Grow your own fire shield

Grow your own fire shield

28 August 2011

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USA — Recent grass fires will hopefully make us stop and think about how vulnerable our property is to a fast-moving grass fire. It can happen even if you’re in a suburban setting that is close to flammable weeds and plants.

Because succulents are plants that store water in their roots, stems or leaves, they immediately come to my mind when thinking of plants that do not burn readily, and thus would be a good choice planted next to the house or other buildings.

With that thought in mind, I visited with Master Gardener Daniel Killam, head gardener for the succulent and cactus garden on the Oregon State University Extension grounds.

Daniel lights up with enthusiasm when talking about succulents.

“I love ’em,” he says, “because they’re easy to care for and come in hundreds of varieties. And because so many are weird-looking,” he adds, with a grin.

While many people think of succulents as houseplants, Killam quickly points out that succulents are pretty tough, and many will withstand freezing temperatures in the Rogue Valley. It’s a good practice, he says, to add some large rocks to the succulent garden, so the rocks will absorb the sun’s heat in winter and release it at night, thus keeping the plants warmer.

For easy-to-grow varieties, Killam recommends trying ice plant, sedum and hen-and-chicks for groundcover. Yucca and the taller Autumn Joy sedum add height and interest, along with the rocks. All of these varieties bloom, too — ice plant, especially, blooms for months on end, and various colors are available.

And yes, even the hen-and-chicks will bloom, albeit a bit weirdly, on a long stalk. But that’s part of the fun, according to Killam. Sedum blooms attract bees, which most gardeners like. And yucca flowers are quite spectacular, with their tall stalks of creamy, bell-shaped blossoms.

Succulents will grow in many kinds of soil, as long as it drains well. They do not like our native clay, however. They like lots of light, but plan to put your succulent bed in a place that will protect the plants from sun-scorch during the hottest summer days. As for easy care, succulents will forgive you if you forget to water them occasionally. They will live on their stored water and swell up again when they get a drink.

To learn more about succulents and how to raise them, “The Complete Book of Cacti and Succulents,” by Terry Hewitt, is excellent. And next time you’re at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, talk to Chuck Timberman, owner of Timbermanor Nursery, and you’ll learn even more about succulents, as well as winter-hardy cacti. Also, stop to see the succulent and cactus garden, one of the demonstration gardens at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, in Central Point.

One word of caution, however: raising succulents is addictive. There are so many unique varieties that next thing you know, you’ll be a collector.

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