After seeing the total devastation brought by wildfires up north and along the coast last year, the rest of us in northern California wonder if our homes are vulnerable, too. Wildfire is so unpredictable. Even as one home or vineyard was wiped out, the next was not. We can all take steps to make our property more defensible, by landscaping with fire-resistant plants and trees.
Fire-resistant doesn’t mean fire-proof, of course. But certain types of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants naturally retain moisture, so they won’t burn as readily. Strategic use of these plants can help fend off or slow a fire. And here’s the best part: fire-wise trees and other plants can also give your landscape a distinctive and utterly gorgeous look – the kind every home owner dreams of.
“Your gardening goals don't have to change in high-risk fire areas,” notes Sunset, “just the means by which you plan to reach them.”
What plants to choose?
Hardwood trees such as maples, redbud, California lilac, and fruit trees are less flammable than soft-wood conifers. “Juicy” agaves and aloes are far less likely to burn than junipers and other shrubs with high resin or sap content. (They’re so much snazzier-looking, too!)
Trees and shrubs that are native to northern California are excellent choices for a fire-wise landscape. They are naturally drought-tolerant, so they fit nicely into your low water garden design. And there are so many natives – plus garden-friendly hybrid varieties – your biggest problem will be deciding which ones to use. Of course, there are many non-natives that are also fire-resistant.
Flower beds make effective fire breaks. So do groundcovers such as creeping thyme or ornamental strawberries. You could use pea gravel or crushed granite as a fire-resistant mulch, but why, when you can have cool – and cool looking – living plants? Groundcovers help retain moisture within the soil as well as providing a fire-retardant surface.
Some suggestions for trees:
- Honey locust
- River birch
Some suggestions for shrubs and vines:
Some suggestions for smaller shrubs and perennials:
- Sedum, ice plant, or stonecrop
What else can you do?
You certainly don’t want to be the cause of a fire, whether it’s contained to your own backyard or turns into a neighborhood conflagration. That’s why it’s so important to use non-combustible materials around your outdoor fire pit or BBQ area.
Creative use of hardscapes can also enhance the fire resistance of your landscaping. Pathways and patios separate planted areas. Perimeter walls made of stone or decorative concrete rather than wood form barriers that make it harder for fire to spread.
Switching to an artificial grass lawn is smart, too. Fake grass is made of high-tech plastic polymers. It will melt if it gets hot enough, but it will not flame up to help spread active fire.
Don’t plant trees so close to your home that flames could easily jump from tree to siding. And don’t allow branches to hang over your roof.
Do water the trees and smaller plants in your yard. A low water landscape is good for the environment, but plants that are stressed from lack of moisture invite fire as well as insects and disease. Shoot for a refreshing balance that minimizes water usage but keeps your landscaping in tip-top condition, physically and aesthetically.