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.