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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This beautiful blue 'Topsy Turvy' succulent helps fire-proof a landscape.Protective Plantings

The Petitmermets' carefully curated collection of plants and intuitive garden design demonstrate that fire-resistant landscapes need not be bleak or barren. Due to Southern California's ongoing drought, the focus is on water-wise plants that add color, texture, and drama to the rocky, sloped garden. Peggy avoids planting anything woody with leaves that dry out. Before a new plant goes into the ground, she tests its flammability: "I cut off a piece and hold a barbecue lighter to it."

Many California natives, including ceanothus and manzanita, fit her drought-tolerant criteria, but they can also be dry, oily, and extremely flammable. These plants, as well as a few highly combustible nonnatives like geraniums and bougainvillea, do find their way into select spots in her garden. "I surround them with other plants that won't burn," she explains. "Or I isolate them in islands and keep them well watered."

In Elfin Forest's near-perfect climate, frost and desert heat are not concerns, so Peggy grows an abundance of succulents—plump, moisture-filled plants that require little water and are fire-retardant. "Succulents are so beautiful," she says, pointing to her statuesque agaves and euphorbias, and the aloes that bloom bright orange in midwinter. The plants, which do not require humus-rich soil, thrive in the garden's decomposed granite, which also provides the excellent drainage they need.

Form and Function

The property's rocky terrain and soil makes it difficult to plant anything much larger than a cutting, but this is an asset for fire prevention. The native rocks, as well as pathways made with incombustible stone and gravel, provide fuel breaks—areas without flammable plant material. In addition to offering fire protection, the garden's granite boulders make dramatic focal points.

"They have a lot of blue-gray, rust, and copper in them," says Peggy. She picks plants with colors that contrast and harmonize with the rocks—such as Opuntia robusta, a prickly pear cactus with blue-green leaves. "It has spines, so I don't plant it where anyone can run into them."

A near-spineless variety of Opuntia ficus-indica borders much of the property. The cactus needs almost no irrigation, serves as a security barrier, discourages deer, and—with its thick, juicy pads—provides an excellent firewall.

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