My husband and I bought a 1926 house a few years ago and are finally getting to landscaping the backyard. It had been used mainly as a parking lot for the last 10+ years before we bought the house and was a dusty lot with chain link fences and a wobbly block wall on one side. We planted a tree in the back when we first moved in, but it wasn’t until November that we decided to take the plunge into trying to do something with the rest of the parking lot. I wanted low-water use landscaping (despite my choice of a Ficus tree – that is for big shade, eventually), so I decided to try out a clover lawn. Clover is a legume (nitrogen-fixer), so it won’t require fertilizer if we mulch the clippings into the lawn. There is a fair amount of information on growing clover in more temperate parts of the country, but not too much for the low desert, so it was a bit of an experiment.
I decided on using strawberry clover, which is more drought and heat tolerant than the white clover that is used for lawns in most of the rest of the country. Since we were starting with a completely barren area, it was also going to need inoculant to provide the bacteria that live in the roots of clover (rhizomes) and actually do the nitrogen-fixing. I ordered the seed and the inoculant from Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com) – about $10 for the seed and $5 for the inoculant.
My husband did most of the actual work to prepare the area for planting (he’s an archaeologist, so fairly experienced with a pick and shovel…). First we cleared off the pea gravel, then he used the pick to break up the compacted ground to a depth of about 18 inches and turned it all over. (Just one sentence, but it took him about 5 whole days of hard labor! Thanks honey!)
Next we got a couple pick up loads of OMNI compost from Gro-Well/Western Organics, Inc. near the 27th Ave. Transfer Station in Phoenix (they make the compost from green waste from the transfer station) – about $40-$50 per load (http://www.dexknows.com/business_profiles/gro-well___western_organics-b635292; 866-968-2203). Josh rototilled the compost into the soil and leveled the area, then used a roller barrel to compact it and leveled it again.
I mixed the seed with the inoculant. I used a mixture of water and corn syrup 1:10 to help with this, but since the seed was already “rhizocoated” – coated with a mixture of clay and inoculant, it got pretty messy. The corn syrup is supposed to provide food for the bacteria while the seeds germinate. When I added more seed later, I just mixed the seed and inoculant without any liquid and that worked fine. Then we added the seed-inoculant mixture to a half wheelbarrow of compost and added some sand. The sand is important because it lets you see where you have put the seeds – otherwise they just blend into the compost and you can’t tell how evenly you’ve spread them. Clover seeds are really small, so it’s important to mix them into some soil or compost or they will spread really unevenly and give you a really patchy lawn. We divided the wheelbarrow of seeds and compost roughly into quarters to put it on the lawn area. After the seed mixture was spread, we went back and covered it with a light layer of compost (1/8” to 1/4”).
When the seeds started to germinate, we saw that the lawn was pretty patchy despite our best efforts. We were using sprinklers to water it every morning, but it turned out that it needed more than 20 minutes of sprinkling each day to get good germination. It took about 1 week to see the first seeds germinate and about 3 weeks before all of them had started. They were also germinating more in slightly lower spots in the soil (you could kind of see the rake marks). The seeds had clumped together from being mixed with the water/corn syrup and we got some really dense little “bouquets” coming up. (Please ignore the half falling down block wall and trellis in the back of the photo – that wind storm in December took it out. Guess what our next project is…)
After 4 weeks, we realized that we needed to add more seed to get an even lawn. Josh had sculpted the dirt under the tilled part to make a bit of a bowl shape to encourage water to run into the area with the tree roots and to make a bit of a retention basin in the yard. The rototilled soil had settled with the watering – not too much clover was growing in the slightly higher areas. I decided to order a few different types of clover to mix in to see if some of it would be happier in those areas. I got a different variety of strawberry clover (Palestine instead of O’Connors) and New Zealand white clover this time and another packet of inoculant (just in case). That cost another $30. We raked the bare areas and planted the new seeds, this time supplementing with hand watering in the higher areas. It worked! We now have a fairly dense lawn of clover with just a few bare spots left that I am sure will fill in now that they have clover growing all around them.
We got a push mower on Craigslist ($25) and Josh mowed the lawn – he said it was pretty tough the first time when the clover was taller, but easier when he did again a couple days later. Since the clover had grown so densely in some places, there were a lot of stems showing after that first round of mowing (yellow instead of green), but after a week or so, leaves were growing back in those areas and it has turned into a nice, fairly even green lawn that our dogs are loving (sorry, forgot to take the last picture)! And a lot less dust is coming off the old parking lot. Now we just need to get a new fence, a couple brick paths put in, and a ramada, and we’ll have a finished back yard .
I have heard that clover can be seeded into Bermuda grass lawns and it will eventually overtake the Bermuda. The strawberry clover varieties I used were developed for sheep grazing and cover crops in orchards that are mowed occasionally – they are supposed to develop roots up to 5 feet deep! That is deeper than Bermuda grass roots, so it can outcompete the grass over time. I heard that with 2 years of just broadcasting seed into the Bermuda lawn, a woman was able to mostly replace the grass with clover without doing the work of removing the grass first.
2 loads of compost $90
1 lb. O’Connors strawberry clover 10
1 lb. Palestine strawberry clover 10
1 lb. New Zealand white clover 10
2 packets clover inoculant 10
Renting rototiller and barrel roller 90
Total $255 plus about 12 days of labor
(including all of the weekends in November)