Sowing Clover, Sowing Hope


In our family, there’s a tradition of sowing new clover on the Feast of St. Joseph, which in case you heathens don’t know, falls on March 19.  So on that day this year you could find me, one of the more pious heathens, walking my fields, cranking away on my little broadcast seeder like an organ grinder, sowing red clover seed. Actually, I did it on March 18, but surely old St. Joseph wouldn’t quibble over a mere twenty four hours.

Why clover should be planted on March 19 I do not know, but who am I to question tradition. In my case, March 19, or thereabouts, is the usual time I get around to this first planting of the year. I don’t want to do it when it’s cold enough to freeze my bones, or the field too muddy to walk on easily, or the wind so brisk it would blow the light seed half way across the field.  So for me it’s the middle of March with the cardinals singing.  It could be that winter sowing might be better, with more time for snow and ice and frost to drive the seed tighter against the soil surface for better germination when the weather warms. My Dad liked to sow clover on top of snow, so he could see if he was getting an even spread— the little dark seeds showing up on the snow like pepper on mashed potatoes.

But even as late as March 19, there’s a good chance here that the soil surface will freeze and thaw lightly a time or two more before warm weather arrives to stay. The freezing and thawing forms little fissures in the soil surface for the clover seed to sink into and get a good firm grip on the soil. That is all that red clover needs to sprout and grow.

I could be sowing white clover or alfalfa, I suppose, but medium red clover is the best legume for germinating on the soil surface. Alfalfa sprouts better when planted very shallowly in the soil— about a quarter inch but definitely covered with a bit of soil.

So over the years I have become a fervent disciple of red clover, if not St. Joseph.  I have a vision. I do not think that annually cultivated grains need to be the foundation of animal agriculture. Clovers combined with grass, as pasture and as hay, can supply most of the feed for farm animals.

Red clover generally makes a light stand the first year, then a heavy stand a second year, and if allowed to keep on growing, a light stand again the third year before the plants die out. Therefore to keep it at full yield, every other spring, it needs to be renewed. Some farmers, like my friend, Oren Long in Kansas, have learned to do that naturally, that is by allowing grazing cattle to tramp the ripened blossoms of standing clover into the soil surface and so renew the stand without any broadcasting. I haven’t yet got the knack of that. So in March, I sow new seed on the partially bared soil of the old stand. Then, with the accompanying grasses and good management livestock can get about all the proteins and carbohydrates they need without disturbing the soil with annual cultivation at all.

To make sure my clover germinates when planted on old clover stands, (that is without cattle to trample the seed naturally into the ground as Oren does) I rely on one tool that makes enough of a seedbed with only the most minimal disturbance of the soil surface. It is the cultipacker— that’s mine in the photo above. As you can see, it has a row of alternating steel rollers and hooked rolling prongs.

If you look real close (a magnifying glass helps) you can see, in the other photo, a closeup of the tracks made by the  cultipacker.  You can discern first on the left side, the tread of the tractor tire, which also helps press the seed into the soil and then ridges and grooves made by the steel rollers. If you look real close, you may be able to make out the pockmarks that the hooked prongs press into the soil. All these various actions pack the clover seed against the soil surface.  What you can’t see is that there is about an inch of space between each rolling groove-maker and hooked prong, so that as they are pulled fairly rapidly across the field by the tractor, they wobble. This wobbling allows the prongs to ruffle the soil surface to provide a bit of loose soil to allow for better contact between soil and seed. The finest part of this fine art is to perform this operation when the soil surface is soft enough for the cultipacker to do sufficient packing but firm enough that the tractor tires do not gouge the soil. You may have only a few days in the spring when that is the case.

Note also, that this soil surface has some regrowth of old clover coming up (yes, even on March 18). A few more days after this photo was taken, sheep could graze it while the sheep’s hooves also pressed some of the new clover seed more firmly yet into the grooves made by the cultipacker. That’s what writers in old books meant when they referred to the “golden hooves” of the sheep. The old clover growth will also provide some forage along with accompanying grasses while the new clover is establishing itself.

Although my cultipacker is almost as old as St. Joseph, I see it as the wave of the future. In my vision it can replace all the plows and disks and field cultivators and planters that St. John Deere ever invented. But first we have to realize that we can produce our meat, milk and eggs without resorting to annual cultivation of annual grains. Think I will live long enough to see that happen?
Crossposted at OrganicToBe


Ian in Dundas ON May 26, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Hello, next day’s developments in this saga of using two earthway seeders. I got the corn seeded today, about 28000 seeds (18 lbs) on a bit more than an acre (compare to your target 18000 per acre). It was hard to push through the rough soil but not impossible. I did go over with the cultipacker before seeding and I think it helped. (didn’t check here first, sorry about that, I see your reply was the very next morning), I set the seed depth to 1.5 inches, nevertheless lots were exposed on the surface. I guess that would be another good reason to go over again now with the packer, to cover these seeds up. We’re not likely to get plenty of rain in the next week.
You plant in strips, I do recall reading one of your posts about that but it slipped my mind entirely for this planting. I have a 40inch wide spader I could use another time to prepare strips for planting into. I could leave the space between the corn strips in pasture. How wide do you make your corn strips and the space between them?
PS I have some video and pics of the earthway seeding an acre of corn. I wish there was a way of getting them into these threads.

A flock of Canada geese has decided to hang out on my pond for a few days. The paddock with oats and clover is right beside it. I checked today, the oats is up about an inch and the clover has germinated, very tiny leaves, and because of the thick seeding rate, there’s lots. Seems the geese are eating the oat shoots!

thank you for the alert re lateness, I’ll wait and see when the oats gets to the milky stage.
Don’t know where to stick this next question in. It’s not exactly in the same vein as this thread; has to do with corn planting using Earthway seeders ganged together. I plowed down a paddock of clover with grasses (another first for me), left quite a few clumps of sod showing. Disked twice, still pretty rough. Now, should I wait 3 or 4 days and disk again to knock emergent weeds out, or seed right away? And should I then go over the field with the cultipacker before seeding to get a more even seed bed? I wonder if packing will make it difficult to get the earthways to plant the seed an inch deep.
Ian in Dundas.

    Ian, I just finished my Earthway corn planting a week ago. I would go over the field with a disk again. You said it was rough. Earthways are hard to push through rough soil and unless you get plenty of rain, corn is notoriously finicky in germinating in only roughly worked ground. I have a friend who has a big rotary tiller and he goes over my corn strips, working them to a nice fine seedbed. Result: the corn pops right up. In any event I would use the culipacker after planting, not before. On only roughly worked soil, going over it with the cultipacker after planting is a must, in my opinion. Gene

Found a cultipacker at an auction this spring, Gene, got to use it yesterday when I planted the oats and clover on the half acre corn patch of last year. Which stayed bare except for weeds, of which there were plenty, after I let the cows graze the corn off. Too little and too few ears to harvest the corn, which I planted late, June 7th.
Broadcasting with a rotary shoulder strap model is surely an art. After disking twice I put 120 lb on that half acre, and it still didn’t look like enough. You say 2 bu to the acre, I believe, which is about half what I did. After packing I spread white clover (Huia), about 50 lb, again double. and packed again. It’s dry this year so now I’m waiting for rain.
Can I expect to harvest the oats as grain or will I be haying? I would stack it in the field and let the clover come up along with second growth oats and graze it.
Ian in Dundas ON

    Ian, this is late for planting oats as you know. If you harvest it for grain, there will not be a regrowth of any oat variety I know. They are annuals and die when the grains mature. If you harvest for hay, I don’t know what will regrow. But with all t hat clover seed, you ought to have quite a growth if it rains. Gene

David Z: There is something evidently very delectable about naked oats in the milky stage. Birds do not bother wheat nearly as much. I’ve never had any trouble with wheat. My naked oat problem was 20 years ago too and might not hold true for you. I did a story and a blog (one that is on here somewhere) about a naked oats grower today who had no trouble with birds. So you could be quite safe. Gene

I don’t remember what day it was, but I broadcast by hand a pound or two of mammoth red clover out in my front 6 acre pasture a few weeks ago… I’m sure it was before the 19th of March, though it may have been that day in February, down here in southern Oklahoma. Thanks for your great work, Gene.


Now that oats has entered the thread, I have a real question and not just a sassy remark. Yesterday I planted about 2/3 of an acre of naked oats. I almost didn’t after going back to reread the “oats” section of your small scale grain book. It said the birds would wipe them out if the crop wasn’t protected from them which isn’t doable on that scale for a little mutt like me. So I called a friend who’s a 2200 acre kind of guy and told him what I’d read and asked him, well then how come birds don’t devastate wheat?, because that doesn’t have a hull either. He essentially said that we’d basically poisoned and otherwise killed off enough birds that it wasn’t the kind of problem it once was. He said since I had the seed, go ahead and plant it and keep an eye on it. If I did wind up with a bird problem to put up a scarecrow or two. As of now, the die is cast, but I’d sure like to get your take on the matter.

For the basics, that book is about as good as any. Of course I’m prejudiced. Gene

Gene, I’m currently reading “The Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil” (along with “The Contrary Farmer”). Since this book was written in 1975, is this still a good book to read to understand how to improve and maintain soil or is there another book you recommend? I’m a city kid who’s just beginning to learn about farming, soil, etc. I never would’ve thought reading books like this could be so enjoyable. 🙂 Thanks for all your wonderful books.

I’ve been dying to ask you this question ever since I spent the winter reading your book on grains (awesome! thank you!) combined with Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution. Now that you’ve posted about clovers, you reminded me. Have you ever tried growing clover and grains together? I feel like his “do nothing farming” method should work in the U.S., but can’t see any references to it anywhere. Clearly we’d have to change some of the specifics, ditching rice, and maybe changing to red clover from what clover? What do you think?

Darren, it will work with oats, or at least it has for me, butyou might not get as good a stand as when you cover the oats with an inch of soil. Gene

Great article. I am heading down today and will try this method. I do not have a cultivator but spring has come a month early in the mountains of Maine and the snow is all gone. Could this method also work with oats as well?

Jay, every farm supply catalog I know carries broadcast seeders. The one I use most is Nasco Farm and Ranch. Gene


Unbeknownst (you betcha that’s a real word, even though spellchecker doesn’t seem to think so) to me, I missed your sewing of seed by 2 days and St Joe’s requirement by the same margin as you on the other end of it when I sailed 50# of red clover seed into the wind on the 20th. And without even knowing the spiritual, traditional or familial mandates involved. Just got lucky is all I can figure.

The bigger concern for me is that I still have an acre or so left to seed and here it is the 24th. I think I’m still good, insofar as the guiding spirit of the of the hacienda since my mom sent me a small statue 3 years ago has been St Francis. If the animals don’t rise up and condemn me, I’m guessing St Frank is cool with things too… as long as I have clover coming up when its time to eat later in the season. I’ll just take my chances until I hear the heavenly host making as much noise as a handful of hungry Nubian goats.

Earthway garden seeders are a pretty good ,inexpensive, repalcement for the seeders of old. I usually do as Gene describes, but this year when I went to do my broadcasting, I discovered that my seeder had a broken gear.

I used my pto broadcast seeder instead. In order to do that I had to figure a way to put 2 pounds of clover seed to the acre using the bigger equipment. My paddocks are about 4 acres, one is 8 acres so the amout of seed is small and the seed itself is very tiny. I also mixed in some Birdsfoot Trefoil seed that is even a little smaller than the clover.

I bought pelleted lime. It is the consistancy of commercial fertilizer and spreads easily with a brodcast fertilizer spreader. I mixed the lime at a rate of 50 # per acre along with the 2# of clover seed and put it in my spreader. One paddock worked out to 200# of lime mixed with 8# of clover seed.

I have converted my pto spreader over to ground drive using a rearend out of an old Jeep. This contraption is pulled by my team of draft horses. They walk about 4 miles per hour and in doing so the gear ratio from the sprockets on the Jeep rear end turn the spreader at 540 rpm. This worked wonderful. Its spreads the lime/seed combo in an arc of about 35 feet. I did a total of 16 acres this way and believe I will do it this way every year from now on.

Frost seeding clovers into my pastures has contributed almost as much to the fertility of my farm as applying compost does. You can see pictures and get details of my ground drive fertilizer spreader in the current issue March/April of Rural Heritage magazine. Avalible at Tractor Supply Company stores or on line at

Hi Gene,
I also broadcast some seed on a small field I had disced heavily last fall. Being Irish I planted mine on St Patrick’s day. It was a mixture of alfalfa, timothy and white clover (Alice variety)I’m hoping he smiles on me and I get a good catch. There was still some snow on the ground but it is gone now (southern Ontario)
By the way do you have a picture of the loading rake your son built for your tractor. I read about it in your book “The Contrary Farmer”

I’m a new farmer … never grew up with it, never did it the industrial way … and I’m itchin’ to be a Contrary, too. But it’s hard to make decisions when my knowledge is so limited. Like … what particular manufacturer / model is a quality, yet inexpensive, little broadcast seeder. Any helpful hints?

Thanks for the inspiration, Gene!

We bought red/white mix last fall, but the weather got between our ploughing and disking, so it never got planted. (Should I have just broadcast it on the ploughed-up clods?)

We’ve got an area where we’ve been shuffling our Chicken Camper around that is nicely manured. Yea, I know, a nitrogen-fixer doesn’t need chicken manure to thrive, but the area is bare, and it seems clover is as good as anything to put down there now.

So I think I’ll go out and do some broadcasting this afternoon…

Anyone want to help? We need a land partner, or we’ll have to sell the farm soon.

Mike Townsley: If you get your chisled ground worked down fairly fine and level with a disk and harrow, you should have no trouble broadcasting on sweet clover, especially if you get a nice rain after sowing. I confess to having a prejudice against sweet clover, although if you are planting it only for your bees, it surely is okay. Sweet clover makes poor hay and pasture, so I always say why not grow alfalfa or clovers which make great honey and good forage too? Gene Logsdon

    I am trying the Hubam clover. It is an annual sweet clover, and blooms the first year. I read about it in some old bee magazines, were they got some tremendous honey crops…just trying it for now. May be the last time!.I don’t have any cattle on it and don’t bale anything. This will be for the bees with a strict plow down in the fall. I am inoculating the seed to, to get nitrogren fixing benefits. Thanks for the advice,
    Mike Townsley

Well, Gene, it’s like most hopes for the future: some people will see it right away and get cracking; others will gradually be won over; some will come to it late, kicking and screaming and muttering about the “good old days” of inexpensive oil and $400,000 monster cultivators. And some, sadly, will be so closed-minded that you could hit’em in the face with a sack full of–ah, manure–and they won’t smell anything in it but the few wildflower seeds that managed to escape disintegration. But as long as there are a few of us around–milking our cows; seeding the pastures through a combination of hand cranking or strategic placement of the hay we feed each winter; cursing the weeds as we chop or mow; grazing the hens; and most importantly, teaching the younger generations–there will always be hope for the future.

I am waiting in Iowa to sow some hubam clover seed. I wish I had a cultipacker. The field is muddy yet. It was chisel plowed last fall (not by me) so I need to get in and disk it before I can plant my Hubam clover. I am a beekeeper and read in old bee journals about Hubam clover (annual sweet clover) and wanted to try it. Have you ever sown sweet clover? How would you do it?
Always enjoy reading your thoughts.

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