The Case for Clover Lawns, the Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Grass
Edwina von Gal thinks that grass lawns can become like cigarettes: something that was once in vogue and backed by a massive industry that can be rebranded as an unhealthy and costly symbol of American corporatism.
One possible way to achieve that, says Ms. von Gal, founder of the nonprofit Perfect Earth Project, is by popularizing clover lawns. Online, photos and videos of clover lawns have frequently gone viral — #cloverlawn has over 65 million views on TikTok — and an aesthetic shift away from traditional grass lawns is already in full bloom.
“We call it our fairy garden. It’s very whimsical,” said Angelina Murphy, a content creator in Los Angeles who documented the cultivation of her clover lawn on TikTok. “We’ve been conditioned to believe that the perfectly manicured grass lawn is what you should have, but we think that it looks much better this way.”
Some Americans, sold on that vision of a perfect lawn, have poured hundreds of dollars each year into chemical products and sprays to rid their yards of clover and dandelions. But a clover lawn can actually be less expensive, easier to maintain and better for the environment, Ms. von Gal said.
Her organization, based in East Hampton, N.Y., aims to raise awareness around the potential health and environmental risks caused by lawn and garden chemicals. Ms. von Gal does that by sharing the mission on social media and collaborating with influencers and celebrities to get the word out; she recently appeared on a podcast with the actress and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow.
Ms. von Gal, a landscape designer, defines a clover lawn as any patch of green that “allows clover to move in and weave its way through,” rather than a purely clover-filled lawn, which would mean “building a monoculture where you’re tasked with weeding out all the other stuff that moves in,” she said.
With wildfires, droughts and heat waves affecting much of the United States this summer, and extreme temperatures anticipated for years to come, a smooth, grassy lawn might become nothing more than a pipe dream for many Americans.
In some regions, there are already strict regulations on lawn watering, such as in California, where regulators have banned using drinking water for irrigating decorative grass in many areas. Clover, which is more heat and drought tolerant than grass, is an alternative that could still allow for pleasant lawns, while steering people away from wasting water and resources to keep their grass lush.
“One of the great things about clover is that it doesn’t mind the heat. Lawn grasses, however, are cool-season grasses. They’re not native to most of our lawn climates,” said Ms. von Gal, who founded the Perfect Earth Project in 2013.
Clover attract pollinators, such as butterflies and bees, which is also part of its appeal, Ms. Murphy, 28, said. “It just feels like a really happy ecosystem.”
Brian Sirimaturos, 47, a gardening content creator based in St. Louis, said that his tightening budget was the biggest motivation for having a clover lawn. Previously, he would spend $200 to $500 on lawn care each year, he said, with the cost of fertilizer, weed spray and bug control all adding up.
Mr. Sirimaturos went about growing a clover lawn the simplest way possible: by doing nothing. “I quit spraying for weeds. I quit watering,” he said. “Slowly over time, natural weed clover, mostly white and Japanese clover, have filled in the weak areas of my lawn.”
His maintenance routine isn’t that different. “I leave it alone,” he said of his lawn. “I spend zero resources on it.”
Though he has felt some of the social pressure of having a conventional Western lawn, Mr. Sirimaturos is sticking to clover. “Traditional grass lawns, as we know of them now, are big business. Huge,” he said, adding, “Clover is resilient and strong. Labeling it a weed ensures you have a never-ending cycle of people buying dangerous long-term chemicals to try and kill it.”
Clover didn’t always have a bad rap, even among the most conventional homeowners. “It has long provided an important ecological function by capturing nitrogen from the air and adding it to the soil, effectively fertilizing the lawn,” said Ted Steinberg, a historian at Case Western Reserve University and the author of “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.”
Seeing this as a potential way to make money, Scotts, a popular lawn care brand, sold Clovex in the 1950s, a product that helped homeowners integrate clover into their yards.
Somewhere along the way, a switch was flipped.
“The development during World War II of herbicides like 2,4-D, which kills broadleaf plants like clover but leaves the grass intact, helped give clover a bad name,” Mr. Steinberg said. “The recent interest in clover represents a turning back of the clock toward a world of more sustainable, lower-maintenance yards. Clover lawns are, at root, a return to the past.”
But he warned that the growing popularity of clover lawns could lead people to strive for a clover monoculture “in the same way some people yearn for a smooth carpet of Kentucky bluegrass.”
“Nature doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Steinberg said.
Some types of clover have the potential to produce colorful blooms. “I chose crimson and Kenland red specifically because I wanted a pop of color that would attract bees to my yard,” said Mahrjon Hafez, 35, an artist living in Manhattan, Kan.
Though Ms. Hafez loves her clover lawn, her neighbors have expressed their displeasure. “They seemed upset that I was planting the clover seeds because they did not want it to invade their lawn which touches mine,” she said.
For Ruth Krulitsky and Shelby Sanford, two 35-year-old best friends living in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, their clover lawn is tied to their mission of becoming more connected to the natural world. In 2019, they bought an untouched piece of land in the mountains that they’ve been developing into their home.
“The focus was to do the least harm possible, while still building a usable green space,” said Ms. Krulitsky, an office administrator.
The duo’s clover lawn has led to playful four-leaf clover hunts — Ms. Krulitsky, who had never seen one before, found five in one day — as well as the awe-inspiring realization that clover close up at night. “It’s adorable, like it’s going to bed,” Ms. Sanford, a school secretary, said.
“We’re recovering city people,” Ms. Sanford said. “We wanted to have a relationship with where we were living and actively be a part of seeing it grow. And with the clover in particular, we’re constantly surprised and pleased by what we discover.”
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