Crimson Clover Plants – Tips For Growing Crimson Clover As A Cover Crop

By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

Very few nitrogen fixing cover crops are as breathtaking as crimson clover. With their bright crimson red, conical blooms atop tall, fleecy stems, one might think a field of crimson clover was planted purely for aesthetic appeal. However, this little plant is a tough workhorse in agriculture. Continue reading for more crimson clover information.

Crimson Clover Information

Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) is native to the Mediterranean region. Also called incarnate clover because of their blood-red blooms, crimson clover has been used as a cover crop in the United States since the mid-1800s. Today, it is the most common legume cover crop and forage plant for livestock in the U.S. Although it is not a native species, crimson clover has also become an important source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinators in the U.S.

Crimson clover plants are grown as an annual cover crop and, like other members of the legume family, they fix nitrogen in the soil. What sets crimson clover apart from other clover cover crops is their quick establishment and maturation, their cool weather preference, and their ability to grow in poor, dry, sandy soils where perennial clovers do not establish well.

Crimson clover prefers sandy loam, but will grow in any well-draining soil. However, it cannot tolerate heavy clay or waterlogged areas.

How to Grow Crimson Clover

Crimson clover as a cover crop is seeded in the southeastern U.S. in fall to function as a nitrogen fixing winter annual. Its optimal growing temperatures are between 40 and 70 F. (4-21 C.). Crimson clover plants prefer cool climates and will die back in extreme heat or cold.

In cool, northern climates, crimson clover can be grown as a summer annual cover crop, seeded in spring as soon as the danger of frost has passed. Because of its attractiveness to pollinators and nitrogen fixing ability, crimson clover is an excellent companion plant for fruit and nut trees, corn, and blueberries.

When growing crimson clover in pastures as a livestock forage plant, it is over seeded amongst grasses in late summer or fall to provide food for livestock during the winter months. As a green manure crop, it can produce about 100 lbs. of nitrogen per acre (112 kg./ha.). It can be grown alone in pure stands, but crimson clover seed is oftentimes mixed with oats, ryegrass, or other clovers for diversified plantings.

In the home garden, crimson clover plants can correct nitrogen depleted soils, add winter interest, and attract pollinators.

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Read more about Cover Crops

Crimson Clover

Crimson Clover is a cool-season cover crop that provides excellent ground cover and adds nitrogen to soils. Seeds are coated to make seeding/broadcasting easier. OMRI innoculated. Trifolium incarnatum.

Crimson Clover is a cover crop that works great as a ground cover for weed suppression and erosion control. Because clover is a legume, it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and adds it to soils, improving soil nutrient quality. Crimson clover can fix up to 200 lbs of nitrogen per acre. This makes it a perfect cover crop to rotate before corn or other heavy-feeding vegetable crops. It also works nicely as a green manure that can be incorporated into garden soils in early spring, which will increase organic matter and make soils more workable. Clover seed can be broadcast or direct-seeded with a walk-behind seeder.

Crimson Clover should be planted in fall a month or two before the average frost date. This will allow enough time for the clover to grow and establish ground cover before cold temperatures arrive. Clover will remain mostly dormant throughout the winter and resume growth early in the following year. In a vegetable garden situation, clover should be cut before going to seed. This will prevent any weed issues in the following years.

Clover should be planted in the fall a month or two before the average frost date. This will allow enough time for the clover to grow and establish ground cover before cold temperatures arrive. In a vegetable garden situation, clover should be cut before going to seed. This will prevent any weed issues in the following years. To remove clover in spring, it can be mowed or grazed. We suggest using chickens, goats, or other livestock to graze the clover while adding additional nutrients to your garden soil. If mowed, clover can be tilled into the soil immediately to add organic matter or “green manure”. It can also be mowed and left on top of the soil to suppress weeds until planting time.

Crimson Red Clover

Late summer is the time to sow crimson red clover seeds (Trifolium incarnatum) for bloom in the spring.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

One of my favorite August gardening joys is sowing crimson red clover (Trifolium incarnatum) seeds up and down my driveway. I look forward to the bright crimson red flower show in the spring.

Late summer is the ideal time to plant so the clover can become established before the first hard freeze. Be sure to purchase seeds that have already been pre-inoculated with a rhizobacteria coating, as the bacteria will aid in better germination. The recommended seeding rate is ¼ to 1/3 pound of seed per 1,000 square feet and planted ¼ inch deep.

Crimson red clover is an annual and is well adapted to the warm climate of South Carolina. It is commonly used along highways in the Southeast and creates quite a show in the spring. The red flowers provide an excellent source of pollen for honey bees. Many other pollinating insects also use it for a food source. Be aware that it is also a favorite of deer.

Crimson red clover seeds that have been pre-inoculated with a rhizobacteria coating.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Crimson red clover provides an excellent source of pollen for honey bees.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2019 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Crimson red clover is in the legume family therefore, it’s an excellent green manure crop for soil improvement. It will fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into an available form of nitrogen for plants. The fixed nitrogen becomes available in the soil after the clover is cut and starts to decompose. Over time, the soil structure will be improved, which in turn will benefit the growth of other plants.

For more information on cover crops, please see HGIC 1252, Cover Crops.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at [email protected] or 1-888-656-9988.


Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University


Step-by-step planting guide

1. Select planting site and test soil to determine soil pH and any nutrient deficiencies. If soil pH is lower than 6.0, test 6 months before planting to allow time for the applied lime to raise soil pH.

2. Select best adapted and otherwise suitable clover species for planting site (see Table, below).

3. Check with seed retailer at least 2 weeks before desired planting date in case selected clover species or inoculant are not in stock.

4. If planting on a disked seedbed, apply phosphorus, potassium, and necessary minor nutrients before final land preparation. If planting on lightly disked or undisturbed sod, delay fertilization until crop is up and has at least one leaf.

5. If coated preinoculated seed is purchased, store in a cool, shaded area until planting. If uncoated seed is purchased, inoculate seed within 24 hours of planting (see Clover Seed Inoculation, below) and store in cool, shaded area until planting. Hot temperatures will kill the Rhizobium bacteria on the seed.

6. Do not apply nitrogen fertilizer if clover is planted alone. Planting annual ryegrass with the clover provides earlier grazing and reduces clover bloat potential. Apply 60 to 70 lb nitrogen/acre in December to ryegrass-clover mixtures.

7. Grazing can begin when pasture is 4 to 6 inches tall. This will be early March if clover is planted alone, or early February if clover is mixed with annual ryegrass.

History of Crimson Clover

Crimson clover was first planted widely in this country as a green manure crop in the mid-1800s. In the 1940s, there was increased interest in its use as a grazing crop when reseeding varieties because available in commerce. It was then grown as both a seed crop and a grazing crop in the Southeast for 40 years.

Crimson clover history in east Texas began sometime in the late 1940s. From its first planting, the clover was popular for use as a grazing crop, reseeding stands and as a seed crop. The Texas governor even proclaimed a week in April, 1951, as Crimson Clover Week.

However, the history of crimson clover reached an unfortunate chapter in the 1960s, when production in the southeast declined rapidly. This was probably due to a shift from clover and grass pastures to the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Unpredictable rainfall during the seed harvest reduced the amount of seeds available and the Clover Head weevil attacked the crops, too.

Today, crimson clover is a major seed crop in the Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Oregon seed production accounts for 95% of the total seed production in the country, reaching about $2.5 million in sales.

Watch the video: PLANTING A COVER CROP - Before and After Video Showing How A Cover Crop Performed

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