Landscaping: Think ahead with fire-resistant plants

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Safety from summer fires and wintertime beauty are the gifts of native Red Osier Dogwood.

With smoke-filled summers fresh in our minds, why not consider landscaping plans to protect your own property? There’s nothing more terrifying than the roar of a forest fire - but one that threatens your home is the most terrifying of all.

The subject of fire-resistant landscaping is an enormous one, and really includes planning from the actual building and placement of your house, but for most of us, a few steps taken during garden planning can provide some protection in the event of fire.

An excellent source is the University of Idaho Extension booklet “Protecting and Landscaping Homes in the Wildland/Urban Interface” – a valuable resource for builders and landscapers as well as home gardeners seeking to find an edge in the threat of fire. An Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Experiment Station publication, it is available from Forest Service and/or Extension offices as Station Bulletin No. 67, contribution No. 844.

With fall planting under way, and spring plans in the works as well, today’s column will address some of the appropriate information.

Fire-resistive plants share the following characteristics: High moisture content in their leaves; little or no seasonal accumulation of dead vegetation; low volume of total vegetation; an open, loose branching habit; are slow growing. A partial list of possible choices includes a variety of native and domestic ornamentals and ground-covers:

Ajuga, Allium, Aquilegia (columbine), Arabis (rockcress), Kinnikinnick, Artemisia, Asarum (wild ginger), Aster, Bergenia, Campanula, Chrysanthemum, Coral bells, Coreopsis, Cotoneaster, Daylily, Delphinium, Dianthus, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Galium (sweet woodruff), Geranium (hardy Crane’s bill), Grapes, Honeysuckle, Iris, Lilies, Lupine, Mahonia (Oregon grape), Poppy, Penstemon, Phlox (creeping varieties), Roses, Rudbeckia, Salvia (sage), Sedum, Vinca, Violets, Wisteria.

Succulents: Hen and chicks make the ideal fire-resistive plant. With other succulents, such as rockcress, Moss rose, Sedums like stonecrop can tumble among rocks for pretty garden spots that do not draw fire.

Shrubs include Serviceberry, Barberry, Burning bush, Butterfly bush, Chokecherry, Cornus (red and yellow) osier dogwood), Currant, Elderberry, Forsythia, Lilac, Ninebark, Ocean spray, Pachistima (Mountain lover), wild Strawberry, Raspberry and Blackberry, Rhododendron, Snowberry, Sumac, Syringa, Viburnum.

Trees: Maple, horsechestnut/buckeye, Alder, Hawthorn, Ash, Apple/crabapple, Aspen. Poplar and Cottonwood, Locust (black and honey), Mountain ash, Prunus (cherry, prune, plum), Willow.

Grasses: Wheatgrass, buffalograss, orchardgrass, fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass. Green turf is very fire-resistive, so if you have lawn space, keep it well watered through the summer, or keep it trimmed low, especially close to the house.

Points to remember: When maintaining your landscape, you must actively reduce fuel accumulations by regular pruning, mowing, raking and removal. The less accumulated plant debris, the slower a fire will spread and the lower your spot-fire potential. Pay extra attention to flammable materials that contact the house. Keep the roof and gutters clear of needles and other debris. Don’t allow plant litter deposited by wind to accumulate in corners or at the foundation of the house.

If trees have just a few branches within 10-15 feet of each other, prune them back. If adjacent trees have many branches crowding together, it may be time to thin out a few more trees. This will also improve the health of the remaining trees. Prune dead branches as needed. Cut or pull seedlings periodically after they emerge in the understory. For trees you are keeping, be sure to water them directly and deeply Ñ lawn watering does not usually penetrate the sod to the tree roots.

As to the overall landscape, remember to observe the basics: clean debris from roof and yard frequently, concentrate plant materials in “islands” surrounded by nonflammable walls (rocks or bricks) and well-watered or short turf. Prune trees up from the base six to 15 feet, and treat a minimum distance of 100 feet around your home, removing or replacing highly flammable brush, shrubs and dead trees.

In summertime, be ready at a moment’s notice in the event of a threatening wildfire: Post numbers of fire protection agencies near your phones; have emergency food, water, clothing and pet supplies and carriers at hand to evacuate - including horses and other livestock; always park in the direction of escape with an extra ignition key always handy. If there is time, wet down decks, siding, lawns and roof, cover attic and basement vents, shut off gas supply and move gas grills away from structures. Turn on all indoor and outdoor lights to make your house easier for firefighters to find in the dark.

Hopefully, this last paragraph will be moot. But being prepared is always the best remedy. The booklet warns that in the end “there are no fire proof plant materials. Landscape maintenance and plant care (pruning and watering) is far more important than the selection of fire-resistive versus fire-prone plant materials.”

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at bcdailybee@bonnercountydailybee.com. or by phone at 208-265-4688.

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