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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

MANY more evergreen groundcovers are detailed and illustrated in Deer in My Garden, Vol.2: Groundcovers & Edgers!
Order this book from Garden Wisdom Press.

"Turf" can be drought-tolerant, low-maintenance and tough!

by Carolyn Singer
March 28, 2009

Note: Information has been added to the original article.

In the past several years I have convinced more than one homeowner to seed common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) instead of grass blends recommended for lawns. Sunset magazine even ran an article about yarrow as a lawn substitute several years ago.

However, tradition is hard to change. In spite of its requirement for irrigation and even fertilization, not to mention the maintenance of mowing, grass lawns are used by many homeowners. Grass is even utilized in small commercial strips near gas stations and shopping centers. What a waste of water!

It's time for change. Even in many urban and suburban areas, homeowners are now being asked to withhold water from their grass. Yarrow is the perfect turf for sunny and semi-shady areas in our arid climate. And it creates a fire-safe zone.

But what about the children and dogs running? The badminton area? Croquet? Yes, all these wonderful lawn activities can take place just as easily on a yarrow lawn. And in fact, the yarrow is much tougher than grass and will withstand high traffic, and even a football game, once it establishes.

There are several species and cultivars of yarrow. The California native recommended for a lawn is Achillea millefolium, or thousand-leafed yarrow. The foliage is very fine with many leaves and a ferny appearance.

Soil should be prepared as you would for a lawn, incorporating 2 to 3 inches of compost, and a supply of organic phosphorus (20 pounds per hundred square feet), plus five pounds of oyster shell for that same area. Finish with a thin layer of compost. Sow the seed on top of the compost since it needs light to germinate. Or rake it into the compost lightly.

Fall sowing of seeds is ideal, preferably done in September through October in microclimates where Indian summer slows the cooling of the soil. But spring sowing will work too. A half-pound of the fine seed is sufficient to cover 1000 square feet. If you are gardening in clay soils, do not mix sand with the seed. Large areas may be hydroseeded.

The yarrow lawn in the photo above was seeded last fall. Snows and cold temperatures have done little to slow its spread!

Seed should be irrigated frequently until germination, then once a week to encourage rapid growth. Established plants need little or no irrigation, depending on how lush you want your lawn to be. This lawn is truly drought-tolerant.

Romneya coulteriAchillea millefolium spreads quickly by stolons. The yarrow will spread into borders (as will grass). In my country garden there are several strong perennials that will grow through the yarrow: Romneya coulteri (Matilija poppy), Paeonia (peoony), Iris spuria, and another yarrow, Achillea filipendula 'Coronation Gold'. Established ornamental shrubs and trees will not be affected adversely when the yarrow lawn spreads around them.

If you mow this lawn area a couple of times in spring, there will be very few flowers, and those that do appear will probably be on soft, short stems to 6 inches. Taller stalks may, after mowing, leave stiff stubbles that are hard on bare feet. Allowed to bloom with little or no mowing, Achillea millefolium may have flowering stalks to 2 to 3 feet. Bloom is heaviest in early summer, and may continue through fall.

Some nurseries offer cultivars of this perennial with a broad range of blossom color. The flowers have been eaten occasionally by the deer in my garden. To establish a very attractive meadow, be adventuresome and try just a few of the red ‘Paprika’, darker red ‘Cerise Queen’, ‘Salmon Beauty’, or pink ‘Rosea’. Perhaps the deer may not notice if they are growing among the less desirable white. Place those plants which will be allowed to bloom, and will not be mowed, around the fringes of your lawn area.

If you are dealing with an existing lawn, remember that these grasses are perennial, not annual. They must be removed before the yarrow can grow without competition. Break up the sod with a tractor or rototiller, then remove as much of the old lawn as possible. It can be composted in piles, and even used to cover areas of poor soil where you are not gardening.

Minimizing irrigation will maintain your yarrow lawn at a low height, and reduce the need for mowing. And fertilizing your yarrow lawn? NEVER!

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, P.O. Box 2209, Grass Valley CA 95945, 888-784-1722.
J.L. Hudson Seeds, P.O. Box 337, La Honda CA 94020. Order their 2009 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds for $1.00.
Johnny's Selected Seeds, 955 Benton Ave., Winslow ME 04901, 877-Johnnys (mixed colors).

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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