How to Replace Your Lawn with Microclover
Rip up your grass and replace your lawn with eco-friendly, drought-tolerant microclover! Former organic farmer and horticulture expert Logan Hailey offers step-by-step advice for a quick and effective lawn replacement in just one weekend.
The trend away from traditional grass lawns has been in full swing for a decade or more! Turfgrass is too thirsty, fertilizer-hungry, chemically intensive, and high-maintenance for many homeowners. If you want an eco-friendly lawn that is easier to care for, a delightfully plush microclover could be your new favorite thing to walk on.
Clover lawns are not new to landscaping, but they are becoming trendier by the day. This guide includes everything you need to know about replacing your lawn with adorable and functional mini clover plants, plus several tips for avoiding pitfalls during the shift away from grass.
What is Microclover?
Microclover is a miniature version of white clover (Trifolium repens), developed specifically as a lawn replacement. It is drought-tolerant and creates a symbiotic relationship with underground bacteria to fix nitrogen. This means it doesn’t need irrigation, fertilizer, or extensive maintenance. Microclover is lower growing, more tolerant of foot traffic, and has tiny leaves for a unique yard texture than regular clover.
This lawn replacement has become increasingly popular in Europe and areas of the United States that face extreme drought and water restrictions in the summer. By replacing your yard with microclover, you can enjoy a lush carpet-like lawn that is more sustainable and lower maintenance than turf grass.
Pros and Cons of a Microclover Lawn Alternative
Before you cover your lawn in clover, you may want to know the pros and cons of this alternative landscaping method. The biggest advantages are ecological (less water, no fertilizer, no chemicals), and the drawbacks are mainly related to aesthetics and maintenance.
Microclover’s strongest selling point is its water conservation. Summer drought is increasingly common throughout America, causing unsightly dead grass lawns. Considering that over 60% of residential water use goes to irrigation, anything you can do to reduce your landscape’s water needs is a bonus.
What if you could get the best of both worlds: a water-wise landscape and a pretty green summer lawn? Microclover is an enticing solution because most regions won’t need to water it at all. Clover lawns are so drought-tolerant that they have become a major research topic in extreme arid climates like Iran.
Still, no lawn solution is perfect. Microclover will go dormant after the frost and can turn brown in the winter. It still requires some maintenance, albeit far less than your grass lawn. It takes some frontloaded effort to establish and may require re-seeding every few years.
Here is a simpler look at a clover lawn’s benefits and drawbacks:
|Drought-tolerant (no irrigation needed once established)||Effort and labor required to establish the lawn|
|Stays green without water all summer||Winter dormancy can turn leaves brown|
|Resistant to dog waste (stays green in spite of pee or poo)||Different aesthetic than grass|
|Low maintenance (stays 4-6”)||Re-seeding is needed every 2-3 years|
|Tolerates close mowing (2-3”)||Less foot traffic tolerance than grass|
|Nitrogen fixation (no fertilizer needed)||Not great for sandy soil|
|Weed suppression (dense growth)||You cannot use broadleaf herbicides (but it’s better for the environment!)|
How to Replace Your Lawn with Microclover in 8 Simple Steps
Ready to dive into an alternative eco-lawn? Microclover can be just as manicured as turfgrass and often looks better than neighboring grass lawns during summer droughts. These steps will set you up for quick success with this nitrogen-fixing, drought-tolerant groundcover.
1. Prepare Your Lawn and Remove the Grass
Properly preparing your yard is key to rapid and lush clover establishment. Unfortunately, seeding a new lawn isn’t as simple as tossing seeds over your grass. The overseeding method below can work but still requires some preparation and may not be as successful. Instead, we recommend assessing your lawn, smothering or removing the grass, and then moving into soil amendment.
Ensure 4-6 Hours of Sunlight
Before you start, check the solar aspect of your yard. Excessively shady areas are not good candidates for microclover. This plant needs at least 4 hours of sun but does best in full sunlight. As long as the lawn gets 4 to 6 hours of light per day, you should not have an issue.
Remove Existing Grass
Depending on the health and species of your lawn grass, turf can be extremely dense and competitive. If your grass is green and thick, overseeding (described below) likely won’t work. Removing or killing the grass is the best way to establish a nice seedbed for your clover.
You have a few options for removal:
- Shovel: Use a shovel to dig up the grassroots (go down at least 3-4”) and rip up as much grass as possible. This is the most labor-intensive but allows you to quickly access the soil underneath.
- Sod Cutter: Rent a sod cutter to chop the grass and its roots, then roll the sod up and take it to your yard waste bin.
- Tarp: This passive method involves laying a large tarp (or several overlapping tarps) over the lawn for 1-2 weeks. Weigh down the edges and center to prevent it from blowing away. The lack of sunlight will inhibit photosynthesis and smother the grass. When you peel up the tarp, you can amend the soil and seed right away.
- Rototiller: Use a rototiller to chop up the grass and overturn it into the native soil below. Avoid this method if you have a lot of perennial weeds like quackgrass, bindweed, or thistle. Tilling their roots can cause them to spread vegetatively and cause a massive headache.
- Sheet Mulching: For passive no-till grass termination, use layers of newspaper and cardboard (no tape or glossy pages!) to smother the grass. This works similarly to a tarp except that the mulch can decompose in place. Thoroughly soak the paper after laying it, and quickly cover it with a 2-3” layer of topsoil. Don’t try this on a windy day!
- Compost Layers: This method is the most expensive but creates the richest soil and is especially important for those with heavily compacted or sandy soil. First, mow the grass as low as possible. Then import several bags of compost or a small truckload and rake it out over the lawn until it’s 1-3” deep. I wouldn’t recommend this for a large lawn.
Overseeding Method (Not Recommended for Pure Microclover)
If you don’t want to remove your grass, you can try sowing the clover seed directly into it. This method can work well if the grass is sparse and the soil beneath is fairly loose. However, clover will have a very difficult time germinating in super thick mats of grass.
I only recommend overseeding if you are OK with a blended lawn. Some of your existing grass will grow up around the clover and may outcompete many of the seeds. It is unlikely for the clover to outcompete all of the grass.
For best results, mow the grass as low as possible, then use a sharp rake to puncture lots of shallow holes in the sod. Use your hands or a manual seeder to scatter clover seeds over the lawn. You may dust a light layer of soil or compost over the top. The seeds cannot be sown very deeply, or they won’t germinate. Water thoroughly.
2. Plant at the Right Time
You can plant a microclover lawn in the fall or spring, ideally 4 weeks before your expected first frost in the autumn or 2-4 weeks after your last frost date in the spring. This cool-season perennial prefers to get established during chilly, moist weather. While drought-tolerant, it needs plenty of rain or irrigation to get established.
Generally, the best time to plant is September through early October or March through May. Check your frost dates to be sure.
Set aside a Saturday or long weekend to transition your lawn. Mark your desired planting date on the calendar and count backward for 1-2 weeks to know when to start soil preparation. While you can do the entire lawn transition in one day, preparing in advance is far easier, particularly if you’re terminating the grass using one of the passive methods described above.
3. Loosen the Soil
Once you’ve killed or removed your grass, you should have access to the native soil beneath. You need to prepare the top 4-6” for microclover to establish vigorous roots. Dig a few shallow holes in the center to assess the texture and quality. Clover is not super picky about soil but needs some fluffy aeration to germinate properly.
If You Have Heavily Compacted Clay…
If the soil is super heavy in clay or highly compacted like concrete, I recommend using a shovel or broad fork to loosen the lower layers and aerate it without tilling. Alternatively, you can do a one-time shallow tillage with a rototiller to incorporate air and water. Beware that tilling can cause more compaction if you don’t amend the soil properly.
4. Amend the Soil
The final step before seeding is amending with compost and any pH alterations. No fertilizer is needed! Compost can benefit almost any soil type, but you don’t have to go overboard (or over budget) by adding as much compost as you would in a vegetable bed. Add a 1-2” layer of compost to the top of the soil and lightly incorporate it with a shovel, broad fork, or tiller, if desired.
I would only recommend heavier applications of compost if your soil is extremely sandy or ultra-compacted. If the soil is alkaline (pH above 7.5), you may consider incorporating peat moss rather than compost.
Ensure a Neutral pH
Microclover performs best with a fairly neutral pH between 6.0 to 7.0. If your lawn is already growing fairly healthy turf grass, chances are that the pH is within this range. But if the grass seems to be struggling, it’s best to use an at-home soil test to ensure the pH is adequate.
- If your soil is too acidic, add agricultural lime, dolomite lime, or wood ashes to raise the pH.
- If your soil is too alkaline, add elemental sulfur, peat moss, or a mineral acidifier like Espoma Organic Soil Acidifier to lower the pH.
Remember, clover is fairly resilient and adaptable. There is no need to prepare a pristine seed bed, but a good amount of aeration will help it carpet your lawn rapidly. Double-check that all weeds are cleared before proceeding.
5. Broadcast Seeds and Lightly Cover
Finally, the fun part! Rake the soil smooth and gather a bucket or manual broadcast seeder. Be sure to purchase 100% pure microclover seed unless you want a grass-blended lawn.
There is some evidence that a 50/50 clover and Kentucky bluegrass blend is better suited to northern climates where clover goes dormant and turns brown in the winter. You can buy pre-blended clover lawn seeds, or you can mix the clover with the grass seed yourself.
Sod or Plugs
If you have a small lawn or a larger budget, you can find microclover sod or seedling plugs to transplant instead of seeding. However, this is significantly more expensive and may not be available in all areas.
Broadcasting means grabbing handfuls of the seed and tossing them around the lawn until you cover the whole area. A manual crank seeder helps scatter it more evenly. Either way, the microclover should be sown fairly densely.
The standard sowing rates for a pure microclover lawn are:
- ¼ pounds of seed for 250 square foot lawn
- ½ pound for 500 square feet
- 1 pound for 1,000 square feet
- 5 pounds for 5,000 square feet
- 5-10 pounds of microclover seed for a 10,000-square-foot or larger lawn
You can always sow slightly more densely if you want quick coverage. Higher rates ensure fuller coverage, but you may also want to save some seeds for filling in bald areas a few weeks later.
Keep It Contained
Remember that clover is aggressive, and it will quickly smother weeds and any low-growing plants surrounding it. These plants spread predominantly by stolons (runners), so it helps to have barriers like brick or stone around your neighboring ornamental beds. This prevents the clover from escaping your lawn into the garden.
Seed the clover no deeper than ¼” into the soil. Generally, ⅛ inch is even better. The tiny seeds cannot be buried too deep, or they won’t have enough energy to germinate.
Lightly Cover or Rake In
For a large lawn, use a bucket of topsoil or compost to very lightly sprinkle a fine layer over the seeds. Alternatively, rake the seeds into the soil and water immediately to prevent them from blowing away.
6. Maintain Consistent Moisture
Although microclover is resilient against drought as an adult, the baby plants are fragile (like most young crops). You need to keep the soil consistently moist during germination, which can take 7-14 days.
Once the seedlings sprout, check the soil every few days to maintain a moisture level similar to a wrung-out sponge. It should not be overly soggy or super-dried out. Stick your finger several inches in the soil to check before irrigating.
You may not need to irrigate if seeding in a region with wet autumn or spring weather. If it hasn’t rained in a while, use sprinklers or a hose to evenly distribute water over the lawn.
7. Wait to Mow Until After it Flowers and Sets Seed
Now, you can sit back and relax while your microclover flourishes! You shouldn’t mow the lawn until the clover produces its first round of flowers and then goes to seed. If you planted in the fall, you must wait until the following spring. If you seeded in early spring, your first mowing will probably be midsummer.
8. Mow to 2-3”
Microclover lawns typically only need mowing a few times per season. This is like a breath of fresh air for anyone used to mow a high-maintenance lawn! Once your clover is densely filled in and established, you can mow it more for the most manicured look. However, always preserve at least 2” of growth to ensure the crowns of the plants can grow back.
Replacing your lawn with microclover is a quick and painless process that can save you so much water and maintenance in the future! All you need to do is choose a method for killing the grass, prepare and amend the soil, scatter your seeds densely (and shallowly!), then water them in!
Don’t mow until the clover has reached 3-4” and gone through one flowering cycle. Remember, microclover is drought-tolerant but needs plenty of water during the first few months of growth.