I enjoy the focus on green, shamrocks, and clovers that St. Patrick's Day brings each year. It reminds me of the hours I'd spend as a kid searching for four leaf clovers in our yard. There are many different types of clovers that grow in Central Illinois.
Technically, clover is the common name for plants of the genus Trifolium. All clovers are in the legume (pea) family. Many are valuable agricultural crops, primarily grown for food, forage, silage, or as cover crops and soil-enhancing green manure. Some of my favorite vegetables are legumes, including peas, lima beans, and edamame. Ironically, the vegetable I like least, green beans, are also legumes – Yuck!
Legumes are very useful plants for our environmental because they pull nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrogen in the soil that helps feed plants. Unlike any other plant, legumes create their own fertilizer.
For this reason and more, clovers are making a comeback in lawn seed mixes. My Dad always added white clover (Trifolium repens) to our turf seed mix when I was a kid. In fact, white clover was a common component of lawns before the introduction of broadleaf weed herbicides in the 1950's. Although dandelions, plantains, and other broadleaves were typically the target of these chemicals, white clover was often damaged or killed as well.
Through the years, lawns have become a status symbol in suburban America. For years, homeowners have strived for the perfect, weed free, carpet-like lawn, which did not include white clover. Additionally, when white clover flowering, the lawns attracted bees, which many homeowners with children did not like.
In my twenty-seven years with University of Illinois Extension, I often see trends come full circle. Today many families want to attract more pollinators to their yards and are searching for ecologically sound ways to grow grass, which increasingly includes adding white clover back to the turf seed mix. Unfortunately, white clover sometimes forms clumps and compete with desirable turfgrass, resulting in a non-uniform lawn appearance.
Microclover (Trifolium repens var. Pirouette) is a selection of white clover with smaller leaves and a slower growth habit. Preliminary research finds that when seeded at appropriate rates, microclover mixes better with most turfgrass species than common white clover. The microclover seed often comes coated with a Rhizobium bacterium – a natural organism that the plant needs to fix nitrogen, which is sometimes lacking in residential lawn soils.
So if you are looking for an eco-sustainable alternative to lawns, try adding clover to your Kentucky bluegrass or turf-type tall fescue lawn. Not only will it reduce the amount of fertilizer needed, but you can search for four-leaf clovers among its lush green growth.