Fire Season is here. How can your landscape help?

Fire Season is here. How can your landscape help?

The Essential Guide to Defensible Landscapes

Fire Season is here again.

As we cope with the grave threats to public health from the COVID-19 virus and its surreal, devastating effects on our culture, one could almost forget that we are deep into the wildfire season here in California. People are experiencing a whole new level of home life now, both in- and out-of-doors. But as the wildfire threat increases through the summer months, the question remains: How can your landscape help?

In California, over 10,000 buildings were destroyed in 2020 and more than 30 civilian lives were lost. 4.2 million acres burned, the most in a single year since CalFire began keeping records, and more than the previous three years combined. A State of Emergency was declared.

It’s a sobering reminder of the threat posed by living close to nature, as record heat and low humidity continue to intensify by the year.

Property owners are at risk, to be sure, but what can we do to minimize those risks? Is it possible to improve the defensibility of our properties by landscaping wisely?

The answer is yes.

At Madrone Landscapes, we have dealt with properties in high fire danger areas for decades. There are many ways to enhance the defensibility of a property, whether it is through plant selection and design, or irrigation and water system strategies. Fire-resistant plants selections are available, but it is every bit as important that your plantings be well-spaced, properly pruned, and adequately watered in order for them to perform their fire-resistance function. Also, eliminating plants entirely from around structures may do more harm than good. Properly chosen plants can catch air-born fire embers, letting them die out harmlessly, and plants’ roots are often vital to control erosion in the event of a fire.

For ways to make your home more fire safe inside and out, see the Homeowner’s Checklist from the SLO County Fire Safe Council.

Defensible Space – Defensive Landscaping

What you plant in your yard, and where you plant it, can be just as important as how your home is built. When in the path of a wildfire, your garden and lawn can become fuel for the flames. But, by learning the different zones around your property, you can create a more fire-safe home.

ZONE 1 Garden Zone: 0-30 feet from the outside walls of the building – This is the most important zone, as fire in this area will present the greatest danger to your house. This area should be kept irrigated and clear of debris at all times.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 1

  • Plants up to 18 inches tall that are low-volume (not thick and bushy)
  • Plants with a high moisture content, such as succulents
  • Grasses a maximum of 3 inches tall
  • Tree branches trimmed 10 feet up
  • Area is irrigated and kept clean

ZONE 2 Greenbelt/Fuel Break: 30-50 feet from structure – The goal of this zone is to reduce the available fuel in order to slow a ground fire. Larger shrubs and trees can be introduced here, as long as a distance that is twice their height separates them. This will prevent the ‘fire ladder’ effect, where fires jump from one clump of shrubbery or trees (fuel) to another. Grass in this area should be mowed to 6”. This area should be kept irrigated and maintained.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 2

  • Succulents, small to medium shrubs
  • Trees at least 10 feet apart and tree crowns 10 feet off the ground
  • Grass a maximum of 6 inches tall
  • Shrubs separated by two times their height, so a 6 foot shrub will be at least 12 feet from its neighbor

ZONE 3 Transition Zone: 50-100 feet from structure – The major effort here should be to thin existing vegetation and remove debris. Grass should be kept at 18”.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 3

  • Low to medium height plants
  • Plants grouped in “islands” for water efficiency
  • Dead branches and leaves removed

ZONE 4 Native or Neutral Zone: 100+ feet, depending on conditions – The primary goal of this area is to reduce fuel buildup by mechanical clearing or occasional prescribed fires.

Top Fire-Resistant Landscaping for Zone 4

  • Grass mowed to 12 inches
  • Vegetation thinned and ground kept free from litter

Landscaping in fire-prone areas should try to create a fire safe buffer – a defensive space – around your home. The home’s roof and gutters should also be cleared of any plant materials like leaves and pine needles. Taking these measures can make it easier and safer for firefighters to save homes from wildfires.

Fire Safe Demonstration Garden

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden has a Fire Safe Demonstration Garden located at 3450 Dairy Creek Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405. They are open daily during daylight hours. The Gift Shop and Office are open 9 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Friday.

Get more tips from the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden’s Fire Safe Landscaping Brochure.

The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

The Essential Landscape Design Guide: How to Maximize a Residential Landscape

Written by Daniel Mazawa, General Manager
Originally published in Living Lavishly

Transforming a landscape can be overwhelming—there are so many places to find inspiration, and there are drastically different styles to consider. It can be helpful to work with a professional—landscape designers are trained to see the big picture and identify opportunities that elude most homeowners. Here are a few steps homeowners can take to understand the design process and get a grasp of what they want from their landscape:

Analyze the Site
On the Central Coast, there are several different natural backdrops that most homes enjoy. Whether it is a distant view of rolling oak woodlands or a beachfront bluff experience, it is important to understand the setting of a place as influenced by the natural world. Take stock of existing trees or plants on site as well as sun and shade.

The architecture of the home and the neighborhood aesthetic may set the tone for the landscape design style. Consider the experience of driving up to the house and walking around the yard. A guest arriving at the home should know right where the front door is and where to park. The movement around the landscape should be functional and beautiful. Where are the areas of interest? What is the flow and the circulation? Identify the opportunities and constraints in a setting before figuring out what to do.

Establish the Functions
It is easy for someone who owns a home to identify what they want, but it can be a little more difficult to define what they need. Everything takes up space, so prioritizing functions is extremely important. Figure out how much usable space is needed for parking, outdoor entertaining, open utility areas, connecting pathways, and any other high-frequency functions. Pools, hot tubs, sport courts, outdoor kitchens, vegetable gardens, and other secondary functions can be fun additions to fold in.

Consider the best locations for all functions as far as convenience, sun exposure, views, and feel. For example, both an outdoor kitchen and a vegetable garden are convenient near an indoor kitchen, but the garden wants open sunshine and the outdoor kitchen benefits from shade or shelter. Also consider the indoor/outdoor connection as perceived through windows and doors from inside. A pergola can feel like an extension of an indoor room, or a distant view can be framed to be enjoyed from inside.

Define Design Style
A good first step is to decide whether a landscape is going to be geometric and calculated or free flowing and natural. A modern home may work better with a straight-lined landscape, but these forms can deconstruct as they move away from the structure. A natural setting such as a woodland can work well with curves and natural pathways especially if preserving existing trees.

People who like control, simple bold design, or tidy surroundings gravitate towards straight lines with geometric configurations. People who like tranquility, natural settings, or designing with nature gravitate towards flowing curves. Bold Modern style utilizes straight-line end of the spectrum and Natural Style falls on the curved line end. Mediterranean, Southwestern, Cottage, and Japanese gardens fall somewhere between. Having a clearly defined style that repeats and transitions smoothly will make a landscape feel complete.

Design Spaces Before Features
While design features are important, the spaces they create are more important to the user experience. For example, a tree may be a beautiful feature, but the shade and shelter a tree grove provides can create a comfortable room complete with walls and a ceiling. Comfortable spaces are often perceived as a bit wider than they are tall, or 1 to 1.618 height to width per the golden ratio. A pergola 16 feet wide by 10 feet tall is a good example. The same comfortable feeling can be achieved with shrubs and trees.

Conversely, putting too many plants next to a front door entry can make it feel tight and uninviting. Open it up and make the path wide, prominent and inviting. Wide open views will feel more comfortable when framed with trees or from a comfortable viewing patio. The psychology of spaces can be overwhelming, but it is obvious when a space feels right.

Work Out Transitions
Landscape is the glue that holds together spaces and structures. Transitions can be the most dynamic aspects of a landscape, or they can be eyesores. Complex hardscape features such as patios, retaining walls, fences, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, water features, and fire features will often intersect and connect with one another.

Figure out how connections will work to make a seamless transition point. Formal landscapes will often transition to a natural area. Utilize decorative bunch grasses on the edge of the landscape to blur the line between mulched landscapes and natural areas. When utilizing multiple design styles, create transitional landscapes to blend gradually. For example, a contemporary landscape may transition to a natural area going from straight lines to calculated arcs and then to a curved path.

Iron Out the Details
Details in the landscape should emphasize the overall design style and theme. In most cases, color themes should be complementary, so they don’t clash. Choose colors for concrete, stone, wood, paint, mulch, and plant material that paint a picture that goes together.

Textures should also be considered. Fine texture details such as exposed aggregate concrete, small ledge stone, or small plants can feel lost in a large space. Bold coarse texture details like large boulders or big leaved plants can feel overbearing in small spaces. Perennial plants provide color, texture, and movement.

Plants should fit the design style with color as well as layout. Bold masses of plants work well with contemporary landscapes, while multi-species combinations can work well with natural areas. Finishing details can make the difference between a hodge-podge yard and a cohesive landscape.

There is a lot to think about when trying to maximize a landscape. A professional can help. Landscape designers can take ideas and dreams and turn them into a buildable design. Knowing the process before starting design or construction can be invaluable to being able to communicate goals and expectations to create a successful landscape to enjoy for years to come.

On the Boards: Mediterranean Labyrinth Garden

On the Boards: Mediterranean Labyrinth Garden

This lush residential garden, located in Grover Beach, incorporates many curves and circles by using massive earthwork and retaining walls. Built on a complex and challenging sand slope, the landscape maximizes every square foot with artistic and intriguing aesthetics. Edible food forests, colorful Mediterranean displays, dry creek beds, and even a golf green bring this design into vibrancy, with new irrigation and a high-volume drainage system to keep the entire property functioning well. Three labyrinth designs are incorporated into the pathways; meandering paths to different areas provide a feeling of exploration and discovery. After extensive work and focused creativity, this inspiring space qualifies as a proper oasis.

Meet the Team: Tyler Ellison, Landscape Designer

Meet the Team: Tyler Ellison, Landscape Designer

Madrone extends a warm welcome to Tyler Ellison, who recently joined our landscape design team. With his functional and pragmatic approach, he fits right in! He is detailed yet practical in his designs, ensuring his fresh ideas are both buildable and unique. He loves meeting new friends, listening to their needs and experiences, and working alongside them to create a space they can enjoy and call their own. We look forward to tasting his homemade mac & cheese!

How did you end up at Madrone?
After finishing both the Landscape Architecture and MBA programs at Cal Poly SLO, I was looking to join a Central Coast landscape design company. I worked for around two years for a landscape architecture firm in San Luis Obispo. I have always been a designer and “maker” – so I jumped at the opportunity to work for a design/build company.

What is your favorite thing about working at Madrone?
My favorite thing about working for Madrone is people—both in and out of the office—and the diversity of opportunities it brings me as a young designer.

Sometimes I use Sketchup to help visualize design features and the feel of a space.

What do you enjoy most about your team/department?
I enjoy the unique strengths of each individual, and the various perspectives they lend to design and installation. Their feedback and crititique is a welcome challenge and completely necessary for any young creative.

What do you enjoy most about being a landscape designer?
I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their dreams for a space, and collaborating with them to design a space that is functional, unique, and beautiful.

I enjoy the sketching process starting out any new design.

I love the bold statement of a gold Bougainvillea, but also the softness of a variegated thyme along a path. I would consider Platinum Beauty Lomandra to be my favorite and most versatile landscape planting element. I unambiguously dislike Bradford Pear trees—massively overplanted, messy, susceptible to disease, and structurally weak, to name a few characteristics.

Photo of Platinum Beauty Lomandra from a favorite breakfast spot in Yountville, California.

What are some of your favorite hobbies outside of work?
Since my first art show in early 2020, I have continued to paint and sell art through an online portfolio, ellisondesigns.com. I love people, plants of all types, exploring new places, live jazz, brewing craft ginger beer, and developing a line of custom reclaimed wood furniture.

Give us a fun fact about you!
If landscape design doesn’t work out, you will find me opening a food truck that serves made-to-order macaroni and cheese and a variety of crunchy and savory toppings.

Five Ways to Light Your Landscape

Five Ways to Light Your Landscape

Guidelines for Illuminating Your Outside Living Spaces

When choosing outdoor landscape lighting for any area, first think about how you will use the area. Do you want to see an ambient space out your window? Does it need to be easily walkable at night? Will you be holding al fresco dinner parties? Would you like an open-air dance floor? Do you want a cozy nook for a nightcap around a fire pit?

If you have one activity in mind, you can keep the lighting simple with a single switch for all lights. If you want to use your space for several activities, you may want options. To diversify your landscape lighting, you can arrange it into different switched zones, creating flexibility in how the space feels at night. Here are five different ways to customize the lighting for your outdoor spaces.

Pergola Lights

1. Provide Functional Light

In ancient times, sailors preferred dim light to eat their hardtack in ship galleys to avoid seeing their not-so-enticing food. Nowadays, you will likely want to show off your entire spread, and see your guests. Downlights, or directional spotlights with bright light, can be mounted on pergolas, walls, or trees to provide light directly to a table. For these zones, it is essential to provide more lumens with higher wattage lamps.

Suppose you want to provide illumination for safe walking. In that case, you can use path lights elevated on posts to cast broad light over walking surfaces. It is imperative to provide clear, direct lighting to stairs and precarious edges of patios. If you are building a new space, you can put recessed lights in the flatwork and riser lights in steps to provide illumination right where you need it.

2. Define the Edges

Lighting the edges of your patio or the adjacent landscape can be for function or ambiance. Sometimes it is nice to look out the window and see orderly lighting on the edge of a patio. It will make you feel comfortable by extending your visible perimeter when you hear a spooky sound outside. In addition, you can light objects in the landscape adjacent to the patio, such as boulders, art, tree trunks, or plants. This periphery lighting makes the space feel safe and defined even if you aren’t lighting the patio itself.

Here are three suggestions for using lights to define edges:

  • Place path lights or recessed lights on the edge of the paving.
  • Use broad-beamed wash lights to illuminate boulders and low plants for low detail textures and colors.
  • Position narrow directional beam-up or spotlights to focus on art pieces, tree trunks, or specimen plants.

3. Create an Outdoor Room

It is remarkable how a patio can feel open and exposed in the day but warm and cozy at night with proper lighting. Walls and ceilings at proportionate heights create comfortable spaces. Ancient Greek architecture used the golden ratio of 1:1.61; create a restful and secure-feeling patio space with a width 1.61 times wider than the perceived ceiling height. As a rule of thumb, you can strategically light things to make the area feel a bit wider than it is tall. Use whatever is around – trees, bushes, walls, pergolas, fences – to emphasize this feel. Lighting a few select features will cause your mind to connect the dots and feel the geometry of a room you have created.

Trees are great for this use because you can uplight the trunk to create a wall and feather the light into the canopy to define the ceiling at the right height. Built structures like pergolas are beneficial because they can be customized and provide opportunities to uplight, downlight, or create wall or ceiling light patterns.

4. Create Ambiance

People often say they want low lighting to create an ambiance in their yard. This is not the light for eating your dinner, but it can be stunning in its simplicity. As mentioned before, lighting edges can really create a cozy feel. You can also extend your visible perimeter to more distant features such as trees, plants, art, or even barriers. Use wide angle wash lights to make secluded shrubs and boulders glow. Use directional narrow angle lights to illuminate focal points. For example, a red barked multi trunk tree can be up lit to create a mesmerizing floating warm glow in the distance. You can arrange a line of lights on an isolated or remote hedge or wall to define a wider perimeter of visual space to feel more secure in a brighter lit patio. Moonlights, or hanging pendant lights, can be set high in trees and create a whimsical moonlit forest feel. These are even more stunning if set over a branch to create a shadow pattern on the ground.

Keep in mind that the color of things you light will permeate into the ambient light in a space. You can focus on greens and cool tones to create a calm space. You can focus on reds and warm colors to create a warmer, cozier light. You can also choose warmer or cooler tone lamps/bulbs by using the kelvin rating (A low rating of 2700k is yellow and warm, and a high rating of 4100k is bright white).

And don’t forget the ever-popular bistro lights. These typically low wattage bulbs dangle from strings stretched overhead to provide full area illumination. Bistro lights can be great for a party area because they light the entire zone with semi-dim light. Like a dim bar experience, you may not be able to see your food perfectly, but it is a very nice ambiance for a dance floor or casual hangout. When arranging string lights, consider the density of bulbs for even lighting. Also keep in mind that you would like these strings to look okay during the day, so create intentional patterns and avoid tangled webs. Use built structures, poles, or trees to secure them at a comfortable height.

5. Display Artistic Patterns

These days there are fixtures suitable for creating patterns on the ground, walls, and ceilings. When creating defined designs for a contemporary look, it is essential to map them out with a measuring tape. You are usually working with fans of light over a flat surface. In some cases, you are illuminating things that were already installed in an orderly fashion, like equally spaced trees or wooden posts.

You can use recessed lights in patio flatwork to shoot low fans of light from a central can fixture. Often these have 2, 3, or 4 radiating fans of light that can create a geometric pattern on a ground plane. You can use sconce lights on walls or wall columns to create equally spaced downward or upward fans of light. Some sconces have both up and down light to create an hourglass light pattern. When lighting existing trees or built structures that are already equally spaced, use directional spotlights to create a uniform rhythm. For example, fences usually have equal spaced posts and panels which can be lit by narrow or wide angle up lights, respectively.

Mix it Up

As you can see, these five techniques are not mutually exclusive. Choose what works best for you and your space, and light it up! By using one, two, or several, you can make your outdoor areas come alive at night.

I Can’t Get Lumber! Four Tips for Landscaping During a Shortage

I Can’t Get Lumber! Four Tips for Landscaping During a Shortage

Achieve the Landscape of Your Dreams Post-Pandemic

2020 saw an upsurge in outdoor redesigns—from businesses to backyards. Outdoor living investments topped the list of spending as everyone reconsidered the value of open-air seating or, for homeowners, a sanctuary.

Due to shutdowns, however, disruptions in supply chains were common and became major 2020 obstacles. Consumer demand then outpaced supply and drove up costs as products took longer and longer to arrive.

The lumber and resin supply chains took a particularly harsh hit. Lumber shortages resulted from dealers cutting back in light of falling demands at the start of the pandemic. Resin shortages were driven by “many resin manufacturers and distributors declaring force majeure on [many resin products]” in light of major storm fronts hitting Texas and the Gulf Coast. With resin being used for plastics, even PVC and sprinkler parts rose in price. A decrease in workers across the board also stunted supply chain flow, as there are fewer truck drivers able to deliver.

As the country opens back up, supply chains are patching, but the builder industry still cannot expect the speed and supply of pre-2020 years. Roger Ramsey from Ewing Irrigation emphasized that “we will not have the luxury of a full supply chain to lean on”—we are still in recovery, and it will take time to return to snap back.

According to Evan Moffitt, CLT, CLIA, PCA, from SiteOne Landscape Supply, however, “this pricing is likely to stick. Pricing structures will change. It appears that there is no end in sight in terms of the shortage” (emphasis added). Because of this, it is essential to expect your landscape to not only potentially take longer but to cost more.

That being said, there are ways to be strategic while still achieving the landscape you want. Here are four tips for property owners to stay on top of limited resources:

Be Flexible

Do not marry yourself to a single ideal, and make sure to have a backup plan. Availability is still limited, and you should plan for the event that your specific materials might not be the best option. Says Ramsey, “Make sure you have an alternate in mind for each part of your project.” Be open to discussion with your designers on whichever aspects might see trouble.

Communicate

Early and proactive communication of your needs will make for a much smoother schedule. Try to be clear about what you need to be done and when, and the business tackling your project will adjust as they are able. Ask for realistic timelines so that you know what you can expect. Be communicative with your vision, needs, and options so you can be accommodated quickly and without fuss.

Be Ready to Switch Gears

Supply chain disruptions are usually sudden and unplanned, which means that your project might not be finished in the expected timeline. If supply shortages make one section of your landscape lag, once again be flexible—encourage the pursuit of other areas of the project site and be proactive with any adjustments you’re ready to accommodate.

Prepare for Price Adjustments

If you’re on a tight budget, begin with a forgiving vision so that you can adjust as needed to any price jumps or extra costs. “Expect delays,” says Moffitt. “Things will take longer to get. Materials will cost more.” Once again, communicate thoroughly with your landscapers so they know what you can and cannot afford. They will adjust within your margins to make sure that any potential hurdles won’t hurt you financially.

Post-pandemic, property owners continue to invest in outdoor spaces, which means not only are materials in high demand, but so is labor. If you are in the midst of a landscape project or planning to start one, these four strategies will guide you cleanly through the process. Please contact us if you have any questions about your project.

 

“Stay Ahead of Outdoor Living Supply Chain Disruptions,” SLOXpress, CLCA SLO Chapter, April 2021, page 4.