Plant lists that shouldn’t exist

Nothing drives me crazier than simplistic solutions to complex problems. Given our changing climate, there has been an explosion of “drought tolerant” and “firewise” plant lists in the gardening world. Most of these lists are devoid of science and all of them are removed from reality. The fact is that taxonomy plays a minimal role in determining whether a plant will tolerate environmental extremes.

Lack of irrigation and mulch guarantees a drought-stressed landscape regardless of the selected species.

Let’s start with the most obvious problems with these lists. The goal isn’t to have plants that require less additional water – it’s to have a landscape that requires less additional water. Similarly, the relative flammability of plants is less important than whether the landscape surrounding those plants is protected from fire. Plants don’t exist in vacuum and unless you are strictly a container gardener a single plant’s impact on water use or fire resilience is negligible. So a gardener’s questions should be “How can I make my landscape more drought tolerant? How can I reduce the likelihood of wildfire damage?” And these are questions that can be addressed with knowledge gleaned from applied plant and soil sciences.

Drought Tolerance

Arborvitae can tolerate droughty summers, but they don’t tolerate improper planting and management.

First of all, let’s think about what “drought” really means: it’s an unusual lack of rainfall. It doesn’t mean no irrigation, and it doesn’t mean dry soil. Drought is a climatological term, not one associated with soil water management. Fine roots and their root hairs require water to function. Without sufficient soil water plants will go dormant or die, particularly during establishment. Plants that are drought tolerant can tolerate seasonal lack of rainfall, but they can’t tolerate chronically dry soil conditions.

Even “drought tolerant” species like Sempervivum will die if there’s not enough soil water.

So we need to look at the landscape factors that allow plants to survive droughts. This includes

  • Root systems that are well established. This means no barriers between the roots and the landscape soil system. Barriers include soil amendments and any materials left on roots during transplant (like soilless media, clay, and burlap). Obviously proper planting is key.
  • Adequate water movement into and within the soil environment. Anything within the soil environment that creates a textural barrier, like soil amendments, prevents water movement. Anything on top of the soil environment that creates a physical barrier, like sheet mulches or compacted layers, prevents water movement into the soil. Sheet mulches include plastics, fabrics, cardboard, and newspaper.
  • Adequate irrigation to support all plants in the landscape. The easiest way to determine whether there is enough soil water is to focus on one or two well-established indicator plants that you notice are the first to show wilt in the summer. That’s when the irrigation should be turned on. For our landscape in Seattle, it was a south-facing hydrangea.
  • Properly mulched soil. Mulch is crucial for soil and plant health, especially in terms of soil water retention and temperature moderation. The best choice for a tree- and shrub-dominated landscape is arborist wood chips. The best choice for arid landscapes is stone mulch – but if this landscape is dominated by trees and shrubs, you need the wood chip mulch. Trees and shrubs, by and large, are not the dominant plant form in arid environments. If you are going to grow plants out of place, you need to include the mulch that matches.
The broad, thin leaves of hydrangeas lose water rapidly and make a good indicator plant for water stress.

These four environmental conditions are key to maintaining a drought-resistant landscape. In terms of appropriate plants, just realize that plants with small, thick leaves lose less water than those with broad, thin leaves. If you want a landscape that conserves water, by all means choose plants whose evaporative water loss is the least.

Firewise Landscapes

Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) produces cones that require fire to open and release their seeds.

I’m not crazy about the term “firewise” as it’s not really a science-based concept. There are natural landscapes that routinely experience fires, and plants native to these landscapes have evolved mechanisms to survive moderate fires. Trees with thick bark, for example, can survive fires that are low to the ground and quick to move through. Other plants may perish in a fire, but leave behind fire-resistant seeds that are able to germinate after the next rainfall. This is not what’s meant by a firewise landscape. Instead, the premise appears to be selecting plants that are low flammability. (Jim Downer tackled this one a few years back but the message just isn’t sinking in.)

Failing trees of any species are more flammable than living trees of any species.

Once again, the focus of this approach is mistakenly directed to plant selection rather than landscape resilience. The best way to reduce the risk of fire is to have a landscape filled with healthy, hydrated plants and a soil protected by the least flammable mulch. The two mulches recommended for drought tolerant landscapes also happen to be the least flammable: stones and arborist wood chips.

Despite published evidence that arborist wood chips are not very flammable when compared to all other organic mulches, many governmental groups specifically recommend against them. This is a problem. Stone mulches are great choices IF the plants in question are native to arid zones. Trees and shrubs that are not from arid zones generally require the presence of woody debris to enhance mycorrhizal and root health. Without the proper mulch, these woody plants are less healthy and likely less hydrated than their counterparts under arborist chip mulches. That makes them more, not less, susceptible to fire damage.

A stone mulch in a southwestern desert landscape.

Most of the confusion around arborist chip mulches is probably the result of regulatory agencies confusing bark mulches with wood chip mulches. Bark mulches ARE flammable as they contain waxes and are not great choices for root and soil health. They should be avoided. Agencies associated with fire control methods need to be better informed about the significant differences between these two types of mulches and how they affect plant resilience.

The wildland-urban interface faces the risk of extreme fire danger. [Photo byAnthony Citrano]

And finally, it is important to understand that major wildfires are going to burn anything that’s organic. If you live in such an environment, the best thing you can have in your landscape is no plant material of any sort. A buffer of stone mulch is the only logical option.

Making your landscape fire resistant during wildfire season

Wildfires are increasingly threatening urban areas. Photo from Wikimedia.

This topic may have no relevance to where you live – but it’s very much front and center here in western Washington this summer. Our naturally droughty summers have gotten longer, hotter, and drier thanks to climate change. Wildfires are ravaging all of the west coast, on both sides of the Cascade mountains. And one of the recommendations I see for fire-proofing your landscape is to remove all wood-based mulch. While this might seem logical, it’s not. And here’s why.

Not all wood mulches are equal. Wood chip mulches, which readily absorb water, are different than bark mulches, which can be quite impervious to water based on the type of bark and how fresh it is. The waxy components of bark not only make it resistant to water movement, they also more likely to burn. Likewise, pine needles, cones, straw, and other coarse organic mulches absorb little water and easily ignite. They should be avoided in fire-prone areas.

Pine needles and pinecones are a natural mulch layer in pine forests – but they burn readily. Photo by Pxfuel.

Wood chips are one of the least flammable mulches, and if landscape plants are properly irrigated, the wood chip layer is going to be increasingly moist as you work your way down to the soil. This reduces flammability, while maintaining plant health. And healthy plants are more likely to survive fires than water-stressed plants – because they are full of water. (Oh, and those “flammability lists” of plants you might see? Dr. Jim Downer has already debunked that approach.)

Rubber mulches are the very worst choice you can make for a wildfire-resistant landscape. They burn readily and they burn hot.

The best way to reduce wildfire damage to your planted landscape is to keep it irrigated. Bare soil is a no-no in planted landscapes, regardless of what you might see recommended elsewhere. A well-hydrated landscape with green lawns and healthy trees and shrubs is not going to catch fire from a spark or ember. And it might even survive a fast-moving wildfire.

Yes, it takes water to protect a planted landscape from fire. If consistent irrigation isn’t feasible, you might want to rethink your plantings.

We saw this in eastern Washington this week, where the small town of Malden was 80% destroyed by a fast-moving fire. But some homes were spared – why? Whitman County Sheriff Brett Meyers pointed out “those people that had some green and some buffer around their home were able to maintain their homes.”  

Did these houses survive because of a green buffer?

So while it may seem counterintuitive to keep woody debris on your soil, look at the whole system – not just a piece of it. If you don’t have plants anywhere near your house, then bare soil is the way to go. But for planted landscapes, wood chip mulch is part of the solution – not the problem.