Firesafe Landscaping – Part II

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Last week I talked about how to make the area closer to your home more firesafe. Here are some more tips.

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Shaded fuel brake information sign

In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire from spreading to your home. Be cautious with slopes. If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter. This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.

Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that do not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.

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A shaded fuel break

Extremely flammable plants have a high content of oil or resin and should be separated from each other, removed of dead branches and lower limbs and kept free of dry debris anywhere around your property. Extremely flammable pyrophytes like hollywood juniper, pines, fountain grass and Japanese honeysuckle will need a higher level of maintenance. Other common plants that are highly flammable are sagebrush, buckwheat and deer grass. Rosemary and purple hopseed also fall into this category. These contain oils, resins and waxes that make them burn with a greater intensity. If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.

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Tree trimmed, shrubs thinned to prevent fire ladder

Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially within 30 ft around your home. Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.

Mulching around your plants will preserve moisture in the soil and in your plants. Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent. As you get 70-100 ft from the home native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.

Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from two valuable booklets, ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire department or online and another booklet published by the Calif. Department of Forestry.

Firesafe Landscaping – Part I

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With the recent heat wave and the fires burning now in Southern California I’m reminded of our vulnerability to wildfires. The Martin Fire of 2008 and the Lockheed fire of 2009 together burned over 8,000 acres. I often hike in Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve and live close-by where these fires occurred. There’s a large, burned manzanita along the trail that serves as a grim reminder of the devastation that wildfire left in it’s wake. The skeleton-like manzanita, ponderosa pine and many other plants are regrowing from seed left in the soil. The fire was so hot it killed even the plant crowns preventing many of them from re-sprouting. I’ve been monitoring the regrowth for years and it’s progressing nicely but you don’t want this to happen to your property. Is there a landscape that is safer in a wildfire than another? Which plants burn more readily?

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Manzanita burned in Martin Fire. Bonny Doon 2008 – photo taken in 2012 in Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Many people think they have to clear everything within 30 feet of their house to truly have a defensible space. This is unnecessary and actually unacceptable due to soil erosion and habitat destruction reasons. We want to retain the character of this beautiful area we live in, provide the food and shelter that our native wildlife are accustomed to but also reduce fire risk. For example, grasslands mowed to leave 4-6″ of height allow insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals shelter, food and a place to reproduce. Leaving 4-6″ standing also provides some erosion protection and shades out some of the weeds that follow disturbance.

Fire safe landscaping is a term used to describe defensible space. It can look like a traditional landscape. The idea is to surround the home with things less likely to burn and place them to provide separation between canopies and avoid creating fire ladders. Highly flammable plants should be placed, whenever possible, with low-growing and/or low fuel plants.

Many homes may not have 30 ft. between their house and the property line but following these guidelines will help. Plants in this area need to be the slowest to ignite and should produce the least amount of heat if they do burn. There are plants with some fire resistance which include drought tolerant California natives and Mediterranean climate selections. The key to fire resistance, though, is maintenance and keeping the moisture in the foliage high.

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Same manzanita showing surrounding regrowth in 2015

For example, Baccharis pilularis or dwarf coyote brush is generally considered highly flammable if its lush green top growth covers a hazardous tangle of dry branches and leaves several feet high. Trim this plant down low in early spring, remove the dry undergrowth, follow with a light feeding and watering and the new top growth is now resistant to fire.

Other considerations may be as important such as appearance, ability to hold the soil in place and wildlife habitat value. Some fire-resistant California friendly plants are western redbud, monkey flower, ceanothus, sage, yarrow, lavender, toyon, California fuchsia and wild strawberry. Also consider coffeeberry, flowering currant, bush anemone, snowberry, California wax myrtle and evergreen currant. Fire resistant plants from areas include rockrose, strawberry tree, Chinese pistache, barberry, escallonia, oleander, pittosporum, bush morning glory and wisteria to name just a few.

Keep your landscaping firesafe to protect your home.

What is a Sustainable Landscape?

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I have a bat house on my property although the bats haven’t taken to it yet. I understand the importance of bats and bat conservation in the environment. I incorporate many California native plants in my own landscape and continue to add them to gardens I design. I encourage bees and other pollinators by creating a sustainable habitat for them in my garden. I use my water wisely conserving our finite water supply. I use organic pest control only if necessary to protect our watersheds from chemical contamination. I feel I am on the right track of sustainability and stewardship of the environment. But can I do more?

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Organic plant starts at Garden Faire

Last week I attended The Garden Faire held at Sky Park in Scotts Valley. As I walked around the exhibits and listened to interesting speakers all the while serenaded by world music I thought to myself how can one person put all this valuable information to use in their own lives and gardens? How can I live more in harmony with nature?

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Apple tree display at Garden Faire

How can I sequester more carbon by my plants to store in the soil? How can I protect the biodiversity already in place in my mixed redwood forest environment? Even though I don’t have the right conditions to grow my own organic food can I buy from growers who use ecological process on their farms? What native plants around my own house can I eat?

You hear the word sustainability used to describe everything from flooring to roofing to landscaping but what exactly is a sustainable landscape?

Sustainable landscapes are so well adapted to their environment that they require little in maintenance. Choosing plants adapted to your garden size, type of soil and climate keeps watering and fertilizing to a sensible level and reduces pruning as plants grow to the size needed and stay there.

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Urbanite retaining wall

Sustainable landscapes use recycled, salvaged, durable building materials whenever possible. They use mainly materials that are harvested locally and use imported stone as an accent. Sustainable landscapes try to reuse what you already have laying it out differently to look like a totally new landscape.

Sustainable landscapes clean the air and water. They increase on-site infiltration of rain water to reduce runoff and minimize the amount of contaminants washed into the watershed and the bay. By keeping water onsite it can move into the soil where organisms breakdown pollutants and naturally filter them out before the water reaches groundwater or our waterways.

Sustainable landscapes conserve water by installing and

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Swallowtail feeding on butterfly bush

maintaining high efficiency watering systems making every drop of irrigation water count. They create drought resistant soils by adding compost and mulch. They group plants by watering needs to irrigate them more efficiently.

Sustainable landscapes restore habitats by attracting native pollinators, beneficial insects and other organisms that reduce the need for pesticides. A sustainable landscape restores natural areas on the outskirts of your landscape to diversify your plant community.

Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, energy efficient and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities.

Troubleshooting Plant Problems

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Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving. And whether it’s a car problem, your smart phone, an irrigation system or yellowing leaves on a plant the goal is to solve it and make the product or process operational again. When you eliminate the potential causes of the problem hopefully the solution restores everything to its working order. Sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would say and it’s sometimes easier said than done as we all have experienced.

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sunburned heauchera leaves

A few weeks ago I received a text with pictures of some plants with brown spots and asked what I thought might be the problem with their plants. This was after the heat wave we experienced and after asking a few questions about irrigation, location and how long the plants had been in the ground, I determined that the plant leaves had been burned in a pattern consistent with the location of the beating sun. At this time of year plants are growing wildly and need a good soak moistening the entire root zone. The solution: Better to water deeply less often than lightly which might not reach all the roots.

The subject of how much fertilizer and what kind came up in another troubleshooting email thread between some fellow horticulturalists. The issue was whether to use another round of organic high phosphate fertilizer in order to encourage bud development on a notoriously short-season tree dahlia. After some lively discussion we decided that the early spring application of rock phosphate was sufficient. Sometimes adding too much phosphorus may actually hurt a plant by preventing the uptake of other nutrients which must also be available to the plant in order to prevent unexpected deficiencies to appear. A balanced fertilizer containing all three nutrients- nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-was recommended for the remainder of the season.

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yellow leaves on lemon

Then there were some problems in my own garden. Well, it seems I am always trying to solve something with plants, pests or critters but this was with my lemon tree. At first I was perplexed when the older leaves of my lemon tree started turning yellow a couple months ago. The new growth looked fine so it wasn’t an iron deficiency where the young leaves display green veins along with the yellowish color.

It wasn’t a nitrogen deficiency either where the mature leaves slowly bleach to a mottled irregular green and yellow pattern, become entirely yellow and then are shed while the discoloration spreads to the younger leaves. I had fertilized in March with an all-purpose balanced fertilizer. Citrus are heavy feeders and require a steady source of nitrogen, the ideal citrus fertilizer having a ration of 3:1:1 (N:P:K)

After eliminating other mineral deficiencies or overwatering as the problem I decided that my lemon was simply dropping interior leaves which is normal after winter but I wanted to trouble shoot all potential causes to be sure citrus greening wasn’t the culprit. If it had been this deadly disease the leaves would have exhibited an asymmetrical pattern.

To quote Sherlock Holmes “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I’ll try to remember that when I’m troubleshooting my next problem in the garden.

California Natives for Containers

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My ambitious plans to augment this garden here in Bonny Doon with California natives and colorful plants to attract birds and wildlife is not turning out exactly as I’d pictured. I thought that I had licked my gopher problem by planting everything in baskets. Not so, now they just come up next to their plant of choice at night and eat whole thing from the top, dragging the rest down into their neat little hole while leaving the root still snug in its basket. Hopefully, some will regrow from the roots.

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Western azalea

But I’m not giving up on planting for the birds and bees. I’ve got plans to increase my container garden collection. Gardening in containers is easy. I can control the soil, water and light and the gophers can’t undermine my efforts. There are a lot of California native plants that do well in containers and I’m going to place them where both the birds and I can enjoy them.

For some of my largest containers I’ll choose from natives like Western Azalea, Deer Grass, Chaparral Pea or Giant Chain Fern. Any of the taller growing ceanothus and manzanita would look great too by themselves or combined with smaller growing plants.

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Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

For small to medium containers I can use Conejo Buckwheat, Hummingbird Mint, Penstemon Heterophyllos, Mimulus, Woolly Blue Curls or Coastal Daisy, These combine well with colorful Lewisia, Dog Violets or Wild Strawberry.

I might combine a madrone with a Canyon Gray Coastal Sagebrush – Artemisia californica – which grows about a foot high and will trail over the side of the container adding beautiful gray color to contrast with the rich green of the other leaves. I also like the combination of California Hazelnut, Deer Fern, Redwood Sorrel and Wild Ginger.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Giant Elk Clover is one such California native that is an attention getter. Chilopsis linearis-Desert Willow is another great subject for containers as it is slow growing and beautiful in leaf and flower. Other architectural natives that will catch your eye as the centerpiece of a container are Hibiscus or Rose Mallow and Pacific Dogwood. The thriller goes in the center of the pot or if your container will be viewed from only one side it goes in the back.

Next come the fillers. They can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. Good fillers include Heuchera Maxima and Western Maidenhair Fern.

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California fuchsia

The last plants I’ll add are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container. Redwood Sorrel, Wild Ginger and Miner’s Lettuce are good choices. California Fuchsia would look spectacular with its red or orange flowers and grey foliage spilling down the side of my container.

The best overall soil mix for natives in containers sharp sand and horticultural pumice added to a good potting soil. Never use perlite or that puffed up pumice because it will float and look terrible. Happy Container Gardening.

Gardening for the Birds with Cats

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My garden is alive with birds. Butterflies and bees also seem to find it an interesting place to visit. When I first moved up to this house in Bonny Doon the prior owners had hung a couple of small hummingbird feeders which attracted only a few hummers. Their plantings consisted of manzanita and ceanothus varieties. Both great plants to attract birds but not much diversity. It felt like I was living in a void without the sound of song birds or the whir of hummingbird wings. It’s taken me a season or two but between the new plants I’ve added and the seed, suet and nectar feeders I’ve hung throughout the garden I attract dozens and dozens of my winged friends.

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Sam Spade with his Birdsbsafe collar

How is this all possible sharing the garden with two cats? I knew right away that I couldn’t live with myself if I attracted birds only to have them endangered by Sam and Archer. As natural predators they couldn’t help getting into trouble. The problem was solved by the brightly colored, clown-like collar from Birdsbesafe they each wear that makes them more visible to birds. Neither wore a collar previously but they don’t seem to mind or notice they look like court jesters.

The birds in the garden are safe now or very nearly so and I’m happy too. It’s the height of breeding season and the birds are going nuts in the garden. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures. Fortunately there are many that have low water requirements which is a prerequisite these days.

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Purple finch

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and the hybrid of the two- Eddie’s White Wonder- are all very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries of dogwood are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.

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Lesser goldfinch

In every garden possible I try to include low water use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds.

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. I always can find space for another variety of salvia.
Galvezia, mimulus, monardella, California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for birds in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

Everybody loves winged creatures in the garden. Adding plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies is at the top of the list of requests for nearly every garden that I design.

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