DIY Seed Starting: Damping Off Prevention (Part 2 of 6):

You wouldn’t put your newborn child into dirty blankets for fear of dangerous germs in the bedding, so don’t germinate your garden seed in anything but fresh, soilless seed starting mix. Used or natural soil is riddled with fungal microbes, called Pythium and Phytophthora fungi, which are fatal to seedlings. They quickly cause roots and tender stems to rot.

Under warm, wet conditions ideal for seed germination, these fungi flourish. They’ll attack tender new sprouts as they break ground.


Preventing Seedling Damping Off

Indoor Seedlings - Maureen Gilmer
Use Clean Bedding to Sow Seeds Indoors.

What prevents damping off from getting a foothold is fresh mix, moderate water, sunlight, and airflow. Black Gold Seedling Mix is light and airy in texture, so it encourages drainage and good aeration, even when it’s warm and wet. Even the most dainty sprout will rise to sunshine without difficulty in this lightweight yet absorbent mix.

Unopened bags of Black Gold Seedling Mix do not contain the fungi that cause damping off. Fresh seedling mix also resists packing down and rarely retains too much moisture. Once you have opened a bag, seal it after use to help keep it free of disease-causing fungi because these spores can be in the air where conditions are damp and plants are growing.

Before sowing into Black Gold Seedling Mix, moisten the mix with warm water. Mix it as you would a salad by turning the material lightly with your hands, over and over until evenly wetted. Like salad, keep it light and just apply light pressure after sowing the seed.

DIY Seed Starting: Containers (Part 3 of 6)

Gardeners that start seeds at home have lots of containers to choose from. You can buy seed-starting flat kits, peat pots, reused containers, or even make seedling soil blocks. Some are more costly, while others allow you to grow more for less. My preference is to germinate seed in recycled containers to save your money and reuse plastic waste. Here is what to look for in good containers for seed starting.

Provide Cover

The biggest challenge when germinating seed is keeping the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Good cover with clear or translucent plastic tops ensures surface moisture. This is especially important in dry climates where evaporation rates are

Cheese Tray
Cheese Tray: This tray and cover saved after an office party makes the perfect enclosure for germinating seeds in small containers.

much higher. These regions are the hardest places to grow anything from seed. (In more humid climates cover is not always required.) If you let pots go dry for just a day or two, tender young sprouts may wither. If you’re busy with the kids or gone at work all day, you won’t be able to rescue wilted seedlings. If they suffer long enough, they will die. In the earlier stages of seed germination and growth, covers provide a safety net.


Seed Starting Containers

One of the most common seed-starting mistakes is sowing seed directly into deeper pots. In some cases, the soil surface can quickly dry out while deeper down it can remain wet, even saturated. When you rewet the surface soil where seeds lie, you risk further saturation deeper down, which can stimulate fungal disease or undesirable saturated soil conditions. Once a seedling’s roots grow downward, this can cause trouble.

For this reason, accomplished gardeners germinate their seed in smaller containers. If you don’t have seedling flats, recycled clear plastic fruit, vegetable, or take-out food containers

Salad Box
Salad Box: Clear-lidded take out boxes make ideal germination chambers.

with tops are ideal. The ability to close the top greatly reduces the rate of surface evaporation, thereby maintaining moist conditions without the need to apply more water. If lids are not available, plastic wrap can do the job. Just make sure there are holes in the top and bottom for oxygen and free drainage.


For larger projects, consider using purchased, lidded nursery flats with cell packs. For smaller plants, choose flats with smaller cells and for larger plants go for larger cells.

The goal of all these choices is to turn containers into miniature greenhouses where seeds are kept warm, stay evenly moist, and will be quick to germinate. Within this environment, control temperature and moisture levels by opening and closing the lid all or part way. (Click here for a vegetable seed-starting temperature chart.) This allows more or less air exchange during periods of wet or dry weather.

Fill the bottom of containers or cell packs with a few inches of pre-moistened, fresh Black Gold Seedling Mix, which is OMRI Listed for organic growing. Into this sow your seed. Once up and growing, each seedling will soon be transplanted into its own growing container.

Six Pack
Six Pack: Keep newly sown seed moist under clear plastic wrap until seeds germinate, then the plastic comes off.

Upgrading Containers

As seedlings grow, they often need more space to reach full planting size. For this second stage use six-packs or four-inch pots and Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Larger pots will be needed for larger plants, such as tomatoes or zinnias. The transplanting process is explained in part six of this series (see the link below).

The most important part of starting the garden indoors is your choice of containers. The right one makes this easy to do, but the wrong choice can leave you perpetually struggling to keep moisture and warmth at optimal levels. Yes, it may be easier to get started with an expensive growing seed-starting kit, but you’ll pay for it.

Why not reuse free plastic containers from salad boxes to yogurt cups to help the environment? Or use all those containers you saved from previous season’s nursery-grown bedding plants. Clean them up in some hot water and soap, and they will be good to go. There’s no need to spend your money on anything except quality seed, seedling mix, and organic potting soil to get your garden off to a flying start indoors this year.

DIY Seed Starting: Proper Sowing (Part 4 of 6)

The first step of any seed sowing project is to read the entire label of the seed packet. That tells you how deep to plant each kind of seed and under what growing conditions. Those that are usually started indoors may be surface sown or planted 1/2 inch deep, depending on seed size and growing preferences. Each plant’s seeds have there own needs for germination, and some requirements are more complicated than others. Lucky, the seeds of garden vegetables and most annuals are quite easy to grow.

Choose the Right Mix

Whether you sow into cell pack trays or directly into individual containers, make sure you use fresh Black Gold Seedling Mix to provide a good growing environment. It is a soilless mixture, often called media, is comprised of fine Canadian sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and a wetting agent. These ingredients ensure that it’s lightweight and takes up water easily. Set aside a container of dry media, then moisten it before filling your containers. Press it gently into your growing containers, but don’t it pack down, so it remains porous enough to for oxygen and moisture exchange.

The Right Planting Depth

Before planting, created holes at the required depth using a dibble stick or repurposed knitting needle in your cells or pots. If you’re growing in a tray or recycled container score rows in the media to the indicated depth. If you’re growing in 4-inch pots, poke three seed holes spaced apart. Now it’s ready for the pots to receive seed.

There’s no challenge with large seeds because these are easy to sow with your fingers and require a deeper planting depth. The tiny ones can be a bigger challenge to handle. Some gardeners take a piece of scrap paper and fold it in half. Into the V at the bottom, a small number of seeds may be placed; then the paper held folded. Tap the bottom and from the lower end of the fold will come the tiny seeds. They’ll drop precisely into your rows or pots, one at a time. Beware of planting too densely because this makes it tough to untangle the seedlings when the time comes to transplant them. Very tiny seeds should also be sown on the surface. After watering, they will become covered enough with media. (To learn more about seed sowing depths for popular crops, click here.)

Once sown, use any reserved dry media to cover seeds. For deeper planted seed cover them with excavated material from the planting hole or row. Then gently press down the media to ensure good soil contact.

Storing Seeds

When sowing is completed, be sure to seal any remaining seeds inside their packets, and store them in a cool, dry place. If you have an unexpected germination problem, the backup seed will be vital for replanting. Being able to refer back to the instructions in the packet can also come in handy.


DIY Seed Starting: Watering (Part 5 of 6)

Every gardener has done it at least once. Watering newly sown pots too aggressively, which dislodges seeds, moving them all across the soil surface. That’s why watering indoor seedlings properly is essential in the first weeks after sowing.

Watering Seeds

How you water seeds depends on the sowing depth, pot size, and available watering tools. Shallowly planted seeds need more gentle watering tools, such as misters, while more deeply planted seeds can tolerate the water pressure from fine watering cans and spray nozzles. They can also be bottom watered from their tray or dish.

If you live in a warmer climate, take pots or flats outside to water. Buy a nozzle for your hose with a mist setting to gently soak pots. With a misting nozzle, you can water the soil’s top layer without over-saturation. Bottom watering will help moisten the soil below. Where winters are cold, rely on super-fine sprayers or misters.

Fine Spray - Maureen Gilmer
Fine Spray: This short-handled water wand features a fine spray nozzle ideal for young seedlings.

Watering Seedlings

For seedlings, there are two watering options–top or bottom watering. If you like to water from the top, tiny seedlings should continue to be misted, but once they develop several leaves, they can be watered with a small watering can or nozzle with fine, well-distributed flow. Make sure you water enough to allow the soil to drain to the bottom. Let surface soil become somewhat dry between watering to avoid fungus gnat and fungal disease problems. (Click here to watch our video about fungus gnats.)

Mist - Maureen Gilmer
Mist: Adjustable nozzles offer a mist setting for seedlings.

Bottom watering pots from trays or saucers allows moisture to wick up through the drain holes to growing roots. It wets the soil mass completely without dry pockets.  This bottom-up method may be repeated every week or two, depending on how hot and dry the local climate.

Finally, keep your eye on the weather as the weeks pass. When conditions are humid, water less. When it’s hot or dry, water more often. Overwatering can lead to root and stem rot and underwatering will parch and kill seedlings.

As you bring your seedlings outdoors to harden off, watch out for windy weather as it tends to rapidly draw moisture out of both the foliage and the soil. Then check your crop twice a day to determine watering needs, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.

DIY Seed Starting: Transplanting Seedlings (Part 6 of 6)


Most seedlings will need to be transplanted as they grow. Larger containers and a more robust mix with added fertilizer will enable seedlings to become large, vigorous plants. (Note that good seed starting mix contains no added fertilizer because it keeps some seeds from germinating.). As long as the light is plentiful, repotting will help your seedlings develop stronger roots and shoots.

Seedling Pot Size

A 3- or 4-inch plastic pot or larger cell packs are ideal for the transition. If you want to reuse containers for a greener approach, use recycled tin cans, yogurt cups, or similar-sized containers; punch two to three holes in the bottom of each for drainage. Use a hammer and thick nail for tin, and a paring knife or screw driver to poke holes into plastic (wear protective hand coverings when punching holes). For bottom support recycle flats from the garden center or line your pots up in a baking pan or any low, watertight container.

Seedlings - Maureen GilmerSeedling Potting Mix and Fertilizer

The potting mix you choose depends on your preference and garden type. If you like planting mix with added fertilizer, choose Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix or Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix. Both feed products for up to 6 months. If your plants are going into an organic garden, use OMRI Listed Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. It is fertile, well-aerated, and holds water well. Because it does not contain a fertilizer boost, apply any quality, water-soluble organic fertilizer.

Fill each pot or container with soil to one-quarter to half-inch below the rim, so there’s enough room for water without overflow.

Transplanting Seedlings

Transplanting your seedlings should be done with a gentle hand. Use an ice cream stick or blunt butter knife to ease seedlings out of the media without tearing roots or disturbing the next seedling in line. Lift it from its roots. Always support the roots with the palm of your hand and lift a seedling by its leaves rather than stems, which are easy to bend or crush. Remove one seedling at a time. Use your finger or a dibble stick to open a hole in the potting soil large enough to accommodate the entire root system comfortably.

Plant - Maureen Gilmer
Plant: Don’t pick up seedlings by the stem; support the roots with your hand.

When transplanting tomatoes, they can be planted much deeper into the soil so new roots will form on the underground part of the stem. This is a rarity. With most other seedlings, transplant them at the same depth. Hold the seedling by the leaf and gently place the roots in the hole then cover with additional mix and lightly press it down. Next, water your seedlings gently. Allow them a week to revive from transplanting.

Hardening off Seedlings

On mild days take the whole flat of seedlings out onto the porch or covered outdoor area with partial sun to help them become adapted to outdoor wind and light. This transitional period is called “hardening off,” which is essential to toughen tender indoor plants to the harsher growing conditions of the outside. Over a week or two, slowly move them into higher light, if they are full-sun plants. If nights become warm, leave thems outdoors overnight to better adapt. Just keep them out of reach of curious pets and hungry wildlife.

With the nutrient-rich soil, growth will speed up so your seedlings will benefit from lots more direct sunlight. Just be careful over the first few days to ensure they adapt well to the exposure without wilt or burning.


  1. Start Vegetable Seed Indoors Early
  2. DIY Seed Starting: Seed Packets (Part 1 of 6)
  3. DIY Seed Starting: Damping Off Prevention (Part 2 of 6):
  4. DIY Seed Starting: Containers (Part 3 of 6)
  5. DIY Seed Starting: Proper Sowing (Part 4 of 6)
  6. DIY Seed Starting: Watering (Part 5 of 6)
  7. DIY Seed Starting: Transplanting Seedlings (Part 6 of 6)

Transformative Grasses: Anchoring Gardens and Soils


This hardy fountain grass is in full summer bloom, releasing pollen in the breeze. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Over the past year, California has experienced drought, wildfires, floods, mudslides, and extreme cold.  The rest of the Southwest has seen the same crazy extremes and has experienced high-damage potential within a short time span.  Everyone will have some rethinking to do, whether making structural repairs or just replanting to return beauty to the landscape.  For others, it may require a whole new assessment of site planting and soil protection.

There is just one group of important plants that are called for this spring to heal the land.  John James Ingalls tells us why in a most eloquent quote:

Grass is the forgiveness of nature–her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. – John James Ingalls, Yearbook of Agriculture, 1948

The Power of Grasses

Empty garden spaces can easily be transformed or revegetated by large, ornamental grasses. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Grasses are natural colonizers.  They are nature’s repair mechanism for soil disturbance.  Soil bound by grass roots underground and broad foliar coverage above protects the surface from raindrop particle displacement (erosion).  On slopes, they are excellent for slowing runoff velocity as well; the slower the water flows, the lower the erosion potential.

This makes grasses the most natural quick fix for gardens and home sites damaged by extreme weather and disasters.  Not only are they the ultimate problem solvers for damaged ground, but large ornamental grasses will also turn sparse drought plantings into lush, beautiful landscapes this year.  When planted in spring, they flower by mid to late summer with tall animated stems that grow more beautiful as they complete their life cycle.

Grasses produce flowers held well above the foliage to catch the wind, which is integral to their reproduction. When pollen flies from grass plumes amidst prairies or drylands, it is caught on sticky flower parts called pistils for pollination and seed set.  In the fall, dry winds help distribute seed far and wide.  The remaining seed structures stand barren into winter until knocked down by snow or heavy rain.

Because grasses are found on every continent, their range of tolerances is significant.  In dry areas of the Southwest, the soils and water supply are too lean for many species that originate in summer-rain climates.  The key is growing grasses that will thrive in our heat and potential drought, so you need not increase irrigation.  They should be sufficiently adapted to drought to survive nicely when the wet cycle wanes.

Planting with Grasses

Grasses are such incredibly transformative plants due to fast growth and significant seasonal change.  They are the stars of late summer gardens when the flowers are heavy and stems nod and sway in the slightest breeze.  Designers know how important this “animation” can benefit an otherwise static garden dominated by rigid cacti, succulents, and arid species.

There are four easy ways to add adaptable grasses to your western landscape this spring.

Create Fast and Easy Fillers

Early in the year, upright maiden grass makes a lush, green single specimen. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Tall grasses with a significant diameter at maturity, like maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracilimus’, 7-feet high, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9), are the fastest way to fill gaps in your planting caused by frost death, washouts, and slope failure.  Provided these grasses spots in full sun, and plant to fit a given space.  If garden space is too large for just one single specimen, plant a group of three or five for a bigger visual impact.

Add Texture to Succulents

Blue fescue is the perfect low-growing, fine-textured grass for planting among succulents.

Succulent plants are coarsely textured and physically stable.  Blend them with fine-textured shorter grasses that are of similar height to contrast the character of each. Try Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima, 3-feet high, USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10) or blue fescue  (Festuca glauca, 1-foot high, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8) for fine-textured appeal.

Enhance Boulders and Rock Gardens

Pennisetums are reliable anchoring grasses for rock gardens.

Boulders are always more natural when anchored by grasses.  Planting right at the edge allows roots to reach underneath and draw up cool moisture trapped beneath the stone far into summer.  Where rocks are plentiful, the roots of grass tend to do better in shallow soils where they find fissures of much greater depth where the water hides. Two kinds of grass for the task are tender fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum, 5-feet high, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10) and hardy fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides, 4-high, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9).

Enhance Background Seasonal Color

The Southwest native deergrass is our best large grass for the dry southwestern US and California. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Bedding plant and succulent displays are animated by taller grasses in the background, particularly after blossoms fade. In the fall, when ephemeral annuals wane, the tall flowers of upright or airy ornamental grasses become sculptural. With this background, you’ll never be without interest except in the dead of winter. Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens, 4 to 5-high, USDA Hardiness Zones 7-9) is a good selection that offers a cloud of pinkish seasonal color.

Planting Grasses

Because grasses are very active rooters, gardeners planting in clayey soils that tend to clod-up should generously add Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to their backfill at planting time.  With heavy clay, like Adobe, mix compost in at a 50/50 ratio with excavated soil.  This introduction of copious organic matter will wake up the army of dormant microbes that exist in fertile clays and work with plants to make them more resilient. The organic matter allows new roots to grow much faster and penetrate deeper. Adding compost also helps prevent surface cracking as wet, clayey soils dry out.  Cracks in hardpan clay allow water to skim the surface or penetrate too fast in the wrong places, causing irregular saturation.

Let grasses make your garden immortal this year. Celebrate the repair and renewal opportunities that grasses offer to rethink landscaping after a very difficult winter. For those who have suffered from wildfire and flood, turn to Mother Nature’s repair mechanism for all things soil-related to receive her constant benediction.

How and When to Plant Trees

Plant trees in spring as soon as the soil warms.

Springtime is tree planting time. Planting trees early in the season, as soon as the soil warms, gives new trees a whole season to set deep roots and top growth. (This is especially the case with marginally hardy trees.) But tree planting is only as good as your planting method and summer care. Here are seven steps for planting trees right!

Step 1: Select a Good Tree

First, choose a tree that is hardy to your growing area. Then choose the most perfect specimen you can find. A tree is a long-term investment, so buy yours at a quality garden center or nursery. Choose a tree free of any signs of bark damage that could invite pests and diseases to enter. The tree’s form should be perfect without oddball branching that could spoil its beauty.

Step 2: Dig a Hole

Dig a hole roughly twice the diameter of your tree’s root ball.

Dig a hole roughly twice the diameter of your tree’s root ball. Dig it deep enough so that when the root ball is set into the hole its surface is level with the surrounding soil. If the ball is set too deep, you risk smothering the tree and introducing trunk rot. It it is shallowly planted, its surface roots will die and it will be slower to establish. Make the bottom of the hole flat, and then dig a deeper band around the edges. This keeps the root ball on a pedestal, allowing water to drain off into the recessed band. Keep the pedestal soil undisturbed, so it won’t settle later on.

Step 3: Amend

Your goal is to encourage that tree to root beyond the container root ball into the surrounding soil. Give roots a reward for being adventurous. Enrich your excavated soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. This encourages more rapid and widespread root development. If your soil is heavy clay or has poor fertility, then this sweetened backfill provides what the tree needs in those first few years as it adapts to its new home.

Step 4: Mix and Plant

Thoroughly mix your Black Gold Soil Amendment into the pile of soil you excavated from the hole you dug. Then return it to the hole in layers, packing each one down with the end of the shovel handle to collapse any air pockets.

Step 5: Fashion a Well and Mulch

Use the leftover soil to fashion a healthy berm on the undisturbed ground around the outside edge of the planting hole. This will hold water directly over the root ball until it has time to percolate down naturally. Then cover the planting circle with a 3-inch layer of mulch, being sure to keep the mulch away from the tree’s trunk. (Excess mulch around the trunk can smother trees.)

Step 6: Water In

Use the garden hose to fill your water well, then wait for it all to percolate down into the ground before you fill it the second time. Thorough saturation is key to preventing transplant shock. Repeat every few days, particularly if the weather turns hot or windy.

Mulching trees will help hold soil moisture and protect trunks from mower and weed wacker damage.

Step 7: Stake and Protect

Stake your tree for additional support during storm winds and rains. Always stake trees on the windward side, and use ties that will not girdle the tree or cause abrasions on the bark.

Provide a protective sleeve of chicken wire around the young trunk because hungry rabbits and other wildlife may damage the bark during the winter. Come fall, when temperatures begin to drop, apply additional mulch around the base of the tree  to protect the root zone and hold moisture through cold winter days.


Sansevieria Reconsidered

Extreme South African drought consumed everything except curious green, sword-like plants rising from the barren ground beneath giraffe-pruned trees. They survived because they are succulents. While browsers struggled to find food, they did not touch the swords, which contained unpalatable toxins.

This is Sansevieria trifasciata, the old fashioned mother-in-law’s-tongue or sword plant. Its resilience shows why it is a no-brainer house plant; it’s tough as well as attractive. Take it outdoors for the summer, and it’s a game changer on porch or patio.

New Popularity

Succulents are the perfect match for Sanseveria because both demand similar watering conditions.

The rediscovery of this Victorian drawing room house plant by lovers of the mid-century modern aesthetic has brought Sanseveria into the limelight again. Sansevieria trifasciata and its close kin are usually sold in the house plant department because they are cold-tender succulent house plants, until now. Where patios are quite shady, this is one drought resistant house plant that you can bring outdoors every summer.

Drought is also demanding new plants and varieties that don’t need much water. Sanseverias are not fond of hot western sun, so they prefer sheltered living spaces outdoors. Where lack of light precludes many less resilient species, these are real problem solvers.

Potting Sanseverias

A Sanseveria busts out of a red clay pot repaired with wire. (Frida Khalo’s garden in Coyoacan, Mexico)

Sanseverias are slow spreaders, much like Iris with their thick fleshy rhizomes that grow into colonies. Green shoots are produced along the roots. These roots are so strong they can crack a pot if too crowded, which is why they are best grown in 1-gallon nursery pots that can be cut away with pruners when it’s time to divide them. When pot bound, simply remove the root ball, separate it into manageable sections, let the root ends dry out for a few days, then replant in Black Gold Cactus Mix. As succulents, they appreciate a porous soil mix.

For a fresh idea, put your nursery sword plant in its plastic pot into a bigger pot of Black Gold All Purpose Potting Soil, so its rim sits an inch above the soil surface. Then plant around it with other seasonal plants or succulents that grow under the same light exposure. This will give your sword plant a more well-drained root zone than its companions in the same pot. If just planting companion succulents, use only Black Gold Cactus Mix to maximize drainage.

Foliage Variations

Sansevieria can come onto a veranda in spring, then moved inside before frost.

Sansevieria varieties are all similar in form, but they have different leaf patterns. This allows you to brighten or darken a setting, depending on the color value of a certain variety. Unfortunately, varieties aren’t always properly labeled, so be sure to select by eye to ensure you get what you need for the space you have in mind. With forms just inches tall to 4 feet in height, size should also be considered when purchasing. Since these were grown in greenhouses, give them some time to adapt to the location at your house before repotting or dividing.

A plant this neutral is a chameleon, altering its overall feel and character depending on the setting. When grown as a house plant, there is no better vertical plant to play off a white wall. Add greenery to a hot zone in the house or apartment, knowing that if you forget to water, it’ll be just fine. If Sanseveria can survive an epic African drought, even the busiest mom can enjoy this oxygen-producing house plant. And, the most harried career woman will come home to a little bit of nature every day.

No matter where you live, bring sword plants out for summer, to try a whole new way to garden with them, knowing they’ll come back inside with you at frost to wait out the cold winter days.



Fight Fires with Garden Flowers

Cistus ‘Brilliancy’ is a low-fuel-volume shrub with lovely magenta flowers.

You can fight fires with flowers. When landscaping around high-fire-hazard homes, the key is to think about minimizing fire fuel volume, or the amount of burnable material that plants provide to oncoming fire. For example, a pine tree has a huge fuel mass, but a sage plant, with its lovely lavender-blue flowers, has negligible fuel mass.

To further understand the concept of fuel mass, imagine the plant on fire. The overall flame produced is roughly three times the plant’s height; the greater the overall mass and size, the greater the fuel volume. (Chemical composition also play a role in fire susceptibility. For example, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) contains many resinous, volatile oils that are highly flammable.) This demonstrates the problem with woody trees and shrubs that are taller and have enormous fuel volumes.

Plants for Firescaping

Native penstemons are timed for winter and spring bloom and gone by the fire season. (Maureen Gilmer)

The good news is that annuals, perennials, biennials, and low-growing shrubs are all better landscape candidates for firescaping. Ornamentals below 2-feet in height are better choices for areas with fall or winter fire seasons. Early frosts often cut these plants back, or the heat of late summer makes them listless in the arid West. Many western natives are also fully dormant by fall, an adaptation that allows them to withstand the dry heat and drought of this season. Once the plants have died back, gardeners can cut them back to further reduce fuel mass around the home.

Some flowers are also fire resistant, but are these the best for the arid West? Scientific research has yielded data on plant fire susceptibility and fuel mass with simple testing.  The tests are done by placing plant samples in a furnace and timing how long it takes for them to catch fire and burn. This makes no allowances for weather, wind, and topography, so in a real fire situation, the test results may be deceiving. All plants burn in catastrophic wildfires. The ” fire-resistant” plants may simply ignite a second or two later than non-fire-resistant plants, so gardeners should not worry about just planting fire-resistant plants.

The key is choosing drought-tolerant landscape plants that also have a low fuel volume. What you can grow locally is dictated by your rainfall and winter cold. You must choose plants adapted to your growing region. Every elevation and geographic area will have its own list of suitable native and non-native herbaceous flowers and subshrubs that fulfill both the fuel height and drought requirements.

Select Flowers for Firescaping

Avoid shrubs and plant blooming succulents, like rock purslane. (Maureen Gilmer)

Drought resistant, low-fuel-volume flowering landscape perennials:

Botanical Name          Common Name           USDA Zone            Color

Achillea tomentosa         Wooly Yarrow            3-8                         Yellow

Arctotis hybrids               Cape Daisy               9-11                        Many

Cistanthe grandiflora      Rock Purslane          8-11                        Magenta

Cistus ‘Brilliancy’             Rock Rose               8-11                        Magenta

Penstemon spp.              Penstemon              Varies                      Varies

Rosmarinus ‘Prostratus’ Rosemary                 7-10                        Lavender

Santolina spp.                 Lavender Cotton      6-10                          Yellow

These are just a few select perennials for starters. Any of these will grow best with drip irrigation in the arid West. You might also plant spring bulbs and wildflowers, which are already naturally adapted to survive fire due to their seasonality; they bloom and grow in the low-fire season. Succulents are also recommended because they contain so much water, they rarely burn. In wetter areas, low fuel volume options include bearded iris (Iris hybrids), sea thrift (Armeria maritima), and many other beauties.

To boost flower production in your newly planted low-fuel-volume flowers this year, generously work Black Gold Garden Compost Blend or Just Coir into the soil to increase water holding capacity, drainage, and fertility. This superior growing amendment is also OMRI Listed for organic gardening.

This garden features the best drought-resistant, low-fuel-volume flowers for firescapes. (Maureen Gilmer)

Planting to Reduce Fire

The commonly used term for firescaping, “planting for fire”, is actually an oxymoron. It should be “planting to reduce fire”. The less fuel there is, the safer you are, but homeowners in high fire zones should not be afraid to have beautifully landscaped gardens. Human beings want beautiful home landscapes with diversity and color, so the hyper-safe fuel-free parking lot approach is not appealing to anyone. Instead, think it through yourself, select wisely chosen low-fuel plants, then start flower gardening in your high-fire zone today.

The final caveat is what’s lying on the ground.  Thick leaf litter and duff ignites quickly from embers, then smolders for many days afterward.  So, another key to fire survival is managing the property so these organic accumulations remain thin or absent. You can also reduce unnecessary top growth. Cutting back plants at the start of fire season should be an annual ritual for reducing overall fuel loads.

There are no easy answers to the new wind-driven fires in the American West, and the future is uncertain. What we can do is realize that survival can rest in your landscape. Plant the flowers you love, explore new plant discoveries, and choose anything else with low fuel volume, so you are ready to fight fires after the flowers bloom.

Arctotis ‘Louise’ is a tough, cool-colored perennial that’s good for firescaping.

String of Pearls: Living Beads for Hanging Baskets

String of pearls is delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding.

They are living jewelry no woman can resist, the most coveted house plant, string of pearls. This tender succulent is feminine looking, delicate yet tough, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding. There are two species that can transform traditional or modern spaces, indoors or out. Hang them like living necklaces to bring awe to your home.


String of pearls (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The true string of pearls is a South African native from the maritime Cape of Good Hope, so it loves the humid coast. Dubbed Senecio rowleyanus, its leaves are like tiny grey-green peas on the finest dangling stems. Its cousin from drier inland is Senecio radicans, fondly called “string of bananas” due to its sickle-shaped leaves. These do better in hot inland climates. Both make great house plants.

In the wild, both senecios grow as ground covers that root as they spread, so they rarely look like the hanging beauties we buy from the garden center. Yet, when planted to dangle in hanging baskets or raised pots and placed in a bright room, specimens almost look like living sculptures.

In gardens where winters are mild, these senecios can be grown outside, usually in raised pots or baskets that ensure perfect drainage. Indoors they are equally desirous of porous soils and hanging pots that are shallow and wide. Wide pots allow the ground-hugging plants to generate a lot of surface roots to hold soil tightly against the weight of their hanging strands.


String of bananas (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

A key to success is rapid drainage in your container. The best hanging pots have many holes in the bottom to ensure plants remain dry at the root zone. When creating your hanging string-of-pearls sculpture, start with the right pot—perhaps a mid-century throwback with a macramé hanger. Once you’ve found it, buy your pearls or bananas and get ‘er done.

You’ll need super well-drained potting soil to keep your plants from becoming too wet. When transplanting to your beautiful hanging pot, Black Gold Cactus Mix offers the ideal porosity. This fast-draining potting soil will make it much harder to over water your string of pearls.

When you get ready to transplant these senecios, study the root ball that comes out of the nursery pot. Gently remove any potting soil that does not have roots on the lower half of the mass. This will allow you to better fit the root ball into your shallow pot.

Set the plant, then lightly backfill with Black Gold Cactus Mix that has not been pre-moistened. If it sifts out of the drain holes, line the bottom with salvaged window screen before planting. Finally, tap the pot to help the plant settle into the potting soil, and wait to water. Allow a day or two for any damaged succulent tissues to callus over before you introduce moisture. This is essential to avoiding potential rot at the soil line.


When you do water, plug the drain of your kitchen sink, add 2 inches of water, and put the whole pot in the sink.  Let it wick up water until you can see wet soil on top.  This means it’s time to drain the sink. Leave the pot to drain for a few hours before returning it to its hanger. This watering method keeps moisture away from rot-prone stems that are the Achilles heel

A happy string of pearls can reach great lengths. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

of these delicate succulents. As strands grow longer, be sure to lay them along the counter on the sink’s edge to keep them from getting wet.

A final key to success with all dangling succulents, particularly fine-stemmed ones like these, is avoiding the wind. Continual swaying wears down the stems along the pot edge, causing injury that limits moisture transfer to the stem tips where new growth occurs.

These senecios are easy to root, so if you find one that works well for you, propagate it.  Just take a runner and bend it up to the soil mass on top where it will root on contact quickly. Then sever it from the mother plant to start a whole new living sculpture of favorite pearls or bananas galore, without risk.