Yarrow is a plant that people have used for thousands of years. Indeed, Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy, gave yarrow the genus name Achillea after the great Greek warrior Achilles, who supposedly carried common yarrow with his army to treat battle wounds. It goes by many other common names, most of them related to its use on the battlefield: herbe militaris, knight's milfoil, staunchweed and soldier's woundwort (the latter from the US Civil War). Native American nations across the continent used yarrow for everything from toothaches to menstrual cramps. Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is found in every California habitat except the Mojave and Colorado Deserts; the Miwok used the plant as an analgesic and head cold remedy. Indeed, it would be hard to find a plant with such a long and varied history of uses, but my objective here is to focus on this often-overlooked plant simply as an ornamental!
Between the soil, the wind and the varmints, I have challenging growing conditions in my yard, to say the least. Yarrow is virtually pest-free—even deer and rabbits avoid it. It's pretty drought tolerant once established, and it prefers sandy, poor to average soil. Indeed, very fertile soil will cause too much top growth, and the leggy stems will flop over. In other words, it's just the plant for me!
Now, your past experience with yarrow may be different. Many yarrows spread by rhizomes, and in well-watered locations they can get out of control. But out here where even weeds don't prosper, I prefer my plants to be a bit aggressive! And if you choose the right yarrow and put it in the right location, you'll earn a lot of garden interest for almost no investment.
There are about 80 species of yarrow worldwide, but nearly all those found in nurseries come from just two of those species: Achillea millefolium and A filipendulina. Nearly everyone is familiar with the tall (2-3') yellow yarrows. ‘Coronation Gold,' ‘Moonshine,' and ‘Cloth of Gold' (my favorite) are three that are widely available. These are Achillea filipendulina hybrids and cultivars, and while they are hard to beat for a spectacular early season display, by July they are looking pretty bedraggled. I harvest many of the stems when they are first opening for dried flowers, and when the remainder start to fade, I cut them back to encourage a second bloom in fall. Best to place these vigorous growers near the back of the bed, because they're a bit drab after this shearing!
But beyond these most commonly seen cultivars, there is a whole world of tough, attractive yarrow to fit most anywhere in the garden. Woolly yarrow (Achillea tomentosa) is grown chiefly for its gray, fuzzy fern-like leaves. This spreader has yellow flowers and stays 6-12” high, the perfect plant for edging stones at the front of your beds. You can sometimes find this among the ground covers at local nurseries. ‘King Edward' (Achillea x lewisii) is similar, with beautiful butter-yellow flowers, but so far I've only been able to find it available one place online. Achillea ptarmica is unique, the flowers borne more singularly than the umbel typical of the genus. Some people use this more sophisticated yarrow as a substitute for baby's breath. Like many of the others listed here, you're not likely to come across plants in a nursery, but all yarrows are easy to grow from seed, so if you can wait a few years, you'll have plenty of flowers down the line.
Easier to find in nurseries, sometimes even in 6-packs, are intermediate-sized yarrows in all shades of pink, rose and cream colors. Most of these are cultivars of Achillea millefolium (common yarrow). I found ‘Paprika,' ‘Red Beauty,' ‘Island Pink' and ‘Summer Pastels' all in local nurseries this past summer, as well as a new dwarf cultivar of ‘Moonshine' and the russet tones of ‘Terra Cotta.' High Country Gardens is one of many places to find plants online, and if you're willing to grow your own, there are even more options available from places like Swallowtail Seeds.
I'm going big on yarrows this year! I planted seeds of ‘Colorado Mix,' ‘Summer Berries,' red, rose and white, and they all sprouted in less than a week, with germination rates of nearly 100%. Between the newcomers and all those I've already planted, I should have carefree blooms throughout the summer. And—since yarrows make great dried flowers—they will brighten the cool season.
Note: Links to sources in this article are provided as a convenience to the reader. No endorsement by UC Regents is implied or intended.
Some years back, I toyed with the idea of starting my own wholesale nursery business. We're not talking acres of palm trees in huge wooden planters here, just a few kinds of natives, wildflowers and grasses. I even got a business license and came up with a name, but eventually decided it was more work than I wanted to invest. I did sell a few dozen plants to Steve at Chalfant Big Trees, but that was it. Little did I know it at the time, but taking the beginning steps toward my own nursery was to transform my own gardening!
One of the first things I did when I began to entertain the idea of my own nursery business was to set aside an area on our acre that I would use to field grow the plants. I rototilled, removed rocks, incorporated compost and laid out drip tape to this area. Though I never followed through with the business plan, I now had a nursery plot, and I have used it as such ever since. It is filled with dozens of types of plants, but the only customer this nursery is serving is me!
The beauty of this is that I nearly always have an appropriate plant “in my inventory.” I am constantly working at perfecting my landscaping, trying to match my plantings with the conditions of each location. Dustin Blakey's wise words form Master Gardener training always come to me: “Right plant in the right place.” That's the way I see my job as caretaker of the landscape. Especially in the challenging conditions here at the edge of the Volcanic Tableland, I have to be like a coach. I don't get to choose my dream roster, but instead have to find a way to maximize the potential of each of the players I have been given. There is nothing in my nursery plot that will not survive in my yard given the right conditions. When I'm evaluating different areas of my yard, thinking of what plants would complement the existing plantings, I nearly always have something that will work a few feet away in my nursery garden.
I suggest you give this strategy a try. It's not necessary to set aside a separate area in your yard. You can plant babies temporarily near existing plants, taking advantage of the irrigation that is already in place, and move them when the time comes. You can even repurpose a big pot—say maybe one you bought a tree in—and fill it with garden soil for a portable nursery.
It's so great to have a ready, year-round custom nursery at your disposal. Rather than having to search time after time at the local garden store, you'll have just the plant you want right in your own yard!
- Author: Alison Collin
Those plots on the south side, nearest the house, are in full shade for all of the winter months when the ground is also frequently frozen. Then as the sun gets higher and clears the house roof it becomes subject to ferocious afternoon sun for several hours a day, rendering it unsuitable for shade-loving plants, but at the same time not ideal for the sun lovers either. Since these were being solarized I did no planting here in 2019.
The plots on the north side of the area get full sun in winter, but after trees have leafed out they get varying amounts of shade during the day which is welcomed by some species but renders them unsuitable for many of the sun-loving desert plants.
The irrigation is turned off for much of the winter so plants that like a Mediterranean type climate which rely on winter rains for their main growth are not likely to do very well, furthermore since the area is very exposed to the north it is subject to some pretty cold temperatures.
I wanted the garden to look equally good from all directions – the road, the house and the patio. For best effect visuall,y and in order to entice insects such as butterflies, conventional design wisdom encourages one to plant in groups of three, to limit the different number of species, and to repeat a theme several times across the planting area. I did not keep to this since some individual plants make substantial clumps on their own, and in order to keep costs down and try out several different plants I frequently only purchased one specimen with a view to adding to them later if they did well. I had several large clumps of perennials such as coreopsis, agastache, and rudbeckia which I dug up from other areas of the garden. I had taken cuttings of sedums, which together with numerous volunteer seedlings such as gaura, echinops, and eryngiums, formed a foundation for planting.
It is all too easy to end up with a prevalence of mounding plants so I was careful to have a variety of shapes – upright (Berberis “Salmon Rocket”), spikey (pink muhley grass) and ground-hugging (Callirhoe involucrate) and mounding (Nepeta “Walkers Low”). Leaf color adds interest so I looked for plants with red (border penstemon), yellow (Agastache “Royal jubilee” and ninebark “Darts Gold”) , gray (Artemesia “Powis Castle”), blue (Festuca “Siskiyou Blue”), and lush green leaves (annual Mirabilis). And of course I wanted lots of flowers for the pollinators to enjoy throughout a long season.
In spring clumps of blue muscari and Euphorbia myrsinites with its gray foliage and chartreuse flowers are some of the earliest attractions, followed by mats of Phlox subulata, blue flax, and catmint, after which the summer flowers come into their own: Salvias, Centanthus, Cistus, Scabiosa, Echinops and Buckwheat. In fall the humming bird mints (Agastaches) and mats of California fuchsia (Zauschneria “Everett's Choice”) round off the year. Any bare patches between plants are filled with such things as spring bulbs, California poppies, four o'clocks, or red annual buckwheat.
Of course, I have made some mistakes. The yellow leaved ninebark got scorched by the sun just as it was leafing out, and I had placed two artemesias in one of the plots but by the end of the first year they had become very large and were threatening to take over. I really need more white flowers of different shapes and textures. The yarrow that I bought as an unlabeled cell pack and planted close to the front has turned out to be yarrow on steroids and will definitely be moved at the end of the year!
My decision to not use mulch has not been a problem. So far I have only had to do a minimal amount of weeding and the sandy soil is quick and easy to hoe. I also get a lot of satisfaction watching ground-nesting black wasps or native bees making use of the bare soil. However, I have seen some velvet ants which like the bare sand, a reminder that it is prudent to wear gloves when tending low-lying plants.
It became apparent that the winter season needs some attention since most of the plants became very dormant and we were back to bare soil again! I need a few more evergreen plants or grasses to add interest.
Many square feet of irrigated lawn have been replaced with decomposed granite using no water at all. The planting areas are irrigated far less often than the previous grass covering, and I hope to reduce the amount even further once the plants are more established.
It is so gratifying to see tattered painted lady butterflies finding plentiful supplies of nectar after their long migration, or seeing the many different bees – Ceratinas, sweat, cuckoo, carpenter and domestic as well as several different wasps and lots of different flies! Lizards have moved in for the feast, and it is only now that I realize how sterile our old lawn was!
- Author: Alison Collin
The topsoil that had been delivered for our makeover project was not the rich loam that I had imagined it would be, but was the local desert sand. I amended it by digging in three cubic feet of commercial compost to each plot in order to add a modicum of organic matter. This action was also beneficial since it exposed the large roots from my neighbor's mulberry tree that had grown right across our front yard almost to the front door, some 50' from the trunk!
I decided to solarize the two plots on the south side since that area had been particularly weedy and infested with Bermudagrass. These plots were watered thoroughly, and a clear plastic sheet, well anchored with rocks all around, was laid over them. The sheet would be left until the following spring.
Luckily we were able to key into the old lawn irrigation system and put a riser in each plot and also one beside the hard standing which we were planning to use as a patio.
I had thought long and hard about irrigation and wanted something as trouble-free as possible. I decided to use only drip irrigation but considered the usual 17mm tubing too rigid so that I would have to use a lot of joints in order to get satisfactory coverage, on the other hand I did not want the surface to be covered with a spaghetti of ¼ inch black drip lines since in my experience they look messy, often split, and can get kicked out of place unless pegged down in numerous places.
Even low water use plants vary considerably in the amount of water that they need, so those few with the highest requirements are planted where two tubes are in close approximation, while those with xeriscape preferences are planted where the tubing is much further apart.
Netafim Irrigation Info: https://www.netafimusa.com/landscape/products/product-offering/driplines/techline-ez/
(No UC endorsement implied; only relating information about the material used in this project.)
Part 3 will cover plant choices and planting.
One of the first gardening books I ever purchased was Sunset magazine's book How to Grow Herbs, published in the early 1970's. Though it had great information on cultivation and harvesting, what really drew me in was the use of herbs in landscaping. In particular I remember one black and white photo (no color back then!) of so-called wall germander. Now I lived in rainy Santa Cruz at the time, and I doubt that I had ever seen germander, but there was something about that photo that always stayed with me. From the book I learned that Teucrium chamaedrys was a major component of “knot gardens”—those very formal geometric gardens that became popular during the Elizabethan Age in England—along with thyme, marjoram, rosemary, Santolina and other herbs of Mediterranean origin.
While there are hundreds of species of germander, it's not a plant that seems to get much attention or respect. The Wikipedia entry for Teucrium isn't much more than a list of some of the species, and while Teucrium chamaedrys shows up in many nurseries, I doubt if one nursery in fifty has any other representatives from the genus. That's a shame, because these workhorses can fill a number of roles in the garden and are especially well-suited for tough growing environments like we have in the Eastern Sierra.
So it's not surprising that it was more than thirty years later, when I moved to the wilds of West Chalfant, that I grew my first germander, a prostrate form of Teucrium chamaedrys that—unlike just about anything else—seemed to thrive in this strange new land! Its evergreen character and attractive pink flowers in early summer were a bonus—a real bee magnet! The downside is that creeping germander can do just that if it gets sufficient water, so accept that aspect and plant it where it will have room to fill in. It is a groundcover, after all!
A few years later I found upright Teucrium chamaedrys, the wall germander (see photo above) I had seen in photos so long ago, and planted a few of those. Again, these are not show stoppers, but they are attractive year-round, grow to a foot or so in height, and do not spread. I have come to consider wall germander one of my go-to plants. Santolina and 'Powis Castle' Artemisia are two other sub-shrubs I count on for their pleasing shape and foliage—plants that make the colors in front of them really pop. But unlike those plants, germander never gets leggy or unkempt looking, remaining neat and green throughout the year. The only upkeep required is to cut back the spent blooms in midsummer (and hope for another show in the fall). I would characterize wall germander as one of my garden's best supporting actors!
Teucrium fruticans (shrubby germander or tree germander grows 4-6 feet high and wide) is another member of the genus I tried in my yard, but it was, for me, a real heartbreaker! In my research for drought-tolerant shrubs before moving to Chalfant, this is one that really caught my eye with its fuzzy gray foliage and transcendent blue flowers. I found a beautiful specimen at a nursery somewhere on the west side of the mountains, but it died pretty quickly. Undeterred, I had a friend buy me another one when she was in Berkeley, but it met the same fate. Though I've seen it rated as hardy to 0-10 degrees, most sources list it as zone 8 (10-20 degrees). For me, that's worth a try—Salvia greggii is listed as zone 8, for example, and it is a staple in Eastern Sierra gardens. Of course, the flip side is that plenty of zone 8 plants die! Anyway, if you've got a protected area and are willing to risk the money, you might give this one a try, because it really is a beautiful shrub.
Similar in character is Teucrium aroanium, gray creeping germander. If you have a tough, dry area you want to dress up with a unique, beautiful groundcover, you should really give these two a try. Mountain Valley Growers and High Country Gardens are good online sources for germander. If you're in Southern California, look for a bricks and mortar garden store that carries plants from Native Son wholesale nursery (who kindly allowed me to use their photos).
Living where I do, I am always searching for plants like germander: hard-to-kill, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants that look good year-round. Who isn't? I read somewhere that there are 260 species of Teucrium, and I know I'll be on the lookout for any I can find!