Hardscape: count its blessings

Gravel, stone, and other hardscape don’t need water, which is a blessing in summer-dry gardens. They don’t need refreshing, which is a blessing for maintenance. And, as we found in the recent Thomas Fire, they don’t burn, which is a blessing in a fire.

In a 2015 rationing-driven makeover, we replaced 42′ x 140′ of grass with a succulent knot garden in a gravel bed. Other than foundation plantings, this was the only part of our one-acre gardens relatively unscathed by fire. Flames raged all around, obliterating adjacent plants and scorching overhanging California live oaks. In marked contrast, the only damages within the gravel were singed leaves on Aloe Hercules and ember holes in irrigation lines.


Elsewhere, stone terraces and wide gravel paths provided key fire-safe zones where firefighters took stands armed with garden hoses to deter flames from reaching our home. Almost all plantings on the hardscapes’ far side died. Ones nearer the house burned too, but many were salvageable. And our home was saved.

Conversely, virtually all our plants in 2,000 square feet of gorilla hair mulch incinerated beyond recovery. Firefighters told us gorilla hair was a ‘fast burn’ and even worse was our cut bark that glowed with ‘lofted firebrands’ (embers that winds can blow to ignite flames nearby). Both these mulches, unlike gravel, add fuel to a fire. They should not be used in fire-prone areas.

FIRE LESSON LEARNED: Hardscape rocks!

  • Decrease fuel volume – check.
  • Separate fuel sources – check.
  • Saves water – check.
  • Low/no maintenance – check.
  • Looks good – check.


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