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Gardening on the edge of urban areas

Johannesburg – Unprecedented, but seasonal winds have arrived on the Highveld over the past days.

High winds and dry veld are a lethal combination. South Africa experiences 2 000 veld fires every year. Some of the fires are simply veld fires alongside highways which may not generate enough heat to damage gardens.

Others sweep across the grass-lands taking advantage of the dry veld and gusts of wind, endangering gardens and homes on the periphery of urban areas. Because of the risk of fires, urban landscapes can and should be planned to reduce potential fire damage.

How can you fireproof your garden during the height of the winter veld-fire season? Start by creating open spaces, establishing some hard landscaping and planting up less flammable plants for the perimeter of your garden.


* Remove trees that touch or overhang buildings and chimneys, and clean gutters and drainpipes of debris.

* Keep areas around buildings clear of plant litter.

* Near buildings, grow groundcovers with a high, year-round moisture content and minimal litter that is less likely to burn, or will burn more slowly.

* In high-risk areas, do not use flammable material such as bark or pine needles as mulch. Pebble or gravel areas allow water and rain to soak into the soil.

* Have a well-irrigated lawn area close to the house and beds of low-growing, fire-resistant plants that will help slow a fire. Make sure plants are regularly watered and lawns mown.

* Home owners should be aware of places on their property that offer protection in times of fire, such as patios, swimming pools, bricked or concrete driveways, and concrete or stone walls that can deflect some of the heat of a fire.

Between house and boundary

* Supports for climbers should be made of steel rather than of wood. The dead twigs and bracts on bougainvillea should be removed regularly, especially when grown near buildings.

* Spacing is important. Grow trees and shrubs in island beds rather than in a continuous line.

* Remove dead and lower tree branches to prevent fire spreading from ground to canopy of trees, and clear away accumulated dead leaves beneath trees where fire can spread rapidly along the ground.

* Dry plant material is a fire hazard and should be regularly removed. Collect fallen leaves, twigs, shed bark, old palm sheaths and withered fern fronds and cut back dead or brittle tree branches. Include debris under hedges and beneath shrubs in your cleaning up programme.


* The number of tall trees grown should be in scale to the property. Always plant with their mature height and width in mind. Well-maintained evergreen shrubs and trees planted on boundaries can reduce fire intensity and wind speed, and deflect and filter embers.

* If trees are spaced so that their canopies aren’t touching, this will help reduce fire spreading from tree to tree. Trees with smooth trunks are less flammable.

* Keep ground clear of leaf and bark litter.

* Pines and gum trees are highly flammable due to their oil or resin content and embers can travel a considerable distance and start spot fires. Other plants that burn easily are pampas grass, dry ornamental grasses, Rhus species, deodar, cypress, juniper and grevillea.

* Because of the nature of the plantings, a wildlife-friendly area in the garden can be a serious fire hazard and should be positioned away from buildings.

Firewise plants

Given the right conditions, all plants will burn, but some are less volatile than others. Well-watered plants will not burn as readily as those that are not well maintained.

Plants with fleshy, moisture-retaining leaves and plants with underground roots and tubers can survive fires. Citrus, coprosma, ice plants, sedum, echeveria and kalanchoe, with their high moisture content, burn more slowly.

The leaves, stems or roots of succulents have been adapted to store nutrients and water. Aloes have a low flammability because of their fleshy leaves. Old aloe leaves should be removed to lessen the risk of fire.

Three trailing plants that are useful for covering soil are Othonna capensis with tiny yellow flowers, Convolvulus sabatius and Aptenia cordifolia with fleshy bright green leaves and small red flowers.

Some plants grow in such a way that they cover the soil. Agapanthus do this well, and because of their strong root system, help prevent erosion by binding soil. Bergenia cordifolia is a much under-rated plant. It has large evergreen, leathery leaves that hug the ground and attractive pink flowers.


* Make a small garden appear larger by planting evergreen shrubs, such as freylinia, camellia, abelia or raphiolepis.

* Scented perennials are the Cinderellas in the world of fragrance, but like annuals that grow, flower and die in a year, perennials return in each year to delight and decorate our gardens. Try scented pelargoniums, tulbaghia, lemon balm and lavender.

* Containers filled with brightly coloured flower spikes of red, yellow and pink aloes brighten dull winter days and attract sunbirds to the tubular, waxy flowers. Visit aloe nurseries to see the range of aloe cultivars in spectacular colours.