Flowering white clover in grassland

Here's why people are ditching their grass lawns for clover

Perfectly manicured turf grass takes a toll on the environment, leading some to embrace unconventional lawn alternatives.

Flowering white clover, Trifolium repens, covers a pasture in Berkshire, UK. As drought becomes more prevalent, landscapers are looking to water-saving alternatives such as clover.
Photograph by Nigel Cattlin, Nature Picture Library

If you search #cloverlawns on TikTok, you’ll be flooded with photos and videos of fleecy, ethereal-looking lawns. 

They’re often accompanied by explanations of how easy they are to plant and cultivate, and all the benefits their owners now enjoy: using less water, doing less maintenance—all of which cuts down on energy usage and can lower a homeowner’s carbon footprint.

Angelina Murphy, a Los Angeles native who runs a popular home DIY account on TikTok, posted a few of these videos and garnered over 41 million views. 

“Our grass lawn was dying and we did not want to use the water and resources required to keep it alive, especially because we are in a drought and we care about making sustainable choices,” explains Murphy.

Murphy isn’t alone in rejecting traditional lawns; she’s part of a growing trend of homeowners and landscapers looking for drought tolerant and low maintenance alternatives to turf grass. And these new, sustainable lawns aren’t limited to clover. Backyards full of wispy sedge grass, verdant moss, and wildflower meadows are helping bring gardens and green spaces back to life.

The scientific case against grass lawns

The 250-year-old Back Lawn at Kings College, like most other lawns at Cambridge University, used to be pristine, well-kept green turf grass. Today, swaths of it are overgrown with weeds and wildflowers and buzzing with insects. This is not due to a shortage of groundskeepers, but rather an experiment  college researchers began in 2019 to see what benefits an unkept lawn could yield. 

Researchers sowed over 50 species of plants to encourage about 40 percent (1.55 acres) of the Back Lawn to grow wild.  After four years, the research team found their meadow was teeming with life, supporting 3.6 times more plants and insects than the parts of the lawn that remained manicured. 

What’s more, it now cultivates four times more endangered plant species than it had before the experiment. 

“I think that's quite exciting, quite powerful that you can do this relatively modest sowing of seeds, and then you see changes all through the ecosystem,” says Cicely Marshall, a research fellow at Kings College whose lawn experiment was published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence in May 2023.

Marshall’s research put data behind what’s become a rising trend. The “No Mow May” movement has steadily grown in popularity since it began in the U.K. back in 2019 as a way to help save pollinators. Since then, more eco-friendly lawn trends have sprung up, the most recent being clover lawns. 

What makes clover so different?

Murphy believes her videos about her clover lawn took off because younger generations like to make more environmentally-friendly choices and learn new things. However, Sharon Jae Hall, professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, thinks there’s a more sweeping shift at play. 

“As extreme weather events continue, people are beginning to realize that we need to do something different to protect our ways of life,” she explains. 

Individuals and communities are taking more significant steps to battle flooding, droughts, and heat waves.

“This trend is likely to continue and accelerate with a new generation of people who can influence social norms through media,” says Hall. 

Clover lawns in particular are more visually interesting than your average manicured lawn but remain relatively low to the ground, so they won’t garner complaints from neighbors or communities with lawn ordinances. But there’s more to clover lawns than low-maintenance and aesthetics. 

The hardy white clover—the species predominantly used for clover lawns today—is a primary nectar source for pollinators. According to a 2016 historic assessment of floral resources in the U.K. over several decades, one-third of all nectar provided to pollinators came from white clover. In cities, it jumped up to 66 percent. 

Marc Johnson, professor of biology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, has done white clover studies in urban and suburban areas all over the world. Considering how prolific the species is, he believes those percentages are similarly high everywhere it grows. 

“This is the main source of nectar to pollinators in our cities,” he says. 

It also has a uniquely beneficial relationship with soil, infusing it with rhizobia, bacteria that helps keep soil healthy. Rhizobia have evolved to help plants like clover take nitrogen from the air and secrete it into the soil, meaning it essentially makes its own fertilizer. 

Sedge and moss lawns are emerging lawn alternatives for similar eco-friendly reasons to clover lawns; they require less mowing and watering. They’re also highly adaptable species of plants that act like sponges during heavy rainfall, so they’re particularly useful in climates that are prone to flooding.  

How you can support a more biodiverse lawn

Just planting white clover doesn’t encourage anything close to the level of biodiversity that Kings College achieved, and that diversity is key to generating the most positive impacts on a local environment. If that is your aim, experts say you should diversify the plant species in your lawn. That’s what Johnson did to his yard in his Toronto suburb, and the outcome has made it a neighborhood attraction.

He calls it his own version of a national park and treats it with similar reverence. Everything from the primrose to the milkweed to the Echinacea purpurea, is allowed to flourish. As a result, it’s frequented by hummingbirds, endangered monarchs, and lots of bumblebees for which he’s built a bee hotel. 

To support your local environment, you don’t have to plant a full wildflower meadow like Johnson. Adding some variety, especially native plant species, to your lawn will help support nearby wildlife. That said, some insects are particular about what they’ll feed on, so it’s important to consider what grows naturally in your region. If you’re not sure how to do that, ask a horticulturist at your local plant nursery. 

Taking sustainable lawns to the streets

While the trend toward wilder lawns is promising, Johnson believes municipalities need to lead by example for more impactful environmental changes to take effect. 

When a significant portion of a city is converted from turf grass to non-turf green space like clover lawns and meadows, more CO2 is absorbed, which can help clear the air of pollution. Taller lawns also hold more moisture and deflect more radiation from the sun, which can reduce the urban heat island effect. One study found that if cities added 10 percent more green cover, they could reduce their average temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (one degree Celsius). 

But encouraging biodiversity isn’t just about more green space, it’s about restoring and connecting what already exists. 

“Even smaller patches that are well connected to one another can be good homes for even sensitive native wildlife,” says Hall. 

“That really does amplify the positive effect of them. You get a lot of connections, connectivity in the landscape, and a lot of new habitats,” says Marshall. 

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