Fire-smart landscaping — steps you can take towards the new landscape normal

Historically, the landscape norm has been to use plantings to hide the foundation of the house, grow vines and ivy on arbors and sides of houses, and plant trees near the house that protrude above the roofs.

Living with fire today leads us to a new landscape norm. Given the growing threat of forest fires, we all need to adapt our landscapes to be fireproof. Plants in your landscape can cool your home, add real estate value, absorb and purify water, provide wildlife habitat, food for your family, and much more.

Non-combustible materials help create pathways, hold back slopes, improve wildlife habitat, hold back water, and disrupt vegetation continuity so fire cannot spread from plant to plant and reach your home.

Customizing your home can be done step by step as your time and budget allow. With good planning, you can accelerate the changes necessary to create a brand-smart, low-maintenance, climate-resilient, water-saving, wild and environmentally friendly landscape.

A fireproof landscape is an upgrade for your home filled with a mix of well-placed plants and non-flammable materials. The recommended new landscape standard is to minimize or eliminate combustible material within the first five feet of your home.

Here are the steps to turn your landscape into a fire smart landscape:

Set goals and priorities. Your overall goal is to ensure a safe route from your home to your escape route for you and your family (exit) as well as firefighters to reach your home (entry). Contact your local fire department to learn more about space regulations in your location. Then document the fireproof landscaping goals and priorities that are appropriate for the safety of your neighborhood, property, person, and family. Your first goal might be to identify the route from your home to your evacuation route. Another goal could be to assess the three feet perimeter around your home and identify combustible materials near your home. Explore and understand the nature of the plants that already surround your home. How much dead and combustible material do they produce? How should you approach your current landscaping to remove dead debris and combustible material?

Photo by Marie Narlock

Once established, many Native California and other plants with Mediterranean climates thrive with little or no water.

Develop a plan. Now that you know your goals and priorities, it is time to evaluate your current landscape in order to understand the purpose of each plant, to study what type of landscape materials in the climate you live in and the soil on Your property will thrive, understand your irrigation needs and the sunny and shady spots. If working in your garden is a low priority, choose easy-care plants. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are excellent choices to begin your search for an easy-to-maintain landscape. Focus on plants and trees native to California, Australia, and Mediterranean summer arid climates. You can find descriptions of low-maintenance systems at marinmg.ucanr.edu/PLANTS/EXTRA_EASY.

Implement the plan. Implementing your plan can be done by a professional yourself or with friends and neighbors. The work is done slowly and steadily. Make small, incremental, and regular changes. A good place to start is to remove dead and flammable materials and make sure your exit and entry routes are clear.

• Maintenance. Be proactive instead of reactive. Constant care ensures that your plants survive and thrive. Water, fertilize carefully, and monitor for pests, sunlight or deficiency, soil health, and growth to maintain adequate spacing between plants. Keep it up.

Adapting your landscape to the new normal of forest fires will provide a healthy, aesthetically pleasing home for wildlife while creating a defensible barrier against fire for you, your family, your home and our firefighters.

The University of California’s Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extension and provide scientific and research-based information for home gardeners. Email questions to helpdesk@marinmg.org. Please attach photos to inquiries about pests or diseases. The office is closed for visits.

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