- (Public Value) UCANR: Building climate-resilient communities and ecosystems
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!
Though it's been hard to tell with the fire/weather we're having during this craziest of all years—September felt pretty summery—the plants in my garden have been telling me for a number of weeks now that summer is finally ending. The mornings are cooler, the days are shorter, and the garden is responding.
Salvia greggii is a star in the garden all year, but their show this time of year has given them their common name—autumn salvias. And so many colors! Purples and other shades are becoming easier to find, expanding the palette beyond the pinks and reds. The New Mexican sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is finally showing that its bloom is worth waiting for. The spindly but strong stems looked so close to withered during the long, hot summer it hardly seemed worth the water they cried out for. The Gaillardias, who rarely seem to miss a beat, are gloriously responding to the more moderate temperatures and longer nights fall brings to our hemisphere.
The grasses have been recast from supporting actors to leading roles. The light of the sun, now lower on the horizon, suffuses the flower stalks of silver beardgrass (Bothriochloa laguroides), deergrass and its smaller cousin (Muhlenbergia rigens and M. dubia), and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis and its named variety ‘Blonde Ambition' are both fabulous). And as the warm season fades, they will begin to shine more brightly. No group of plants can compare to the grasses in terms of solid year-round interest. Yes, they don't look great after their annual late-spring haircut, but by the time you cut them back, they should be very actively growing, so the awkward phase doesn't last long! After that, they provide a great green backdrop for the bloomers, waiting for their chance in the spotlight. Fall and winter is their time!
Some of your new plants may not look too happy, but don't get discouraged—the transplant success rate for many natives is not good, so just know that you are doing the best you can. Spring is normally the time natives look best, so focus on how gratifying it will be when you see fresh, green leaves after a long winter's sleep!
These are some of the plants I am moving right now in my yard. Not all of them are Inyo County or even California natives, but all can deal with the tough environment the Owens Valley serves up:
- Salvias - S. greggii and S. clevelanii (marginal this far north, but worth the extra care!
- Young native grasses that are not yet blooming
- Pine muhly
- Grama grasses
Though I buy a lot of plants locally (I found goldenrod and a lot of other great stuff at High Country Lumber last week), other than the Native Plant Society's August sale, it can be tough to find native plants here, so I am always on the lookout for sources for plants when I travel. I've listed a few of my recent favorites below. But the best thing to do is to develop your own nursery stock. Watch this space for an article on that soon!
Online (links to these from plants above)
- Mountain Valley Growers
- High Country Gardens
- Annie's Annuals
- Digging Dog Nursery
- Plants of the Southwest (seeds only)
- Tree of Life Nursery, San Juan Capistrano
- Theodore Payne, Sunland
- Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, Claremont
- Miner's Ace Hardware, Morro Bay (and other locations), carries plants from Annie's Annuals and The Growing Grounds
Links and sources posted are for information purposes. No UC endorsement is implied or intended.
- Author: Trina Tobey
Living in California, we inevitably get smoke from wildfires in our yards and gardens and this year is no exception. Over 7,400 fires and 3.1 million acres have burned across California so far this year, making 2020 an extreme year for fires on top of COVID-19, protests, an election, and heat waves. But how does all of this smoke and ash affect our plants? I did some research and found that there are both positive and negative effects of smoke on plants.
Positive effects of smoke come from the increase of carbon dioxide. Plants extract carbon dioxide from the air and use it in photosynthesis to feed themselves. If the plant has an ample supply of water and there is enough sunlight shining through the smoke for the plant to use the extra carbon dioxide, the plant can produce more food for itself. At moderate levels smoke can diffuse the light, which can be a relief for plants here in the high desert that are normally exposed to very intense light every day. This is good for the plants but also for us humans and animals who depend on oxygen.
Conversely, smoke and ash particles can coat plants inhibiting photosynthesis. Smoke particulates can clog stomatal pores which prevent the gas exchanges required in photosynthesis which decreases the amount of food available to the plant. Smoke that sticks to plants can be bad for the plants but good for us. Plants, especially fuzzy plants, remove these smoke particles from the air by absorbing them into their leaves and stems and by minerals translocated through the roots. Again, this eventually helps clean the environment.
If plants are covered with smoke and ash, both sides of their leaves should be cleaned with water. As for the produce you eat from your garden, simply washing it with water before consuming it should remove any of the residue you might otherwise ingest.
In conclusion, the good news is that your plants will likely not be harmed by the smoke, especially if you give them a bath. The bad news is that the smoke is still hazardous to us humans.
Luckily, we have the plants to help us out by cleaning the air for us.
Humans can find out current air quality conditions online at airnow.gov./span>
- 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!