Garden Design Ideas for Fire-Prone Areas

We all know that wildfires are an increasingly common concern in many parts of the world, even in areas where they have not been an issue before. You may be considering fire safety for the first time or looking to future-proof your property in areas where wildfires are becoming more common. Either way, as a permaculture garden designer, I have created plans for a variety of climates and considerations, and today I thought I would share with you my simple design tips for gardens in fire-prone areas.

Make Sure Your Garden Is Well-Irrigated

In arid or semi-arid zones, ensuring that your garden is well-irrigated is key, since dry and thirsty plants will burn more easily. Make sure that you are harvesting rainwater when it falls, and that you have installed effective and water-wise irrigation systems. One example is drip lines, which use less water than sprinkler systems and use it more efficiently. A low-water irrigation system can make a real difference in lower-rainfall areas.

Have a Pond or Other Water on Your Property

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If possible, having a garden pond or other standing body of water on your property is a good idea. Such a feature can be carefully designed to mitigate against wildfires. It should be positioned between your home and the prevailing wind direction or the direction from which wildfires are most likely to come. 

Ponds have a wide range of benefits, and adding water to the landscape is an excellent idea. Think about topography and environmental factors when trying to decide where such a pond or water feature should go.

Create Fire Break Zones Around Your Home

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To help keep your home safe, it is important to ensure that no large trees or shrubs (especially those most flammable) are positioned too close.

Clearing brush and dead plant material zealously within this fire break zone is also a good idea. Make sure that tree branches don’t touch or hang over the house.

While organic mulches are essential for taking care of garden soil in most cases, it is best to use a non-flammable mulch for foundation planting and within the fire break zone around your home

Consider materials such as reclaimed gravel, crushed seashells, river rock, recycled glass, recycled porcelain, recycled concrete, or paver stones.

Choose More Fire-Resistant Plants

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Creating a fire-safe garden does not mean limiting the number of plants you grow. Though you should think carefully about the vegetation immediately surrounding your home. The University of California Cooperative Extention recommends that in the first five feet surrounding any structure, there should be nothing combustible, like woody plants, mulch, woodpiles, combustible trellises, or stored items.

They add that from 5 to 30 feet, plantings should be lean: “The goal is to eliminate connectivity between islands of vegetation by increasing the spacing between trees, removing lower branches of trees and shrubs, and creating areas of irrigated and mowed grass or hardscape between lush vegetation islands.”

Useful information about fire-safe planting can be found (as well as a list of plants suitable for the Pacific Northwest). Succulents and other more moisture-retentive plants are useful, but sappy, resinous plants should generally be avoided on sites that could be vulnerable to wildfires now or in the future.

“Lightweight fuels, such as leaves and small branches, generally ignite easily and burn rapidly. Plants with thick, succulent leaves—such as cacti, aloe, and century plants—usually maintain high leaf moisture content and take longer to ignite,” explains the University of Florida. “Small, needle-like leaves, like those on pines and cedars, are usually more flammable than wide, flat leaves, such as those on maples, oaks, and hickories. (The broad fronds of palms are exceptions to this rule, as they tend to have a relatively high flammability.)”

Remember that good garden design involves thinking not just about today but also about how things are likely to change tomorrow.

Keep All Plants in Your Garden as Healthy as You Can

In addition to thinking about which plants to grow, you also need to think about keeping those plants as healthy as possible. This means meeting their water and nutrition needs. Choose the right plants for the right places, taking your climate, microclimate, and soil into account.

Make sure you think holistically and do not consider plants in isolation. Create polycultures of plants that aid one another through guild creation and companion planting. Dead, damaged, or diseased plants are much more vulnerable to fire, and can cause fires to spread more quickly.

Build Healthy, Moisture-Retentive Soils

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Remember that to grow healthy plants, you need healthy soil. Keeping your soil healthy is, therefore, key to maintaining a fire-safe garden, as is irrigating as required. Choose plants that will improve soil health and keep the ecosystem in balance.

Creating a fire-safe garden is often a case of common sense. Of course, you cannot eradicate all risks in all locations—but you can make choices that may help a bit.

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