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September 24, 2007 

Firewise Landscaping

With the arrival of the typically hot, dry summer, there is concern in many areas of the country, especially in the Southeast and Southwest, about the risk of fire enveloping us and destroying plants, and, more importantly, homes.

To help prevent such an event, master gardener Bill Silfvast offers a rundown of fireproofing plant tips.

Low-water plants

With regard to the water shortage, one solution is to plant low water (drought-resistant) plants and trees. It’s important to remember, however, that even drought tolerant plants need water. Typically they might use 50 percent of the water that a non-drought tolerant plant might need.

Also, watering infrequently and deeply, rather than often and shallowly, will encourage deep root development. This allows the plants to have access to more water within the soil. Be sure to use plenty of mulch (at least 2 inches) to help retain the water within the soil, and allow good drainage to avoid accumulation of water at the roots.

Avoid using containers if possible as they need more frequent watering. Also try to arrange the plants in groups relating to their water needs. And if you have severe water restrictions, cease watering your annuals and save the water for your perennials.

A number of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that are able to tolerate low water conditions are described below:


Marigold — a wide range of sizes, typically yellow or orange colors.

Zinnia — typically 1-3 feet tall and available in many colors.

Geranium — a wide variety of colors and sizes. Check with your nursery.

Cosmos — 2-1/2 to 8 feet tall. Many colors and forms. Good in borders or as fillers.

Portulaca — 6 inches tall, spreads to 1-1/2 feet, a range of colors, excellent with mixed colors in rock gardens, dry banks, etc.

Nasturtium — available in a climbing variety or a compact variety up to 15 inches tall and a wide range of colors.


Perennial Bachelor’s Button — 1 to 2-1/2 feet, narrow gray-green leaves, blue, pink, rose, wine red and white flowers.

Lavender — dwarf variety 8 inches, most widely planted variety 3 to 4 feet tall, gray-green aromatic foliage with lavender colored flowers.

Sedum — succulent plants in a variety of sizes. Good for rock gardens or borders. Some varieties are very hardy.

Daylily — 6 to 30 inches, over 20,000 hybrids ranging from yellow to deep purple.

Russian Sage — woody-based plant up to 3 feet tall. Long summer bloom of lavender flowers.

Columbine — varieties from 1 to 3 feet in height. Woody quality with lacy foliage and flowers in white, pastels, and deeper shades.

Coreopsis — 3 varieties from 6 inches to 3 feet tall. Yellow, orange, maroon or reddish flowers.

Mandevilla — evergreen vine up to 20 feet in length with shiny leaves and saucer-shaped pink or white flowers.

Black Eyed Susan — a short-lived perennial reaches 3 to 4 feet in height. Various strains have daisy like yellow, orange, or mahogany flowers.


Butterfly bush (or summer lilac) — can reach 12 feet in height with long leaves and fragrant flowers. Available in many colors.

Rockrose — 3 to 5 feet in height. Most varieties have purple-pink flowers.


Strawberry tree — slow to moderate growth (8-35 feet). They have rich red-brown bark and dark green red-stemmed leaves.

Oaks — Perhaps the most common oak trees in our area are the Coast Live Oak, the Valley Oak and the California Black Oak. All have very low water requirements.

Some additional suggestions for low-water plants can be found at:

Fire-resistant plants

As far as making gardens fire-resistant, one solution is to have no garden at all, but instead just have dirt or gravel. Of course that wouldn’t satisfy most clients or be good for business. So what else can be done?

Recommend clients make the area surrounding their home ‘fire-resistant’. To accomplish this, a defensible space, as suggested by the Napa County (Calif.) Firewise Program, is an area 100 feet in diameter around your home, where flammable vegetation including grass, brush, low hanging limbs, woodpiles, etc. has been removed. Plants can be included in this space but should be staggered so that a fire can’t easily jump from one plant to another.

Second, plant a number of varieties of plants and trees that are somewhat resistant to fire. A few of these include:


Fuchsia — available as erect growing shrubs 3 to 12 feet high with white, pink or red flowers.

Beard Tongue — over 250 species, they typically grow to 1 to 3 feet tall with tubular flowers, most commonly in bright reds and blues.

Wild Strawberry (groundcover) — forms low compact mats 6 to 12 inches high. Glossy dark green leaves that turn red in the winter. White flowers in the spring produce bright red fruit in the fall that attract birds.


Western Redbud — 10 to 12 feet in height. Bright magenta flowers, attractive, heart-shaped blue-green leaves during the summer.

Monkey flower — shrubby plants that grow 1 to 4 feet tall and rose, orange, yellow and scarlet and brown flowers.

Ceanothus (wild lilac) — many varieties vary from 1 to 10 feet tall. Spring flowers range from white to all shades of blue.

Sage (salvia) — 2-1/2 to 4 feet tall. A number of types including the Mexican Sage, the Common Sage and the Purple Sage, all with either blue or purple flowers.

Common Yarrow — some varieties are low (5-10 inches) and others tall (4 to 5 feet high). White or yellow flowers bloom in summer and fall and make very good cut flowers.

French Lavender — a version of lavender (see above) that grows to a height of 3 feet and has narrow gray-green leaves and purple flowers in short, spike-like clusters.
Coast Live Oak — evergreen, 20 to 70 feet tall with shiny, holly-like leaves.
California Sycamore — fast growth up to 100 feet tall. Deeply lobed, yellowish-green leaves.

Toyon — a dense shrub 6-10 feet tall, or a multi-trunked small tree 15 to 25 feet tall. Thick glossy dark green leaves. Small white flowers during June and July and clusters of bright red berries from November to January.

A much more complete listing of trees, shrubs, plants and groundcover that are fire-resistant can be found on the Napa Firewise Web site at Anyone who is living in a potential fire danger location should definitely read the material on this Web site.

Silfvast is a Master Gardner and retired professor of physics and optics from the University of Central Florida.

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