Seasonal fires were a phenomenon in California many centuries before European settlers arrived. The process whereby vegetation burned was a normal and regular occurrence over 12,000 years ago, and was part of a natural activity that limited fuel buildup and increased plant diversity. The indigenous people of Western North America intentionally burned the landscape in order to provide fresh food and resources.

Illustration by Helen KrayenhoffCurrent residents need to be aware of the history of fires in this state, but most importantly we need to understand how hundreds of years of fire suppression has increased the potential for more disastrous conflagrations. So, since this is meant to be a gentle commentary on gardens why do I raise such a dire subject? Mainly it is because gardeners can make a difference by making the right choices, but also because these are the months when our weather patterns favor wildfire.

For most urban gardeners these concerns are relatively minor…just keep your plants well hydrated, remove accumulated leaf litter and other dry debris, and avoid flammable trees or shrubs close to the house. But many of you live adjacent to parks or wild lands where vegetation grows largely unchecked. In these neighborhoods you will definitely need to maintain a larger defensible space, and might also benefit from the resources available at The Fire Safe Council ( Check out their information brochures under the Resources menu.

We have compiled a list of those plants that are suitable for Bay Area gardens that can withstand high temperatures without igniting, and will not readily support open flames. Just ask for the Fire Resistant Plants handout at our sales counter during your next visit. And these are not drab-looking natives either. Many are relatively easy to grow and will provide a floral display for at least part of the year.

On a side note, my personal favorite fireproof plant is Sempervivum. Commonly known as Houseleek, it was favored by Charlemagne in about 800 A.D., when these spreading succulents were frequently planted on rooftops to limit the damage caused by lightning strikes. Curiously, we are seeing a huge increase in interest in rooftop gardening, and these little treasures are quite popular for that very purpose.

By the end of October we expect our temperatures to drop, and for the humidity to rise. Until then, spend some time strolling through your garden with a cool beverage, and with an eye toward fire safety.