Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 5:26 pm | Fair 66º


Garden Guys Share Their Wisdom On Firescaping Your Landscape

City TV 18 duo Owen Dell and Billy Goodnick dig in on the hot topic of fire-resistant plants, which can help protect homes and save water

It’s no secret that fire and drought are becoming bigger concerns every year for people living on the South Coast. Last year’s Gap and Tea Fires were disturbing reminders of just how close we are to firestorms every time it gets dry and hot.

And, as if a year-round fire season wasn’t sketchy enough, our local water supply — tight as it is already — looks as if it won’t be getting as reliable a boost from up north, as drought and environmental concerns restrict the supply coming from the State Water Project.

What’s a homeowner to do?

Well, it may be time to consider ditching the high-maintenance, lush landscaping we love so well in Santa Barbara for something more in tune with the realities of the climate.

“Plants are good,” said Owen Dell, a local landscape architect and one-half of City TV 18’s gardening duo the Garden Wise Guys. “Landscaping is good. Houses are good, and people are good. But they’re all in the wrong place.”

“When we’re king, things will be different,” joked Billy Goodnick, also a landscape architect and the other half of the Garden Wise Guys.

While Dell and Goodnick are cut-ups in their quarterly half-hour sitcom/gardening show on local TV, they are utterly serious about the importance of proper landscaping in our climate. Standing at the firescape garden in front of Fire Station 7 on Stanwood Drive, looking at foothills that were recently burned by the Tea Fire, it’s easy to see how a fire can spread from house to house — the vegetation, the terrain.

“There’s nothing you can do on a hot windy day if you live in a situation like that,” Goodnick said.

Fortunately, Goodnick said, it’s possible to both help protect one’s home and save water, by using a firescape garden that utilizes water-conserving plants.

The firescape garden works by reducing fuel — and therefore fire — the closer the blaze gets to the home. At the perimeter of the property are wilder plants, including natives that actually rely on fire to propagate. Closing in on the home, the plants get lower, finer, more succulent, even more sparse, until — ideally — there’s nothing left to burn.

Wait, there’s more: By choosing waterwise plants and planting wisely, homeowners also can conserve water, money and even time in maintaining their landscaping.

“I always go back to ‘right plant, right place,’” Goodnick said. “If you select the plants with the highest potential of thriving, without special care or watering it more than nature provides, that’s the ideal.” Still, he said, there is nothing inherently different in the maintenance of a low-water or firescape garden; high maintenance gardens are usually the result of too many unsuitable plants in too little space.

Probably the biggest drawback people see in switching to a waterwise or firescape garden is aesthetics. Say “xeriscape” and many people will come up with cacti and gravel. While such gardens, if well-maintained, could be less lush than what many would prefer, there’s also less of a chance that fire will reach the home with enough strength to destroy it.

“It may not look as good, but neither does a charred house,” Goodnick said.

“To me, the whole thing about not liking succulents, I don’t get it. They’re so beautiful,” Dell said. However, he says there are ways to achieve other landscape designs while still using waterwise plants. Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens is a prime example of what kinds of plants can be used.

Still, Dell said, a firescape garden is not a cure-all, but rather “a desperate, last-ditch attempt” to co-exist with the kind of nature we live with. Back in the days of the Chumash, he said, the Native Americans would just let their simple homes burn down and then rebuild them. These days, it’s not an option.

“It’s like the reverse of the Katrina argument,” Goodnick said. “Would you rebuild if you knew your home would get flooded? Would you rebuild if you knew your home would get burned?”

Ideally, the firescape garden would work, assuming there is enough space around the house to act as a buffer from an incoming fire — which means that homes with little defensible space, if any, probably wouldn’t benefit from a firescape garden, no matter how well planted.

Also, homes that are close to neighbors who don’t maintain their defensible space or utilize firescape plantings are likely to still be at risk for fire.

“It still comes down to property owners doing what they need to do,” Dell said. “It still comes down to the community.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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