Clover might be my favorite discovery in gardening.
Growing up, I was taught that clover was nothing more than a weed that marred an otherwise perfect lawn. I saw the various patches of clover as areas to avoid in the summer when walking barefoot, since they were often teeming with bees.
It wasn’t until we started our market garden that I began to understand the true value of clover and I promise I’ll never look at it the same way again.
Clover is widely used as a cover crop, livestock feed or as green manure. It’s a versatile plant that can grow in most climates and can tolerate even relatively poor soil. It grows well here in Iowa, and has come back every year, even after some pretty cruel winters.
As a member of the legume family, clover can help restore spent fields or garden plots by “fixing” nitrogen into the soil. What does that mean? Clover takes nitrogen from the air, and through bacteria along its root system will incorporate the nitrogen in the soil. This makes it a great option as a cover before any nitrogen hungry crop like tomatoes or sweet corn.
The seeds are tiny and easy to spread by hand or machine, depending on what you’re using it for. We get ours at the local feed store. It’s normally not very expensive and usually comes in 50 pound bags. You can also find small quantities and a wider range of varieties at seed stores like Johnny’s Seeds.
There are many different varieties of clover, but I’ll mention the main varieties that we have experience with.
Red Clover – used mainly as livestock rotational feed in pastures, is mildly aggressive and produces medium sized purplish red flowers.
Dutch White – large leaves and big white flowers make this an attractive clover variety. We use this variety most widely as a cover crop and living mulch. Will tolerate poor soil and overwinters very well.
Crimson – beautiful variety with bright red flowers. Grows best in soil with pH between 5 – 6.5. It doesn’t overwinter well at all, so best to use as a green manure, tilling into the ground in the fall.
Sweet Clover – not a true clover but still a valuable legume that looks similar to alfalfa and has a very sweet aroma. We use this as a ground cover around pumpkins and squash. It has a tap root that can go down to 5 ft deep, making it a great option for restoring hard, compacted soils.
Using clover in the garden
I’m still experimenting with ways to use clover in our garden. This is our second year using it for a variety of benefits and I guarantee I’ll learn something new next season. Here are a few ways that we’ve benefited from using clover.
Planting clover between garden beds
I wanted to figure out a way to create a living pathway between our garden beds. Something I could mow, that wouldn’t be invasive or hard to remove when needed. Leaving the soil bare was no longer an option. Heavy rains that often come with Midwest summer storms tend to erode bare soil. And weeds are always looking for a good place to pop their ugly heads.
So I hand seeded Dutch white clover in between our potato beds as an experiment after I hilled up the potato rows. We plant our potatoes in April, and we usually get enough rain to keep the soil moist through spring. Clover germinates well during cooler months, and the benefit of getting it in early is covering your soil before a lot of weeds start to germinate.
I was pleased with how the clover came back the following year. We rotate our vegetable plots, and so I planted green beans where the potatoes were the year before. The clover came in nice and thick and has helped to smother most of the weeds. I simply mow when needed, allowing the clover mulch to work back into the soil.
Canadian thistle might be one of our most frustrating weeds. It spreads by seed and by an aggressive root system, which means you can’t just pull it out of the ground or hack it with a hoe. But we’ve learned that it can be smothered out rather effectively.
Using clover to smother out thistle (and other weeds) has been another key victory for us in the garden and orchard. It takes some time and diligence, but 100% eradication of thistle is achievable.
Lightly till the ground and then immediately spread clover seed. If you’ve got a large area that has been covered in thistle for a few years you might mix in some Versa grass seed with your clover. That way you’re sure to smother the thistle out. There’s a good chance the thistle will pop back up before the clover truly sets. Let it do so. Then when the clover is established, mow it and the thistle down. After a couple mowings the thistle should be done for.
Chances are you’ve heard of green manure before. Simply put, green manure is a live cover crop you grow with the intention of tilling it under before it dies.
The benefit of using clover as a green manure is very high. Clover is high in nitrogen and will provide nutrients to your soil when tilled under. It also breaks down quickly so you could plant in early spring as a weed suppressor, till, then follow with a summer or fall crop.
Covering the soil
We probably use clover the most as a cover crop. I’ve learned over the years that bare soil is a bad thing in the garden. It promotes weeds, erosion and is just non-productive.
Whether planting clover in rotation before a summer or fall crop, or following spring crops with a summer planting, clover is an effective way to reinvigorate the soil. I’ll often plant and not even bother with mowing. That way it flowers out for the bees. Then I’ll mow and till a few weeks before planting vegetables.
I’ve also been experimenting with using clover as a ground cover underneath vining plants. Underseeding pumpkins and squash with sweet clover is a great way to cover the soil and eliminate weeds.
Feeding the chickens
Clover is relatively high in protein, which makes it a decent food resource for animals. While its definitely not nutritious enough to be the only source of food, we do let our meat chickens graze through it in the pasture. But be careful if you do this! They will tear it up within a day.
However, that’s actually our plan. Right now we’re experimenting with letting our chickens do the early tilling for us in some of the areas of the garden. In the areas where I will eventually plant vegetables, I’ll put a cover of clover down, then eventually let the chickens work the plot, leaving their droppings behind. That’s an added bonus for reinvigorating the soil!
Until next time, be well!