Exfoliating Bark

P90720KBecause redwoods live for centuries, their bark gets very thick. They do not shed their bark as they grow. Old giant redwoods in the Sierra Nevada have bark that is a few feet thick and thousands of years old. Their bark is thicker than the trunks of what most of us consider to be large trees! Even much younger coastal redwoods that have regenerated here since clear cut harvesting about a century ago have bark that is a few inches thick.
They like their bark thick. It is the insulation that protects them from forest fires that incinerate other vegetation. Unlike most species here that are designed to burn and then regenerate more vigorously after fire, redwoods prefer to survive fire by being less combustible. As they mature, and their bark gets thicker, they become more resilient to fire. There are only a few species here that survive fire mostly intact, rather than regenerate after it.
Of course, survival is more complicated than mere thick bark. Redwoods, particularly coastal redwoods, also try to exclude other more combustible species from their forests. Also, they tend to shed lower limbs that would be more combustible during a fire, and prioritize higher and therefore less combustible canopies. Redwoods have developed a rather ingenious (but unfortunately ecologically delicate) systems of survival techniques.
Other trees are not so easy to figure out. Many species of Eucalyptus shed lower growth as if they want to be less combustible. They shed copious amounts of foliage and bark to inhibit undergrowth and other combustible vegetation. However, not only are they innately very combustible, but because they shed so much of their bark, they lack insulation from fire. It is as if they expect to burn back to the ground, and then regenerate after a fire.
Regardless of their logic, exfoliating bark of the larger eucalypti can be annoyingly messy. Exfoliating bark of some of the smaller eucalypti can be rather appealing in home gardens. This tree happens to be the same featured last week in ‘Silver‘.P90720K+


Fire Is Part Of Nature

P81106Plants have very different priorities from those who enjoy growing them. The colors and fragrances of flowers that we find so appealing are really designed to guide pollinators. The appealingly aromatic foliage of scented geranium and other herbs is actually designed to repel hungry insects and animals. Many tasty fruits are designed for seed dispersion by animals who enjoy them too.

Pollination, dispersion of seed and self defense are all part of what plants do in nature. They must also know how to survive in their respective natural environments. Many plants survive cold arctic weather. Others survive arid deserts. Many native plants want a bit of water through winter, but know how to survive through long dry summers. Many or most natives know how to survive wildfires.

As unpleasant as it seems to us, wildfires are very natural here. Native plants lack the mobility to get out of the way, so use other techniques to survive. A few, such as the two specie of redwood, survive by not being very flammable. More know how to resprout from their roots after they burn. Even more simply regrow from new seedlings. Then there those that use fire to their advantage.

Monterey pine trees tend to accumulate combustible debris. They also produce more seed-containing cones as they age and deteriorate. When they burn, all the debris burns so hotly that most of the other competing vegetation gets incinerated. However, the dense cones of Monterey pine protect the seed within, only to open to disperse the seed afterward. It is a rather ingenious plan!

Ungroomed desert fan palms burn at least as hotly, but survive because the hefty trunks protect the buds within. Each technique works for the specie that use it, but is not safe for home gardens! This is why combustible vegetation needs to be managed around the home. The rules are different in urban areas than they are where wildfires are a concern, but they are important everywhere. Even the most combustible of native plants, as well as exotics, can be reasonably safe with proper pruning and maintenance.


P80103+For those who do not remember what ‘rain’ is, it is, it is those odd drops of water that fall so mysteriously from the sky in other regions. We get it here too, just very rarely, and almost exclusively within a limited season centered around winter. Rain tends to be affiliated with storms. The last storm moved through here last spring.
Rain may not be much to look at, and is nearly impossible to get a picture of, but it adds up to become a very important commodity known as ‘water’. Some believe that California does not have enough water. We natives know that there is actually plenty of water, but merely too many people in need of it, and a few of those many who capitalize on that need. Anyway, I did not even try to get a picture of the rain that is falling so nicely now, but recycled this old picture of a small volume of water in what is known as a puddle, which is merely an accumulation of water within a low spot on a flat surface.
As unpleasant as rain is to work in, we are very pleased to get it. The sky is rinsed of smoke, and despite the unpleasant news that rain will interfere with searching for remains of those killed by the Camp Fire, there is also the excellent news that the rain is falling over a large area, and making forests significantly less combustible. The formerly crispy forest is again lush and damp and sloppy. What had been a Dust Bowl down where we dump greenwaste is now an epic mud pit! Everyone here is delaying other work to clear drains on roads and roofs. The first storm of the season is always something to celebrate.

Six on Saturday: Fire Season


California really does have the same four seasons that the rest of America has. They just happen to be somewhat subdued in some of the milder climates. The rumor that California has only two seasons, summer and a few days of not-summer, is completely inaccurate. In fact, besides the traditional four season, we have a fifth season that overlaps at least summer and autumn. It reality, this season never ends. It is always ‘fire season’.

Like any other season, fire season affects how we garden here. We prefer to grow plants that are less combustible, which is often contrary to the preference for native specie. In suburban and rural areas, we must manage native vegetation and keep it away from our homes and other buildings. When the weather gets smoky from forest fires, some of us postpone gardening chores for healthier weather.

The Rincon Fire near Paradise Park (not to be confused with Paradise) burned for a few days a week and a half ago, and filled the Valley with thick smoke. By the time that smoke cleared out, smoke moved in from the Camp Fire that burned Paradise more than two hundred miles to the north. Smoke from the Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fire that both started on the same day in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties stayed to the south. The Bear Fire, which was the second relatively small forest fire in our region, started and was contained just yesterday, just a few miles outside of Boulder Creek. Most of us were not aware of it until after it was contained.

Incidentally, a 50% chance of rain is predicted for next Wednesday.

1. Clear blue sky finally appeared on Thursday morning.P81117

2. The orange moon demonstrates how smoky the sky was on the previous evening. It is not easy to zoom in and get a good picture of the moon.P81117+

3. Ponderosa pine forests are the more combustible parts of our region. The darker understory is a mix of coast live oak, canyon live oak, madrone and other chaparral flora. The dead ponderosa pine that I got a picture of for ‘Six on Saturday: Dia de los Muertos’ is to the right in this picture. Sunsets were spectacularly colorful before the smoke blew away. I can not explain why the color was so bland when this picture was taken.P81117++

4. Our debris pile continues to accumulate more biomass from the landscapes and surrounding forests. It is not yet big in this picture. It will get significantly bigger before it gets taken away. Once gone, we start the process all over again. It never ends. There is so much forest out there, and we are constantly trying to keep it away from the buildings.P81117+++

5. These numbers on the side of my work vehicle allowed the volunteer firefighter who used to drive it to go into areas that had been evacuated ahead of forest fires. Several of our vehicles are outfitted with these decals.P81117++++

6. This is the picture that you probably did not want to see. It is what remains of the home of one of my colleague’s clients in Malibu after the Woolsey Fire moved through. The front garden was exquisite. The home was even better.P81117+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


More Smoke

P81110KFire has always been a part of life in most of California. That is why almost all native flora benefits from it, and has developed an efficient system and schedule for not only living with it, but exploiting it.
Within a few years after a fire, the pioneer species are the first to regenerate. They are aggressive, but short lived. Some are annuals. Others are trees that grow fast and then die out as the slower growing but longer lived trees dominate. Some of the longer lived trees might have been there all along, since they have developed ways of surviving fire.
Big valley oaks and coast live oaks that live out in the open away from other forest trees can survive for centuries because the grasses around them burn off fast and relatively harmlessly. Giant redwoods and some pines survive by standing high above the more combustible fuel below. Coastal redwood survives for centuries by being less combustible than other species. Desert fan palms protect their single terminal buds inside their massive non combustible trunks, while their beards of old dead foliage burns hot enough to incinerate competing species. There are too many ingenious ways that plants survive fire and even use it to their advantage to write about; but the point is that they know what they are doing, and they know how to live with fire.
This system of ecology has been disrupted, but not just by people cutting down too many trees and starting too many fires. The problem now is that not enough trees are getting cut down, and fires are unable to burn that which relies on burning.
In this region, pioneer species and an unnatural mix of forest trees moved in where the redwoods were harvested. This makes what had been less combustible redwood forest more combustible than it naturally is. It will take centuries for the redwoods to reclaim their territory and crowd out more of the hardwood trees. Also, because the redwoods regenerate with many trunks from each individual trunk that was harvested, even the redwoods are more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. While they are still relatively young, their foliar canopies are low and intermingled with the other more combustible trees. It is certainly not possible to cut down enough trees to repair the damage, but protecting too many of the wrong trees and outlawing selective harvest of second growth redwood only promotes combustibility of the local forests.
Other forests, whether formerly harvested or not, experience similar problems. Because they are not burning as frequently as they used to, they are not being regularly purged and restored, but are instead becoming more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. Diseases and pathogens are proliferating in the geriatric vegetation, and vegetation that succumbs provide more fuel, which also enhances combustibility.
Although there are many (MANY) more fires that are started by human activity now than there ever was naturally, such fires can not burn the vast areas that naturally occurring fires had naturally burned. There are just too many of us living and working here. Forests that are deprived of fire continue to proliferate more combustible biomass. Again, there is no remedy to this. Fires must be controlled and confined as much as possible.
Paradise is gone now. It burned on Thursday. Our region more than two hundred miles to the south is gray with abundant smoke from the Camp Fire that continues to burn there. Two other major fires burn in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, more than three hundred miles to the south of here. Paradise Park just to the south of here was protected from the much smaller Rincon Fire that filled the Valley with harsh smoke for days after it was contained. Sadly, for this region, this is all part of nature.P81110K+

I do not remember on what days these pictures were taken. The first picture at the top was taken toward the sunrise, just prior to sunrise. The second picture above was taken later after noon, probably on the same day. The two pictures below were taken in the evening, perhaps on the day after. P81110K++P81110K+++

Horridculture – Blame

P81106The response to the brief article that I wrote about the smoke from a small and localized wildfire on Sunday is not easy to dismiss. The original article is at https://tonytomeo.com/2018/11/04/smoke/ . It is about the smoke from the small and localized Rincon Fire, and goes on to discuss how the clear cut harvesting of redwood more then a century ago enhanced the combustibility of the forest. It was shared to Facebook, including the Facebook page of Felton League.

The article did not blame anyone for starting the fire. I read it again just to be certain. I said nothing about arsonists, the homeless, homeless arsonists, or anything of the sort! Blame, in regard to the Rincon Fire, is not relevant to horticulture, forestry, arboriculture or anything that I write about.

We all know that there are mentally ill people who are homeless because they do not function well enough to maintain a domestic lifestyle. Some are potentially dangerous because they can do things, such as start fires, without thinking about it. There are also those who can accidentally start fires as they are just trying to stay warm when the weather gets cold out in the forests where they live.

Do we really believe that blaming and vilifying the homeless or mentally ill helps? Chasing them from their encampments and farther out into the forests, as so many suggest, only increases the innate hazards by relocating them into areas that are more inaccessible and more combustible. If we really are so concerned, we should want such hazards relocated to more localized and accessible situations. The severely mentally ill who can not manage a descent lifestyle simply should not be homeless.

Furthermore, what about the vast majority of fires that are caused by electrical malfunction? Why are we not wanting to outlaw electricity? What about the fires that are caused by sparks from lawn mowers and weed whackers? Shouldn’t such machines be outlawed? What about forest fires that start as house fires? Should we blame those who live in homes? Who do we blame for all those combustible trees that grow wild in the forests?

I intend to resume writing mostly and perhaps nearly exclusively about horticultural topics after today. It is what I am qualified to write about. I apologize for this deviation. If I eventually establish a blog regarding homelessness, I will be sure to share a link to it here.


P81104K.JPGWhat a surprise. There was none when I went in to use the computer as the sun came up into a clear blue sky this morning. When I came outside just a few hours later, it was everywhere. It was so thick and so aromatic that it was obviously very close, but it did not smell like it was in the ponderosa pines around Scott’s Valley where I happened to be at the time. Once I got on the road back to Felton, I could see that besides the monochromatic ambient smoke that obscured the surrounding hills, a prominent and much thicker brown cloud of smoke hovered low over the San Lorenzo Valley. The smoke was even thicker in Felton, and obscures the range to the west where Bonny Doon is. As I write this in Felton Covered Bridge Park, ash is falling onto the computer screen.
The fire has apparently been burning since last night in the Pogonip, closer to Santa Cruz, and is now contained. Paradise Park has been evacuated. Highway 9 is closed between here and there. Sirens announce the arrivals and departures of firetrucks as they migrate into town from the south on Highway 9, and back south toward Santa Cruz on Graham Hill Road and Mount Hermon Road, as if even they can not get through on Highway 9. Heavy helicopters can be heard but not seen off to the south. A cumbersome airplane is circling the area.
There is not much of a breeze. It seems as if it has not gotten as warm as predicted for today. The smoke and sirens sets the mood. It is not good, even though we know that the fire is contained.
Fire is part of life here. Clear cut harvesting of redwood more than a century ago allowed more combustible specie to proliferate over the area and among the redwoods as they recover and regenerate. The forest is now more combustible than it has ever been, but can not be allowed to burn with so many of us living here. Without burning, it becomes more combustible.

Fire! . . . Again

P71018“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” That old margarine commercial was lame back in the 1970s, but the quote is so true. Inadvertent interference with the natural process of wildfires has unfortunately increased the combustibility of the flora of forests and wildlands throughout California. No one really meant to interfere with the process. It is just what happens when we need to protect our homes and properties from fire.

The longer the vegetation is deprived of fire, the more overgrown and combustible it becomes. If deprived of fire long enough, many plants start to succumb to insect infestation and disease, and they become more combustible as they deteriorate and die. To make matters worse, so many of the exotic (non-native) plants that have been introduced into California are just as combustible, and some are even more combustible than native flora!

Combustibility is certainly no accident on their part. It is part of their ecology. Very few woody plants that are native to California even try to survive fire. The two specie of redwoods protect themselves with thick noncombustible bark so that they can recover from fire, even if much of the foliage gets burned away. Desert fan palms also recover after fire, after fueling it with their very combustible old fronds in order to incinerate competing specie. They are experts on this sort of ecology!

Most plants specie are neither so determine to survive fire, nor so creative in exploiting it as the desert fan palm is. They just live and die with it, only to regenerate and start the process all over again. Many release their seed as they burn. Some pines protect their seed within thick cones that open to disperse seed afterward. Seed of some specie need to be scarified by heat to germinate only after fire. Everyone want to be the first to exploit new real estate freshly cleared by fire, and they are always working on techniques to give them an advantage.

The problem with these processes is that they are not compatible with our lifestyles. As several big wildfires continue to burn throughout Southern California, another fire started early this morning just east of the Sepulveda Pass of the San Diego Freeway in Bel Air.


P71018Fire is part of life here. It is a risk that those of us who live in the Santa Cruz Mountains must accept. We live in forests full of abundant vegetation fuel, where fire crews and equipment have limited access. The horrible Tubbs Fire that recently burned an urban neighborhood in Santa Rosa demonstrates how destructive, risky and unpredictable fires can be. That neighborhood was in town, outside of forests, where fire is not such a commonly accepted risk.

This morning, October 17, on the anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, our community woke to a fire of our own. The sunrise looked more like a colorful sunset, with orange and tan smoke everywhere. The ash that had fallen from the sky made it seem like there had been a cremation party last night. It is getting to look like Pompeii around here. The fire started last night as a house fire near Bear Creek Road outside of Boulder Creek, and moved into more than a hundred acres of forest. Crews from as far away as San Jose responded quickly, and seem to be containing it. The region was evacuated, and Bear Creek Road was temporarily closed. The fire is only 5% contained as I write this before noon. Fortunately, the humidity is up, and the temperature is down.

Fire is more than a part of life for us. It is part of nature. Although almost all fires here are caused by human activity now, fires had been burning forests and wildlands long before humans arrived. There certainly were not as many fires, but without anyone here to suppress them, they burned much larger areas for much more time. A fire started by lightning early in summer could burn for hundreds of miles until extinguished by a storm the following autumn. A single such fire could easily burn more area than all unnatural fires now burn each year. There were likely several such fires annually. That is why old photographs show that California was historically not as densely forested as it is now. Forests simply burned more regularly.

Many plant species know how to work with fire. A few, such as the giant redwood and coastal redwood, survive fire by being relatively noncombustible. They only burn if other vegetation around them gets extremely hot. Most of the pines do not mind burning because their cones open to disperse seed after getting cooked by fire. The seed germinate quickly the following winter to reforest the area that was just cleared by fire. If they are fortunate, they grow up and dominate the forest before other vegetation does, only to burn again a few decades later.

Then there are a few plants that take this technique a step further. Monterey pine is innately sloppy. By that, I mean that it holds much of its old dead limbs instead of shedding them. Lower limbs collect significant volumes of fallen needles, instead of letting the needles fall to the forest floor. Consequently, when a Monterey pine forest burns, it gets hot enough to incinerate competing vegetation and its seeds. Monterey pine cones do not burn completely. They insulate the seeds within just long enough to survive the quick and hot fire, and then open afterward to disperse seed. This is a significant advantage to the Monterey pine, even though they get incinerated too. Not much more than their own seed survives to dominate the forest.

California fan palms (and the related Mexican fan palms) collect long and very combustible beards of dead fronds. When they burn, they likewise incinerate everything below them. The single terminal buds of the palm trees remain safely insulated inside their thick trunks, and will regenerate later as if nothing every happened.

This tactic sounds violent, but it works for the trees that use it. However, enhanced combustibility is not such an asset in home gardens. That is why it is so important to either plant combustible plants at a distance from homes and buildings, or to maintain them so that they are not allowed to collect fuel.

If palms are allowed to wear their beards long enough to reach the ground, other combustible plants should not be allowed to get too overgrown around them. Alternatively, palms can be allowed to wear long beards if the lower portions are pruned up and away from other combustible plants.

Just like there are several plants that are not notably combustible, there are some that are notably combustible. Pines, cypresses, firs, spruces, cedars, junipers, acacias and eucalypti, although useful and appealing in the right situations, all happen to be notably combustible.