Durham News: Opinion

Melissa Rooney: Starting over with clover

Back in April, the Sierra Club asked to hold a lawn clinic, directed by Soil and Water Conservation District’s Mike Dupree, at my house.

Though I was hesitant, given that my neighbor and I jokingly compete for worst lawn, I was lured by the promise of free, sustainable advice.

The clinic was postponed until September, giving me plenty of time to consider the state of my property.

Last summer, I transplanted heaps of clover to my front lawn, hoping it would replace the rabid crabgrass that required frequent mowing in order to avoid violation notices from my homeowners association. I figured clover doesn’t grow nearly as high or as rapidly as crabgrass, plus it’s softer, prettier, and good for bees (who need the help).

The clover stayed green all winter, turned white with flowers in spring, and cut the mowing in half during summer. Though we sometimes spotted several bees when playing in the front yard, we easily stayed out of each other’s way without incident.

In mid-summer, my husband decided to finally deal with the drainage issues in our back yard, where several large depressions held water for at least half the year. Ten years ago, a well-reputed company recommended we install nine French drains, costing over $10,000; so we continued to live in “Lake Rooney” – seriously, when considering installing a rain-garden, we filled a 1-foot-cubed hole with water, and it didn’t drain an inch in seven days. Not only were we concerned about water-logging our house, the mosquitos were unbearable.

Our friend Kenny recommended we spread “fill-dirt” evenly across the backyard, add a layer of topsoil and plant seed. So, on one predestined rainless day, the kids and I came home to find 12 cubic feet of (very heavy) fill-dirt in our driveway. There's nothing like manual labor to bring a family together.

The fill-dirt alone stopped the flooding – that stuff absorbs water like a mutant sponge. But we needed to seed the lawn so that the resulting growth would hold the fill-dirt in place during hard rains. It wasn’t hard to convince my husband to plant clover rather than grass.

Since the previous summer, I’d learned clover is an ideal ‘cover crop’ that farmers plant in the off-season to keep the soil in place and the weeds down. Because it’s a “nitrogen fixer,” clover is also self-fertilizing, and its break-down provides nutrients for surrounding (or future) plants.

In fact, there’s already a well-established trend toward clover lawns. “Dwarf clover,” which grows to only 4 to 6 inches, is a top choice in terms of drought resistance, year-round color, and minimal mowing.

We tried to plant clover directly in the fill-dirt; but, a couple months later, the driveway was once again blocked by a 4-foot-high pile of dirt. Fortunately for our kids and our marriage, topsoil is much lighter than fill dirt and took only a long afternoon to spread. Soon thousands of little clover heads emerged to the delight of every family member. In the end, the fix cost no more than $500.

Our 1/3-acre plot also houses sizeable vegetable and butterfly gardens that are watered with rain directed from our roof into a 1000-gallon cistern.

At the clinic, Mike explained that nitrogen and other atmospheric pollutants settle on roofs and dissolve in the first few inches of rain, which can be effectively collected by commercial rain-barrels. These nutrients constitute free fertilizer for lawns and gardens, making the need to purchase fertilizer virtually obsolete.

So my clover and abundant flowering plants aren’t just pretty; they hold the soil in place, naturally filter storm water before it flows into Jordan Lake, and absorb rain water that will otherwise flood or turn my yard to quicksand. Cisterns and rain-barrels enable even more water and nutrients to be recycled where I want them, while minimizing the volume and velocity of stormwater running off my property.

A few years ago I also installed (with a lot of cursing and with determinedly no help from my husband) a small above-ground pond. I wanted the pond for our pet turtles and fish and the relaxation of running water. I’ve since learned that ponds also recycle and filter nutrients from rain water. We use ours to rinse our feet and to water plants and aquariums, while the bacteria-filtered waterfall releases clean water vapor into the atmosphere.

The pond and cistern make my family appreciate rainfall, particularly when it’s lacking. They connect us to the natural world and remind us to use our resources wisely.

In the end, my yard seemed quite suitable for a ‘lawn’ clinic. I hope it has inspired others to adopt similar sustainable practices and perhaps even host lawn clinics in their own neighborhoods (more info at bit.ly/1sHWvMD).

You can reach Melissa Rooney at mmr121570@yahoo.com