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Does Landscaping Really Work for Protecting Home from Wildlife?

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Can landscaping protect houses from wildfires? Camille Newton, MD, of Bonsall, California, said yes. Dr. Newton started her 6-year-old succulent garden mainly from cuttings. "This is where I go after get off work," she said, noting that gardening can relieve stress. The poorly nutrient-poor, rotting granite soil is a rough, fast-draining substrate, and she covered it with composted horse manure. (From another hobby: breeding Andalusians.) Irrigation is done with overhead sprinklers. The slopes of the land, so densely planted succulents also provide erosion control. On Dr. Newton’s frost-free west-facing slopes, large patches of jade (Crassula ovata), aloe vera, agave, immortal flowers, and bright orange are growing. Ironically, the euphorbia tirucalli is named "fire stick". 

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.”