One Lonely Little Red Clover Plant



On my way back from the mailbox recently, what should I see under the big sweetgum tree at the edge of the lawn but a red clover plant blooming there all by its lonesome. Red clover happens to be one of my Heroes of the Plant World so I took special note. It is rare to find just one red clover growing alone anywhere much less in rather deep shade amidst a jumble of big tree roots. How had it gotten there? I can’t recall planting any red clover around the house, yard and garden, but always in the pastures on the other side of the woods. The corn and soybean farmers around me quit planting red clover years ago. And if some wandering seed did manage against all odds to get into our yard, why didn’t it choose a spot more acclimated to its nature, like out in the middle of the sunny yard?

​I like to think that the plant was preaching a little sermon to me about nature’s resilience. Red clover is resilient if it is anything. It is first of all a world traveler, native to Asia and Europe and brought to America by early farmers who thought as highly of it as I do. It is the national flower of Denmark and the state flower of Vermont. Seeds of it will remain viable for years, even centuries some books say. It is often used in traditional medicine, especially as a tea, but most authorities deny its effectiveness. (Naturally.) I don’t care if it is good medicine or not. I just love to pluck tufts of flowerets out of a blooming head and suck the sweet nectar you can squeeze out of the whitish blossom ends, a childish pastime we used to spend hours at. Another childhood pastime was chasing butterflies across the clover fields with homemade nets, in the full bloom of August. The air just pulsated with life.

There was a time when red clover was widely grown especially in cooler, wetter parts of the country and in fact I would be willing to bet that there were nearly as many acres devoted to it as to corn back before, to quote my father, “farmers went crazy.” What happened was, well, what always happens. Alfalfa yielded better in well drained soils, and corn and soybeans were more lucrative than either alfalfa or red clover. Where a legume was grown at all, more and more it was alfalfa, aided by more and more tile drainage. Red clover’s big advantage of being able to tolerate wetter soils (alfalfa can’t stand wet feet) was no longer thought to be as important.

​I like to say that red clover is the debt-free farmer’s forage of choice. It costs less to grow and is more dependable in adverse situations than alfalfa. It doesn’t get alfalfa weevil for instance. If everything goes right, alfalfa means bigger profits. But when things don’t go right, alfalfa means bigger losses too. And in heavy, clay soils frost will sometimes dislodge alfalfa plant roots and push them two or three inches up above the soil surface causing them to dwindle and not last as long as the label promises. I learned that the hard way back when I entertained thoughts of becoming the biggest dairy farmer in Ohio.

​Another advantage of red clover is that you can plant it without the need of any expensive equipment. Just go out there in March with one of those little sack broadcasters and crank away when frost has pitted the soil with tiny little crevices. Don’t have to “prepare” the soil at all like you do with alfalfa. If you really want to get technical and scientifically precise, sow clover on March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph, according to my ancestors. (Farther south you can move up into February and find another saint to blame if it doesn’t grow.) Dad liked to sow clover when there was snow on the ground so he could see that he didn’t miss any area. Walking at a brisk pace you can plant quite a few acres on a quiet morning. But you can get a stand of red clover planting it about any time of the year, so long as you have some partially bare soil for the seed to come in contact with, and enough moisture to sprout it.

The time when red clover was king of the countryside was the high tide of truly sustainable farming in my opinion. The land was kept in a rotation of about equal portions of corn, small grains and red clover for hay or pasture. This rotation effectively kept weeds under fairly good control without herbicides. The soil was for the most part kept under a ground cover of wheat or clover in the winter. Because almost all farms kept animals, there was always barn manure going on the soil along with green manure when old stands of cover were plowed under for corn. And most important of all, the clover added nitrogen to the soil all the while it grew.

So when you see a lonely red clover plant growing by the side of the road or in a fence row, do a little bow. Someday, necessity may bring it back to popularity. If so, it will be ready.


I’ve always been fascinated by medium tall red clover too. It seems to cycle across the landscape at it’s own timing and rate regardless of specific management techniques. I have a neighbor that has NPK spread every year on hayland across the fence row from us and the red clover shows up on each side of the hedgerow heavily on the same years. Sort of belittles the pride of being “organic” for nearly 40 years. Ours is always thicker, but the 3 year rotation seems quite independent for what is considered a perennial? On the third and four years it’s hardly present. The red clover has it’s own ways of doing things. I’m also a big Birdsfoot Trefoil fan, have been planting it for years after discovering it being used for skid trail reseeding after industrial logging in New England. It used to be the poor man’s alfalfa, but not any more. $5.00 corn supposedly replaced the old seedbeds in Canada a while back and now it’s more expensive than alfalfa seed. Still better for many reasons, but don’t want to highjack the bloom light on red clover in another great post by you sir.

This is my first year to use red clover as a cover crop in my veg garden raised beds. Has anyone experimented by planting crops directly into the clover bed?.. after a good haircut of course. I’m thinking that this approach would save having to turn it under and then waiting to plant transplants, as well as serving as a built in mulch. Thoughts?

Over here in Latvia you will often see clover fields. It seems they still have some common sense then. We also have planted clover to improve some poor sandy soil.

From my reading on pastures, I understand that grass and clover go in cycles and we are definitely in a clover cycle. The problem is that our alpacas are getting fat on it. The boys need to go on a diet.

I don’t have the land to plant Red Clover but I do plant white Dutch clover in my yard to smoother the crab grass. It works most years unless it rains every day in July like this past summer. I just keep it limed and my mover blade sharp. Much better than chemical control.

Pat Coleby, In Healthy Sheep Naturally lists red clover as poisonous to sheep.

You can plant it by feeding it to cows.

I won’t planting any — I don’t have to, it comes up in my garden by itself. I am wise enough to know that good gardening is not about control, but about letting things happen, like clover. I thought you might mention the perfume that red clover wears, one of the most exquisite aromas on earth.

Since I started on my ‘garden farm’ in 2007 I have been guided by your thoughtful books Gene; haystacks, broadcast seeding, handpicking crib corn, animal husbandry and more. I recognise many recurrent ideas in this post on the red clover. You may recall me sending you pictures of my efforts. By now I have a healthy thick sward in all paddocks on my 20 acre place, with lots of clover, red and white, frost seeded mostly and by broadcast. Still having trouble with the thistles, Scotch and others, cuz I won’t nuke em with roundup or similar. the patches are growing larger and more numerous inspite of diligent mowing and weedwacking. Maybe a thistle in your lawn will prompt a helpful post here on your blog! I trust your health is sustaining you,
Ian G
Old 99 Farm, Dundas ON

Alsike can stand wet feet the best from what i’ve read. I am hoping to get a lot of it planted on my farm which is untiled and very poor soil. I need to apply 2 tons of lime to the acre on mine too.

Gene… we formerly had a hay mix with red clover, and I found that it was always the last stem to dry after the grass and alfalfa. Was there some common knowledge for dealing with that which is no longer commonly known? Seems we’re always just squeaking by before the next rain comes (SW Michigan), and though I liked the clover, it was a relief to have the hay dried sooner without it. We cut with a sickle bar and use a tedder. I’m sure that rotary mowers could have it dried sooner, but those weren’t around back in the day.

Thanks for the comment about alphafa can’t stand wet feet. Ive been trying to grow it on the wrong part of the farm. I’m always needing more mulch so I put it on the good dirt on the other side of the slough lots of moisture. So, any suggestions on the right crop of mulch for the black dirt with a high water table? Red Clover?

I have just been re-reading “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. He makes observations about the ecology (it was not called that when he wrote his stunning book) of red clover, which encompasses cats, mice, and what he called “humble-bees”. It is the most exquisite writing, if you are prepared to read it. The passage observation about red clover is in Chapter IV, on Natural Selection.
I shall be planting some this year, along with buckwheat.

In my first year of farming (only a few years ago) I took your advice from All Flesh is Grass and sowed a little red clover in my very poor pasture. I went out in March with a hand spreader, and months later could see the wide paths I had influenced. In the next couple of summers I had trouble with keeping ahead of weeds in that pasture to which I had also added a little Timothy. I had a good third of the three acres producing a very good crop of ragweed which the two steers would only eat when it was little…it got too big. After my much delayed mowing, due to tractor troubles, I was astonished and please to see a fresh and very profuse growth of red clover! Of course those steers were enthralled (didn’t bloat either). I live in south central Michigan, near an organic farm that still uses this clover in regular rotation. It’s really pretty. I plan to reseed lightly again as needed. Thanks for the encouragement!

Thank you for this lovely tribute, Gene. I wonder if that plant was one that came up in a tough spot but one that protected it from mowing? Anyway, there’s nothing prettier than a lush pasture blooming with red and white clovers!

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