Monday, February 15, 2010

Beginning with an old friend...

I had intended to tell the backstory on the name for this blog as my first post, but with so many requests for information about white Dutch clover, I will follow the energy flow and begin with the clover.

White Dutch clover, trifolium repens, is now more often labeled New Zealand white clover. I've never found an explanation for the name change which seems to have happened about 15 years ago when a mysterious group of nomenclature botanists responsible for driving us crazy by renaming plants had a long lunch featuring lots of self-congratulatory cocktails. "♫ For we are jolly good fellows ♫" they sang; ka-chink! went the glasses..."Let's mess with the nomenclature!"

Trifolium repens is a legume, perennial and self-sowing in most growing zones and thrives in nearly every soil that I've asked it to grow in and that has occasionally been some very bad ones indeed. With no mowing, it grows about 4-6 inches high. Before the tyranny of lawn chemicals, white clover was considered essential in all lawn seed mixtures because of its ability to fix nitrogen and to stay luscious green throughout the hottest part of the summer with no added irrigation.

{Sidebar: before I go on to the rest of this rant, understand this: in my deepest soul, on a truly molecular level, I am an old-timey, but well educated Organic Fanatic. Despite that, I have also been a professional pesticide applicator to finance my life. (Painful story there) Because I knew the chemistry in the pesticides and understood the deadly problems in mishandling them, I considered myself to be an ethical person in their use. Oh the things we must sometimes compromise on for a paycheck....}

But as we became slaves to the monoculture lawn-which is to say, slaves to the chemical companies whose profit margin depends on an irrational fear of dandelions-white clover's photo was included on the Criminal Lawn Weeds list. Broadleaf herbicides were developed to turn a simple patch of flattering green around your house into a dangerous chemical junkie jonesing for a 2,4D fix also killed the clover, so it became important to trash talk this harmless little guy so that no one would mourn its demise.

White clover has been saved by increased organic agriculture. The Permaculture folks, who have many very good ideas, have encouraged a few university studies about the effects of white clover as living mulch. You can google around for hard evidence. What follows is my experience.

I always use white clover as a cover crop, both on fallow planting beds, or on recently tilled areas-unless, obviously, those are part of a stale bed program. The Planet loathes bare soil, absolutely won't have it, so the very instant any soil is laid bare-wounded-the pioneer species appear. This is a natural bandage to heal the soil that we have disturbed for noble purposes. We often need to assert our authority as the Very Scary Species at the Top of the Food Chain and boss nature around just to get a leg up on lunch. White clover takes about two weeks to germinate at spring temperatures, so sowing on bare soil means that it will show up about the same time as the bad boys-pigweed, lamb's quarters, ragweed etc. Don't panic. White clover is a short perennial and spreads by thinly rooted stolons, so as all the pioneer species grow taller, the clover stays low. You can mow high and set back the annual weeds-and keep them from reseeding-while the clover gets established underneath.

White clover out-competes nearly all the annual weed species over time; it will form dense colonies that while they cover the soil, are not so deeply rooted that they steal nutrients or water from your food/flower crops. As a between planting rows cover, it is truly spectacular: a 4-6 inch high path of soil saving lush green; prevents paths from becoming a mudhole;recovers rapidly from machine traffic;attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects right into the field;fixes nitrogen all season long while healing compaction and preventing erosion and rain splashing. You can also mow once or twice season and let those nutritious clippings lay as mulch. All of the above applies to using the clover as a living mulch, but now you can add moisture preservation and temperature stabilization to the list.

Whew! That's a lot already. But I'm not done yet; I can go on like this forever; you can take a break.

No plant roots grow at a steady rate. They tend to have surges in increase in biomass, then a rest and repeat. In white clover, this causes a sloughing of nitrogen rich cells on the roots. So the green manure effect tends to be a gentle, across the season increase in available nitrogen. OOOO..that's sexy!

Because, as the Permaculture people will tell you at length, most of our agricultural dilemmas are caused by our continual twiddling up the soil ecosystem, white Dutch clover can be used as a permanent cover on all planting beds. When you need to direct sow, you create a narrow trough about 6 inches wide for germinating seed. The seedlings will be well up and thriving by the time the clover recovers. If you need to till up an entire area, about a half to a third of the clover survives and that's plenty to get the cover going again.

White clover simply has no preference for soils. One of my volunteer projects is a pre 1850's Heritage Garden, and the location has some of the worse soil ever. The area varies from bad old Illinois clay that I can hardly get a tool in, to a former gravel parking lot and filled-in house foundation. White clover thrives everywhere here. I sometimes dig it under for green manure and to break up the clay. On the worst of the gravel beds, it anchors the dust and holds in moisture.

White clover makes a beautiful no-mow lawn. (I HATE lawns of plain old's one plant grown twelve trillion times over-where's the fun in that?) You do get lots of the non-territorial types of bees, but that just means not walking barefoot while the lawn is flowering. One of the best mental movies that I carry around in my head is of a clover lawn in May, patches of blue violets and yellow dandelions blooming amongst the white. Then, the Lawn of the Month people showed up with 2,4D; game over.

Unfortunately, white clover isn't much help in fighting El Corazon de Diablo-the heart of the devil-my name for those perennial weeds that we fight for decades....Canadian thistle, bindweed, creeping grasses. Generally these desperados will continue to bully their neighbors, and you need to attack them with a multi-season plan. (Future posts on that topic)

Some practical details in case you need them: the legal weight of a bushel of clover is sixty pounds. About 6-8 pounds will seed an acre and that will be a one time expense. An inoculant is recommended; this gives the plant a jumpstart in developing the colonies of beneficial bacteria in the root nodules that do the actual chemical work in nitrogen fixation. Current price at Johnny's Selected Seeds is 10 dollars per pound. I have sometimes gotten a better price at a local feed store. The seed is very tiny; don't sow too thickly. Germinates in about two weeks at May/June temperatures. I often sow on top of the snow which feels strange, but it always works. Sometimes I sow a batch in flats and transplant the seedlings as a border or edging. Seed viability is long even if you forget to store it properly as I often do.

It is good to recall that there is more actual life-by biomass-in the soil than on top of it. The plants that we tend on the surface are really representatives of the ecosystem health at their roots. White Dutch clover is another tool in your toolbox to help limit soil disruption.

Future posts: What's with the gingko nuts and spider eggs thing? Everything horticultural, agricultural which I simply call gardening; foody issues which is also gardening to me since cooking leads to the garden and gardening leads to the kitchen; my beloved Heritage Garden which involves a lot of history, nearly forgotten or mostly lost agricultural and ethnobotanical topics.

Comments, discussion, input, observation, references, argument always welcome.

Sit over here by me and let's talk about growing a new planet.....


  1. Here's seed for $3.10/lb:

  2. Thanks for this link. I do think that Johnny's is pricey on this seed.

  3. OK I'm hooked, please post more from your wealth of knowledge! I came over from the market garden group, thanks for the post.

  4. A friend had recommended Welter Seed for their various native grass mixes & they have a fairly good variety of organic seeds, too. All good prices and their shipping is very cheap, too. We're ordering a bunch of stuff from them this spring. Thanks for taking the time to write about this, Shawnee!


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