Trial by Fire

These landscaping tips will keep your home safe long before the first signs of wildfire.

By Debra Lee Baldwin

Photography by Liz Cockrum

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Low-maintenance stone firebreaks look great in the garden as well.Reducing Risk

The Petitmermets have lived on 6 acres in Elfin Forest for 29 years. They knew from the beginning that wildfire was a concern, so they designed their home and landscape with fire safety in mind. Gravel pathways and concrete patios surround their home, providing valuable outdoor living space and an essential firebreak. The house itself has no overhanging eaves or decks that might trap burning embers. "I don't feel vulnerable about fire along the ground—it's flying embers that are hazardous," Peggy says. "The wind during a wildfire is so strong, embers are blown in through pet doors."

Views from the house are to the south and west, across a chaparral canyon. Their 1 1/2-acre garden follows the property's sloping terrain and flows around the house, terraces, and sitting areas. By design, the garden complements the adjacent undeveloped land. Thickets of pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli) form attractive borders, agaves punctuate the landscape like exclamation points, and native hummingbirds dart through beds planted with echeverias, aloes, and jade plant (Crassula ovata).

The thoughtful selection of plants growing within the garden's borders serves both as a buffer zone between the canyon and the Petitmermet home and as an outlet for Peggy's creativity. The former junior high art teacher has reactive airway disease and hyper chemical sensitivity. Going anywhere is problematic, so she spends much of her time in the garden, which is organic by necessity. Though no longer able to paint, Peggy's artistic stamp is visible. "I can still create," she says. "My palette consists of foliage, flowers, shapes, color complements, sight lines, and vantage points."

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