Growing a lawn on poor soil

My soil is very poor and my lawn is all worn and patchy  

Poor soil is a problem when trying to grow a grass lawn. Nutrient-poor soil causes grass lawn problems like brown spots, weeds (dandelions like poor soil), grass disease, Leather jackets and the inevitable bare patches.


How can I improve the soil in my lawn?

These are 3 ways you can improve the soil and your lawn.

Clover lawn is growing on poor soil
This lawn is growing on poor soil, but it's not grass

  1. Don't take advice from green-lawn-man (Every neighbourhood  has one, he's the guy in love with his hosepipe and box of chemicals) and rush out to buy the expensive chemical "remedies" that claim to fix poor soil when in reality all we are doing is wasting money and creating a lawn that becomes shallow rooting and dependent on chemical fixes and wasteful watering schedules.
  2. Lawn care. There are of course several lawn care tactics that will properly fix the Nutrient-poor soil problem over time, like adding topsoil and organic material, but here's the catch "over time" means what it says, improving nutrient deficient soil can take years of back breaking work.
  3. Or there's a better way, plant a lawn that not only thrives on poor soil, but improves it over time.

A better way to improve a lawn growing on poor soil


  • free of weeds, Your lawn competes so well for growing space that most weeds are crowded out.
  • doesn't need to be fertilised.
  • is also relatively pest-free, so that you don't have to bother spraying pesticides on it.
  • aerates the soil on its own, so that you don't have to worry about counteracting soil compaction. 
  • is a soft lawn to walk on.
  • attracts beneficial insects, including honeybees.
  • rarely has to be mowed.
  • doesn't suffer discoloration from dog urine.
  • If, despite all these benefits, you should ever want to replace it with grass it helps by having improved the soil. Its ability to aerate the soil and pump nitrogen into it means that succeeding generations of plants using that soil will be better off.
  • No grass has all these qualities, but clover possesses them all, interesting! Bet you didn't know that did you?
  • Clover makes the greenest and easiest lawn to maintain you could ever dream off, it stays green all summer, without being watered profusely because it's drought-tolerant and it doesn't need chemical fixes. 

Here's how to grow a clover lawn

There are two ways to grow a clover lawn.

  1. Seeding a new lawn.
  2. Over-sowing an existing grass lawn with Dutch White Clover

I'm going to explain both;  Seeding a new Clover lawn and Over-sowing a grass lawn with Clover.



Preparing the area for sowing clover seed

  • First strip the area to bare soil removing all grass and weeds including roots by digging over or rotovating the area, don't dig to deep or you will end up with a mix of top soil and sub soil.
  • Remove all weeds. The easiest way (unless you are an organic gardener) to be double sure all weeds and roots are removed or killed  is to spray the area with a systematic weed Killer that kills the whole plant including the root. This should be carried out about three weeks before you plan to dig or rotovate and sow the clover seed to allow time for the weeds to die.
  • Next rake it level shifting high areas of top soil into the dips, so you end up with a fairly level lawn.
  • Gently firm the surface soil, being careful not to compact the topsoil. You can do this by gently treading it down. Start in one corner, walking slowly placing one foot in front of the other, turning around and repeating until the whole area is level and firmed.  A much easier way is to "Board it" to do this, you will need two large firm square wooden boards (plywood is ideal) place one in front of the other and work your way across the area, standing on the last and lifting the other to the front and so on.
  • Remove large stones and builders rubble. As you are flattening the ground remove surface stones as you go. It's impossible to remove every stone, the earth is full of them and they naturally rise to the surface, so don't let it become an obsession. Any humps and dips will now be more visible, rake of the humps into the dips and lightly tread down

Buying and Sowing clover seed

  • Buying clover seed for lawnsthe most popular clover and the seed I use is Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens)  it is relatively low growing, tolerates close mowing and out competes most weeds. You can buy clover seeds or get more information by clicking on the amazon picture here. You'll need roughly 2 ounces (57 g) of clover seeds per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
  • Mix the seed with sand or soil. Clover seeds are quite small so to make it easier to get an even spread across the lawn, mix the clover seed with sharp sand or sieved fine soil. Mix about equal parts of seed and sand or soil. 
  • Spread the seed evenly over the lawn. If it's not windy this can be done by hand or preferably borrow a broadcast spreader it's easier and gives a more even spread.
  • Rake the area you’ve seeded to loosen and gently mix the seeds into the top layer of soil. Clover seeds will not germinate if they are buried more than a quarter-inch deep, but covering them with a very thin layer of soil will stop them blowing around in the wind and being eaten by birds.
  • Water the seeds to keep them moist until your clover lawn is established. Water the seeds immediately after spreading and give them  a light misting of water every day until the seedlings grow leaves. In spring and summer clover seeds will germinate in about one or two weeks.
Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens)
Dutch White Clover

Over-sowing a worn-out patchy grass lawn with clover

Over-seeding a grass lawn with clover seeds will help improve the existing grass and can be carried out from spring through until September, the warmer and wetter the quicker the seeds will germinate. To germinate clover seed needs soil temperatures to be at least 7-8 °C and must be kept moist.

  • Lawn food, stop feeding the grass with chemicals.
  • Closely mow the existing lawn and remove the grass.
  • Scarify with a scarifying tool or garden rake removing as much ‘thatch’ and organic matter as you can so the seeds get through to the soil. 
  • Hard compacted areas of soil. Rake or fork compacted areas being careful not to go to deep as clover seeds will not germinate if they are buried more than a quarter-inch deep.
  • Water the whole lawn before sowing the seeds. 
  • Sowing the clover seeds. I recommend using the Dutch white clover seeds, it is relatively low growing, tolerates close mowing, and out competes most weeds. 
  • Mix the seeds with soil or sharp sand in equal amounts to make spreading the seed evenly over the lawn easier.
  • Keep moist by watering immediately after sowing and daily until the seeds germinate, Clover seeds germinate about one to two weeks after sowing, depending on the weather.
  • Care for the clover seedlings, clover doesn't need any special care, just keep the lawn moist with a gentle spray of water every couple of days until the clover is established in the grass.
  • Keep off the newly over-seeded lawn until the new seedlings are firmly anchored.
  • Mowing the new lawn. The original grass will have benefited from the extra watering and probably getting a bit long, so as soon as the clover seedlings are firmly anchored give your new green lawn a cut. 

Watering and looking after clover seedlings


 Before Planting the New Seeds. Make sure to water the soil. This will kick start the process of germination and create an ideal environment for your seeds to grow healthy.

  • How to know if the soil is ready for sowing seeds? Push a long screwdriver about six to eight inches into the ground. You will know if the soil is well saturated if the screwdriver sinks in easily
  • Once the soil is damp enough, sow the new seeds. After five to ten minutes, moisten the surface of the soil to ensure the seeds and ground do not dry out. In hot dry conditions, if the seeds are allowed to dry out, the germination process will not be triggered.
  • Taking Care and watering in the new Clover seeds. What's the best time to water freshly sown Clover seeds? The ideal time is in the morning and evening as these are the coolest parts of the day. Water is easily absorbed into the ground and is less prone to evaporate in cooler weather.
  • How to Water clover Seeds. How long to water the seeds? Water them for about 10 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. This will provide the moisture for the seeds to start to germinate.

It usually takes between seven to 14 days for the seeds to germinate and begin to grow As the Clover seeds start to grow, water a bit longer, but less frequently. This encourages the roots to go deeper into the soil making them less dependent on watering in the future.