Using Defensible Space Zones as Planting Guidelines

Wonderful coyote bush blossoming in my garden, December 2015

Recently my son-in-law dug out the roots of the huge coyote bush that volunteered to grow in my garden, 20 feet from my office window. Between me and the bird bath, actually. Where it grew. Really big.

There it was gone! And it had roots as big as Mr Squirrel's biceps!

Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) grows prolifically and quickly here, especially on the sunny south slope below our ridge, which is clad in chaparral shrubs: primarily chamise, coyote brush, manzanita, coffeeberry, and black sage. That's what Mother Nature wants to have on that slope. Unfortunately for fire safety!

Now - I've loved this coyote bush dearly. It shaded lower plants. It put on an absolutely fabulous show of fluffy white seeds late last year. But then its long spindly trunks began flopping open and falling and breaking and it just wasn't looking so pretty. Plus, I can't see the birds in the bird bath any more.

I know I could have coppiced it. It's a great way to refresh a coyote bush. It would soon grow back - but it would also soon be just as big.

I have also been looking for a place to plant the summer holly I bought at the last CNPS plant sale.

Newly planted summer holly plant (Comarostaphylis diversifolia)

A fellow volunteer, during a slow spell between CNPS plant sale customers, told me that I had to buy this plant. It was perfect for my garden. So I did.

That was back in October. I've been looking for a spot ever since.

When the coyote bush began flopping over, I knew I had found my spot.

Summer Holly is a shrub from California's Channel Islands. A variant is found in San Diego and Baja California - not sure which one this is but it seems to have the flat leaves of the mainland plant. It has madrone-like clusters of urn-shaped white flowers in mid-summer; its trunks and bark are reminiscent of a manzanita; and its evergreen foliage is similar to toyon. It's deer resistant too.

True, it could end up 20 feet tall, but it's slow growing, and I don't think it'll grow that big on the shallow layer of soil that covers the sliced-off top of the ridge upon which our house and small garden area sit. Plus I think I'd be able to see the bird bath through its multiple trunks.

Summer Holly in its new bed (lower left).

Defensible Planting Zones

Those who are familiar with this blog will know that one of my dearest projects is to gather seed locally to grow and plant local natives on our property. But I don't limit my garden choices to local natives.

I've developed a planting guideline for myself by repurposing the 100 Foot Defensible Zone law for fire safety:

  • First 30 feet: It's my garden and I'll plant what I want to -- that isn't invasive or harmful or likely to hybridize with rare or endangered or special local wild species.
  • Next 70 feet: Mostly locally native, and hopefully defensible in the event of a small wildfire.* 
  • Beyond 100 feet: Just remove non-native weeds (as I do closer in too of course).
These guidelines allow me to try old favorites like hollyhocks (they don't like it here, unfortunately) and interesting California natives from other parts of the state (like summer holly). 

Maybe you'll find it useful too, if you are also lucky enough to live in the midst of California's amazing native flora.

* We remove dead wood, thin the chaparral somewhat, try to avoid fire ladders (shrubs growing up into tree branches). There's pretty much no way we can defend against major wildfire, given our ridge top position and our bedecked wooden house. We would just focus on fleeing with our photograph albums and computers!


Byddi Lee said…
I love coyote bush and as you say it grows really quickly and gets really big. I solved the problem in my garden by planting dwarf coyote bush. It makes a nice ground cover and needs very little care and no summer water. I love your planting policy!