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New residents to the mountains want to get back-to-nature. Seeking solitude and escaping the rat race are good reasons to live near the forest. Locally we call this the urban-wildland interface. However, with woodland lifestyle comes risk. As we say this week, the primary hazard is the danger of wildfire.
As a diehard gardener I take the middle ground on firewise landscaping. You can have a beautiful landscape design that is also safe. Folks new to preparing for wildfire are too extreme, or fall in love with their chainsaw and cut most plants down in the landscape and rock it over. Let me try to summarize years of wildfire training and teaching that is safe, sane and pretty in just a few paragraphs.
The top priority outdoors is creating a defensible space. This area serves as a buffer zone as fire approaches your home. The goal is to keep a fire moving slow and low until it can be extinguished. Some plants are more flammable than others and if we thin these varieties closest to the house it keeps fire close to the ground and moving slow.
Evergreen conifers are high in combustible resins and waxes that make them evergreen and durable, except in the case of fire. Reduce the number of juniper, pine, spruce and cedars close to the house, each is high in plant resins and burn easily. Replace them with deciduous plants, or those that loose their leaves in winter. Deciduous plants not only hold more water in their foliage, which make them much more difficult to burn, but they drop their foliage during the winter months and reduce combustible materials in the landscape if leaves are picked up in winter.
Think camping for a moment. Throw a freshly picked pine branch on the campfire and it ignites easily with a whole lot of smoke. Throw a leafy oak branch, ash or cottonwood on the same camp fire and it is likely to smolder and wither, and finally catches the blaze only after the hydrating life has been sucked from its limbs. These are the branches that never finished burning and still there the next morning.
Fire wise plants can be very pretty and shine like this week's Pow Wow Wildberry Echinacea. This ruby toned beauty produces a floriferous flurry of huge 4" raspberry rose flowers with a darker center. Very difficult to ignite in a wildfire, this outstanding new variety is the winner of the garden acclaimed AAS award. Winning the ribbon by the skin of her pedals for the continual bloom right through the summer heat and into fall. This full bodied, well branching 20" plant requires little dead-heading or upkeep, and loves the heat. It is possible to have a pretty firewise garden that blooms summer through fall.
Characteristics of firewise plants are five fold:
Water like sap
High moisture content
Low resin content, much like the Echinacea mentioned.
Water and feed the landscape to keep healthy. Water your existing natives once per month in summer until the monsoons arrive. Ornamental landscape plants appreciate a deep soak once per week. A layer of composted mulch helps suppress weeds and holds moisture in around healthy plants, especially helpful in June.
Avoid ladder fuels. This is where a dry grass ignites a taller shrub that catches the pine trees on fire, then jumps to the roof. Remember, our goal with a firewise landscape is to keep a fire on the ground, out of the canopies and off the roof. Ideally, design garden islands in the yard with an interesting plant mix separated from the next garden island by a driveway, patio or rock lawn. This firewise technique allow firefighters some space between gardens to fight the flames.
Clean debris from gutters and roof. Needles and leaves on the roof and gutters provide tinder for blowing sparks. Chip piles of brush and as a compost or remove it for disposal.
There are not enough words in this column for additional plant suggestions, but you have many choices. I have written a free garden list highlighting the landscape plants that are firewise titled, "Planting a Fire Wise Landscape". Free for the asking when you visit.
The right landscape design is critical when planting in the urban-wildland interface. Balance between existing trees, evergreens, irrigation that are balanced with additional firewise gardens is tricky. It's easy to get it wrong. I called in a favor from a landscape design buddy of mine. Rich Olsen is a master designer and knows how to create designs that are definitely firewise.
Rich has agreed to work for free every Friday to help locals figure our how to make their landscapes safe. He will modify a digital photo of your liking and suggest modification, but he only works at the garden center on Fridays from 9-3pm. You could also email a garden photo to him at email@example.com. You have to love those that actually care about the communities they live in:)
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Free Gardening Classes - Saturday's gardening class was our most popular session this spring so we're running it again. The class goes into detail about how to successfully garden in Arizona's high country. The class is free and starts at 9:30 a.m. Next week's class, July 6th, is on fruit and berry gardening: "Juicier Fruits, Grapes & Berries". Stop in and join in the gardening fun.
Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.