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How to protect your home with firewise landscaping

Jim Duthie heads to the Idaho Firewise Garden to learn how to have a beautiful landscape and protect your home from the threat of fire at the same time.

BOISE, Idaho — As Idaho’s population grows, more and more people are moving into areas that were once considered Idaho’s wildlands. And that means a bigger threat of property damage and destruction in the event of a wildfire.

In our continuing series about Idaho wildfire awareness, we are introduced to the idea of firewise landscaping at a demonstration garden here in Boise where you can learn how to have a beautiful landscape, and protect your home from the threat of fire at the same time.

Idaho is no stranger to wildfires. Every year, tens of thousands of acres go up in smoke. But Idaho’s wildfires aren’t limited to the forests and the rangelands.

In just the past two decades, destructive, and even deadly wildfires, have occurred in populated areas of the Treasure Valley. And as Idaho’s population continues to grow, we’re moving farther and farther into the urban-wildland interface where fires are a constant risk.

That’s why knowing about firewise landscaping is so important.

“So, firewise landscaping is a concept to landscape in order to protect your home from wildfire,” Brett van Paepeghem said.

Brett van Paepeghem is with Idaho Firewise, a nonprofit organization that promotes wildland fire education.

He also manages the firewise demonstration garden located adjacent to the Idaho Botanical Garden and the Old Penitentiary in northeast Boise, where you can get ideas on landscaping with beautiful, but less-flammable plants.

It’s not all just about cactus and yucca…

“Certain plants to use and/or avoid and how they’re arranged is very important," van Paepeghem said. "So we want to use the shorter, lower growing ground-cover close to the home, and leaving some empty space here and there. We don’t want to just fill the entire landscape full of plants.”

The idea is to provide a defensible space around your home, so that an approaching wildfire has less fuel available to burn.

The firewise garden is arranged in three zones, each representing a specific distance from your home, and showcasing examples of plants that will thrive in Idaho while being more fire resistant.

Zone 1, within 30 feet of the building, includes hard surfaces like stone and gravel pathways, as well as spotty low plants that would be less likely to burn, or that would burn very low to the ground.

Such as drought-tolerant succulents in a variety of colors and textures, and pretty bloomers like the pink ice plant, and this little beauty known as pussytoes, whose flowers resemble the soft feet of kittens.

Ivory queen onions will be blooming soon, opening up into an interesting ball of blossoms.

And purple soapwort, which contains saponins, a substance that makes the plant fire resistant, and which has been used to make soap.

Zone 2, from 30 to 100 feet from the building, includes grasses and small shrubs and ground covers.

There are native Idaho plants, like the firecracker red penstemon, and sulfur buckwheat, with its bright yellow blossoms. Both of these plants will attract pollinators to your landscape.

And purple coneflowers, or echinacea, a drought tolerant perennial that will bloom throughout the summer.

Finally, zone 3 extends out more than 100 feet, and includes existing vegetation, such as larger shrubs and trees, but it focuses on keeping conifers and other plants that contain high levels of flammable oils and resins, at a distance.

A good choice here is the common lilac, with its gorgeous fragrant flowers, as well as thick green leaves that are slower to burn.

The desert willow produces beautiful pink trumpet-shaped flowers.

And then, of course, the mock orange, commonly known as syringa, Idaho’s state flower, with its profusion of white blossoms that bloom throughout Idaho’s backcountry.

There are also a dozen different varieties of turf grasses on display, many of which will use less water than common lawn grass.

“It’s not just about the wildfires. It’s about water conservation," van Paepeghem said. "A very important piece of this demonstration garden is that everything that we’ve chosen here is extremely xeric, or low-water use.”

With the hottest and driest months of the year just around the corner, and drought conditions leading to an increasing fire danger for us, it’s more important than ever to understand the concepts of firewise landscaping.

The Idaho Firewise Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with your paid admission to the Idaho Botanical Garden. The firewise garden also offers private tours by appointment to individuals and groups, and it’s a perfect resource for planning and designing your firewise home landscape.

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