Southern Living-Article Follow-Up

By refugelawn, on 03/17/2023

I was reminded of this Southern Living article “The Pros and Cons of a Clover Lawn” (July 15, 2022 by Hallie Milstein) yesterday while answering a homeowner question about including  clover in their lawn. As an aside, my mother and grandmother (AKA “Nanna”) are avid Southern Living subscribers–tabletop copies have long been staples on their cluttered coffee tables. So it was a bit of a life-time achievement to even be interviewed.

Author Hallie Milstein did her best to piece this together, but it really doesn’t do the topic justice (not Hallie’s fault–she had a word limit and understands the audience), so I thought I’d post her questions and my answers here for all to see. This interview was conducted in July of 2022. Hallie, if you’re reading this, great job, and thank you for the opportunity!

Jay: When folks talk about clover, they’re usually referring specifically to white clover (Trifolium repens); although, there are several other Trifolium species that persist in low-maintenance lawns.

Hallie: Why do you think clover lawns are so trendy right now?

Jay: White clover is a legume. Legumes form symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria that are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. The leguminous plant incorporates that nitrogen during growth, and through natural decay, contributes nitrogen to other companion plants – in most lawns, those companion plants would be turfgrasses. Nitrogen is the most limiting element for plant growth, and without it, lawns are less able to recuperate from routine maintenance and use, like mowing and foot traffic. Clover has been included in lawn and forage grass mixes for a long time. It wasn’t until the advent of synthetic auxin herbicides like 2,4-D in the late 1940s that turfgrass managers began to remove it. This post-war era also coincided with mass availability of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is necessary in lieu of the nitrogen fixing legumes.

Hallie: What do you think about the clover trend, particularly for the Southern lawns?

Jay: There’s increasing interest in biodiverse lawns around the world, not just in the Southern U.S., and not just in white clover. White clover produces abundant flowers that provide a rich nectar reward for many pollinating insects – not just European honeybees. But we shouldn’t limit ourselves to white clover alone. White clover is not native to the U.S. and doesn’t always meet the diverse nutritional needs of native pollinators. There are in fact very few Trifolium species that are both native and have commercially available seed. Buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) and Carolina clover (Trifolium carolinianum) are examples of native clovers, but I’m not aware of any research regarding their inclusion in lawns, nor are seed widely available. Researchers at Univ. of Florida have considered rhizomatous peanut (Arachis glabrata) as a leguminous alternative to monoculture turf.

Aside from nitrogen fixing legumes, there are plenty of alternative, native pollinator-friendly flowering forbs that can be included in lawns. In fact, many are already present as “weeds.” Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), blue violet (Viola sororia), selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), lawn aster (Symphyotrichum divaricatum), and annual blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium rosulatum) are just a few of the species our USDA-funded Refuge Lawn project (Auburn, Georgia, and Miss. State) is evaluating as amenity species in lawns. Researchers at Univ. of Arkansas have considered bulb propagated plants like daffodil (Narcissus), hyacinth (Hyacinthus), and crocus (Crocus).

Hallie: What are your thoughts on the rebranding of clover which most people think of as an undesirable weed?

Jay: I think it’s a stretch to say “most people” think of clover as an undesirable weed. Let’s give readers credit. Most know how nuanced the definition of a “weed” is. I don’t think we’re rebranding as much as acknowledging that nuance. There’s a diversity of ideas regarding what a lawn should look like. We’re not so much witnessing a renaissance so much as a revival of concepts that have long existed.  I’m thankful that there’s increasing interest in lawn biodiversity and the role of lawns within the environment. I do not think white clover is by any means the perfect plant for adding biodiversity in southern lawns, but it’s an easy place to start.

Hallie: What are some pros and cons of letting clover flourish in your lawn?

Jay: White clover spreads by both stolons and seed. It is easy to establish but spreads vigorously into most adjacent landscapes and properties. Once established, mixed stands of turfgrasses and white clover rarely, if ever, need supplemental nitrogen. But other nutrients like phosphorus and potassium still may limit lawn growth.

White clover is a cool-season perennial, thus it mimics the growth cycle of cool-season turfgrass species. Its growth cycle is offset to that of warm-season grasses found throughout the southern U.S. For this reason, it sometimes forms dense patches in southern lawns. This isn’t bad, it’s just a different appearance than what might occur in more northern environments.

Hallie: If our readers want a clover lawn, where should they start?

Jay: White clover is likely already present. Reducing herbicide and fertilizer inputs will reveal it and other species over time. If you want to introduce seed or plugs, do your research. There are lots of clover products for lawns – you may want to consult with your state’s turfgrass Extension specialist to determine suitability. There’s also nothing to keep you from gathering seed from existing sites.

Consider site suitability and design as much as anything. You may choose to diversify your whole lawn or just part of it. Common slogans like meadow lawn, refuge lawn, or mullet lawn (business in the front, party in the back) get tossed around frequently.

In my own lawn, I propagate native species like the ones I mentioned earlier in my backyard. I’ve written about that here:

In essence:

  • Keep some “weeds.” Spring emerging plants provide nectar for pollinators that are active early in the year.
  • Leave out spring applied herbicides on Refuge Lawn areas.
  • Mow less. Decreased disturbance is associated with greater abundance of pollinators and floral resources.
  • Start small. Leave 10 to 20% unmown. It doesn’t have to be the same area every time you mow.
  • Create order delineated from your regular lawn (ex. flowing borders, islands, pocket-prairies, and meadow-lawn).
  • Avoid broadcast applications of insecticides to lawns that may negatively affect pollinating insects.
  • Improve nesting sites (bare ground for soil nesting species and trap nests for cavity nesting bees and wasps).
  • Coordinate with neighbors. Create biodiverse corridors that connect important habitat for all wildlife species.

Hallie: What types of clover do you recommend for the region?

Jay: I rarely recommend white clover alone. If a stakeholder wants legumes, I start with strawberry clover, white clover, and various hop clovers.