Gardening in the face of fire

The devastating fires that have ravaged Australia have had a catastrophic impact on our country, our wildlife, our flora and our communities. The resilience of the Australian spirit and the comradery of our people has shone through, but we are only at the tip of the iceberg. Recovery will be slow, and in rebuilding our homes, gardens and lives, we must be mindful of gardening in fire prone areas and the plants we should avoid as we re-establish our gardens. Of course, sometimes nature will have her way regardless, but some plants are undeniably more flammable than others.

What makes some plants more flammable than others?

Some plants have high concentrations of oil in their leaves, and these, understandably, are more flammable. Eucalypts, tea-tree, pines and cypress are among the most flammable trees due to the high oil content in their foliage, as well as their propensity for becoming gaseous at temperatures as low as 60 degrees C.

With the loss of natural forest and bushland, the replanting of natives as a food source for wildlife alone will be a priority, but these flammable trees are best planted in wildlife areas, public open space and as wildlife corridors, rather than domestic gardens or, most importantly, beside your home.

Which trees are the most fire-retardant?

The answer is trees and plants with water in their leaves rather than oils. While many people instantly think of deciduous European trees like oaks and ash, there are also many Australian rainforest trees which have high concentrations of water in their foliage too. In our own gardens at Heronswood, a large Morton Bay Fig acted as a shield between the fire in the thatched roof restaurant and the historic Bluestone house.

Deciduous trees are also slower to ignite when in full leaf as the foliage is so lush. For these trees to burn, the fire must first evaporate the water from the foliage, which not only helps to slow the fire, but also helps to lower the temperature of the fire.

The amount of moisture in the foliage ultimately determines plant flammability, influencing how readily a plant will ignite. Plants with high foliage moisture content will not burn until enough moisture has been removed. This moisture is not only lost through the fire, but also radiant heat and wind. Even fully hydrated plants and succulents will eventually dry out and burn if they are exposed to heat and fire for long enough, but they will slow the fires path.

Water is essential

There is no doubt that a well-watered garden, particularly one with a green lawn, will withstand a fire better than a parched one, but we all know how little water is about during a drought.  Installing a water recycling system on a bush property (where sewers are often unavailable anyway) becomes part of the overall fire management plan for the home.  Using wastewater to irrigate a couple of medium-sized deciduous trees that will provide shade as well as a buffer against embers, is a much better use of this waste product.

A well-planned water recycling and reticulation system can provide an actively growing cover of green throughout the summer. 

Use hedges as well as feature trees

To dampen an oncoming fire, trees need to provide foliage close to the ground and reach at least four metres tall.  Plant hedges close to the house, and taller feature trees like Oaks and Moreton Bay Figs closer to fire threats.

For more information and suggested planting plans, see https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/landscaping

We hope these tips and resources help you plan your new garden, and offer some extra protection from impending fire threats.

Sophie Thomson's guide to Garden recovery after a bush fire

In 2016 and 2017 Sophie Thomson was asked by the Department of Water and Natural Resources to provide several workshops for people whose gardens had been burned in the Pinery fires in South Australia.

While the information is developed for dry, ‘Mediterranean’ climate areas of South Australia, the principles are the same wherever bushfires have burned in Australia and we would like to thank Sophie for sharing this excerpt of her article with our members.

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Browse our range of fire retardant plants and trees

Plan & plant to reduce your risk of property loss during a bushfire. There are many garden design strategies and plants that could help to protect your home during a bushfire. Of course, sometimes nature will have her way regardless, but some plants are undeniably more flammable than others. 

More >>

Gardening to reduce your risk of fire.

Gardening in the face of fire can be quite daunting, download our new bushfire gardening guide to learn about planting for fire prevention with fire retardant trees.
Download our bushfire gardening guide now.

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