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Fall is for planting. Cool temperatures, shorter days and rain create perfect conditions for planting. The soil is still warm enough for root growth and plants put in the ground now will grow and develop well in the spring. A real benefit to planting now is plants may not need watering until spring if we have regular rains. Many nurseries have sales and a good selection of plants to choose from.

Not everyone has a garden to plant. Hopefully, those of us that do can plant gardens to uplift those whose gardening efforts will occupy a future date. A reader wrote to say, “Seeing your work (at Cornerstone Sonoma) was such a bright spot after weeks of sadness, and filled me with such joy. We would love for our yard to provide that same joy for our neighbors who have lost so much.”

But this year’s fall landscape planning has an added priority: Fire safety is on the top of everyone’s mind right now and will likely remain so for some time. What does a fire-resistant landscape look like and what plants should we start thinking about to plant now?

Fire resistant landscapes have strategically spaced low-flammability plants to reduce the amount of potential fuels (vegetation) that could ignite structures or carry flame across the landscape.

Water plants regularly in amounts appropriate to their needs. Well-hydrated plants take longer to ignite than plants with low-moisture content.

Space shrubs and trees widely and don’t let them touch or hang over structures.

Use low-growing plants around decks and under windows. Eliminate foundation shrubs and use low growing plants instead. Space plants so plantings are not contiguous.

Keep weeds and dried grass mowed low.

A fire-resistant garden doesn’t have to lack in beauty or interest. Many highly floriferous and hummingbird, butterfly and bee-friendly plants are good choices for a fire-resistant garden.

Plant combinations

Following are some ideas of plant combinations to use in your garden, and contain plants that benefit from fall planting.

Combine widely spaced trees and shrubs with noncontiguous low-growing plants that share the same cultural needs.

Pick six to 12 plants out of each category list depending on whether you prefer a simple plant palette or a varied one, and group each variety or repeat them throughout the garden.

Combine plants that bloom in different seasons for a long period of interest. Add compost for healthy soil and plants.

For an all-drought tolerant garden consider using Chinese pistachio or California buckeye as specimen trees.

For shrubs, choose California redbud, Serviceberry (Amelanchier), or crape myrtle, widely spaced.

All have a beautiful form that is enhanced with thinning cuts. They are long-lived, deep rooted, floriferous, and wildlife friendly.

Plant suggestions

Use a combination of any of these perennials (listed in order of bloom in the season):

California buckwheats Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum or E. grande rubescens

Bearded iris

Sunrose (Helianthemum nummularium)

Sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii)

Drought tolerant penstemons

Achillea “Moonshine”

Monkeyflower (Mimulus)

Calandrinia grandiflora

Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus)

Evening primrose (Oenothera)

Gumplant (Grindelia stricta or G. camporum)

Hesperaloe parviflora

Fruity teucrium (Teucrium cussoni)

Origanum “Amethyst Falls”

California fuchsia (Epilobium)

Dot in a few Mexican sage for their intense purple flowers that hummingbirds love in the fall.

Combine a few low-growing shrubs for winter interest such as the low-growing manzanitas, or California lilacs (Ceanothus).

Use more of these for a low-maintenance landscape.

For those seeking a more watered landscape with plants that require better soil fertility, start with specimen trees such as dogwoods, Japanese or other maples, flowering crab apple, pomegranate, citrus, crape myrtle, or eastern redbud.

They all can be pruned for an open branch structure.


Some examples of shrubs that could be used sparsely with them are (Listed from smallest to largest):

Potentilla fruticosa

Coprosma repens

Viburnum tinus “Spring Bouquet”

The highly fragrant mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii), or Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri “Palibin”) and Sasanqua camellia. Site these as specimens or repeat them throughout the garden depending on the gardens size.


The list of possible perennials as an understory is long (listed from smallest to largest):

Creeping thyme, Creeping speedwell Veronica “Waterperry Blue”

Sunrose (Helianthemum)

Low growing evening primrose (Oenothera)




Ornamental oreganos Origanum “Marshall’s Memory,” “Santa Cruz,” “Bristol Cross”

Trailing verbena

The floriferous and tough Saponaria lempergii “Max Frei”

Bee-friendly Calamint

Society island garlic

Hummingbird mint (Agastache)

Yarrow Achillea “Moonshine”

Penstemons “Enor,” “Garnet,” “Firebird,” “Pensham Laura” or others



Salvia “Furman’s Red”

Salvia “Dark Dancer”

Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”

Salvia “Heatwave” series

Salvia “Indigo Spires”

Salvia farinacea


Kangaroo paw Anigozanthus “Amber Velvet”

Grass: fall-flowering Muhlenbergia capillaris

Shade shrubs

In a shady situation or the east side of a house consider the following shrubs:

The highly fragrant Daphne



Humming-bird friendly California currant


Oregon grape (Mahonia)





Japanese maple

(All are very low-maintenance.)


Possibilities for low-growing perennials to combine with them include:

Bergenia cordifolia



Perennial geraniums

Pacific Coast hybrid iris



Ceratostigma plumbaginoides


Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)

Bleeding heart (Dicentra)

Evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)


Carex oshimensis “Evergold” or other Carex

Japanese sweet flag (Acorus).

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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