Down on the Clover Patch

Woe betide the feet that trespass on the hallowed lawns of Oxbridge colleges! But you already know if you have seen Jeremy Irons as a Trinity Fellow nonchalantly striding across the Great Court in The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016). College lawns, golf courses, bowling greens and 40 million acres of American gardens are groomed to degrees of perfection by proud owners and hired lawn companies. The result is a green desert with as much biodiversity as a cornfield, but that is the point of all the effort and expense.

A closely-cropped carpet is no place for bees and other pollinators, something we admire for its greenness and never for fruitfulness. But the original lawns of medieval Europe were never so barren, nor could they have been before chemical fertilizers and powered lawnmowers and aerators. They evolved from meadows in the moist climate that suited them.

When lawns were tended around English manor houses and castles they were mixtures of clover, lily-of-the-valley, wild strawberry, violets, daisies, chamomile, thyme and self-heal among tussocks of grass. All are native plants that grow vigorously without a gardener’s care because they are well-adapted to the environment. Their blossoms used to feed bees before the scythe in midsummer, and some of the broadleaf plants were harvested for herbal remedies. But apart from a few favored grasses, they are marked for elimination in the modern lawn, as the Weed-B-Gon packet advises: “Clover is a perennial weed …” (Scott’s Garden Supplies).

Dickinson poem

The difference between early and modern lawns is like comparing Jackson Pollock’s fractal tracings in his early paintings to the dull murals of Mark Rothko. Didn’t Pollock declare, “I am Nature?”

Few people want a lawn looking early English or like Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), though most of us admire a wild flower meadow. Perhaps something in between would better satisfy eye and nature— perhaps by encouraging clover in turf, for clover…

Dutch white clover crouches low
Dutch white clover crouches low

… needing no polluting chemicals, provides its own nitrogen fertilizer which improves soil quality,

… has deep roots that require less watering so it stays green even in drought,

… produces pretty blossoms to attract pollinators and doesn’t need to be reseeded,

honey bee visiting red clover… only slowly invades lawns and their borders,

… grows companionably with grasses while helping to squeeze out unwanted weeds,

… doesn’t yellow in our winters like Bermuda and other warm season grasses,

crimson clover is taller for a wilder-look
crimson clover is taller for a wilder-look

… doesn’t brown like grass where pets pee,

… tolerates the shade of trees where grasses struggle to grow,

… and looks lush the year round.

I know gardeners who will huff at this attempt to promote clover, but the monoculture lawn became fashionable only recently and will hopefully yield to esthetics and ecology. Pollock’s Blue Poles was purchased for a modest sum amid much controversy by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973, but it is now displayed in pride of place and worth anything up to $100M. As clover gradually colonizes the lawn I think our garden is going to look a million dollars.

Next Post: Crazy for Chelonians or Loving Turtles too Much

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.


  1. You’d like our ‘lawn’: grass is in the distinct minority…it’s 99% weeds! What they are I have no idea, they die off every summer and flourish in winter when it’s nice to see green ground-cover.

  2. Let me recommend “American Green:The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn” by Ted Steinberg for your reading pleasure. Annoyingly, it seems to have been culled from the Williamsburg Library, but should be available via inter-library loan.

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