Another before and after -- Chaparral thinning for fire safety, and beauty

Since Country Mouse and Wood Rat became aware that, like heretics of old, we were perched atop a veritable bonfire of dry wood -- in our case a couple acres of very thick chaparral -- we have been nibbling away at the fuel load below us, while maintaining the native habitat.

The advice from this web page is in alignment with what we are trying to achieve here, as our thinking has evolved:
To promote fire safety, California’s Own recommends thinning chaparral in the 30-100’ radius around a house located adjacent to wildlands. We target dead wood, all non-native weeds, and the most flammable natives. By removing approximately 50% of the coverage, 60-80% of the fuel is removed. We do not remove native root systems, so as to minimize disturbance and erosion. We do mulch up the native debris and blow it back on site to help prevent the return of weeds. And finally, if the customer would like, we can add paths, sitting areas, bird baths and low native perennial color to enhance the area as we “carve out” a mature native landscape from impenetrable chaparral.
The company, California's Own Native Landscape Design, is in Escondido. (They just came up in a quick Google search. In another post I would like to explore the local companies that offer services of this sort. But that quote above is a perfect description of our approach.)

So I offer two photos from the month of October - a before and after shot of one small area that we were working on. (Plus the closeup of the same area at the top of the post.)

Ours is a chamise chaparral, meaning the dominant shrub is chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum). Most of what you see to the left of Mr Rat is chamise, and that was what filled the bare spot in front of him too. A very helpful friend is hidden within the chamise, working away with a Japanese pruning saw, which we have found works better than the Sawsall with the pruning attachment.

When we coppice all the chamise, we remove well over 50% of the highly flammable vegetation. It grows back, and we have to decide what to do when that becomes a problem. The roots are good for erosion control.

I followed up by trimming all the dead wood from the manzanita. I do hope I haven't opened any wounds. I worked carefully with clean tools, a pruning saw and pair of sharp bypass pruners.

(Please click to enlarge.)

We love the very beautiful (and also highly flammable) manzanita. Our endemic species is Arctostaphylos tomentota crustacea, and now I am suspecting maybe there is another kind too, as I observe ever more closely and with longer experience. We are also favoring other fine endemic chaparral shrubs such as coffeeberry, toyon, some of the native black sage - sages are very flammable - monkey flower, and so on.

Where I have pruned the coffee berry (Rhamnus californica), the mature branches have died. However new growth is sprouting from the stumps. I have to figure out why it dies back when I prune it (and I have stopped pruning it in the meantime).

The branches of our manzanita grew among and were shaped by a thick tangle of other branches, and I do wonder if they feel lonely without their entwined companions. I mean in an ecological sense, of course! (Me, sentimental? Bah humbug!)

The best time to trim manzanita - and most native shrubs - is in summer, when they are dormant, and when the weather is dry, so there is less risk of infection through the open wounds.

With manzanita, the best advice is to just remove the dead wood - they are beautiful as they are without any help from us gardeners. Nursery-bought manzanita can take some formative pruning when young, but then you are advised to leave live branches alone.

Though it was October when I did the pruning, it has been very dry and sunny, and I hope I caught the tail end of the dormant period. We do what we can, when we can, and sometimes it isn't ideal.

Of course I have reservations and considerations about mucking about with Mother Nature. What is the effect on the habitat of removing so much of the natural vegetation? How are we altering the balance of nature? These are questions to research, hopefully for future posts. In the meantime - there is a lot more manzanita to make gorgeous.


Christine said…
I've been thinking about our actions and their effects on the natural order of things as well. It gets even more complicated when your actions are trying to undo other changes made by humans. (invasive weeds, introduced trees) And despite best efforts, trying to get things back to the "way they used to be" will leave another human mark on the landscape's history as well. Your efforts seem to be going in the right direction, though. That looks like a ton of work!
Gail said…
CM, This is very interesting and informative. AND an impressive amount of work! I do hope that your fire break never gets tested. I spend lots of my energy trying to get rid of invasives that were planted in our city 50 to 150 years ago only to discover new ones. gail
Anonymous said…
Very impressive! So, what do you do with all the stuff you prune away? I barely manage to fit my stuff into the garden waste, and I'm not even sure you have garden waste pickup.
Country Mouse said…
That is a good question, Anon. I should do another post showing our brush pile, which is in a disused corral. The local fire department gets use of a big chipper now and then and I phoned up and got on the list - but it may take a couple months for the crew to come by. If we can't wait, we'll hire a chipper and crew from a local tree company. We'll mulch with the chipped up stuff. We do have a bin for garden waste and I plan to put the old bags full of grass seeds in it. I looked on the garbage company's web site and they don't say anything about seeds. Some companies I think don't or didn't accept weed seeds. I think they do very hot composting, which kills seeds. Our brush pile is roughly a cube 20 feet on a side right now. Way too much. I wish domestic chippers worked better but from what I hear, they don't work that well.

Gail, I'll be posting on invasive weeds soon enough. They are springing up all over - but not so far on the cleared chaparral slope. I hope they don't - I try not to disturb the soil.

Christine, thanks for your thoughtful comment on our unavoidable impact on the environment no matter what we do.
Barbara said…
Very impressive indeed. My electric chipper/shredder would definitely not handle dried manzanita branches. I called about renting a chipper and they are expensive and require a truck to transport. I also asked some guys who do tree trimming and none would do the job. They said the branches were too small and would jam their machine. Maybe it just wasn't a big enough job.

I am hoping to attend a talk on Saturday evening on living and gardening in high fire risk areas by Richard Halsey (Chaparral Inst) and Jon Keeley. I will let you know if I learn anything surprising.

Keep up the good work!
Country Mouse said…
Hi Barbara - I have read Richard Halsey's book and return to it, and I follow him on Facebook. He is a passionate advocate for sure and I have much to learn from him. I laughed at the "Fargo" comments on your post showing your arm in the chipper! - And our arborists do chip this stuff - they cleared an area about hm... 3/4 acre? and they chippered it all up in no time flat. Since they are often out and about I think they would swing by and spend an hour. Too bad our fire dept. doesn't have more chippers to meet the demand. But they costa plenty.
Greg Rubin of California's Own is a great local resource and a great friend of the local CNPS chapter. And Rick Halsey, mentioned in your comment, is a passionate defender of responsible brush management and is refreshingly merciless about sharing photos of brush mismanagement that make clearcut forests look pampered. He's a very active contributor to the chapter's listserv.

I love your manzanita, and it's great they came with the land. Even though I have my impatient side, I've planted four or five over the years. Most take their time to attain any size, unfortunately...
Country Mouse said…
The whole hillside is sprinkled with wonderful manzanita and there is one group that is particularly ancient - I hope I didn't damage them when I carefully removed the dead branches. I hope to do an album of photos of them sometime. As part of a hillside garden they will be stunning. I'm just not sure how to achieve a stable and restoration-wise garden as yet and I'm going to get advice from those who do. I also did plant some manzanita varieties before I knew what I was doing - Dr Hurd and a very low spreader, "Winter Glow," elsewhere on the property. I've been told they won't hybridize with the endemic ones. I concur with Lostlandscape - very slow growing indeed, but worth the wait. My 2 Dr Hurd ones (intended to be tall and elegant) are about 3 feet tall after 3 years. The spreaders have similarly spread no more than 3 feet except one which is sprawling beautifully at around a 5 ft diameter.
Helen said…
Hi Country Mouse,

Thanks for sharing your fire/beauty/wildlife balancing act and your pruning experience.

I’m glad your coffeeberries are coming back. I’ve seen them stump sprout in the wild, and people do coppice established ones. While I never seriously pruned the small, ‘Mound San Bruno’ coffeeberries in my old garden, I remember reading in the RSABG book (O’Brien, et. al.) that they should be pruned in spring.

It was nice to meet you at Matt Teel’s talk. (Thanks for your kind words about the book. I’m working hard on it!)