Clover: It’s Not a Weed Anymore

Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash
  1. Clover saves water (deep roots).
  2. Clover won’t take over the lawn (grows where other plants won’t).
  3. Clover provides natural fertilizer for the grass (especially nitrogen).
  4. Clover supports the bee population (due to their blossoms) and other beneficial insects (ladybugs, other insects that prey on grubs that damage the lawn).
  5. Clover was the victim of a marketing conspiracy.

Pragmatic Reasons to Convert Your Lawn

First, we live in a drought-prone area and risk being fined for excessive water usage. A 2017 EPA report suggests that 30% of the average American household’s water use is for lawns. Of that 30%, half is wasted due to evaporation, wind or runoff. The typical modern lawn (exclusively turfgrass) cannot be sustained by rainfall alone — certainly not where we live!

A Quick History Lesson

Blame the Scots

The idea of a lawn in front of your home originally came from Scotland where such grasses grew natively but required laborers to maintain it, thus a sign of nobility. The practice came over to North America during the Colonial days. After the Revolutionary War, anything ‘British’ fell out of favor, but lawns survived in Canada thanks to Scottish immigrants and their love of golf. Eventually, lawns migrated to the United States by around 1900. Lawns remained an aristocratic thing until World War II. One factor causing change after this time was the motorized lawnmower, so a staff of laborers was no longer a necessity; the homeowner could mow their own lawn. Levittown, PA, the first massive-scale suburb, included a finished lawn for every home. Returning veterans with their crew cuts were predisposed to keep a crew cut lawn or so the story goes.

Blame the Nazis

Let’s back up a little bit. Between World War I and World War II, there was consolidation in German companies because of the financial stress of reparations. IG Farben became one of the largest companies in Europe. Fritz Haber (subsequently “the father of chemical warfare”), received a Nobel Prize for developing the process of synthesizing ammonia (nitrogen, a key component of explosives for bombs) from air. Carl Bosch, in the BASF division of IG Farben, began commercializing ammonium nitrate as fertilizer for a desperately hungry continent. At the end of World War I, the secret details were negotiated away to the French, British, and Americans. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

Blame the Marketing Guy

At the end of World War II, the most prominent species in lawn seed mix was — wait for it — clover. Up until that time, the ‘ideal’ lawn contained a good amount of clover. Like other legumes, clover takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it (chemically combines it with other elements as a solid molecule, not a gas) in the soil providing natural fertilizer for the rest of the lawn. Better gardeners knew that grass near clover was greener than grass further away. So more clover in your seed mix meant a greener lawn.

Recapping, in Reverse-Order

  1. Burning fossil fuels, health risks, disingenuous marketing — bad.
  2. Bombs, chemical warfare, synthetic fertilizer, weed killer — bad.
  3. Scots, deep roots — good.
  4. Saving water — good.
  5. Clover lawns — good.



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Todd Nelson

Todd Nelson

Engineer, sustainability, indigenous history, analog electronics history and anything that supports my belief that bikes can save the world.