Drought and Wildfire Resilience In the Garden

Garden getting a granite buffer zone

“Farming needs a kind of toughness, doesn’t it…?” says Edith from Downton Abbey — one of our favorite lines we quote to each other in amusement. Same with the garden and it’s time to talk about some tough subjects affecting the garden here: drought and wildfires.

Though I’ve been busy with the usual spring garden tasks of seeding summer veggies, weeding and preparing the planting beds, here in Sonoma County, we are looking at an impending drought and the new normal of annual fall wildfires, and my primary focus has been on all the adaptations we are making for those.

Might as well include some cheerful photos from the garden in this post! I’ve been including a pinch of dried calendula petals in soups and cooked rice dishes since I’m out of saffron. Fresh petals are pretty in salads.

There has been no rain since my last post and the local news outlets are starting to highlight the looming drought. As I said in my last post, we’ve been taking steps to prepare for it:

The potted plants are on drip irrigation and graywater from the house. (Don’t use graywater on veggies/edibles — it may have harmful bacteria).
  • Shoring up our irrigation system–checking for leaks, putting everything on drip emitters so that we can avoid hand watering. This system can be reduced by percentage and zone as needed depending on the severity of the drought.
  • Using graywater from the house–I got some buckets set up in the sinks and am saving hand and dish rinse water for landscaping plants and fruit trees in the garden. I wish we had a graywater system for the clothes washer, but the buildings are at the lowest point on the property, unfortunately, so there isn’t much of a downhill place to gravity feed it to. There may be a way, but it will require planning and much ado. If you are interested in using graywater, see the code here in Sonoma County for what you can and can’t do legally.
  • We’re also looking into installing a hookup to our water tank, should we need to take delivery of potable water. But frankly, if wells start going dry, it will be a very severe situation that may require much more drastic measures for the entire area.
  • Long term drought-resilience can be aided by increasing ground water absorption during winter rains, like digging swales on the property. I’ve always wanted to do that, but we don’t have a tractor. But we do have a large seasonal pond which captures a great deal of rainwater during wet winters, and probably raises the water table in the immediate area.
  • Organic matter like compost and mulches also conserve water in the soil, of course.
  • Shade and slowing down drying winds also reduces evaporation. Last year I was reading about dew-harvesters (also fog-collectors) that have been created in very dry climates. I’m experimenting with a rudimentary type–just a piece of shade cloth hanging vertically between two metal fence posts–oriented towards the wind direction. A few of these were put on the windy side of new walnut and hazelnut trees we planted a couple years ago. It’s hard to say if they are working or not since we also irrigate the trees. If nothing else, I do think the shade and protection from the wind helps the young trees get established. I want to put one up someplace where we are not irrigating, to see if the grass remains green there while the surrounding grass is dry. I think this would be a good use of modern technology to create small, inexpensive, readily available dew and fog harvesters for us all to use.
Our first artichokes of the year were just harvested. Don’t you love it when a veggie is also a cool landscaping plant? So pointed and scaley, maybe rename them Dragon Veg?

We do not live in a forested area, nor a hilltop. We’re in a low-lying spot near areas that flood in wet years. We’re also close to a fire department. However, when the sirens rang out two years ago in the middle of the night for us to evacuate, and I opened the door to an ominously orange night, my face assaulted with crackling winds blasting straight and fast across the dry landscape–our house battered with flammable eucalyptus debris– at that moment I fully understood that it doesn’t matter where you live as embers could fly and land anywhere. Even a fire department burned in one of the recent fires. I’m not going to spin out here with what all this means for living in California, or anywhere, in the decades to come, with climate change making conditions more extreme. Yes, I’ve thought of moving. But climate change is affecting the whole planet, so I’m not sure there is a “safe” place.

Fire Safe Sonoma County has some great resources for us to utilize in our gardens and homes for living with wildfire as best we can. So, during the last year or so, we have been focusing on creating a 30-foot defensible space around the buildings, removing any dead vegetation, keeping the field mowed, and breaking up what are called fire ladders and fire bridges (continuous vertical or horizontal flammable materials).

Passionflower — is this passiflora caerulea? I meant to get an edulis (edible) one, but either it died or this one was mislabeled. In any case, it loves the greenhouse, has survived periods with little irrigation, and the Gulf fritillary butterflies are crazy about it.

This involved removing some serious overgrowth of jasmine and shrubbery around the buildings (it needed to be done anyway). It’s a bit barren now for my taste, but a more fire safe design is in the works and I’ve faith that it also will be enjoyable. And besides, in the years since we planted the jasmine and shrubs around the buildings, the rest of the garden on the property matured and offsets the new emptiness around the buildings.

Fortunately for fire-safety, we had already replaced the composite roofs on the house and outbuildings with metal ones over the years, as we were able. But there is much more we need to do. Right now we are still removing more vegetation around the buildings–minimizing the size of landscaped areas and replacing them with non-burnable buffer zones of granite sitting areas and paths. We’re also replacing some old wood fencing that was attached to the buildings with metal fencing. We do all the work ourselves and our backs are not what they used to be, so we take it in stages.

One of the catch-22’s about drought PLUS wildfire, is that some of the drought preparations are in conflict with the wildfire prep. Like, some of the drought-tolerant plants are resinous and more flammable–like rosemary. And mulches are very good for keeping moisture in the soil during drought, but certain kinds of mulches are also flammable. Keeping plants well-watered cuts down on fire danger, but isn’t possible during drought.

The eerie orange smoky sky midday during fall wildfires last year.

So, it’s a bit of a tightrope. I’m not going to remove the rosemaries, as they are important for the bees and, yes, drought tolerant. But, my goal is to transplant them away from the buildings as much as possible. We’re going to slowly replace bark paths with non-flammable material, starting with the areas closest to any buildings. Some of the fire-safe changes may take years for us to implement.

I’m looking forward to ingenious ideas people come up with for wildfire safety. I tried to think of some ideas myself. Like, we usually have a bit of firewood left over at the end of winter, and besides keeping it in as secure a place as possible vis-à-vis wildfires, one idea I had to reduce its flammability during a possible fire, is to keep 1 gallon milk jugs filled with water on top of the pile here and there. My thought is that if fire reaches the pile and begins to burn it, the plastic jugs will melt and release the water. I doubt it would put out the fire, but it might set it back a bit. What do you think? I hope we will all throw our ideas into the collective pool and come up with some creative strategies.

There are many suggestions in the Fire Safe link above to improve safety of common ignition sites on a property. One of them is decking. Wood and recycled composite decking are flammable and catch falling embers. The only idea I could think of to protect ours from catching fire is to cover it in wildfire season with an old wool rug that is whetted when there is a threat of wildfire. Wool is naturally flame-resistant and with the dampness, hopefully would resist the ember if it wasn’t too big or the fire prolonged. But it would be a soggy mess if left out during normal rainy winters, so what to do with it then? Again, maybe someone can design a thin, fold-able outdoor wool rug or some such to protect decks during wildfire? Maybe they come in interlocking squares that can be taken up and stacked in storage when not on duty? But, they have to stay in place during strong winds too. Hmmm….

Despite having to re-design some things in the garden, I’m mostly pleased with the results so far. It’s like moving the furniture around–freshens the place up.

I leave you with the sunny blooms of the yellow rosa banksiae–just now opening in the garden. And come to think of it, it can handle a bit of drought. The largest rose in the world is a Lady Banks rose in Tombstone Arizona!

Yellow rosa banksiae / Lady Banks Rose

The beautiful black pipevine swallowtail butterflies are still zipping around, mating and laying eggs. Did you miss the post about them? Click here.

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Fellow bloggers–my apologies for not keeping up with post reading this week! I’m going to catch up and I look forward to what all of you are doing!

One thought on “Drought and Wildfire Resilience In the Garden

  1. I have, of course, followed the wildfires in Californiia and Australia but your post was really chilling when it came to the necessary steps to be taken in these areas. We have to combat drought, to a certain extent, but fire is so scary. Amelia

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