The red clover plant has a ton of uses that any gardener will benefit from. Home gardeners often use this plant as a cover crop to restore soil or as a trap crop to lure pests away from food plants. Beneficial pollinators love red clover, including butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Farmers often use red clover to feed their livestock as it is a fast growing plant, which is why one of the nicknames for this plant is cow grass.
Red clover is often used to repair compacted or nutrient-poor soil. The plant belongs to the legume family and is nitrogen-fixing thanks to the nodules on the roots. The roots can grow up to 2.50 m long, which loosens the soil as the plant grows. It's the perfect plant to establish in areas where you plan to grow food crops in the future.
Red clover grows fast. That's a good thing in many cases, but it also means it can easily spread unchecked and become invasive. It's on the verge of being officially considered invasive in some areas, so keep it in check and consider sticking to raised beds if you live in an area that already has a lot of them.
Want to add this handy plant to your garden? Read on and we'll go into all the details you need to bring this "bee bread" to your garden.
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Quick care instructions
The red clover plant is an effective cover crop, edible plant and green mulch. Source: Martin LaBar
|common names||Red Clover, Bee Bread, Cow Grass, Crimson Clover, Pea Clover, Red Feather Clover|
|Scientific name||Trifolium pratense|
|Height & Spread||Height: 6 inches – 3 feet Width: 8 inches – 2 feet|
|Bright||Full sun, partial shade|
|water||Keep soil moist, drought tolerant|
|Pests & Diseases||Clover rootworm, clover root curculio, clover seed midge, fungal diseases, meadow saliva bug, northern anthracnose, powdery mildew, root rot, white stem rot, stem rot, viruses|
All about red clover
In a field, the many pink clover blossoms can make a field look deceptively red. Source: jim.choate59
Red clover has many nicknames, including bee bread, cow grass, purple clover, peacock clover, and rudd clover. Scientifically it is known as Trifolium pratense and belongs to the Fabaceae family, which are legumes. Like peas and beans, they have small nodules on the root and thus improve the nitrogen content in the soil.
The name red clover is misleading as the plant is not red. The leaves are green and somewhat hairy with hairy stems, and the flowers are pink, although they can be somewhat purple. The plant grows quickly and the flowers bloom in spring and summer. It can grow to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and it spreads as it grows, allowing it to quickly cover a significant area.
Red clover is grown for many practical reasons. They make excellent groundcover, adding nitrogen to the soil while aerating it. At the end of the growing season, it can be incorporated into the soil and used as a cover crop to improve soil nutrient supply.
Feel free to plant red clover with the rest of your edible plants as the leaves and flower heads are edible too! You can eat them raw or cooked and use them the same way you would use spinach or other green, leafy edible plants. It is also used in tea or as an herbal remedy for many symptoms. Grazing animals such as cattle also like to eat it when it grows up.
plant red clover
Red clover can easily adapt to most climates, making it easy to plant in your garden. The seeds are frost hardy so you can plant early in the year between January and April or later in the year between August and November.
While seeds can be tough in the cold, seedlings aren't strong enough to compete for resources. Avoid planting in areas with a lot of weeds as they can smother the seedlings, but they usually do well in grassy areas. Also make sure the area is well drained. The plants are somewhat tolerant of standing water, but they won't last long if puddles linger or are common.
Plant the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep and cover lightly. You can scatter them instead of putting each seed in the ground. If you plan to plant indoors, plant the seeds in containers. Keep the seeds moist and they should germinate in 2-3 weeks. You can transplant the seedlings outside once the soil is warm and the seedlings have six true leaves.
Red clover flowers can be pink, purple, or whitish. Source: Corine Bliek
As soon as the seedlings emerge, you can move on to long-term care. This section contains everything you need to know to keep your plants thriving!
sun and temperature
Red clover grows best when it has at least six hours of full sun, but it also tolerates partial shade. It is suitable for USDA zones 3a-9a and requires at least 90 frost-free days. Ideally they need at least 15°C (59°F) to germinate, but seeds and seedlings can survive temperatures as low as -8.3°C (17°F).
water and moisture
Red clover is drought tolerant, so it can go a few days without water, but grows best in consistently moist soil. Avoid keeping the soil too moist as too much water can cause root rot and kill the plant.
The best way to water red clover is with a drip irrigation system so you can avoid getting the leaves and flower heads wet to prevent the spread of disease. However, if you must water overhead, do so early in the morning so that the water evaporates from the leaves before nightfall. Avoid watering later in the day as this can attract pests and encourage the spread of disease.
Soil containing clay and loam is ideal for red clover, but this flower is not overly fussy and will tolerate many soil types, including those with low soil fertility. Soils that are deficient in nutrients need some fertilization, which we will talk about in the next section.
Ideally you should have neutral soil with a pH of 6.0-8.0, although it can tolerate slightly acidic soil. Soil acidity should never be below 5.5.
The most important thing to look for in soil is that it drains well. Excess water must never become a puddle. The plants only tolerate minimal puddle formation. Too much of it will cause the plants to die off.
Because red clover is nitrogen-fixing, you don't need to fertilize it often unless you have poor soil. When planting seeds, use a diluted 20-60-40 fertilizer of your choice. Annual application of diluted 0-30-90 will benefit her once established. Established plants do not need additional N since it is added to the soil itself.
Pruning is not necessary for red clover, but you can use the cut-and-drop method to use it as a green manure that will bring nutrients back into the soil. At the end of the growing season, cut back the plants and bury them back in the ground. As they die and rot, they will add much-needed nutrients to your beds for the next crop you plant to use.
Red clover is a short-lived perennial that grows quickly and sheds its seeds so they come back year after year. If you don't want to wait for reseeding, you can collect the seeds yourself from the flower head and plant them.
Red clover can attract native wildlife to nibble on. Source: Joachim Dobler
Growing red clover is pretty easy, but you may encounter some problems like pests and diseases. Let's take a look at some of these problems and how to fix them.
If your Red clover does not sprout, you may have planted them too deep. You need to try again and make sure you don't plant deeper than ¼ inch.
You can tell if your clover has it by the color too little or too much water. Red clover leaves are usually light green with a pale green chevron and several green bracts. Overwatering or underwatering will result in yellow or brown leaves. Adjust how often you water the plants if you suspect they are getting too much or too little water.
Red clover attracts many beneficial insects and very few pests, making it a pleasure to grow! Unfortunately, you may occasionally find your plants suffering from root-targeted pests. Clover Root Curculio and clover rootworm lay their eggs in the ground. Their larvae eat the roots and kill the plants.
These pests are drab in color and there is no known cure to get rid of them. However, since eggs are usually laid before or during winter and hatch in spring, crop rotation will prevent these pests from devouring your next crop.
Another pest to watch out for is the clover seed midge. It's small and looks like a mosquito. The light pink maggots eat seeds in the flower head and prevent them from forming, and they can even prevent the flowers from forming. There are no known insecticides that will kill them, so you can try spraying the maggots with water or removing infested flower heads altogether.
Finally, pay attention to those meadow spit beetle. It lays eggs between the stem and the dried leaves in August and September. The yellow-green larvae suck the sap in the stems and wither the plant. They grow into brown insects no larger than a grain of wheat and do no harm. However, they lay more eggs, so it's important to get rid of the adults when you see them.
You can flush spit bugs away with water or crush the adults and larvae in your hand. If you don't mind using insecticides, products like Sevin Insect Killer will kill them. Pyrethrin, an organic pesticide, is also effective against spitting bugs and their larvae.
There are a handful of diseases that red clover can be prone to. Some of them are not curable, so the best way to treat them is to dispose of the infected plants as soon as possible. Keep pests away and try not to water the foliage to limit the spread of disease. Some of these incurable diseases include viruses, Sclerotinia crown, and fungal diseases such as stem rot or white mold.
powdery mildew causes a whitish, dusty surface on the leaves. This is caused by a fungal pathogen and while not necessarily deadly, it can really slow down the growth of the plant. It can also spread easily in the garden. Neem oil is an effective preventative, as is copper fungicide. Severely affected leaves can be cut off and destroyed. Do not compost material with powdery mildew.
root rot is caused by soil borne fungi that thrive if you water too much. This can be prevented by using well-drained soil in an area where puddles don't form. Avoid watering by hand for a few days when it rains, and always check how wet the soil is before watering.
Northern Anthracnose is a fungal disease that causes the plant to lose leaves during its first growth of the season. The plant doesn't grow as tall and doesn't produce as many leaves and buds. There are resistant varieties. So if you see your plants suffering from it, try a different strain next time. Copper fungicides can be effective for treatment but are not always successful.
frequently asked Questions
Trifolium pratense at sunrise. Source: Tero Karppinen
Q: What is red clover used for?
A: Red clover is commonly grown as a cover crop to restore soil fertility. It is also used as pasture for animals and can be consumed raw, cooked, or made into a tea by humans.
Q: Is red clover invasive?
A: Red clover is on the verge of becoming invasive in many parts of the United States. Before you grow it in your garden, check its status in your area and be aware of its distribution.
Q: When should I plant red clover?
A: Red clover can be planted in spring or fall. You can plant them as early as January in some areas as the seeds are somewhat frost hardy.
Q: Will red clover spread?
A: Red clover grows quickly and propagates by self-seeding. You can prevent spread by removing flower heads before they drop their seeds.
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