Last fall I got an email from a reader asking whether she should add clover to her lawn. In response I promised to write a column before lawn-planting season, and here it is.

That message sent my mind tumbling back to 1957, when my parents had the first and only home they ever owned built for them. Once the house was complete, I went with my father as he ordered grass seed, and I remember him specifically asking for a seed mix that included clover.

The clover in the lawn was part of my father’s aversion to spending money. He knew clover is a legume, and legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen is the prime ingredient of lawn fertilizer, which costs money. The clover was my father’s effort to avoid the cost and effort of fertilizing the lawn, which stood up well until my mother sold the house in the late 1980s.

When my father planted that lawn, the practice of including clover in lawns was fading out. It was common before World War II, but after the war veterans came home and bought houses in the suburbs that featured near-perfect lawns.

Science, including chemistry, was then considered a friend rather than an enemy of the environment, so weed-and-feed fertilizers were developed. Those fertilizers killed clover as well as weeds such as dandelion and plantain, but the manufacturers solved that problem by declaring clover a weed.

That same clover wasn’t a weed before that declaration, and it isn’t now.

Shawn Brannigan of Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth said clover for lawns has been growing in popularity for the past four to five years.

He listed several reasons for the resurgence: “It’s low maintenance. It stays green during a drought. It adds nitrogen to the soil that can be used by nearby grass plants. And people are just becoming more environmentally concerned.”

The clover to grow for lawns is Dutch white clover, Brannigan said, and its name tells you it’s not native to the Americas – but most lawn grasses aren’t, either. Red clover, which also isn’t native but commonly grows along roadsides, can reach up to 3 feet tall in some cases, so it doesn’t work as well in lawns.

Some websites say you can make an entire lawn out of Dutch white clover because it only grows 4 to 8 inches tall so it requires mowing just a couple of times a year. They do admit that clover doesn’t stand up to traffic as well as turf grass does – and it stains clothing more easily than grass.

While some companies sell lawn-seed mixtures that include clover, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop doesn’t, and Brannigan doesn’t recommend them.

“We sell clover separately and customers can plant it with whatever blend they want,” he said.

Clover seed is tiny and denser than grass seed, so in mixes it will fall to the bottom of the bag or spreader and not be dispersed evenly among the grasses.

Clover seed goes a long way. A half-pound of seed will cover 3,000 square feet, and clover should make up only 3 percent of the seed being put down.

Brannigan suggests spreading clover seeds using either a salt shaker or a canning jar with a screen on top. Trying to scatter it by hand is uneven, and a lawn spreader doesn’t work well.

It doesn’t matter if you spread the clover before or after the lawn seed, although the work should be done in early spring when the temperature will stay above 40 degrees most days.

Bear in mind that it’s possible to overseed an existing turf-grass lawn with clover.

The first step is to mow the lawn as short as possible, then rake hard to remove any thatch. Spread the clover as, and in the amount, Brannigan suggests. Water every day for two weeks to give the clover a healthy start.

Deer find clover very tasty, so if you have deer problems try to keep them away during this sprouting period. After the two weeks, the clover should be good to go.

From a distance it’s difficult to tell the difference between turf and clover in a lawn, Brannigan said, except for the few weeks during late spring or early summer when the clover is blossoming. Bees love clover blossoms, so the blossoms are serving a good purpose for those few weeks you can tell the clover is there.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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