Why this may be the colorful, drought-tolerant plant your garden needs

Q. “We just moved to Riverside County near Lake Mathews. The weather is very hot in the summer (three months of 95-103 degree heat) and can get frosty in winter. It is a rural area with lots of bunnies who love to munch. Can you recommend a ground cover for the entrance area of the house as a grass substitute? It needs to not be a water guzzler and able to handle the summer heat.” – Nancy Tetreault

Dwarf rose yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’) comes to mind as a grass or lawn substitute for your circumstances. Native to the Channel Islands, it can take some foot traffic and is heat and drought tolerant. In general, plants with fragrance, including all Achillea species, are not appetizing to rabbits. Seed of this Achillea variety or something similar can be ordered from seedcorner.com. You can find dwarf yarrow at the Theodore Payne Nursery in Sun Valley and the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Six low growing yarrow varieties are available from anniesannuals.com. Another low-growing rabbit-resistant ground cover is prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) although it cannot be walked on like dwarf yarrow.

Yarrow flowers are produced from spring to fall and mowing may be performed three or four times a year to keep it low to the ground.  Water it once or twice a week during the growing season and once every several weeks during the winter.

Even if you don’t turn your front yard into a yarrow meadow, you might consider planting yarrow in that parkway strip between sidewalk and street.

There are many different ornamental yarrows – from dwarf cultivars to several foot-tall giants – and they may be found with white, yellow, pink, red, or salmon-colored flowers growing in flat, platelike clusters known as umbels. Foliage is soft and finely cut.

The word “yarrow” is thought to be derived from yellow, and some species do have brilliant golden yellow flowers. Achillea ‘Moonshine’ is a highly popular cultivar that grows into a two-foot clump with long-lasting yellow flowers that rise two feet off the ground. Yarrow’s botanical name, Achillea, is linked to Achilles, the war hero of Greek mythology whose soldiers supposedly used it for staunching battlefield wounds. Yarrow’s habitat stretches across the northern reaches of Europe, Asia, and North America, including extremely cold regions where winter temperatures regularly reach 20 degrees below zero.

Some herbalists consider yarrow to be the most medicinal plant in the world, with curative properties that extend to every organ of the body. Those who know how to prepare and utilize its infusions, its decoctions, and its teas, swear by yarrow for treatment of headaches, flu, stomach disorders and a host of other ailments.

Young leaves are edible and may be tossed into a salad. All yarrows are attractive to carnivorous, beneficial insects that do an excellent job of keeping insect pests under control throughout the garden.

Choosing the right plant for the right place is part art, part science, part experience and part luck. As someone once said, you are always a beginner in the garden and, no matter how many years you may have dug in the earth, each garden is different, each exposure and microclimate is different, and there is an aspect of unpredictability in every plant selection.

Besides this, a garden changes from year to year as trees grow and sunny exposures turn to dappled shade, or a large tree branch breaks and cool shade suddenly gives way to scorching sun.

In the early 1990s, dwarf yarrow was planted as a lawn substitute at the Lummis House, headquarters of the Historical Society of Southern California, in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. I could not help wondering if it would stand the test of time.

Twenty years later, I made a return visit and was impressed with the thick covering of yarrow that had taken hold. Much of the yarrow lawn, or “yarrow meadow” to quote the explanatory sign on-site at the time, was growing in significantly dappled shade, produced by mature trees. It was a much shadier shade than was present when the yarrow was planted, and it thus appeared that both sunny and partially sunny exposures were suitable for the growth of dwarf yarrow.

If anyone has had success with a ground cover planted as a lawn substitute, please let me know about it so that I can share your success with readers of this column.

In addition to lawns vanishing in general, their elimination from parkway strips, in particular, presents a conundrum. Some are replacing parkway lawns with gravel, smooth stones, or bricks as these materials offer a permanent and virtually labor-free solution to the maintenance of that area. This option, however, may present a rather bleak countenance, especially at the entrance to a home, so that some living specimens, in the form of succulent plants, may be inserted into the inert hardscape.

Still another solution is to plant most of the parkway strip with drought-tolerant or succulent, low growing yet flowering species, and put down pavers in two or three places so that walking through the parkway is achieved but not at the expense of giving up on lush, floriferous, greenery in that area.

Ideally, the plants installed in your parkway, once established, will seldom need to be watered, and there are a number of selections to consider in that regard, besides the aforementioned prostrate rosemary and yarrow.

Trailing lantana is one such possibility. Available in both violet and white, it does not need water once established and does not grow tall. Lemon yellow lantana is a shrubbier form and orange lantana is even more robust. However, all lantanas lend themselves to shearing once or twice a year so that there should be no hesitation in taking them down to a foot or less if you want to keep them under control.

Blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens) is another stalwart candidate for parkway planting. It’s a succulent ground cover with cylindrical, powder blue leaves that was highly popular until a few years ago when it started dying everywhere.

The reason for the untimely death of blue chalksticks is summer irrigation, inadequately drained soil, or both. It is native to South Africa where the climate resembles our own, meaning that summer precipitation is absent. Blue chalksticks’ habitat is the crevices of sandstone slopes, where it goes dormant during the summer. Thus, hot weather irrigation, which activates water mold fungi in the soil to which it is highly sensitive, can be perilous to its health.

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