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Q&A: Clover in the Garden

Why is clover so despised, and is there any way it is useful in a garden?
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Question: St. Patrick's Day shamrocks have me thinking about clover. Everyone I talk to thinks of it as a weed. Why is clover so despised, and is there any way it is useful in a garden?

Answer: The "shamrocks" of St. Patrick's Day refer to several different plants. Most—including the so-called weed also known as "clover"—are of the Trifolium genus. However the plant often sold as a potted houseplant in March is Oxalis regnellii. It has long stems with delicate white flowers. Click here to read more about caring for this plant. Read on to learn about lawn clover.

Most people consider clover (Trifolium repens) a weed, and go to lengths to eliminate it from their lawns and gardens. The story goes that clover was once an acceptable, even desirable, part of every lawn, but when herbicides were being developed to combat broadleaf weeds in lawns, they were found to also kill clover. So clover got lumped in with "lawn weeds" by the herbicide manufacturers, and marketing changed the minds of homeowners everywhere, who were at one time just fine with clover in their lawns.

Today many gardeners, especially organic gardeners, believe that clover deserves to be reconsidered. There's a saying that a weed is just a plant growing where you don't want it. Why would someone want clover to grow?

  • to attract pollinators. Bees love clover's white or purple flowers, as do a particular species of wasp, which do not sting but do eat aphids.
  • to "fix" nitrogen. Clover is an example of a nitrogen -fixing plant, or one that pulls nitrogen from the air and stores it in its roots. As the roots die and decay, the nitrogen enters the soil, where it can be used by other plants.
  • to create a low-maintenance lawn or groundcover. Clover does not need to babied with pesticides, fertilizers or supplemental watering the way typical grass lawns do. It also requires infrequent mowing, though mowing to remove spent flowers keeps it looking most attractive. If you worry about bee stings, you may also want to mow to reduce blossoms.
  • to eliminate the need for lawn herbicides. Clover does not need herbicides used on grass lawns. It can outcompete typical lawn weeds. Keep in mind that herbicides formulated for lawns would kill the clover itself.

For more about clover's good side, check out these articles about clover by Susan Harris, David Beaulieu and Chris Molnar.

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Looking for more information about lawn care or lawn alternatives? Check out the lawn section at Gardener's Hub.