After a fire even the natives are thirsty


    Feelings of extreme relief and gratitude alternate with sadness for all the once beautiful trees and the wildlife they sheltered. It seems now to be just plain luck that we and our neighbors lost no more than a few fences and outbuildings to the wildfire.

    In surveying the damage, I came to the conclusion that the front garden protected the house while the house actually protected the rear garden, or at least the 30 feet or so closest to the back wall. The fire department isn’t kidding when they warn you to clear the brush and dried grass at least 100 feet from your house. The west side of the house, which is only 20 feet from a steep and heavily wooded slope, sustained the most damage, and the maple trees on that strip were burned to the ground.

    On the east side, the driveway and parking area extend far enough to shield the house and part of the back garden that sort of wraps around the corner of it. Gravel is good. When I put in the switchback path that snakes through the front garden, I was torn between lining it with bark or gravel. Bark looks so nice and woodsy but gravel is cheaper and, I discovered later, it’s the preferred medium for propagating wild poppy seeds. Good thing cheap won the day.

    A word here about foundation planting. Mine consists mostly of roses, a couple of wax-leaf privet, pink escalonia and river birch, planted near the house because they require (and retain) the most water. In the front, evergreen clematis vines wind up the deck supports and drape over the railing. These also hold a ton of moisture in their leaves, and shielded the deck instead of setting it alight.

    Most of the pine trees native to this mountain grow at slightly higher elevations, and we never planted any. I find most varieties of pine to be vulnerable to disease, highly incendiary, and so shallow rooted that a strong wind, especially after heavy rain, easily topples them.

    The fir and spruce trees, regardless of their location, seem to have fared the worst. Even with deep soaking, they show no signs of new growth. I probably will wind up replacing them with fruit trees, and just abandon the small orchard that was completely decimated.

    While it’s understandable that moisture-loving ornamentals would have more resistance to fire, natives and many other drought-tolerant shrubs, though seriously singed, seem equally resilient: rosemary, lavender, ceanothus (concha and frosty blue), santolina, salvia greggii and artemisia all are showing some re-growth even though they are rarely watered in summer. Perennials like penstemon, lambs ears, centranthus ruber, yarrow and calendula were toasty brown a week ago but responded to pruning and sprinkling with tiny green shoots from the base. Miraculous.

    The difficulty is knowing how much water these need to recover and how much would drown the roots, which on most natives are open during July and August. I figure it’s safe to give them about as much water as they’d get from a passing summer thunderstorm.

    A useful tool for delivering added water to some plants that need it while leaving the natives drier is a funnel-shaped thing called Aqua Cone. The hard plastic cone has punch holes marked for clay (deepest), loam or sand, and the top is threaded to attach a large soda bottle with the end cut off. You fill the bottle with water twice a week or so and it drips slowly into the root zone. I’ve replaced the ones that melted, fusing the bottleneck and cone into bizarre sculptures.

    Some lovely native flowering “weeds,” all volunteers, look pretty much the way they do in autumn. Horse nettle has lost most leaves and flowers, and California buckwheat flowers are turning from cream to rust, just a little earlier than usual. Oaks are also casting leaves all over the place-hard to collect with a melted rake but wonderful for the compost heap at a time of year when dry leaves are hard to find.

    I figure I have a couple months to decide which trees and shrubs will survive and which to replace, since the ideal planting time for most of these is fall. Meanwhile, nursing the wounded back to health is soothing work. Much less taxing than pulling and hacking dry weeds, which it seems we won’t have to worry about for at least a year or two.