Can landscaping protect a home from wildfire? Camille Newton, M.D., of Bonsall, CA, says yes. Dr. Newton started her six-year-old succulent garden mostly from cuttings. “It’s my go-to place after work,” she says, noting that gardening is a stress-reliever. The land’s nutrient-poor, decomposed-granite soil serves as a coarse, fast-draining substrate that she top-dresses with composted horse manure. (From another hobby: breeding Andalusians.) Irrigation is by overhead sprinklers. The land slopes, so densely-planted succulents also provide erosion control. On Dr. Newton’s frost-free, west-facing hillside grow swaths of jade (Crassula ovata), aloes, agaves, aeoniums and brilliant orange, ironically-named Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’.
Dr. Newton, whose garden is in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), was initially surprised that her garden “stopped the fire in its tracks,” she says, adding that houses next door and across the street burned to the ground. “You’d think succulents would burn, but they don’t.” This is likely because wildfire, which travels at around 15 MPH, doesn’t linger. Plants with thin leaves catch fire immediately and are carried aloft by strong winds, further spreading the blaze. In contrast, succulents—which by definition store moisture in thick, juicy leaves—cook and collapse. They may sizzle and char, but succulents don’t transmit flames.
In December 2017, soon after the Lilac Fire destroyed eight neighboring homes, Dr. Newton and I were interviewed on local TV news for a segment titled, “Saved by Succulents.” It’s available on my YouTube channel along with two other videos about succulents as fire-retardant plants, including a post-wildfire tour of Dr. Newton’s own garden.
Because succulents are colorful, waterwise and low-maintenance, I hope landscape professionals in wildfire-prone, mild-climate regions consider adding firebreak installation to their services. It takes a lot of succulents to surround a house, but here’s good news: It’s possible to do so without buying plants. Numerous Southern CA succulent gardens are becoming so well established that owners have plenty of trimmings that they hate to throw away. “I’ll give cuttings to anyone who asks,” Dr. Newton says, adding with a laugh, “and hopefully they’ll take some manure, too.”
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