Next up in my college lawn-class reports: what I learned about clover and alternative grass seed mixes that include flowering plants, and what I would do if I (still) had a lawn myself.

Alternatives to conventional cool-season grasses

In climates where cool-season grasses are grown, tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass are the default, largely because they’re only type of lawn that can withstand heavy traffic, including sports.  But where foot traffic is light, there may be better ways to have a lawn-like expanse. 


This first slide illustrates the evolution of attitudes about clover, as dictated by Scotts and other marketers of grass seed. For years, clover was intentionally added to grass seed mixes because it “fixes” nitrogen from the atmosphere (because it’s a legume), therefore reducing the need for fertilizer.  So clover was good?

Well, until 2,4-D was formulated and marketed as the hot new weedkiller for lawns, with a small problem –  it also killed clover.

So to sell the stuff, vendors had to quickly demonize clover as a bad, unsightly weed that needed to be killed! And in just a few years, public opinion had dutifully changed, to the benefit of Scotts in particular.

But lately, there’s renewed interest in clover – largely for its benefits to bees – and once again it’s being included in (some) lawn seed mixes and marketed as producing a “greener lawn with less maintenance.” 

Here’s turfgrass specialist Dr. Mark Carroll on the benefits of clover that are driving its intentional re-introduction into lawns:

  • Reduces need for nitrogen.
  • Food source for pollinators

  • Attracts wildlife. (This one I question – what other desirable wildlife does it attract besides pollinators? Rabbits and deer LOVE the stuff!)
  • Clover also “promotes color retention and turf density, but both effects can be transitory.”

There are drawbacks to clover:

  • It dies when subjected to both high temps and drought stress.  And when it does, it releases large amounts of nitrogen.

  • It defoliates in winter, leaving bare soil that can cause sediment run-off.  The clover will come back finally in May.
  • A longer term problem is that clover spreads to neighboring yards. And after blowing into neighboring yards, microclovers become full-size clovers.
  • Even microclover is too aggressive to be combined with fine fescues. (But microclover CAN be combined with tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass.)
  • In surveys, many respondents don’t like the taller look of regular clover added to grasses, but microclover produces a more uniform look and is less objectionable.

I myself observed clover’s ability to out-compete other groundcovers when I creatively (I thought) combined it with Sedum sarmentosum to cover my 1,000 sf back yard. It looked so great at first that Fine Gardening Magazine asked me to write about this wonderful discovery!  Sadly, by the time that article was published, the clover had killed virtually all the Sedum. In this photo it’s well on its way, illustrating how its greater height gave it the advantage it needed to dominate.

Oops! I moved soon thereafter, leaving the problem for the buyers to deal with.

Fine Fescue Lawns

Another option is to replace tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass with lower-input, slower growing fine fescues.

The advantages: As confirmed by a University of Maryland study, fine fescues (hard and sheep fescues) reduce mowing, fertilizing, irrigation and pests, which is why the university is “pushing it” as an alternative to conventional turfgrasses. No irrigation is needed and it requires mowing just 1-2 times per year – in late fall and a second mowing in late June. That is, IF, according to Dr. Carroll, “if you don’t mind the look of tall grass, which looks different, with seedheads, like the rough areas of golf courses.”

Drawbacks of fine fescue lawns include that they aren’t aggressive enough to compete with clover and other flowers that might be added for biodiversity, and like clover, they don’t stand up to sports or other heavy traffic.

“Eco-lawns” (mixes of grasses and flowering plants)

The class learned that “eco-lawn” is a concept from the 1980s, when it attracted attention as a way to reduce the need for water or fertilizer, but is now attracting interest because of benefits to pollinators. “Entomologists have taken it and run with it.” More research is being done on these promising mixes, especially with legumes, and still more is needed.

The advantages include those for fine fescues – drought tolerance, less need for fertilizer –  plus support for pollinating insects.

Drawbacks include:

  • The varying rates of growth of the plants in the mix complicate the timing of mowing. But in Dr. Carroll’s own Maryland eco-lawn he’s found several flowers that survive common mowing heights: clover, violet, yarrow and speedwell. Speaking of mowing, lawn mowers can typically now be raised to 4 inches.
  • Poor cutting tolerance.
  • Excessive nitrogen loading by returned clippings.
  • Broadleaf plants in mixes out-compete other plants.
  • Segregation of species.
  • Poor wear tolerance and poor recovery from wear.
  • Bee stings and allergies.

Consulting Tom Christopher

Garden Ranter Emeritus Thomas Christopher just happens to be an expert on smarter lawns, having tested quite a few for clients and himself and then written about his findings. But first, from his 2013 GardenRant post. I notice that he’s not one to demonize lawns:

I can think of no other landscape treatment aside from meadow that can cover an acre or two of sunny ground and demand only a couple of hours a week of maintenance, and though I prefer the beauty and biodiversity of a meadow, it is not appropriate for heavily trafficked areas. Lawn also provides a nearly ideal play space for children and a relatively tick-free zone – an important benefit where I live, 30 miles from Old Lyme, Connecticut, the original epicenter of the Lyme Disease epidemic.

And for people who want a lawn, Tom has found fine fescue mixes to be the most promising alternative to traditional lawns (in the Northeast where he lives and grows), but with challenges: “I found these blends challenging initially because they are slow-growing (that’s why they require so little mowing) and so slow to establish. It has taken several years of experimentation, but I have developed a routine that will convert a conventional lawn to fine fescues in just 6 weeks at a price customers can afford, and which, with occasional interventions, produces an mature, mostly weed-free lawn within 6 months.”

Flowering plants that Tom recommends as additions to fine fescue lawn mixes are clover, violets, bluets, creeping thyme, wild strawberry, and Indian strawberry.  He’s “also incorporated early spring flowering, low-growing bulbs into my lawns, including the early crocuses, snowdrops, grape hyacinths, etc. as they have gone dormant by the time the fine fescues need their first mowing.”

But at the time of that writing, he was asking for more suggestions: “Ideally, any such plants should be easy to start by direct seeding, as this will help to keep my sustainable-lawn model affordable. In addition, they must be sufficiently low-growing that they do not increase the need for mowing, and they should be either perennial or reliable self-seeders.”

In this article he goes on to recommend two commercial sources: Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, which sells a “No-Mow Lawn” seed mix, and Wildflower Farm in Ontario, Canada, which sells a similar product, called “Eco-Lawn.” Both companies provide complete instructions about how to convert your existing lawn, and how to maintain your fine fescue lawn once it is established.

See Wildflower’s “How to Grow Eco-Lawn.” And Prairie Nursery’s No-Mow Lawn Seed Mix. “No Mow should be seeded in early fall or in spring, on a prepared site from which all weeds have been removed.” But the company’s No-Mow Resources includes overseeding instructions. See what it looks like in their gallery.

But What Would I Do?

Some Google results for “mansion with large lawn”

I’ll try to imagine that I owned a home with a large lawn that I didn’t need for recreation or other high-traffic purpose. Now what would I do about it? I’d prefer it were an eco-lawn of some type – I wouldn’t mind its somewhat different appearance – but what would it take to actually make the switch?

The fastest result would be from starting with a blank slate, which might be accomplished by using a whole lotta herbicide and then digging up the dead grass, or digging up the living turfgrass.  I once dug up a live one, about 1,-000 square feet of it, and I found it hard on my back – and that was 15 years ago.  With a larger lawn than that, I’d need to hire people to do it for me.

Overseeding is also an option, but it would take 4-5 years to produce a pure eco-lawn by that method.

Honestly, I think I’d just turn that big lawn into a more eco-friendly “freedom lawn” with microclover and some short flowering weeds, and leave it at that.  Between the clover and grass recycling, it wouldn’t need additional fertilizer, and I’d let the lawn go dormant in summer.  I’d probably pay a local teenager to mow the damn thing with a cordless electric mower.

But the task of changing a conventional lawn into some type of eco-lawn seems too daunting for me – and expensive.  The uniquely skilled professionals available to perform the big change for me would sure cost more than the teenage mowers.

But wait – why would I even keep a property that size? I definitely wouldn’t! I might sell most of it to a developer of the most dense housing legally permitted in my area. Or if I had plenty of money already, I might keep the big lot and hire the extremely knowledgeable Larry Weaner to turn it into a meadow, to be managed by a more local expert he’d recommend.

Is this where “privilege” comes in?

I understand that topics like this raise questions about whether even eco-friendly plants and practices exhibit privilege (or colonialism or capitalism or whatever).  Not in my mind, though.  I’m more upset about the increasingly extreme income and wealth disparity among Americans than on what plants rich people have on their properties – especially if they’re trying to be responsible. And while I wish they all grew meadows instead of lawns, it’s the huge and numerous homes themselves that really get my goat – and contribute big-time to climate change.

I also see gardening itself being called expensive and therefore a rare privilege, or an offensive show of capitalism. Okay, I can imagine nongardeners thinking that way, with “garden” conjuring up images of Versailles or the grand-in-a-modern-way gardens of Martha Stewart and Oprah.  But to actual nonrich gardeners like myself, gardens can be started and made wonderful with almost no money. We swap, we share, we grow from seeds – where we live or in community gardens –  and we bliss out on the results, but we’re not expecting anything grand.   

One more thing about the term “privilege.” My friend who teaches public policy to UMD grad students tells them to avoid using that term in policy discussions because it’s more inflammatory than helpful.  Sounds right to me.