My falling out with clover – a sad but true story

by Susan Harris on July 31, 2010

Clover and creeping sedum in happier times

Well, this Lawn Reformer has a confession to make.  At first I swooned about clover -  in this post and then in this post, and frankly all over the damn Web.  I bragged (I confess) about having replaced my tall fescue+weeds with glorious White Dutch Clover mixed with the vigorously spreading Sedum acre.  And from the looks of these photo taken in the second year for this plant combo in my back yard, they’re a match made in heaven.

Until they stopped getting along.  And that’s a euphemism for: Until one of them killed the other one, and guess who turned out to be a companion-killer?   This eco-savvy gardener’s favorite plant of late – Dutch white clover.   And sad to say – get ready for another confession – I didn’t even notice the killing until the poor Sedum was almost all gone.  (Bad gardener!)

My Problems with Clover

  • On its own, clover looks great, as you can see in this video made by a permaculturist who made the transition from tall fescue to all-clover.  But we’re all for biodiversity these days and I thought clover would be even better mixed with another plant loved by pollinators – the unlucky Sedum in question.  And as terrific as they looked together, now in year three the clover towered over the sedum, shaded it completely, and killed it.
  • Not only did the clover kill the Sedum, but in the absence of supplemental watering most of it proceeded to die over the last month or so.   So while clover certainly needs less water than tall fescue, it’s not a succulent and it does need watering eventually, or it shrivels up and dies.
  • As if that weren’t enough, my garden is now deer-damaged as never before because the hungry mammals are lured into my garden by the clover.  Who knew?  Not me, but obviously lots of hunters know the way to attract deer is to grow some clover because Googling “clover” turns up a few hunting websites, like this one.

How to Remove?
Oh, you’re not going to believe I’m actually doing this – removing it by hand, so I’m spending lots of time on my kneeling pad, cursing the stuff.  Plus the kneeling-pad time spent digging up little clumps of Sedum from other parts of the garden to replace the clover.  I figure it’ll take me a couple of months to accomplish all this, and maybe until next summer for the Sedum to cover all the bare patches.

Why am I Doing This?
Yes, I’ve asked myself that and my answer usually involves some pretense at science  – I’m “trialing” this plant combination – and my mission to find as many low-maintenance alternative lawn types as possible.   After decades of gardening on the same one-third acre it’s good to have a mission.  And seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about how easy it is to replace lawn with such-and-such and I’m hoping to give readers a bit more guidance than that.   Some more helpful anti-lawn articles do make a point of telling readers to choose plants that mix well together but I’m concrete proof that following that advice is easier said than done.

{ 28 comments }

Heidi Marsh July 31, 2010 at 5:28 pm

You’re a gardener after my own heart! I am currently “weeding” St. Augustine grass out of my lawn one handful at a time! sometime weeding out what you don’t want, and leaving what naturally turns up can make for a “right plant, right place” sort of yard without any deciding at all!
Thanks for sharing!

Daniel Richard August 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I have done the red clover (instead of the Dutch White) here in Houston and it works pretty well. I have spots that are tough to get my St. Augustine to grow and have too little sunlight for Bermudagrass. The red clover keeps the yard looking nice during the winter here when the St. Augustine goes dormant and dies back when the heat comes and the St. Augustine comes in. Since the clover “feeds” the soil, the St. Augustine is spreading better now and the red clover does not keep coming back like the Dutch White does.

Clare August 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Have you tried Chamomille? I understand it makes a nice fragrant ground cover and is used by some British gardeners as a “lawn” plant. My Chamomille (grown for flower buds for tea) seems to always brown out in August when I let it go to flower/seed and the heat sets in but the rain does not.

Chas. Kidder August 2, 2010 at 7:52 am

Thanks for your dose of reality. It’s a good antidote to all the “just plant such-and-such and then sit back and enjoy your garden” blather. I have learned the hard way how many native (and exotic) plants are thugs in the garden.

vicki August 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

For me, the ground hogs prefer the clover over my garden, so they stay in the “lawn” and barely nibble on all of the other plants that live in beds or pots.

Even on my very dry patch of ground, some clover always manages to survive, even in bloody heat and drought.

Even when the clover dies, during a bloody month of heat and drought, it returns with the rains.

I don’t have to plant the clover. Good year or bad, it keeps on coming back and looking fabulously green and hosting the ground hog. So, in this garden it wins over sedums, et al, hands down.

naomi August 2, 2010 at 9:24 am

How are you doing that in this HEAT? I’m thinking right now the best replacement for lawn is weeds. (And now I need to follow this blog too – another excuse to avoid going outside.)

commonweeder August 2, 2010 at 9:44 am

I applaud your courage and honesty in writing this post. I am trying to be braver in publicly admitting my mistakes. When we had a lot of construction done around the house I replanted the ‘lawn’ with clover and some grass seed. The clover certainly took. I don’t know whether the grass didn’t take, or if it was overcome quickly by the clover. I haven’t had it the clover brown out, but I live in Massachusetts. We do mow, but infrequently, and never water. In the front lawn I have been digging out small patches of grass and putting in a plug of common thyme from the thyme that thrives at the edge of our piazza. It is as sturdy and dependable as clover, needs little mowing, doesn’t mind drought – and if it was good enough for Vita Sackville West to have a Thyme Lawn at Sissinghurst, it’s good enough for me.

Susan Morrison August 2, 2010 at 10:52 am

I’m on my third round of trying out ground cover alternatives to turf, and have found out the same thing – sometimes the “in” plant everyone is talking about isn’t as easy as it sounds. I planted Carex pansa two years ago, and despite what should have been optimum conditions, the plugs barely grew. In retrospect, I think it just didn’t like my clay soil, despite the amending I did. Yet this is touted as a great lawn alternative for California, where clay soil is the norm in a lot of places. The UC Verde grass I have now is thriving, but the downside is I find I don’t care for the look unmowed, so although I’m watering and mowing less frequently, it isn’t as sustainable an alternative as I would have liked.

Denise August 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

So glad you’re providing honest updates. Replacing lawn is a complex and difficult problem, especially when much of the housing stock, at least here in So. Calif., is designed for landscaping with lawn. Cities here are trying rebate programs, $2.50 per square foot for replacement plants. I wish they’d provide rebates for gravel or other inexpensive hardscape too. Succulents are beginning to get wider use here, as profiled in the LA Times last week, for lawn replacement. Keep experimenting!

jodi (bloomingwriter) August 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Fascinating post, Susan. I’m intrigued by your problem, and also by the planting of sedum in your lawn, which is not something I would have ever thought of in ten gazillion years. Trying to figure out what that would feel like to walk on.

Personally, and of course my circumstances are quite different from yours, I am waiting for the white clover to take over the lawn. My reasons: it doesn’t grow as tall and needs less mowing. It stays green when things are getting dry. It shades out other things like chickweed, buttercup, etc. It feeds the soil rather than demanding nutrients (not that I have or ever will fertilize lawn). But again, my circumstances are different from yours. We live on 7 acres and while much of that is pasture and natural plantings (done by nature, not me!) we do have a lot of lawn, as well as a lot of trees and many garden beds. We get fog regularly, which helps provide moisture to everything, so I’ve never seen the clover brown up and die, even when the grass does look peaked. The deer don’t come up to our place, since the Attack-Donkey thinks they are coyotes as well. If there are skunks digging for grubs in the lawn, that’s okay with me.

A drive around the area where I live yesterday showed me lawns that had dormant grass but many with patches of green clover. So maybe we just don’t get it hot enough for long enough (rarely over 90 degrees F here for more than a couple of days) to sear the clover. Anyway, this is a terrific post and food for more thought. Which is why we read faithfully. :-)

compostinmyshoe August 2, 2010 at 2:13 pm

This always brings me back to the importance of trials in our own backyards before I go out on the limb. Thanks for sharing the information .

Sue Langley August 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I, too, have sifted the soil for plant bullies like this so I sympathize. The latest…Mexican primrose that I myself planted when faced with a huge bare area of my garden. Now after five years it is everywhere where it can get a bit of water. I finally decide to get rid of it in the front beds and three days of thorough sifting followed. Now three weeks later, I see it popping up everywhere in the same bed! Sigh…

I saw a a method where you take a water bottle, cut the bottom off and set it over the plant you want to spray, then spray down the screw top opening. It protects the rest of the area from overspray.. Wonder if that works.

We have a lovely pink flowering clover growing wild here. Then it sets seed. Found out its name…bur-clover!

Kmac August 2, 2010 at 2:36 pm

hey, great post admitting defeat in the midst of all that clover!
I live w/ about 20% clover in my lawn, and hey, its green and I leave it to get about 5″-6″ b4 i mow it down. Yes I use the lawnmower, but much less frequently. I live in central Oregon farm country where overhead crop irrigation goes on 24/7 from mid April to mid October, but it isusually pretty dry and dusty around the house due to farm roads and un-irrigated sections that create minor dust storms, so my green lawn that circles my house is very welcome. It also helps cool down the house.We mostly irrigate off of the irrigation ditch. When changing wheelines, my hubby has to divert the water somewhere, so the lawn and the horse pasture take turns. Folks around here worship Kentucky Blue Grass. This is one of the main growing areas. of course w/ the economy hurting, developments & the golf courses aren’t gobbling up the KBG seed, so there is a glut of it currently. My lawn is a mix of free-blown in KBG, and assorted hard fescues and of course white clover. I fertilize 2x a year, spring/fall with organic lawn fert & Soil Activator (for the humates, in spring only). Works like a charm! I’ve tried to convince my neighbors about the benefits of organic lawns, but they are diehard 16-16-16 junkies who keep their lawns at 2″…
Has anyone ever tried Nichols Garden Nurseries ‘Eco’ lawn seed mixes?
I used it more than 15 years ago in N. Calif and it was great stuff. ‘Course we only did a small approx.500 sf area, but it was really, really a nice mix of bentgrass, low yarrow, chamomile and some clovers if I recall. we only mowed it a couple of times a year – once using sheep shears!

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Victoria Freeman August 2, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Thank you for the honesty. I am transitioning a St. Augustine lawn into thyme and bahia. The combo doesn’t seem to need water or fertilizer and the effect is lovely.

Susan Harris August 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Wow, I had no idea you all had commented – coz this blog’s been moved to a new host and somehow I no longer get email notifications of comments (to be fixed!)

Seems I have lots of company in this new world of lawn replacements. Hopefully all our experiences can be pooled (maybe on LawnReform.org?) to help others in their quest. Help is sure needed.

And about being honest – maybe that’s not so common? Hmm. Another problem with garden writing? My favorite example of less than honest garden-writing is describing everything as EASY when we all know it’s not. Ditto low-maintenance. I had an editor once change an article title to include “low maintenance” and I said no, that’s not true, but they kept that phrase in the title anyway.

Laura August 2, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Frankly, after pulling them out of every inch of a 70′ x 4′ bed, I’m considering the concept of spotted spurge and purslane as lawn replacements. I do not kid. The two “weeds”were clamoring over each other in an untended, un-irrigated (!) bed, threatening to spread out into the parking lot. I know they can take some foot traffic, and – bonus – the purslane is also edible !

Joene August 2, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I encourage clover in my Connecticut (zone 6) lawn, at least it’s more attractive than crabgrass. But I can see how it would choke out sedum … white clover is a witch to weed. I don’t envy the job ahead of you. Like commonweeder, I admire your honesty, and in shameless self-promotion, those willing to admit gardening faux pas might consider joining the Gardening Oops – GOOPs for short – meme. On the first of each month I post one of my many gardening blunders – 30 years can bring a slew of GOOPs – and invite other gardeners to do the same. Susan, your clover chronicles would make a great GOOPs. I’d be honored to have you join, but all gardeners are welcome.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter August 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

That’s disheartening. And I was just coming to accept the clover in my lawn. I guess I won’t feel bad yanking it out while I’m pulling up black medic. How about Ruellia humilis as a lawn replacement? It’s popping up all over my lawn and I’m seriously considering leaving it there.

Susan Harris August 3, 2010 at 1:38 pm

In clover’s defense, it wouldn’t be shading out other plants if I were mowing it, and I still think it’s a great addition to a mix that I’d call a Freedom Lawn.

Now about thyme, it’s not a winner for me here in the Mid-Atlantic Humidity Belt – big patches go brown any old time. ALso, it doesn’t spread fast enough to cover much ground without a big budget.

twolipps August 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Can you walk on the sedem without killing it? I’d have thought being a succulent it wouldn’t tolerate foot traffic. What has been your experience?

Susan Harris August 4, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Twolipps, yes, I walk on my creeping sedum all the time. Well, let me correct that – any time I want, as often as I want. When Saxon Holt was here photographing it he was concerned because it didn’t bounce back after he stepped on it, but the next day – I SWEAR – it did bounce back. It always does, once it’s established. (I do baby it a bit while it’s getting started.)

Clare August 4, 2010 at 4:27 pm

I have the same brown out problem w/ thyme here in our 93 degree, 93% humidity Ohio Valley home. Any feedback on/experience with Chamomille?

Justin August 5, 2010 at 9:31 am

Susan,

So you’ve found more mammal damage to your garden because of clover? That’s too bad… I’ve found the opposite. Even though I can easily count a dozen bunnies in my clover back lawn, I’ve not seen even a nibble on my desirable plants. Wonder what the differences are…

Thanks for sharing your experience; it’s good, though unfortunate, to know not everyone has the same positives with it that I have.

Jennifer August 5, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Hmm, we’re just west of you a bit (in DC) and have a thyme that’s going gangbusters for a few years now. It is lanky, but pretty evergreen. I’ve moved patches around here and there, from partial shade to more sunny, although there is nowhere we get full sun, it takes over quickly and spreads well. I haven’t tried it as a lawn replacement…working on getting clover in, actually, and less successfully than you, it sounds like. If you’d like a bit of the thyme to try you’re welcome to email.

virginia rockwell August 6, 2010 at 9:16 pm

um well i read all that last winter and my VA farmer husband looked up as i was reading your rant aloud and said “what’s she gonna do when that clover shrivels up and dies in a hot summer?” (proof that he actually DOES listen sometimes).

i have had a client’s new lawn ruined by landscape contractor NOT mixing in the dutch white clover properly into the grass seed mix. one client’s front yard got all the clover seed for the entire property, it looked great for 2 years, then boom! nothing but warm season weeds when the clover died out.

don’t try to kill it. let the deer and drought do it for you.

remember that you should have used clover sparingly only for its nitrogen fixing capacity to help curb fertilizer use in lawn. get a good drought tolerant seed MIX (not a monoculture) and never have more than 2% clover by weight/volume.

it’s purty. also darn hard to weed, and you can’t get an edge on a bed bordered by a ‘lawn’ of clover and sedum.

want an annual cover crop for beneficials that IS easy to weed out and can be mown and will reseed itself? Otay, Buckwheat. And you can make flour from the triangular seeds.

Patsy Bell Hobson August 8, 2010 at 3:41 pm

How refreshing to get the follow up. We rarely see a big idea with a follow up story or a What ever happend to….

Danielle Meitiv August 11, 2010 at 10:56 am

I haven’t planted clover deliberately, but it’s coming in all the same and I only have one problem with it – it attracts the bees so well that I have to be extra careful when I walk barefoot! My husband, Son and I have all been stung on the bottom of the foot – ouch!

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