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 has also been a tragic use of chemical herbicides and fertilizers.
It’s time for change. In many urban and suburban areas, homeowners are now being asked to withhold water from their grass. Native yarrow is the perfect turf for sunny and semi-shady areas in our arid climate.
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, enduring high traffic, 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 rich green foliage is very fine with many leaves and a ferny appearance. Without mowing, white flowers bloom in summer.
Soil should be prepared as you would for a lawn, incorporating two to three inches of compost, and a supply of soft rock or colloidal phosphate (20 pounds per hundred square feet), plus 5 pounds of oyster shell for that same area.
If you are replacing an existing lawn, soil preparation is more complex. Since these grasses are perennial, not annual, they must be removed before the yarrow can grow without competition. 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.
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 1,000 square feet. If you are gardening in clay soils, do not mix sand with the seed. Seeded on top of compost, there is no need to cover the seed.
Large areas may be hydroseeded. When this method is used, the paper mulch applied to the area with the seed may protect young seedlings that germinate with first fall rains, especially critical when a dry period follows.
Spring-seeded yarrow should be irrigated frequently (unless it’s raining often) until germination, then once a week to encourage rapid growth for the first three months. In the warmer growing season, plants spread quickly by stolons. Fall-seeded, the Achillea millefolium seeds will germinate quickly with early rains in the warm soil. In the winter months ahead, little growth will occur, but the young plant will survive even weeks of dry weather.
Established plants need little or no irrigation, depending on how lush you want your lawn to be. This lawn is truly water-efficient, needing no irrigation once established.
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 six 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 lightly 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.
Another approach is to seed the white yarrow in the area to be mowed, planting the other colors on the perimeter and leaving them unmowed. In one foothill landscape, a wide path was mowed through a yarrow meadow. The deer preferred the taller yarrow for lounging. In yet another foothill garden, a generous yarrow path wanders through a small orchard, a permanent insectary. Unmowed, beneficial insects and pollinators have a sanctuary. The orchard may produce more fruit and have fewer problems.
Remember that once the yarrow lawn is established, withholding irrigation will maintain a low height, and reduce the need for mowing. And fertilizing your yarrow lawn? NEVER!
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally.