcompetes most weeds, enriches the soil, and requires little or no mowing or watering. Add the benefits to pollinators and it's a definite win for everyone.
All Microclover vs. Grass Mixture
A microclover lawn can be constructed with microclover alone or with a mix of grass and microclover. Going with all microclover is simplest if you're creating a new lawn since you won't have grass to smother or remove. This works best if your entire lawn area receives full sun or only minimal shade and if you live in an area with mild winters. Clover will go dormant in a cold winter, so homeowners in those climates will face a few weeks of unattractive, muddy grounds in spring.
A mixed lawn of grass and microclover will still give you all of microclover's benefits but compensates for its shortcomings in cold-winter climates, like in the Midwest. Kentucky bluegrass or one of the fescues will look great in the cool months when the clover isn't at its best, and clover will return the favor in summer when the grass suffers from heat or lack of rain. Microclover can survive and thrive in USDA zones 2 through 10 within limits. Aside from its winter dormancy, its biggest challenge is high overnight temperatures. That can be an issue in really hot, arid climates, like the Southwest, despite its drought tolerance. In the muggy Southeast, it can be prone to Southern blight.
Installing a Microclover Lawn
If you already have grass, overseeding your existing lawn with microclover seed is your easiest option. You'll need about 1.5 pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet. Plant in early spring, ideally after you've aerated the lawn. Rake the soil to rough it up (or top-dress lightly with fresh soil or compost). Use a spreader to cast the seed and then water it in. Water daily until a couple of weeks after germination, when the clover will be reasonably well established.
You can also start with bare soil, either because your home is new construction or because you've removed the existing lawn. Microclover seed is relatively scarce and expensive, so don't expect to find it in ready-made blends. Instead, buy your grass seed and microclover seed separately and seed them one after the other. Again, water daily until after the grass and clover are well established and thereafter only as needed.
Whichever method you use, mow for a first time after the microclover reaches its full height of 4 inches. Mowing after that is a matter of personal preference, or you can mow when the grass component of your lawn becomes messy. Microclover does well when mowed to a height of 2 to 3 inches; anything shorter than that can impair its growth. If you have small children or bee-sting allergies, be aware that unmowed clover will blossom more. That's great for pollinators but less so if bees are unwelcome in your space.