Doing our (gardening) homework

I wrote this for a local Bridgetown, Western Australia, magazine in February, 2012. It is still entirely relevant and the risk of bushfire attack is, unfortunately just as high. 

During this summer we have experienced, either directly, or – fortunately for most of us – indirectly, bushfires coming all too close to properties and, in the case of the Margaret River fires in November 2011, destroying many.  It catches our attention and we wonder whether this could happen to us.

For many of us, we have chosen to live at the edge of the forest or in a small subdivision carved out of an old farm that in its development removed much of the original vegetation.  The types of vegetation on the property that we purchased can vary immensely; ranging from remnant forest denizens such as gnarled old Marri and Blackbutt giants and their numerous offspring of differing ages and sizes, to the last vestiges of old orchard specimens – a venerable pear tree or a sprawling plum that has seen better days, but still bears exquisite fruit.  Ah … Sun-ripened plums picked warm from the tree.

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Plum blossom mid-September 2016. Plums are some of the earliest of the spring blossoms and are a low flammability small tree.

For most of these properties summer starts with a liberal smattering of annual grasses either amongst the trees, in garden beds (in all but the most conscientious of gardeners), or spread across open areas.  Derived originally from pasture grasses, these grasses dry out rapidly with the warm weather, and with their fine foliage, become the ideal material to catch a spark and to be set alight, thus starting a fire which can be carried to nearby shrubs or to low-hanging branches of trees.  Especially if these trees or shrubs have low moisture in their leaves and contain volatile oils, the fire can take hold and spread.  If the fire comes towards our house, then we are in trouble.

This is where the homework comes in both literally and figuratively.  It makes a great deal of sense to remove dry grass from anywhere near our home and to choose the types of plants that we will have near the home from the low inflammability plant palette.  Their size, shape and condition is also important because a freshly-growing, young, small lavender can be innocuous one day and a year later a fire hazard if dry, much larger and full of dead, twiggy growth.

To help choose plants and to learn more of what is critical in reducing the risk to your property in our fire-prone South West, the internet can offer some really handy tools.  The Country Fire Authority (CFA) has a useful paper on its web site which can be downloaded, called “Landscaping for Bushfire – Garden Design and Plant Selection”.  It contains a Plant Selection Key which can also be used interactively by going to: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/landscaping/

Try a few sample plants through the Key.  Not only is it fun to use it is educative and helps sort out the desirable plants  – and how to keep them that way – from the firebrands.

In the past few years there has been a trend, a movement toward minimalism in home design.  There are books about how to declutter your home, even consultants to advise you.  “Rid your life of clutter” is a popular theme.  The same or similar concepts can be applied to the garden.  Southern California with a similar climate has some excellent material on the web – more homework for you!  A practical site is from the Napa Valley.  Its material about defensible space is first rate: http://www.napafirewise.org/defensable-space-live/index.html

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Removing Lily Pillies from near a small wooden shed in Summer 2013. The creeper, Native Bluebell, on the shed has since been removed entirely. Not a good idea in Bushfire Prone Areas to have creepers on buildings especially if the type of creeper is quite flammable as in this case. 

An example of this practical advice is in the section that deals with the three ‘Rs’ of defensible space: Remove, Reduce and Replace.  We have taken this to heart in our own garden with two Sydney Blue Gums being removed the other week and more to follow.  Previously we’d taken out a large pine tree and a dozen or so cypresses planted close to the house.  Fortunately there is a good green waste disposal system at the local tip – burning of the mass of branches and leaves is not an option at the moment.

The defensible space material provides the theory and good examples about adjusting a garden not only to be firewise, but also to be more readily maintained.

We have plenty of “homework” to keep us occupied for many months, but by next summer we’ll be considerably safer.

We are still pruning and removing trees and shrubs. The property looks “cleaner and greener” but not at all bare. Plants can grow quite quickly. It is a little like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we have to keep at it. Removal is often better than merely pruning, because the plant doesn’t keep growing again. Obvious, I know, but it’s worth saying because removal reduces ongoing maintenance.