Drought relief for lawns

Judith Adam

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Had enough yet? The drought continues and the few isolated bursts of rain have done little to relieve moisture-stressed plants and lawns. Many lawns and parks in my neighbourhood are crispy brown, and certainly don’t invite a picnic or barefoot romping with the dog. Turfgrasses protect themselves by going dormant during drought, and will grow new green blades when rain returns to replenish soil moisture to a minimum standard.

Although I don’t have an in-ground irrigation system, my own lawn is reasonably green because of white clover (Trifolium repens) I’ve sown into the grass. (Of the four species of clover seed available, only low-growing white clover is suitable for lawn use.) White clover is deeply drought resistant and remains green during a prolonged absence of rain. It was commonly included in turfgrass seed mixes before weed-killing herbicides for lawns were available. Clover is a legume, not a grass, and selective herbicides designed to kill weeds in grass (such as 2,4-D, dicamba and MCCP) also kill clover, and consequently it was eliminated from the seed mixes. Like other legumes, white clover grabs nitrogen from the air and fixes it in solid nodule form on its roots, feeding itself and sharing the meal with neighbouring grass plants. It’s a good plant to have underfoot.

Now that the province of Ontario and other areas don’t allow the use of synthetic herbicides, it’s a good time to bring back white clover in lawns. We don’t need to be concerned about keeping the lawn uniform or looking like a golf green, because it’s virtually impossible to achieve those standards without the use of herbicides. But we can do something about keeping the lawn green in drought periods. White clover seed can be purchased at garden centres or from online seed suppliers (oscseeds.com). It grows to about six inches in height (15 cm) and has a rounded leaf with pale white markings. It’s easily grown with grass and can be cut with the lawn mower.

I overseed the lawn in August to keep it thick, alternating a grass seed mix one year, followed by white clover seed the next year. (The grass seed needs to be covered with peat moss or soil to keep it moist, but white clover seed doesn’t require covering.) Use white clover seed as sparingly or as generously as you like. In traditional seed mixes, white clover was included as 10 per cent of the seed content, with the remaining 90 per cent made up of lawn grasses. I use it generously, and would like my lawns to be 50 per cent white clover, so that when drought comes, the lawn will stay green.

White clover seed germinates in about 14 days in cool, moist conditions during spring or late summer. The first sowing produces clusters of young clover plants that begin to spread out in the second season. The small round clover leaves are visible in the lawn, but are much more attractive than dandelion leaves. And they’re certainly the right colour.

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6 thoughts on “Drought relief for lawns”

  1. I have started overseeding my lawn with white clover. So far only in selected areas, since like ca, I have had difficulty finding it. The areas where it has taken, do very well, and are still soft underfoot despite my brown and crunchy grass elsewhere. I plan to continue this. I like Judith’s plan of using grass one year, clover the next; I’ll incorporate that into my topdressing and overseeding this fall. I’ve also been using EcoLawn, which is a fine grass mix, does well apart from the exceedingly dry weather this last month, and mixes well with the clover in those areas where I have both.

    • Hi Catherine (July 25),

      Anyone with a currently dormant lawn will be quickly converted to clover when seeing your green spread. I know there are purists who prefer the uniformity of hybrid turfgrass. But a brown lawn offers no pleasure to anyone, and clover is an intelligent choice and an attractive alternative.

      — Judith

  2. I like using clover to start areas where grass is difficult to grow. It adds nutrition to the soil since it is a legume and grass can start to take a hold. As well, it is nice to see the rabbits (or deer) in the evening grazing on the lawn. The only thing is that a lot of garden centres do not carry white clover. I ended up going to the co-op to get it (where they sell for pasture). As well, the neighbours hate it since it infests their perfect lawns but at the end of day it is a good choice for the environment.

    • Hello CA (July 25),

      Although I have seen it on the garden centre shelf (next to grass seed) in spring, I find it more reliable to purchase white clover seed online (oscseeds.com). This way the seed is always available. And always fresh.

      — Judith

  3. My husband and I have been using White Clover for many years in our back lawn mixed with nout grass. Clover does not seem to be bothered by grubs either which are running rampant though Ottawa lawns this year.

    Having always been a little ahead of the curve horticulturally, we also ripped out our front lawn and replaced it with a garden of perennials, shrubs and hostas about fifteen years ago. At first the neighbors thought we were nuts but in years like this where there is drought we have a primarily green lawn and the front garden is thriving. I would not be surpirsed to see that the conditions of the summer of 2012 spur people on to reevaluating their love affair with golf green-like lawns in favour of something else.

    • Hi Heather (July 27),

      You raise an interesting point — that white clover roots may not be on the menu for lawn grubs. There are three species of lawn grubs, and one is the infamous larvae of Japanese beetles. That implies white clover could possibly be a deterrent to those larvae that feast on petals in their beetle stage. Less volume of grass roots might influence the Japanese beetle population. I don’t know this to be true, but perhaps it is possible? Something to think about.

      — Judith


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