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Ag Matters Column: White clover in lawns can be desirable

Last week, I discussed the management of the two most common lawn weeds, dandelion and creeping charlie. As I mentioned, a weed is technically a "plant out of place" and is often a matter of ones personal perspective.

While some take pleasure in the sight of pretty flowers in their lawn, others are galled at botanical invaders marring the beauty of a manicured bluegrass monoculture.

Sometimes, however, the question arises on "weeds" that fall into the gray area of turf species acceptability. The plant that most often in question is white clover, often called "Dutch clover."

Although some consider white clover a weed, it's clearly one that may actually be desirable to have in your lawn.

White clover is a legume, and legumes have the incredible ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form used by plants. This is done by a legume host plant (white clover) forming a symbiotic relationship with a naturally occurring soil bacteria that lives only for this purpose.

The host plant gets nearly "free" nitrogen while the bacteria get nutrients for its existence.

The air we breathe is comprised mostly of nitrogen gas. With each breath we take, only a small portion is actually oxygen while the vast majority is nitrogen. And yes, this is the same nitrogen we use as a fertilizer.

Grass stands that contain about 40 percent legumes require no additional nitrogen. These plants are able to utilize the nitrogen produced by their next door neighbor, the legume family. As nitrogen fertilizer prices skyrocket, this may be one way to reduce expenses.

Until the 1950s, clover was included in lawn seed mixes and was regarded as a prestigious lawn plant. If you go back further, white clover in lawns was often associated only with royalty, so if you want to feel like a king or queen, let the white clover stay!

However, at some point, the fertilizer and chemical companies convinced us that grass was king and legumes are weeds and white clover fell out of favor.

In all fairness, and if it were a perfect world, your lawn grasses would happily share their space with clover alone. But, things are not perfect and soon dandelions and creeping Charlie want join the party.

Since all three are broadleaf plants, it's impossible to use herbicides to control the weeds and keep the clover. So the clover lost its place in the lawn world: collateral damage in the war on lawn monocultures.

Despite these obstacles, white clover may still have place, especially in a world of skyrocketing fuel prices, the driving force on fertilizer and chemical costs.

White clover is a perennial plant that tolerates dry soils but thrives during wet, cool summers. Clover is more competitive in fertile, poorly drained soils and has a shallow root system and spreads by runners and will fill in bare spots.

White clover is actually an attractive, low-maintenance ground cover that is soft to walk on, mows well and will fill in thin spots in a yard, but it does not readily withstand heavy foot traffic.

However, if you don't have an appreciation for legumes with your bluegrass and are willing to give up your association with royalty, you can control it with MCPP applied in spring or fall, when temperatures are expected to remain cool.

Do not use it when temperatures are predicted to reach 80 to 85 degrees within 24 hours.

MCPP may be listed as mecoprop and is the active ingredient in clover and chickweed killer. It is also found in some general purpose broad-leaf weed killers. Wait 3 to 4 weeks before reseeding after using MCPP.

Don't reapply MCPP if clover appears unaffected. Usually it takes 6 to 8 weeks for the clover to disappear.

For more information, contact me at the Polk County Extension office in McIntosh, or at the Clearwater County office on Wednesdays. Our toll free number is 800-450-2465. If e-mail is your thing, contact me at