by Charlene Burgi
It seems like every gardening magazine, website catalog and gardening blog I have read this month is touting decorative grasses for the garden. The grasses are often colorful; the wind plays with them to create a relaxing, undulating movement; they are low-water users; and their glorious textures add interest that demands your attention. Why, then, am I talking about these lovely grasses under the subject of danger lurking?
Despite the attractive benefits of these grasses, the articles and ads raise a red flag for me. It is certain that these plants raise a red flag for our fire departments, too. Our beautiful natural surroundings in Marin can act as a tinderbox and threat to our homes—especially if we are adding fuel to the fire in our gardens. The decorative grasses featured in the magazines, ads and blogs fit into this category (in contrast to irrigated no-mow lawns, which can help provide defensible space). These plants are extremely dry and act as tinder when conditions such as low humidity, wind and high temperatures come together.
Several years ago I worked for a contractor as a senior arborist for PG&E. I worked on the Vision Fire that devastated homes in Inverness. I also investigated fires in the hills of Napa and Sonoma. These experiences taught me a lot. I saw gardens that saved homes because of properly designed defensible space, and I also witnessed extreme conditions and poor landscape designs that funneled fire toward homes that were destroyed.
At that time I also worked closely with what is now called Cal Fire, as well as local city fire departments. These firefighters showed me how rapidly a fire can start with just a tiny spark when weather conditions are right and ignition meets fire fuel. They demonstrated how the heat from the undercarriage of our cars can ignite tall grass, or how a rock thrown from a lawn mower or weed eater can spark. They showed how fire traveling uphill moves much faster than on level ground. All in all, they showed the devastation fire causes and what measures can be taken to prevent destruction.
What are we doing to protect this beauty and our homes? If your property abuts open space, are you keeping low-fuel plants along the property line? Are the trees limbed-up 10 feet off of the ground? If you are on a hillside, are you aware of the defensible space needed to protect your home if there were a fire? Are you using mulch that doesn’t add to the mix?
The fire departments provide wonderful literature that explains defensible space. I wonder how many of us will practice these suggestions? Do we take the complacent attitude that it isn’t a problem that affects my home? Does the lack of concern hinge around how well-watered the garden is without thought that some plants in the garden are more prone to fire than others? And what does this have to do with water conservation? Consider the amount of our natural resources—i.e., water—that it takes to fight a fire. Protect our reservoirs by being fire-safe. Keep the decorative grasses away from the property lines, keep the garden weed-free and irrigate low-water-use plants that are also low on fire fuel. Find more fire-smart landscaping tips here.
If you’re looking for garden inspiration, we’ve posted a photo album on our Facebook page with pictures from the Marin Bay-Friendly Garden Tour held May 19. You might find some creative ideas that can add to beauty of your garden and many ways to help create defensible space.
Centennial Celebration on the Watershed June 23
MMWD is pleased to partner with the California Academy of Sciences to host an all-day, FREE, family-friendly program Saturday, June 23, on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed in celebration of MMWD’s 100-year anniversary. The program includes volunteer citizen-science opportunities and features an all-day “bioblitz” to collect and document rare and native botanical specimens. There will also be guided walks and workshops on wild sound stories, birding, the Bay Area Puma Project, tracks and scat, butterflies, astronomy and more! Check out the schedule and plan to join us for this once-in-a-hundred-years event!