Defensible Space… Things to Do this Fall

We usually think of the spring and early summer months, the period before fire season in northern Nevada, as the appropriate time to evaluate and create defensible space around our homes. Defensible space is the area between a house and an on-coming wildfire where the vegetation has been modified to reduce the threat.

While creating this safer space comes more readily to mind at other times of the year, fall months provide some unique opportunities for managing our landscapes to reduce the wildfire hazard.

With fall rapidly approaching, it is time start thinking about preparing for next year’s fire season. Tackle these fall chores to make homes more fire safe: control cheatgrasss, remove fallen needles and leaves and replace flammable landscape plants.

Cheatgrass Control. This year’s bumper crop of cheatgrass caught many homeowners off guard. If cheatgrass is a problem on your property, the fall months are a good time to use pre-emergent herbicides to control next year’s crop. This is because cheatgrass seeds often germinate in late fall.

Fall-germinated cheatgrass seedlings survive the winter as small tufts of green leaves. They start growing again in early spring, sometimes joined by even more plants from newly germinated seed. Come summer when the plants dry out, cheatgrass becomes a significant wildfire fuel.

By properly applying a pre-emergent herbicide before seed germination, the following year’s cheatgrass population can be greatly reduced. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office to get advice on proper herbicide use.

Remove Fallen Needles and Leaves. September usually marks the beginning of the annual pine needle and leaf drop. Dead, dry needles and leaves are easily ignited by embers during a wildfire. So this fall, do not allow thick layers of needles and leaves to accumulate on the roof, in the rain gutter or in the yard.

Replace Flammable Shrubs. The fall months are also a good time to plant new shrubs and trees. These plants establish well during the cool air temperatures and warm soil conditions that September and October provide. Prices on container plants at the nursery are usually cheaper this time of year as well. So, take this opportunity to replace flammable plants, such as ornamental junipers, growing near your home with less hazardous plants.

The reasons homeowners should junk junipers are that the plants are dense, they retain a lot of dead material within and underneath them, and they contain volatile oils that burn intensely. Replace ornamental juniper shrubs so that none are within 30 feet of the home.

Good replacement plants include low-growing deciduous shrubs, perennial and annual flowers, herbaceous groundcovers and deciduous trees. For specific plant suggestions, contact your local Cooperative Extension office for a copy of “Good Plant Choices for Northern Nevada’s High Fire Hazard Areas.”

Do not give up on defensible space chores for this year quite yet. By doing these fall defensible-space practices now, we can make our homes more fire safe for next fire season. For more information about creating defensible space, visit


Ed Smith is a natural resource specialist with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Horticulture questions? Attend the Master Gardener Garden Tour Aug. 19-20, contact a master gardener volunteer at, or visit