Red Clover Plant: Soil-Improving Cover Crop

The red clover plant is commonly used as a green manure, but did you know its roots can go down 8 feet? We explore this useful cover crop!

Red clover plant


The red clover plant has a ton of uses that will benefit any gardener. Home gardeners often use this plant as a cover crop to restore the soil or as a trap crop to attract pests away from the food crops. Beneficial pollinators love red clover, including butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Farmers often use red clover to feed their livestock since it’s a fast-growing plant, which is why one of the nicknames for this plant is cow grass.

Red clover is commonly used to repair compacted or nutrient-deficient soils. The plant is in the legume family, so it’s nitrogen-fixing thanks to the nodules on the roots. The roots can grow up to 8 feet long, so it loosens up the soil as the plant grows. It’s the perfect plant to get established in areas you’d like to grow food crops in the future.

Red clover is a rapid grower. That’s a good thing in many cases, but this also means it can easily spread out of control and become invasive. It’s on the brink of officially being considered invasive in some areas, so be sure to keep it in check and consider sticking to raised beds if you live in an area that already has plenty of it.

Want to add this handy plant to your garden? Keep reading and we’ll get into all the details you need to bring this “bee bread” to your backyard.

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Quick Care Guide

Red clover plant
The red clover plant is an effective cover crop, an edible plant, and green mulch. Source: Martin LaBar
Common NameRed clover, bee bread, cow grass, purple clover, peavine clover, red feather clover
Scientific NameTrifolium pratense
FamilyLegumes (Fabaceae)
Height & SpreadHeight: 6 inches – 3 feet Spread: 8 inches – 2 feet
LightFull sun, partial shade
SoilClay, loam
WaterKeep soil moist, drought-resistant
Pests & Diseasesclover root borer, clover root curculio, clover seed midge, fungal diseases, meadow spittlebug, northern anthracnose, powdery mildew, root rot, sclerotinia crown, stem rot, viruses

All About Red Clover

Red clover field
In a field, the many pink clover flowers can make a field look deceptively red. Source: jim.choate59

Red clover has many nicknames, including bee bread, cow grass, purple clover, Peavine clover, and red feather clover. Scientifically it’s known as Trifolium pratense and is in the Fabaceae family, which are legumes. They have little nodules on their roots, just as peas and beans do, so they improve the nitrogen content in the soil.

The red clover name is misleading since the plant isn’t red. The leaves are green and somewhat hairy with hairy stems, and the flowers are pink, although they may be somewhat purple. The plant grows quickly, and flowers bloom during the spring and summer. It can grow up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and it spreads as it grows, so it can cover a significant area quickly.

Red clovers are grown for many practical reasons. They make an excellent ground cover that adds nitrogen to the soil while loosening it. At the end of its growing season, it can be turned over into the soil and used as green manure to improve the soil’s nutrients. 

Feel free to plant red clover with the rest of your edible plants since the leaves and flower heads are edible, too! You can eat them raw or cooked and use them just as you would use spinach or other green, leafy edible plants. It’s also used for tea or as an herbal remedy for many symptoms. Grazing animals such as cattle also enjoy eating it as it grows.

Planting Red Clover

Red clover can easily adapt to most climates, making it easy to plant in your garden. The seeds are frost-resistant, so you can plant early in the year between January and April or plant later in the year between August and November.

While the seeds may be tough in the cold, the seedlings aren’t strong enough to compete for resources. Avoid planting in areas with a lot of weeds since they may choke out the seedlings, but they usually do well in grassy areas. Also, make sure the area is well-drained. The plants are somewhat tolerant to standing water, but they won’t last long if puddles linger or happen frequently.

Plant the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep and lightly cover them. You can scatter them rather than poke each seed into the ground. If you want to plant starts indoors, plant the seed in containers. Keep the seeds moist, and they should germinate in 2-3 weeks. You can transplant the seedlings outside once the soil is warm and the seedlings have six true leaves on them.


Red clover
Red clover flowers can be pink, purplish or whitish. Source: Corine Bliek

Once you have seedlings popping up, you can move on to long-term care. This section has everything you need to know to keep your plants thriving!

Sun and Temperature

Red clover grows best when it has at least six hours of full sun, but it can tolerate partial shade. It’s suited for USDA zones 3a-9a and needs at least 90 frost-free days. Ideally, they’ll need at least 59°F (15°C) to germinate, but seeds and seedlings can survive temperatures as low as 17°F (-8.3°C).

Water and Humidity

Red clover is drought resistant, so it can go a few days without water, but it grows the best when it has consistently moist soil. Avoid keeping the soil too wet because too much water can lead to root rot and kill the plant.

The best way to water red clover is to water with a drip irrigation system so you can avoid getting the leaves and flower heads wet to prevent diseases from spreading. However, if you have to water overhead, do it in the early morning so the water will evaporate off the leaves before nighttime. Avoid watering later in the day since this can attract pests and encourage diseases to spread.


A soil that contains clay and loam is ideal for red clover, but this flower isn’t too picky and can tolerate many soil types, including those with low soil fertility. Soil lacking nutrients will need some fertilization, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

Ideally, you should have neutral soil with a pH of 6.0-8.0, although it can tolerate slightly acidic soils. The soil acidity should never be lower than 5.5.

The most important thing to make sure you have when it comes to soil is that it’s well-draining. Excess water should never be allowed to puddle up. The plants can only tolerate minimal puddling. Too much of it will cause the plants to die.


Since red clover is nitrogen-fixing, you won’t have to fertilize it often unless you have soil that lacks nutrients. When planting seeds, use a diluted 20-60-40 fertilizer of your choice. A yearly application of diluted 0-30-90 will benefit it once it’s established. Established plants won’t need extra N because it adds to the soil itself.


Pruning isn’t required for red clover, but you can use the cut-and-drop method to use it as green manure that will add nutrients back to the soil. At the end of the growing season, cut the plants back and dig them back into the soil. As they die and rot, they’ll add much-needed nutrients to your beds that the next crop you plant can put to use.


Red clover is a short-lived perennial that grows quickly and drops its seed, allowing it to come back every year. If you don’t want to wait for reseeding, you can collect the seeds yourself from the flower head and plant them.


Squirrel in clover
Red clover can draw local wildlife to nibble on it. Source: Joachim Dobler

Growing red clover is pretty easy, but you may come across some issues such as pests and diseases. Let’s take a look at some of those problems and how you can fix them.

Growing Problems

If your red clover isn’t sprouting, you may have planted them too deep. You’ll have to try again and make sure you don’t plant any deeper than ¼ inch.

Based on the color, you can tell if your clover has too little or too much water. Red clover leaves are usually light green with a pale green chevron and several green bracts. Overwatering or underwatering will lead to yellow or brown leaves. Adjust how often you water the plants if you suspect they’re getting too much or not enough water.


Red clover attracts many beneficial insects and very few pests, making it a delight to grow! Unfortunately, you may occasionally find your plants suffering from pests that target the roots. Clover root curculio and clover root borers deposit their eggs in the ground. Their larvae eat up the roots and cause the plants to die. 

These pests are greyish-brown and don’t have any known cure to get rid of them. However, since the eggs are typically laid before or in winter and hatch in the spring, crop rotation will prevent these pests from devouring your next crop.

Another pest to look out for is the clover seed midge. It’s small and looks like a mosquito. The light pink maggots eat seeds in the flower head and prevent them from forming, and they can even prevent the flowers from forming, too. There aren’t any known insecticides that will kill them, so you can try using water to spray the maggots off or remove infested flower heads altogether.

Finally, keep an eye out for the meadow spittlebug. It lays eggs between the stem and dried leaves around August and September. The yellow-green larvae will suck out the sap in the stems, stunting the plant. They grow into brown insects no bigger than a grain of wheat and won’t cause any damage. However, they’ll lay more eggs, so it’s important to get rid of the adults if you see them.

You can wash away spittlebugs with water or crush the adults and larvae in your hand. If you don’t mind using insecticides, products such as Sevin Insect Killer will kill them. Pyrethrin, an organic pesticide, is also effective against spittlebugs and their larvae.


There are a handful of diseases that red clover may be susceptible to. Some of them don’t have a cure, so the best way to manage them is to dispose of infected plants as soon as you can. Deter pests and try to avoid watering the leaves to limit the spread of diseases. Some of these incurable diseases include viruses, sclerotinia crown, and fungal diseases such as stem rot or white mold.

Powdery mildew causes a whitish, dusty surface to leaves. This is caused by a fungal pathogen, and while it’s not necessarily fatal, it can really slow the plant’s growth. It can also easily spread around the garden. Neem oil is an effective preventative, as is copper fungicide. Severely-infected leaves can be pruned off and destroyed. Do not compost material with powdery mildew.

Root rot is caused by soilborne fungi that thrive when you’re overwatering. This can be prevented by using well-draining soil in an area that doesn’t puddle up. Avoid watering by hand for a few days if it rains, and always check how wet the ground is before you water.

Northern anthracnose is a fungal disease that will cause the plant to lose leaves during its first growth of the season. The plant won’t grow as big and won’t produce as many leaves and flowers. There are resistant varieties available, so if you see your crop suffer from this, consider trying a different variety next time. Copper fungicides can be effective for treatment, but won’t always be successful.

Frequently Asked Questions

Trifolium pratense at sunrise
Trifolium pratense at sunrise. Source: Tero Karppinen

Q: What is red clover used for?

A: Red clover is widely grown as a cover crop to renew soil fertility. It’s also used for animals to graze on, and it can be consumed by humans raw, cooked, or as tea.

Q: Is red clover an invasive?

A: Red clover is close to being invasive in many parts of the United States. Before growing it in your garden, check its status in your area and be mindful of its spread.

Q: When should I plant red clover?

A: Red clover can be planted in the spring or fall. You can plant it as early as January in some areas since the seeds are somewhat frost-resistant.

Q: Will red clover spread?

A: Red clover grows rapidly and spreads by self-seeding. You can prevent its spread by removing flower heads before they drop their seeds.

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