How To Use Clover In the Garden

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.

Dutch White Clover is our go-to variety on the farm

Clover basics

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.

Still haven’t found a four leaf clover yet

Clover varieties

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.

Clover in between potato beds

Eliminating thistle

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.

We use clover to smother out stubborn thistle

Green Manure

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.

Clover is rich with nitrogen

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.

Our first planting of clover as a cover crop

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!

17 thoughts on “How To Use Clover In the Garden

Add yours

  1. This is so helpful! I really want to experiment with clover because of these reasons and more, but I grow in raised beds. Have you ever tried cover cropping in raised beds? I love the idea of green manure and adding more nutrition to the soil. We also add compost and fertilizer, etc., but this is a step we haven’t taken yet and most applications of cover crops are for in-the-ground use. I can’t believe clover helps reduce thistle! It’s such an amazing plant!

    1. I haven’t used clover in our raised beds, but I have been experimenting with underseeding tall
      plants with shade loving veggies. For instance, I thickly seeded spinach around my broccoli transplants. Since spinach is a quick grower, it was really effective against weeds, and by the time the broccoli grew enough to create a canopy the spinach was already harvested. After harvesting, I just left the spinach plants in the ground to continue to work as a cover.

  2. I have been scouring the internet to find someone who is doing this and you’re the only one I’ve found!! I’m planting beds or herbs, flowers, and a few vegetables. We also have a tortoise that loves to eat clover. I was thinking of using it as ground cover for the whole thing, but I haven’t heard of doing this in a home garden (lots of stuff about farms). Do you have any pictures of clover with your pumpkins and squash and vining plants? I’m dying to see them! Also, how did this summer go?

  3. Does the kind of clover that grows here in CA naturally (with yellow flowers) fix nitrogen or is it a weed?

    1. I wonder if what you are dealing with is Wood Sorrel, which looks like clover with little yellow flowers. That’s a perennial weed that won’t have the same benefits as clover.

  4. Should the clover be left to flower or is it undoing all the nitrogen fixing that it is doing as it grows? That is the case with fava beans, where the rhizobial bacteria fix nitrogen but once the fava flowers the process reverses. Thanks for you help.

    1. Cutting will stimulate additional plant growth and nitrogen fixation. We mow at each flowering and leave the biomass on the ground for additional organic material.

  5. We have an dirt path around our raised berms of ground cover and flowers. Could we plant white clover to cover the paths, or would the bees be too many for us enjoy walking on them? I don’t like dealing with grass covered paths!

    1. You could! If you’re concerned about bees, keep the clover mowed regularly, although I’ve found that the bees leave us alone. Just be careful when walking barefoot!

  6. Thank you for this article, it was very helpful! Where did you buy your white clover? I live in a small town in Texas and none of the shops have clover. I’ve been looking online, but everywhere I look doesn’t seem to have true White Clover. All are mixes, or are a similar leaf plant, but reviews say its not actually clover.

    1. We buy our Dutch White clover from Johnny’s Seeds. We’ve had a really good experience with the seed we’ve gotten from them.

  7. I have a garden sized patch of solid clover in my yard. I purchased this house a year ago, and the previous owner did not garden but was only here for a little over a year. A neighbor told me that someone used to live here years ago who always had a great garden. I suspect she seeded the clover into that space as a cover. I did not know about that clover patch a year ago when I bought this place because everything was still brown. I planted a garden in a different area of my yard, and the results were mixed. Almost no short flowers grew, but squash and okra did o.k. as did sunflowers.
    Now that I am aware of that clover patch: I am debating some no-till options with-in it that hopefully will not shade it out. One option is to place the cattle panels I have in rows, use squares of weed blocker cloth a foot or 2 in size with a hole cut in the middle to plant vining vegetables. Each row would be 2 push mower passes apart. Another option is to grow certain large vegetable plants such as okra or tomato minus the cattle panels in the same way. My walk spaces would remain in the existing clover that I can mow from time to time. My hope is that the clover will feed those vegetables.
    The question is if the rows or trelises should point north-south or east-west in order for the clover to survive. What are your thoughts? I live just south of you in Missouri.

    1. We do North/South rows with clover in between. One idea you might consider – you said you wanted to start a no dig garden within the clover patch. Lay down cardboard in the area you want to plant in, then add 4-5 inches compost on top. The cardboard with smother out the clover, and as the clover dies underneath the cardboard it will feed the soil. You can plant right into the compost. Make sure you allow enough room between cardboard spaces to mow.

  8. I’m considering using clover as a ground cover around my raised beds in my garden instead of pea gravel or mulch. I’m also a first-year beekeeper and clover will be beneficial to the bees as well. I feel like it could be a win-win.
    Thank you

  9. I have a fairly large permaculture garden in southern British Columbia, and have used red clover for many years to build up soil, and I use clover cuttings in my compost. I started a new garden two years ago, and planted red clover inside the fence perimeter (which is eight feet high to keep the deer out). We had not electrified the fence at the time, and a black bear climbed the fence a number of times in the Fall, and grazed on the clover like a cow! He didn’t touch any of the other vegetables.

  10. I have a bed with various flower/shrubs, with hemlock mulch in between ( Hibiscus,black eyed susan, lilly’s etc ) I was considering replacing the hemlock mulch with clover. Still unsure

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: