Fire season is well underway, and the weather has been dry and hot. Since we live in a high fire-hazard region, it’s a good idea to take stock of your landscape to make sure you’re doing all you can to reduce the chance of wildfire damaging your home.
Vegetation management is a large part of mitigating wildfire risk to your home, and the simplest thing any of us can do right now is to grab pruners and head outside. Trees and shrubs develop dead wood over time. Although heavy pruning of trees and shrubs should be done during the dormant season, pruning out dead limbs and branches can be done at any time of year. You can tell if a branch is dead by looking at it – is there any green growth? Grab the branch and bend it – does it bend easily without snapping? Scrape the bark deeply with your fingernail – is the tissue beneath the bark light tan or green-tinged? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s probably live tissue. Dead branches will have no new growth on them, they will snap easily when bent and the tissue beneath the bark will be dark brown or black.
Prune out these dead branches and dispose of them appropriately. Do not leave them on your property, where they can serve as fuel for fire. After you’ve removed the dead material, look at your plants for other sources of fire risk. Limb up your trees by removing lower branches so the lowest branch is at least three times the height of vegetation below. In the absence of plants within the drip line of your trees, make sure the lowest branches are at least 5 feet above the ground. If you haven’t pruned in a while, make sure you aren’t removing more than one-third of the total number of tree branches.
Look at your shrubs. A common way for homeowners to prune shrubs is by shearing them for a rounded or flat-topped look. Shearing is quick and easy, but for many shrub species, you may just be creating a greater fire hazard and killing the tissues in the interior of the plant. Shearing weakens plants and makes them more prone to stress.
A better way to prune shrubs is by “thinning.” Thinning is a way of pruning that preserves the overall natural shape of your shrub. For shrubs with “canes,” which originate at the base of the plant, place your fingers on the tallest, or oldest, cane and follow it back to its base – that’s where you make the cut. If you keep doing this with the tallest canes, you will end up with a shorter shrub that retains its appearance. It also allows light and air to penetrate to the interior of the plant, promoting health and resilience. Just make sure to only prune one-third of the total number of branches.
For shrubs with a net-like appearance of branches, again place your hand on the tallest branch and follow it back to the nearest larger branch. Make your cut there, making sure to avoid cutting into the branch collar – the point where the smaller branch is attached to the larger one.
In addition to dead tree and shrub branches, remove all other dead plant materials from your landscape – fallen leaves, needles and branches and dried grass. Deadhead your flowers by removing spent blooms, encouraging re-bloom.
Finally, water your landscape properly – not too much or too little. Green, healthy plants are more resistant to combustion and will give you pleasure throughout the fire season.
Heidi Kratsch is the horticulture specialist with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Have a question about your plants? Contact a master gardener at 775-336-0246 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.growyourownnevada.com.