By Donna Woodward, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
When I moved to our property on Dry Creek Road in Napa in 2009, I found myself in a house in the middle of a meadow surrounded by forest. The house looked bare sitting there in a grassy field. I wanted to add some color and make it look more inviting.
Due to the natural setting, I thought native plants would be ideal. I joined the California Native Plant Society and went to its fall and spring plant sales. My watchwords were “drought tolerant” and “deer resistant.”
We have all heard the praises of water-wise gardening. It saves precious water and requires less attention from the gardener. The use of native plants accomplishes these goals and fits right into my aesthetic.
Not surprisingly, the native plants were easy to grow and, once established, thrived and spread. Our house had one large blank wall that I wanted to cover, so I planted a climbing wild rose on a trellis just in front of the wall. That rose quickly filled the space and more.
The same is true of a wild clematis that I planted around our deck. It climbed up over the deck railing and spread via runners in all directions. Also thriving within a few feet of the house are a flowering currant, a ceanothus bush and monkey flower plants. Eventually I broke down and planted some non-natives as well—rock rose and lavender, among others—still opting for drought-tolerant plants.
None of the problems with plant growth or spreading really concerned me until the fires of October 2017. I was suddenly made aware of the dangers of living in a WUI (pronounced wooey).
In case you aren't familiar with this acronym, it stands for Wildland Urban Interface. As Napa Valley has grown, more properties have been developed in the surrounding woodlands. It's a wonderful life. You live in the midst of nature with privacy and peace and quiet, yet you are still within a short drive to town.
However, you also live with the possibility of wildfire. We were lucky in 2017. The Nunns fire crept slowly up Mt. Veeder before reaching our woods. Our home was spared, thanks to the firefighters who camped in our meadow.
Later we visited the devastation in the Atlas Peak area. That was an example of a wildfire fanned by high winds and low humidity. The tales of narrow escapes, and the stories of some who didn't make it, were heart-wrenching. The wreckage was horrifying.
Year after year the Dry Creek-Lakoya Volunteer Fire Department and its offshoot, the Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council, had been warning us through meetings and seminars about keeping the areas around our homes clear of vegetation, but I hadn't wanted to hear it. Surely I can have a flower garden. What do they expect? A concrete block of a house in the middle of a bare field?
After seeing what a wind-whipped wildfire can do, I finally realized it was time to reconsider my gardens. The problem is that drought-tolerant plants are more likely to be woody. Woody shrubs often send out new growth while the undergrowth dries up and the hidden leaves die. They look lush from the outside, but they can hide a large quantity of dead stems and foliage underneath.
In a wind-driven fire the biggest danger to your home is flying embers. These embers can ignite anything flammable that is in contact with the house. If you have woody bushes near the house, these can ignite and burn hot enough to set fire to the house. Also, anything that sheds dry leaves or needles can cause a buildup of those materials around stairs, in eaves and corners. These conditions contribute to high fire danger.
The Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council sponsors free evaluations of homes for fire safety (mountveederfiresafe.org). They visited our home and gave advice on hardening our house against fire. Once the undergrowth problem was pointed out to me, I was shocked to discover so much dead material within the large ceanothus next to the house. It could have made a bonfire. I pruned out all of the undergrowth.
Similar conditions were found within the rock rose shrubs. I found that I could cut those down to the ground in summer and they would put out new growth that could be kept short throughout the fire season.
We are currently working on moving all plants away from the house and installing several feet of hardscape around the walls. In hindsight I wish I had not planted some of the spreading plants, especially the wild rose and clematis. Controlling them is an ongoing battle.
You can find specific recommendations about landscaping for fire safety at the Napa Fire Wise website, napafirewise.org Look under Preparedness, then Landscaping. The website also has links to many other tips for protecting your home. You can also find contact information for your local Fire Safe Council.
Also check out firesafemarin.org website it has a great evacuation check list you can review and print out.
Fire season is here again and there is a lot of support for homeowners. Whether you live in the country or in town, the danger is real, but there are steps you can take to protect your property.
Join Napa County Master Gardeners at the Food Growing Forum by zoom on Sunday, August 30, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., for a free discussion on “Growing Winter Vegetables.” This forum on food growing will continue monthly on the last Sunday of every month, with different topics every time. To receive the Zoom link for the Food Growing Forums, register at http://ucanr.edu/FoodGrowingForum2020. And see our website calendar at napamg.ucanr.edu for other upcoming events.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide University of California research-based information on home gardening. To find out more about home gardening or upcoming programs, visit the Master Gardener website (napamg.ucanr.edu). Our office is temporarily closed but we are answering questions remotely and by email. Send your gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a phone message at 707-253-4143 and a Master Gardener will respond shortly./span>
By Marcy Nielsen-Berruezo, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
It happens every year. There's a moment when suddenly I notice that the light has changed. Days are shorter and shadows are longer. Chinese pistache trees begin to turn color and the squirrels in my garden go nuts.
This is the time when savvy California gardeners perk up as it's prime time for planting in our Mediterranean climate. Planting in September and October, while the ground is still warm and rain is on its way (we fervently hope), allows new plantings to establish roots. By settling in now, these new plants will be ready for the flush of growth in spring.
Many California native plants are actually dormant in summer. Fall planting lets you enjoy their emergence from dormancy into winter growth and bloom.
I tend to use my own garden as a laboratory, researching plants and testing them to see how they do. As the drought lingers and we become more aware of the need to support the ecosystem in our gardens (and not just in the wild), I've been increasingly going native.
My goal: A garden that offers year-round beauty with minimal use of resources (water, fertilizer and the sweat of my brow). I also want a landscape that maximizes support for local native flora and fauna, including me.
I've made mistakes. I've underestimated how big a happy native plant can get and I've misjudged what happens when I over- or under-water a native. But I love seeing the change of seasons, the buzz of life and the splashes of color in my garden all year. All I need to do to nurture that rhythm is to clean up twice a year.
Many of us have responded to drought by reducing irrigation or eliminating turf in our landscapes. But drought or no drought, California has arid summers and probably always will. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, more than 50 percent of residential water use takes place outdoors. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that half of that water is wasted by inefficient and unnecessary delivery.
Plants adapted to our rainfall and temperature patterns need little or no irrigation once they're established. The University of California, in collaboration with top landscape professionals and horticulturists, has developed the Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. This online database is a useful tool for determining the actual water needs of the plants commonly used in California landscapes, grouping them by region and type.
The database gives most of our native plants two irrigation designations, one for the cool season and one for the warm season. California mountain lilac (Ceanothus species) is classified as M/L, for moderate water in winter and low water during the warm months. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) is classified as L/VL, adapted to low water in winter and very low water in summer.
In most settings, an established native plant needs (and wants) no additional water unless winter rain is scarce. Wet soil in summer can trigger oak root fungus (Armillaria mellea) and other soil-borne pathogens that can kill a stressed plant or shorten its lifespan.
A few native plants can tolerate or even benefit from occasional supplemental water in summer, and some enjoy a light hosing off (think summer shower in the foothills) or a deeper drink once a month or so. But don't overdo it. When planting, try to group plants with similar needs for sunlight, drainage and water.
In deciding where to place natives in your garden, picture where they grow in the natural landscape. California has a wide range of habitats and ecosystems, elevations and soils. A plant adapted to a shady streambed or redwood forest will have different needs than one adapted to open oak savannah or dry chaparral. Finding or creating the microclimate they like will help native plants live a long, healthy life.
Native plants have evolved to resist local pests and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides or other interventions. In fact, beneficial insect species have evolved along with the natives, timing their egg-laying and brood-hatching to munch on pesky invaders.
You may need to put up with a few chewed or distorted new leaves until the beneficial species tie on their little capes and swoop to the rescue. A little toleration goes a long way in letting a garden find its ecological balance. If you must intervene, use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices for the least intrusive approach. Look online (http://ipm.ucanr.edu/) for the University of California's IPM recommendations.
Consider leaving some seed heads, berries and dormant vegetation to provide food and shelter for over-wintering birds and beneficial insects. You'll enjoy the life and movement in your garden and nature will thank you.
Choose plants that bring year-round interest, varying bloom times or offering winter leaf color and berries. Know each plant's mature size before planting. Less pruning means less work for you, less stress for the plant and less waste in the recycling stream.
Include a diversity of species to more closely mimic nature and make it less likely that pests will thrive. Notice what thrives in your area. If a plant is happy in nature and you can replicate that environment in your garden, you can bring the feel of nature home.
Native Plant Sale: U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa will have an information table at the California Native Plant Society Napa Chapter's plant sale on Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Skyline Park in Napa. The preview party for CNPS members and guests is Friday, October 14, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Skyline Park.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.