Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Crimson Clover

Trifolium incarnatum (Fabaceae)

Crimson clover is a wonderfully versatile plant. It is grown for hay, silage, and pasture for animals; and as a winter cover crop for orchards and fallow fields. Early spring it graces road sides and pastures as a brilliant flame of a wildflower. And it adapts readily to the garden as a nitrogen fixer, a source of organic matter, and as a showy quick fill flower. Crimson clover is also much loved by bee keepers as it provides superior nectar that makes great tasting honey. And bees love it. If you grow fruit or vegetables that depend on insect pollination, successive plantings of Crimson clover will keep the little buzzing darlings visiting your yard or orchard. Crimson clover also has a nostalgic appeal. Tommy James and the Shondells made Crimson Clover famous with their 1968 song, “Crimson and Clover.”

Crimson clover is not too picky about how much sun it gets, but to be happy it does need at least 4 hours a day. It is not picky about soil either, in fact, it is often grown to improve poor soils. Crimson clover can be broadcast over fallow fields or garden beds in the fall and allowed to grow through the winter. Turning it under in spring will improve your soil for next summers garden or field crops. And if you can wait until it flowers before you turn it under, oh what a lovely show you will have.

In my yard and garden I primarily use Crimson clover as a filler flower in my borders and beds. It grows quickly, produces awesome flowers, and fixes nitrogen while it is making me smile. And nothing much could be easier. I purchase a quarter pound of seed at a time. (It’s less than a dollar at most feed stores.) And I simply broadcast the seed into empty spots in my borders and beds. Crimson Clover happily inter-grows with flowers, perennials, and vegetables. If it begins crowding it’s neighbors it is easy to pull or cut, and it makes an excellent addition to compost or mulch. (Crimson clover has a reputation for being invasive, however I have seen absolutely no sign of self sowing or spreading in my yard.) Warm weather sowings will require regular watering to get established, and will begin producing flowers in 45 to 60 days. Winter sowings won’t flower until early spring, but they require no irrigation or other fussing. Noting much could be easier. In the winter I even toss the seeds into bare spots in the lawn. Crimson clover will take some mowing, and I am rewarded with red blossoms amidst the grass, English daisies and white clover in the early spring.

There are more garden worthy clovers you can grow from seed, and some specialty ornamental clovers that you must seek out as nursery plants. First, here are the ones that you can grow from seed:

White Clover, Trifolium repens, is grown as a perennial used for orchard and garden ground cover, animal forage, winter cover, and as a nitrogen fixer and a source of organic matter. It spreads by runners and seeds. It can compete with Bermuda grass and win! Most of my side garden is inter-planted with white clover and it makes an excellent companion to my squash, tomatoes, and other plants. It improves the soil, provides good quality organic matter; acts as a living mulch - retaining moisture and keeping the soil cool in summer. During the winter the roots and leafy cover prevent the rain from compacting and eroding the soil. White clover is great for gardens, and it is edible and medicinal too. The flowers and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Consider adding them to soups, salads, or summer time sun-tea. There are several varieties of White Clover, ask at your local farm supply, nursery, or feed store to find which one is best suited for your needs and our site.

Red clover, Trifolium pratense, sports classic clover blooms in shades of pink and rose. These attractive perennial plants are grown for pasture, hay, as nitrogen fixing cover crops and as medicinal herbs. You can buy dried Red Clover flowers at most herb shops, they make a pleasant healthful tea. Or you can grow your own as easily as any other clovers. They need a bit of room to spread out. And they are happy in sun or part shade. There are also several varieties of Red Clover available, with a range of plant sizes and bloom colors.

Pink Clover, Trifolium rubens, is primarily an ornamental perennial. It grows from 18 to 24 inches tall and sports mauve to pink flowers similar to Crimson Clover. They look great in arrangements or in the flower bed.

Here are a couple of specialty ornamental clovers that must be sought out at the nursery:

Dark Dancer features deep purple leaflets edged in bright green. Instead of the normal three leaflets this lucky little guy often sports four, and is commonly sold as a Shamrock around St. Patrick’s Day.

Dragons Blood Clover is another little ground cover. This one has three leaflets each marked in cream, green, and red. It makes a great accent for a taller potted plant or a shady nook in the garden.

If you can’t find the clovers your heart desires at local nurseries, feed stores, or farm supplies, you can order by mail, phone, or Internet:
Bountiful Gardens has seed for red, white, and crimson clovers. (707) 459-6410
Pink clover plants are carried by Digging Dog Nursery (707) 937-1130 and the seeds can be ordered from:
Dark Dancer and Dragons Blood clovers can be found at: Big Dipper Farm, (360) 886-8133

Crimson Clover Photos are available on line:

Stay Tuned, next time we will be getting ready to grow some Kohlrabi, a very tasty treat. Meanwhile, when I am not hiding from the heat at the creek, you can find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, August 2, 2006. Posted here with permission.