FIRE-SMART LANDSCAPING TIPS FROM THE
MARIN UC MASTER GARDENERS
from the firesafemarin.org website (2022)
JANUARY IS TIME TO PRUNE!
Prune trees when dormant (except apricot and cherry).
Trim tall trees to remove limbs 6 to 10 feet from the ground but keep at least 2/3 of the total height in foliage.
Remove branches within 10 ft of chimney. Consult an arborist to consider elimination of branches that overhang the roof to minimize plant debris but not to the detriment of the health of the tree.
Avoid topping trees and shearing hedges as this causes weak and twiggy growth and more fuel for a fire.
Right Tree, Right Place.
A fire-smart landscape can have many types of trees. Remember the design of defensible spaces in your garden. Plan ahead. Space trees so that at maturity the canopies will have 10 feet of clearance from the roof and chimney.
Trees shade, cool, clean the air, sequester carbon, and support wildlife for an earth-friendly garden.
Trees offer privacy, edible fruit, noise reduction, colorful flowers, and seasonal foliage.
Select a tree adapted to your climate zone and your garden conditions.
Consider maintenance. Evergreen trees produce fallen leaves and debris year-round. Deciduous or fruiting trees drop leaves or fruit annually.
Thin trees so that the branches between trees or groupings of trees do not touch and have at least 10 ft. separation between groups of trees.
Think Lean, Clean, and Green
Here’s a fire-smart landscaping tip from UC Marin Master Gardeners. Spring is the time to make your garden lean, clean, and green, and create a well maintained and defensible space around your property.
Lean: Keep plants thinned, pruned, and low growing. Have space between individual plants, or plant in small, irregular clusters or islands. Space trees so that at maturity the crowns are 10 feet apart or more.
Clean: Remove fallen leaves and needles, dried grass, weeds, dead branches, and other dead vegetation. Check gutters, roof, eaves, vents and chimney for leaf and needle litter. Rake fallen leaves, then compost or remove.
Green: Properly irrigated plants remain healthy and green summer through fall. Check your irrigation system regularly for leaks or malfunctions.
The Fire-Smart Sanctuary
Create a fire-smart sanctuary. By using sustainable and earth friendly garden practices, your garden can be a place for pollinators and insects to travel through, making it a pollinator corridor.
The UC Marin Master Gardeners have plant lists to help homeowners select attractive, easy care, water wise, and pollinator friendly plants. California natives are a good choice that include important host and nectar plants.
Remove invasive plants. Unfortunately, excessive clearing or “scorched earth” gardening provides a vulnerable entry point for the plants we do not want.
When problems arrive, use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for the least toxic and most natural methods of pest management. Avoid pesticides that can harm birds and other wildlife.
Nurture the soil to protect the life in it. Add compost and organic materials rather than synthetic fertilizers.
Maintain Plants Along Home Exit Routes
Remove climbing vines and wood planters near windows and doors.
May is a good month to observe the health of plantings along the exit routes from your home to your vehicle. Exits may be through doors or windows and along a path to a vehicle parked on a street, a detached garage, or a meeting place with neighbors. Embers can ignite combustible material along your exit route, possibly preventing you from exiting your home or a fire fighter from entering.
Identify the escape routes to your vehicle
Remove or move jute door mats, wood planters and other combustible materials from your exits
Assess the health and condition of the plants along each route
Remove dead plant material and plant debris
Remove vines near doors or windows
Replace wood gates, arbors or trellises near exit routes with noncombustible material
Fire-smart Landscaping Tip: Clean-up and Spruce-up
It’s time to clean-up and spruce-up. By eliminating or moving combustible items surrounding your home, you can take the first step towards making your landscape fire-smart. Grab a bucket, a broom and a hand pruner and start these easy-to-do maintenance tasks today:
Clean-up areas where wind eddies deposit leaf and plant litter along the perimeter of your home.
Clear dead debris from flower beds close to the home.
Rake up wood mulch within 5 feet of the home and move it to another location in your garden.
Trim dead, damaged and diseased branches and dispose of the material in your green waste bin.
Move common combustible fire hazards away from the area immediately surrounding your home including brooms, rakes, plastic waste bins, wood furniture, furniture cushions, wood piles, and natural fiber door mats. Move these items as far away from your house as possible – or indoors if a nearby wildfire threatens.
Mindfully Mulch with Wildfire Preparedness in Mind
UC Marin Master Gardeners like the mantra, mulch, mulch, mulch. Adding wood mulch to your landscape helps to improve soil structure and fertility. In a fire-smart landscape, it’s important to take precautions when using mulch. Please follow these guidelines to create defensible space around your home:
Zero to five feet from your house: use only non-combustible mulch such as stone, rock and gravel.
Five to 30 feet from your home: use composted wood chips or bark nuggets. Limit mulch depth to two inches to prevent embers from smoldering. Separate continuous wood chip areas with non-flammable materials such as decomposed granite, gravel and rocks.
30 feet and beyond from your home: use composted or medium to large wood chips up to a depth of three inches.
Do not use fine, stringy mulches. They burn faster than larger chunks.
Here’s a UC Marin Master Gardener fire-smart landscaping tip for August:
Remove dead plants and debris.
Keep a vigilant eye on plants that may be suffering from drought. If too drought damaged, a plant may not recover and will need to be removed.
Within 5 feet of the perimeter of structures on your property, move wood mulch or foundation plants to other locations on the property.
Keep your irrigation system in good condition to optimize water distribution to plants.
Hand watering before 9 am when it’s cool is an option when irrigation is not optimized and water is restricted.
Limit replacement plantings to climate appropriate plants such as California native species, and plants native to Mediterranean summer dry climates.
Do not wet down your property on Red Flag warning days. Water as normal.
Clearly mark all emergency (and other) water sources.
Create easy firefighter access to your closest emergency water source and provide extra hoses.
Take the time to clean up your property, especially close to structures. These steps are good preparation for the rainy season as well as peak fire season.
Clear leaf and needle litter from gutters, roof, eaves, and around vents, chimney, and the foundation (in “Zone Zero”)
Clear branches 10 feet from the chimney and from the roof
Rake-up excess fallen leaves and evergreen needles
Remove dead vegetation, dead wood from trees and shrubs, and cut dry grasses to less than 4 inches long
While looking around, check plants for drought stress – healthy plants are more resilient
Right Plant - Right Place
Plant spacing, size control and maintenance are more important than type of plant. There are no fire-resistant plants, since all plants can burn. Rather than focus on individual plant species, consider growth habits and plant characteristics.
In general, avoid plants and trees that:
Produce excessive dead, dry, or fine debris that can become fuel for fire
Tend to build up dead thatch inside or under a green surface layer
Shed large quantities of needles, leaves, fronds, dry bark, and other debris
Choose drought tolerant flowers, low-growing non-woody shrubs and deep-rooted trees with thick bark, leaves over needles.
Space trees, shrubs and grasses to minimize and slow the transmission of fire from one plant to another.
Space trees so that at maturity their crowns are 10 to 15 feet apart or more.
Avoid planting trees in rows or hedges.
The steeper the slope, the more space to leave between plants and trees.
Plant spacing, size control and maintenance are more important than type of plant.
Maintain vertical clearance of at least 3X the shrub’s height between the tops of shrubs and the bottom of the tree canopy. This can be done by pruning the shrub down, or pruning smaller, easily ignitable tree branches up, or both.
Make a fire-smart plan. Consider existing plants, budget, and how much maintenance you are willing to do. Start by understanding the three defensible space zones. The idea is to decrease the energy and speed of a fire by eliminating continuous, dense vegetation vertically and horizontally. Defensible space allows a safer space to defend property. Plant spacing and maintenance is key.
Zone 0: 0 to 5 feet from the house. This is the most critical area. Minimize combustible materials and separate plants with non-combustible materials (concrete, brick, rocks, decomposed granite, gravel). Eliminate combustible plants and mulch near structures, especially windows. Select plants that are easy to maintain that do not produce excessive debris.
Zone 1: 5 to 30 feet from the house. Separate plantings and garden beds with hardscape and provide ample plant spacing to slow the spread of flames.
Zone 2: 30 to 100 feet from the house. Here, you can use larger shrubs and trees planted in widely spaced groups or “islands.” Consider the mature size of plants and shrubs to maintain spaces.