When it comes to lawns, red clover may not be quite as well-known as white clover, but it has its own superstar qualities. It’s tall, colorful, and has long roots that make it a drought-tolerant lawn hero. If you’re looking to add a pop of color to your turfgrass lawn, or if you’re transitioning to a clover yard, red clover should be at the top of your list.
“Red”-dy to investigate red clover as a lawn alternative? We’ll walk you through what red clover is and the pros and cons of a meadowy, shamrock-filled lawn.
- What is red clover?
- Benefits of red clover
- Disadvantages of red clover
- Types of red clover
- How to plant red clover in your yard
- FAQ about red clover
- Ready for the red carpet
What is red clover?
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a common clover species known for its attractive pink and purple flowers, tall stems, and wildflower-like appearance. It’s an upright grower often identified by the inverted V-shaped marking (called a watermark or chevron) on its leaflets. Red clover is also known as purple clover, cow grass, and peavine clover.
Like all clover varieties, red clover is a legume in the same family as peas and beans. Legumes are superpowered plants that use special root nodules to fix atmospheric nitrogen, fertilizing themselves and surrounding plants. This means that clover doesn’t need any fertilizer to thrive — in fact, nitrogen-rich fertilizer can harm clover.
Clover’s legume status makes it a V.I.P. (Very Important Plant). It’s an eco-friendly, low-maintenance lawn grass alternative.
Characteristics of red clover
- Classification: Cool-season
- Duration: Perennial (winter annual in the South)
- Leaf identification: Three-leaflet formation with light green chevrons
- Spreads by: Stolons and seeds
- Height: 6-24 inches (can grow as tall as 30 inches)
- Hardiness zones: 4-8
- Sun: Full sun to partial shade
- Soil: Prefers well-drained, loamy soil; can tolerate clay soil and moderate levels of acidity
- Shade tolerance: High
- Drought tolerance: High
- Maintenance needs: Low
- Potential for disease: Moderate to high (susceptibility increases as clover ages)
- Potential for pests: Moderate
- Lifespan: 2-3 years
- Pairs well with: Orchardgrass, tall fescue, bromegrass, ryegrass, timothy, reed canarygrass, dallisgrass, bermudagrass, white clover
Where does red clover grow?
Red clover grows primarily in northern and midwestern states, though it is sometimes grown in the Southeast as a winter annual. Generally, red clover thrives in cool, moist climates, but its deep roots allow it to thrive in drought conditions better than other clover varieties.
Red clover used to be an extremely popular cover crop for farmers in the North: In the 1940s, they grew about 10 million acres of it! Though it’s no longer the star it once was, it’s still widely cultivated in association with other cover crops and as an alternative to alfalfa. Farmers often harvest it for hay, use it as a pasture forage, and grow it as green manure for corn.
Red clover can tolerate more acidic soils, but it thrives in soils with a neutral pH of 6.0 to 7.2. If you’re interested in planting red clover, test your soil to see what pH amendments are necessary for red clover to thrive. Call your local cooperative extension office to get helpful instructions on soil testing.
Benefits of red clover
Red clover and white clover (Trifolium repens) are the two most common species of clover grown in the U.S. While white Dutch clover is more popular for lawns due to its lower growth habit and longer lifespan, red clover boasts its own unique qualities. It’s like white clover’s glamorous, movie star cousin.
✓ Eye-catching flowers
Ranging from soft rose to bright magenta, red clover flowers give lawns a cheerful burst of color. White clover flowers tend to be paler: They’re more of a pinkish-white.
✓ Drought resistance
Red clover taproots are much thicker and longer than those of white Dutch clover, allowing red clover plants to withstand long periods of drought.
✓ Shade tolerance
Red clover is one of the most shade-tolerant varieties of clover. It can survive with just 6% of daylight, making it an excellent companion plant in lawns with darker areas or tree canopies.
✓ Nitrogen-fixing strength
Red clover tends to fix more nitrogen than white Dutch clover does, so it can better fertilize your soil for other grasses. The more nitrogen clover fixes, the healthier your lawn will be — with no synthetic fertilizer needed.
✓ Medicinal benefits
Fun fact: Red clover is the state flower of Vermont (and has been since 1895), representing the state’s farms and fields.
General benefits of all clover varieties
All clover varieties, including red clover, offer a cornucopia of lawn benefits.
1. Reduces erosion
2. Eliminates weeds like dandelions
3. Improves poor soil and reduces aeration needs
4. Fixes nitrogen
5. Creates green manure
6. Requires no fertilizer
7. Reduces watering and mowing needs
8. Can be used as a living mulch
9. Seeds are inexpensive
10. Requires no herbicide and little to no pesticide
11. Attracts pollinators
Disadvantages of red clover
Unfortunately, red clover isn’t all red carpets and movie premieres.
✗ Shorter lifespan than white clover
While white clover lasts three to five years and can successfully reseed itself, red clover is usually a biennial or short-lived perennial (living up to three years) that requires reseeding every two years. Red clover’s taproots tend to disintegrate after its second year, so unless the clover has developed extensive secondary roots, it will die.
✗ Especially susceptible to diseases and pests
Many diseases and pests attack red clover. It’s susceptible to crown rot, root rot, anthracnose, and powdery mildew, especially in areas with high humidity and rainfall (like on the East Coast). It’s also subject to viral diseases like bean yellow mosaic virus, black stem diseases, and black patch.
To protect young clover from diseases, you can choose specific disease-resistant cultivars based on your region. To prevent bugs from damaging your clover, consider applying an insecticide. Routine cutting and maintenance also will protect your clover.
Note that red clover becomes increasingly vulnerable to disease as it ages. It’s normal for red clover to die after two years of growth.
✗ Taller than white clover
Red clover stands taller and grows higher than other varieties of clover, which can be a disadvantage for homeowners who want a tidy lawn look. Red clover will make your lawn look more like a meadow, whereas the lower-growing varieties of white clover (like microclover) blend well into turfgrasses.
✗ Cannot tolerate much mowing
Red clover tolerates less mowing than white clover, which isn’t an issue if you want a wilder, no-mow lawn, but can be problematic if you’re looking for a neater aesthetic. Mowing too frequently or cutting your lawn too short can damage or kill your red clover.
✗ Can outcompete desired plants and grasses
Red clover tends to be a more aggressive grower than white clover, which can cause it to swallow the flowers and grasses you want to grow in your lawn. You can fix this by placing edging or borders around areas that you want to protect and turning any invading red clover into green manure.
General disadvantages of all clover varieties
Clover can be a hero or a villain, depending on how you want to use your lawn and how you want it to look.
1. Cannot tolerate heavy foot traffic
2. Attracts bees (can be dangerous for kids at play)
3. Can crowd out desired plants
4. Looks less tidy than turfgrass
5. Requires more frequent reseeding than turfgrass
Types of red clover
There are two distinct varieties of red clover: Medium (double-cut) and mammoth (single-cut). Medium red clover is the more popular option because it establishes more quickly and grows back strongly after cutting, whereas mammoth clover takes a long time to recover and can only tolerate one cutting per growing season.
Medium clover tends to grow to about 18 inches tall, while mammoth clover can grow up to 30 inches tall. Unless you’re going for a very tall lawn look, you’ll probably want medium clover in your yard.
Best cultivars for your region
If you live in the western U.S., consider these improved cultivars of medium red clover:
If you live in the eastern U.S., it’s important to choose cultivars that resist anthracnose and powdery mildew.
Cultivars that resist anthracnose:
- Redland II
Cultivars that resist powdery mildew:
- Red Star
How to plant red clover in your yard
Plant red clover in spring, from early April to mid-May, or in late summer (at least 40 days before the first frost).
Alternatively, you may want to frost seed red clover into your existing lawn, broadcasting seed in late winter (just prior to green-up) to spur germination. Spread your seeds when there is a light coating of snow on the ground. The freezing and thawing cycle will create small cracks and fissures on your lawn, ensuring that your seeds have good contact with the soil.
Even if you love red clover, it’s a good idea to blend red clover seed with other types of clover or grass seed for an even, healthy lawn. Using a seed mix means that if one type of clover doesn’t grow well in a certain area of your lawn (for example, a particularly shady spot), another type of clover or grass can swoop in and prevent bare spots.
If you have existing red clover on your lawn …
1. Mow your lawn close to the ground (at a blade height of 1.5-2 inches) to discourage turfgrass growth.
3. Mix your clover seed blend with sand, sawdust, or soil. This will help you sow the seeds evenly.
4. Spread your seeds. Spread about ¼ pound of clover seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
5. Mist your lawn daily for the first two weeks, keeping soil moist to ensure germination.
Pro Tip: Do not apply a broadleaf herbicide before or after seeding. Broadleaf herbicide will kill your existing clover and prevent germination.
If you are seeding from scratch …
1. Remove weeds, twigs, stones, and debris from your yard.
2. Gently rake your soil.
3. Mix your clover seed blend with sand, sawdust, or soil.
4. Spread the seeds. Spread about ½ pound of clover seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
5. Rake your planting area to lightly cover the seeds (to a shallow seeding depth of ⅛ to ¼ of an inch).
6. Mist your lawn daily for the first two weeks.
Pro Tip: Mow your clover four to six weeks before the first frost to stimulate regrowth and prepare your lawn for overwintering. Make sure you mow to a height of 3 inches or higher; mowing too low can damage or kill your clover.
FAQ about red clover
Clover can be quite a nuisance, but there are a variety of natural and synthetic ways to wave goodbye to unwelcome three-leaved guests:
1) Weed it out
2) Kill clover with a broadleaf herbicide
3) Apply a vinegar and dish soap mixture
4) Mow your lawn at a higher setting
5) Smother it with plastic sheeting or garbage bags
6) Spread corn gluten meal
7) Apply an organic weed killer (like A.D.I.O.S.)
8) Apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer
For details on each method, check out our other articles, “How to Get Rid of Clover Naturally” and “How to Get Rid of Clover Without Killing Your Grass.”
If you’re opting for a strong broadleaf herbicide, you’ll want to choose one containing 2,4-D, dicamba, clopyralid, fluroxypyr, or quinclorac. They’re harsh but effective. Before application, make sure you’re aware of their health and environmental risks.
Coated seeds will give your red clover a running start. They are pre-inoculated with a beneficial bacteria (rhizobium) that increases the rate of establishment, supports root growth, and helps clover fix nitrogen more effectively. While there is some discussion about how much seed coating actually increases yield, most experts recommend planting inoculant-coated seeds.
It generally takes red clover seven days to germinate, but seedlings develop slowly. Water regularly to ensure that your seedlings establish strongly.
If you have medium red clover, you can safely mow three to four times per growing season, typically every 35-40 days. If you have mammoth red clover, you can only cut it once per season. To prevent plant damage, make sure you are cutting on the highest mower setting.
Ready for the red carpet
Red clover is a low-maintenance grass alternative that’s perfect for a natural, meadowy lawn look. While a lawn filled only with red clover probably isn’t the way to go, seeding your lawn with a blend of red clover and other grass and clover varieties is a fantastic, eco-friendly option. With clover in the mix, your lawn will require less watering, little mowing, and no fertilizer.
If you’re ready to get started on your clover lawn but don’t have the time to seed it yourself, a local lawn care pro can give your lawn the celebrity treatment it’s been craving. And if red clover makes you see red, a pro can easily eliminate the three-leaved intruder.
Main Photo Credit: WFranz | Pixabay