- Editor: Maggie Mah
- Author: Cynthia Nations
Fire is a real and present danger throughout California. Climate change has brought record periods of drought and excessive heat while decades of fire suppression practices have resulted in overgrown forests. Added to this dangerous mix is a rapid increase in human population at the edges of forested areas. The good news: there are things you can do to improve the odds that your home can survive a wildfire.
The Importance of Defensible Space:
Fire research shows that most homes are destroyed by wildfires when wind-driven embers land on flammable materials close to the structure. You can minimize the risk by creating a “defensible space” around your home which entails removing combustible materials immediately adjacent to your home and creating “zones” with landscaping designed to reduce opportunities for fire to spread while providing areas for fire fighters to safely defend your home.
Defensible Space Zone #1: This is the area immediately next to and within 5 feet of the home and includes any adjacent outbuildings and areas under attached decks and stair landings. Everything in this zone should be noncombustible. Good choices for this zone are rock mulches and “hardscaping” (paths, walkways, etc.) around the perimeter of the building. Plants, if any, should be widely spaced, low-growing, non-woody and herbaceous.
Defensible Space Zone #2: This is the area between 5 and 30 feet from the home. Key words for this space are “lean, clean, and green.” “Lean” means a limited amount of vegetation with adequate spaces in between. “Clean” means the area is kept free of dead, dry plant debris—preferably removed by means other than leaf blowers! “Green” means plants in this zone receive adequate irrigation during fire season. Good practices include incorporating organic soil amendments before planting to increase the water holding capacity of the soil and using rock mulches instead of highly combustible bark mulches.
Defensible Space Zone #3: This is the area from 30 to 100 feet from your home. (Note: If your property does not extend this far, please see strategies for working with neighbors below.) Here, the objective is to reduce fire from spreading inward toward the structures and to inhibit flames from moving upward into the crowns of trees. Actions to take include thinning trees so that branches are separated by at least 10 feet, removing dead or dying trees, branches and any piles of dry vegetation on the ground such as twigs, branches and large pieces of bark. For taller trees, prune the lower branches at least 10 feet up the trunk to reduce the possibility of flames climbing and connecting with the tree canopy.
Which plants to plant?
No plants are “fire proof” but there are plants that are fire-resistant, which are typically plants that are high in moisture. These types of plants store water in their leaves and stems and when subjected to fire conditions, can reduce the intensity with which a fire spreads by acting as “heat sinks.” They typically are slow growing, tidy and do well with limited watering due to deep root systems, which also helps to control erosion. Look for higher moisture plants with low levels of flammable oils and resins, an open branching habit and a relatively low volume of total vegetation.
Many plants native to California meet fire resistant criteria. Because the plants have evolved over time in our local environment, they tend to be slower growing and therefore produce less fuel. They also require less maintenance and need less water. Here are a few natives to consider:
- Annuals: Red Maids (Calandrinia mensiesii), Mariposa Lily (Calachortus venustus), and Tidy Tips (Layla
- Evergreen Shrubs: Bush Poppy (Dendromicon rigida), Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia), Coffeeberry (Frangula californica), and California Lilac (Ceanothus-many forms).
- Deciduous Shrubs: Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum), Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
- Perennials: Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana), Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), California Buttercup (Ranunculus californica), California Fuschia (Epilobium canum), Foothill Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus)
- Large Shrubs and Trees: Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis), Western Sycamore (Platanus racemose)
What about the neighbors?
Most of us live in areas where conditions on one person's property can have major implications to the entire neighborhood in the event of a fire. So, what can you do to encourage your neighbors? Once you have implemented the recommended steps in Zones 1 and 2, reach out to all the residents in your immediate area. This could be in the form of an invitation to an outdoor picnic where a discussion about ways to protect the neighborhood can take place in a congenial setting. The invitation might also include preliminary fire safety information to provide everyone with background for the discussion. You can also ask representatives from your local fire department to attend and provide recommendations for the neighborhood. For residents who are unable to work on creating fire resistant zones around their homes due to physical or other issues, get a group together to help. Fire affects everyone so let's all do our part to protect our homes and property!
- What's Behind California's Surge of Large Fires?
- Fire in California: Defensible Space
- UCCE: Fire Resistant Plants
- Wildfires: Protecting Our Homes-and Our Forests
This article was written by Master Gardener Cynthia Nations and edited by Master Gardener Maggie Mah.
- Author: Maggie Mah
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
Lovely stands of fragrant Paperwhites, spectacular pots of Amaryllis and colorful displays of poinsettias are Nature's way of saying, “Happy Holidays!” But once the New Year is ushered in and they (like post-holiday humans) start looking peaked, what do you do? Rather than toss them in the compost, many of the most popular types of holiday plants can be “repurposed” by taking them outdoors and adding them to your garden. They will regain their vigor and return to bloom again and again for years to come.
Paperwhites: Narcissus papyraceus
These perennial bulbs are native to the Mediterranean and therefore, they do not need chilling to bloom. They are hardy, reliable, gopher proof and do not need irrigation—all of which makes them perfect garden additions for our mild winter climate. After the blooms in your indoor arrangement fade, simply remove the bulbs (with stems attached) from their container. Find a sunny spot with good drainage and plant them about one bulb's length deep and one bulb's width apart. The stems will provide the bulbs with nourishment for the next blooming season and will also prompt the bulbs to
divide and naturalize. Resist tying the stems in knots. Instead, allow them to dry out and fall to enrich the soil. Note: if the bulbs in your indoor arrangement were forced, your Paperwhites may not bloom the first year after planting but be patient and look for them early the following year.
Those dramatic, trumpet-shaped blooms that we know as “Amaryllis” are cultivars of the genus Hippeastrum, which originated in South America. The true Amaryllis, Amaryllis belladonna, is a South African native. We know them as the fragrant pink “Naked Ladies” that appear in our area during the summer. In this article, we will stick with the name “Amaryllis” for the more than 600 colorful varieties of holiday blooming bulbs.
As exotic as they look, Amaryllis bulbs are quite easy to grow and, properly cared for, can live for 75 years. They are well suited to USDA Hardiness Zone 10a, the designation for our temperate coastal area. Some varieties reproduce readily from seed and naturalize quickly once they are planted in the ground. Once established, your holiday Amaryllis will also revert to its natural blooming cycle in the spring.
When you are ready to plant, find a sunny location with good drainage. These plants are spectacular in groups so pick a spot with enough room for next year's additions. Place the bulb along with any remaining foliage in the soil leaving about one third of the pointed top exposed. If planting more than one bulb, plant them about 12 inches apart. Apply a thin layer of compost around (not on) the bulbs and mulch lightly. If there is no rain, apply just enough water to keep the soil moist until leaves emerge. Once established, Amaryllis are drought tolerant and deer proof.
Poinsettias Euphorbia pulcherrima
These seasonal icons are indigenous to Mexico and are named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who introduced them to the U.S. in the 1820's. Now, more than 70 million poinsettias are sold as decorations. But nothing says, “The holidays are over” like a withered, sad looking one of these once-brilliant plants. Most of them end
up getting tossed, hopefully into the compost. With good care (keep it warm, place it in a sunny spot, water it frequently and allow the pot to drain thoroughly), poinsettias can stay looking good inside your home for a couple of months.
If you like a bit of a challenge, you can get poinsettias to re-bloom in time for next year's holiday season. Starting in early spring (late February or early March), prune the stems back to about 4 to 6 inches above the soil in the pot. Water when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch and give it a dose of diluted all-purpose plant fertilizer every two
When the weather warms up (mid to late May) begin acclimating the poinsettia plant to the outdoors. Start by placing it in a shady, protected spot for a few days then move it gradually to areas where it can receive periods of direct sun. This process (called “hardening”) will take about 7 to 10 days. Next, find a spot in your garden that is out of the wind and receives a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight. Dig a hole and set the poinsettia (pot and all) into the ground. Continue to water and fertilize as before.As new growth appears, pinch or cut back tips of the new shoots once or twice to keep
the plant compact and bushy. Around the middle of September, remove the plant and pot from its earthly spot and move it back indoors to a bright, sunny location. To get your poinsettia to “flower” (produce the colorful red “bracts”) in time for December holidays, the plant must be in the dark for about 15 hours every day starting in October. An easy way to do this is to place a cardboard box over the plant every day at approximately 5 p.m. and remove it at around 8 a.m. the following morning. By Thanksgiving, your poinsettia should be looking very festive and you can recycle the box.
Orchids: Year-Round Favorites: These exotic beauties add instant décor and make great gifts. Chances are good that you have either purchased or been presented with an orchid or two over the holidays. For details on keeping the orchids in
your home healthy and blooming, please see the November, 2021, issue of Coastside Magazine.
This article was written by Maggie Mah, a UC Master Gardener with many Paperwhites and Amaryllis in her garden and edited by UC Master Gardener Cynthia Nations.