Carla Albright

Carla Albright

In my last column I promised more information on bringing toads and snakes into the garden to deal with unwanted insects. But since that column was necessarily postponed to make room for fire news, I thought I would reschedule the toad/snake column in favor on one that addresses making our gardens more fire-resistant.

Notice I said “resistant” because - like there are no “deer-proof” plants - there are no “fire-proof” plants either. But there are some things we can do to lessen the impact of fire around our homes. This is especially important if your home is located near forests or dry rangeland.

Although the Tillamook Forest experienced a series of large fires from 1933 to 1951, the Pike Fire this summer has been one of the larger fires since those Tillamook Burns. And it was a real wake-up call to all of us who experienced the evacuations and smoke that blanketed the county. So it may be time to rethink your landscaping and do something about it now.

First, take active steps to remove fuel close to the house. Wood piles should be at least 30 feet away from the home. Remove dead trees or shrubs that are close to buildings as well as taking leaves and pine needles from the gutters. Cut back any tree branches that extend over the house or near the chimney. Don’t forget to clean out dead debris from under your decks as well.

Dry bark mulch can easily spread sparks and flames to buildings. Instead, try placing gravel or decorative stones around the base of the home. You can also use a combination of gravel and bark mulch. Just be sure to water the bark mulch as much as you water the plants in it.

Next is the selection of plants. Fire-resistant plants are those who have moist and supple leaves and low or non-existent sap and resin. Many of our deciduous trees and shrubs are fire-resistant. Also, any plants that are well-watered and well-maintained can help reduce the damage from fires. Annuals, by their very nature, fit into this category of being well-watered. Keeping your lawn watered and healthy can also reduce the chance of fire spreading to the home.

Many shrubs and perennials are flammable and while they can be used in the garden, should not be planted close to the house. Those with a gummy sap or papery bark are more likely to catch fire. But, again, many can be easily used closer to homes. Lamium, phlox and sedum species are all good groundcovers for closer to buildings.

Armeria (sea thrift), columbine, Bergenia, delphinium and cone flowers all make good perennials to place closer in, too. Cranesbill, day lilies and heuchera are also good choices. You can have a colorful and plentiful flower garden that is also safe. Amazingly, although it is filled with fragrant oils, lavender is also slow to ignite if kept well-watered. Lupines, penstemon, honeysuckle…I could go on and on.

Easier is to refer you to a publication put out by the Oregon State University Extension Service. Their volume number PNW590 is titled “Fire- Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes” and it has not only good tips for planting safely, but a long list – with photos – of plants that are less flammable and very attractive in the garden. They also explain why those particular plants were chosen for their list. When I went to find it online, I saw it is out-of-stock right now ($3 cost) but you can also download a pdf copy at no charge. The link for the OSU site is: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/pnw590 .

Another site I found extremely helpful in doing my research for this column is from California. Called Readyforwildfire.org, it comes from CalFire and gives a lot of great information. As well as giving ideas for fire-resistant landscaping, it also has ideas for setting up a defensible space around your home and for hardening your home to better prevent ignition by wind-borne sparks. Of course, California has had some devastating fires in the past decade – as has Oregon – so CalFire knows what they are talking about. The link for that is: https://www.readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/defensible-space/ .

It benefits us all to be thinking about safety in advance of a fire. Autumn is a great time to move plants or purchase new shrubs, trees and perennials for the garden. Along with growing conditions like sun/shade, moist/dry, and hardiness zones, consider flammability as well. Your neighbors will thank you, too.

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