Experiences with a clover lawn

In my part of the world, clover in the context of lawn care is generally viewed as a noxious weed. People complain about the difficulty in eradicating it from what would otherwise be a beautifully uniform grassy expanse in front of their house. In days of yore, I heartily agreed with this notion, even though I have always viewed clover as one of the less vile specimens of the broadleaf weed category. However, as time marched on, my hostility mellowed. (Or possibly my apathy concerning picture-perfect yards grew and started crowding out clover hostility, there being only limited space in my heart for lawn-care-related feelings.) I began noticing that the clover patches of my lawn tended to be the areas that green up first in the spring and stay green later in the fall. The seed of an idea began germinating in the alkali soil of my mind.

I made the mistake of searching for some images of clover lawns. Done rightly, a clover lawn looks pretty neat! And of course, people tout the drought resistance and nitrogen-fixing properties of clover, both of which might be interpreted as beneficial to the neglectful groundskeeper living in an irrigated desert.

With the dark and ominous backdrop of botanical drama thus set on the horizon, now is a good time for a brief digression to comment on the nature of man. For the past few years, I have tried to get into the habit of doing something interesting each year. One of my perpetual goals is to be an interesting person, the sort of fellow who might tell you a surprising story at the dinner table or at whom you might, on occasion, cock your head to one side as an expression of mild disbelief. To that end, I try to find something notable to accomplish each year. And when, I dare you to answer, was the last time you heard of someone killing off their grass and planting clover instead? This explanation now in place, we return to the narrative.

Naturally (or perhaps “inevitably” is a better word), I decided that 2018 was the year of the Cloverpocalypse. The patchy backyard lawn’s days were numbered, doomed to be spent in quivering anticipation of the coming rototiller, that great equalizer of all landscaping.

A slight wrinkle in my grand scheme seemed imminent when my sister-in-law decided that said backyard – viz., mine – would be ideal to host her outdoor wedding in late June, but I am moderately proud to say that even this bold play did not deter me from my wild plan. I made my dogged intentions clear to the couple-to-be while thinking to myself that as a side benefit, this might deter them from what I considered to be their wild plan of having an outdoor wedding in my yard. However, they were not to be fazed, and as they say in poker tournaments, the stakes were raised.

The following months became somewhat blended together in my mind. Six days a week did I labor, and on the seventh I ached. I developed a sort of routine which I imagine to be the inverse of the Benedictine monk: getting up in the morning, spending a day at brain-labor, then rototilling, sifting old grass clumps out of the dirt, and levelling ground until darkness fell, at which point I ate dinner and went to bed. Somewhere around March, I believe, I seeded clover. Then, in a moment of weakness which brings me shame to recall, I seeded grass over the clover in mid-to-late April, because it became evident the clover was not going to fill in fast enough to supply a wedding-like turf by late June.

It was in these days of late spring that I began experimenting with mowing clover. This is when I discovered that the clover lawns they show you in the pictures have definitely not been mowed recently, or perhaps ever, because a mowed clover lawn is ugly. It is particularly ugly about two days after mowing, because the clover stalks like to compress themselves beneath the front wheels of the lawnmower, so it is literally impossible to get an even cut. By mow-day-plus-two, the tire tracks have sprung back up to a height above the rest of the cut clover and it’s all just kind of ragged. If you want to get anywhere close to an even surface, you must mow at least twice, in different directions, and preferably with a raking in between.

Additionally, if you have any grass whatsoever amongst your clover (and I found turf grasses coming up which I did not even plant), you will find that it grows much more quickly than clover and so about five days after mowing, right when the clover is starting to even out again, you’ll get a whole bunch of little grass stalks raggedly pointing up above the clover field. This also is not what they show in the pictures of beautiful clover lawns.

Thus we confidently state the first great disadvantage of clover lawns: they must be mowed, and mowing makes them hideous. I speculate that this is not problem if you seed not a “lawn” but a “deer forage”. However, my city neighborhood has no deer. Skunks, yes; deer, no, and therefore lawnmowers are indicated.

(For the record, yes, I did experiment with not mowing at all, but clover will grow to 6-8 inches high or sometimes even more, and that’s too tall for a yard that kids play in.)

The second great disadvantage of clover lawns is that clover is, as classified by the bigots, a broadleaf weed. This means it is susceptible to those magical potions which the chemical engineers sell us via promises to rid our lawns of broadleaf weeds while keeping our grass wholly intact. Most people don’t face a moral quandary here because they paint clover with the same broad brush as, say, dandelions or Canadian thistle. I like to think of myself as an individual with a finely attuned sense of moral discrimination when it comes to weed classifications. Feeling the keen distinction between a broadleaf dandelion and a broadleaf clover, I found it mildly troublesome that I would be unable to indiscriminately dump several gallons of chemicals into my lawn to assassinate the former without molesting the latter. I had initially hoped that if I allowed the clover to grow tall enough it would crowd out the other more noxious varieties of broadleaf plants and obviate my dilemma, but alas! This was not the case. Dandelions are happy to grow as tall as need be to find the sun above whatever tries to shade them out. I would not be surprised to learn that somewhere in South America in the middle of the rainforest there are 60-foot dandelion stalks poking above the canopy.

The third great disadvantage of clover lawns is durability. Frankly, the stuff’s not built with children or wedding parties in mind. When it has leafed out, it gives the impression of thoroughly covering the ground, but in reality the stalks are not nearly so tightly packed as typical grass. A slip-n-slide placed on an area of clover for the afternoon with kids playing on it will result in a literal mud pit beneath the pool. An impromptu fencing match will tear out clover by the roots and leave interesting scars. Standing in the same place for too long results in a foot pattern which lasts a couple of days.

A fourth, somewhat lesser disadvantage of clover is that it is wet. If you let it grow too tall and then need to cut it, resulting in a quantity of clippings, then you must be careful how you dispose of them because they stink to high heaven as anaerobic decomposition sets in. I will not describe how I came to learn this, nor the experiences I had out on the “compost” pile trying to spread the noxious cuttings out far enough to dry them up. Suffice it to say that the “compost” pile is half an acre away from the back patio and after I figured out where that hideous stench was coming from, I prayed that prevailing breezes had kept the miasma away from my neighbors.

And so we came to late August, when the days are warm, the nights are cool, the backpack sprayer is in top form, and the idle rototiller thirsts for telluric carnage. One factual tidbit here is that I’d never before planted grass in the fall, despite everyone saying it is the best time to plant it. Having now done so, I can join the chorus, because I have never before seen grass grow as swiftly as mine did after I sprayed the whole clover lawn with glyphosate, rototilled it up, and planted grass in mid-September.

Several people have asked me whether, given the opportunity to start over, I would plant clover again. The answer is that of course I would do the experiment again, because I still think a pure clover lawn looks lovely. But knowing what I know now, would I recommend planting one? Absolutely not…unless you’re looking for a way to be an interesting person, in which case I won’t tell anyone you knew better beforehand.

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