Right now, deadly fires rage across the drylands, destroying everything in its path. As ash debris scatters into the air before floating down to blanket the earth, the effects of these fires span miles beyond the fire zones. As a grower, you can not only protect your vegetable and herb gardens from the effects of these wildfires, but you can also help protect your home and neighborhood from fires.
Protect Your Community from Wildfires
As a grower, you can help protect your community from wildfire devastation using a few simple but effective preventative techniques:
Replace anything made with wood. Since anything made of wood is a contributor that fuels fire, eliminate any structures you can that is made of this material. Replace wooden benches and fences with metal ones, remove any dead branches and dry materials you see on your property. You don’t have to put these branches and dry organic materials in the trash. Put them in your compost pile and be diligent about keeping it moist with the brown to green ratios.
Automate your irrigation. One of the most powerful tools growers have at their disposal is automated drip line irrigation. This ensures your property gets the proper moisture it needs, reducing dry matter that easily catches fire. Drip line irrigation is also easy to install, saves growers a lot of time spent watering, conserves water, reduces plant pathogens spread through water molecules in the air, and helps prevent water runoff and nutrient leaching.
If the fires get too close and you have to evacuate, you can increase watering times to make sure the ground stays nice and saturated, and help slow the fire down should the fire reach the property. It won’t stop the fire but can give firefighters an edge. Every extra second counts.
Choose alternative building materials. If you’re thinking about building a shed or other structure on your property, consider using natural building materials like rock or cob (a natural building material made from straw, clay, and sand). Cob houses can be insulated with slip straw (a straw soaked in a liquid cob material) that is extremely fire-resistant when properly made.
Let nature help you. Nature is intelligent. Native plants in desert regions are drought tolerant. They require a very low amount of water so they won’t dry out the soil the way plants that need a lot of water will do to desert soils. Many of these desert plants (like succulents) hold large amounts of water in their leaves.
Replace your water-loving grass lawns and landscape plants with drought-tolerant, native plants. These beautiful and diverse plants can not only create an aesthetic landscape but together, act as a natural water tank against fire.
Ultimately, the goal for prevention is to eliminate anything you can that could fuel the fire. And while one person making these changes won’t save a whole community from burning down, spreading this information to others in your community and encouraging them to implement these strategies can create a fire resistant landscape.
Protect Your Garden and Harvest from Wildfires
While the ash from trees can actually improve gardens, that’s not the only ash you’re getting in a wildfire. Ash from buildings made with conventional construction materials are laden with chemicals you don’t want in your food. While the construction ash is diluted with the forest ash, you’ll still want to take every precaution you can to reduce chemical contamination.
Cover your garden. If you can, cover your garden with clear or translucent plastic. If you have season extension low tunnels or cold frames over your garden beds, use this to cover the top and reduce ash debris. It won’t eliminate the ash you’ll get from wind drift, but it will help.
If you don’t have season extension, even covering your garden area with a waterproof tent can reduce chemical ash exposure. Enclose the tent on all four sides but leave the side covers a foot or so off the ground to allow enough air to get in and circulate. Adding a small fan inside the tent will help your plants get the air circulation they need.
Not everyone can cover their whole garden. If this is the case for your situation, you can vastly reduce the amount of ash your soil absorbs by laying plastic weed barriers down on the soil.
Dust wildfire ash off your garden plants. If you notice large amounts of dust on your plant leaves, you’ll want to remove that to make sure the plants can transpire as needed. Dust will block the pores of the leaf (called the stomata) and prevent the plant from cooling. It will also affect the plants ability to absorb sunlight. Gently dust plants with a mildly damp cloth.
Use your best judgment when harvesting in the ash zone of a wildfire. Any amount of construction ash can still be harmful. Covering your garden will help, but you’ll still want to take precautions when harvesting.
Luckily fruiting crops like tomatoes don’t absorb through the skins of the fruit. Still, wash fruits three times to ensure you’ve removed all the ash debris. Use a soft brush on the more porous fruiting crops (like beans) while washing. As an extra precaution, peel fruiting crops that can be peeled and dispose of the peel.
For root crops, so long as a large amount of ash doesn’t fall on the garden and get absorbed into the soil, you can safely harvest roots and give them an extra rinse or two. However, cut and dispose of any root tops exposed above ground.
For herbs and leafy crops, you’ll want to take the most precaution. Leaves are more absorbent and porous so there is more potential for contamination. Leaves that are soft and fuzzy (like sage and comfrey) should not be eaten. If you’re farther away from the fire and the ash is light and you’ve been dusting the leaves, you’ll still want to wash your shiny leafy greens multiple times.
The closer you are to the fire, the less you should harvest. Pay close attention to the health of your plant and consider how much ash your plant is being exposed to. If there’s a thick heavy layer of ash or you’re downwind from a construction zone burn, don’t harvest. It’s better to be safe.
The good news is, that doesn’t mean you have to start all over and lose your plants! Instead, take note of where the ash is, dust leaves and remove as much ash from the soil as you can. Once the fire is out and the air has cleared, remove as many leaves as you can. For crops like kale and chard, remove all but the 3-5 inner most leaves. For lettuce, cut the whole head off about 3” above the soil line (most lettuces will grow back again if not cut too short). For herbs, prune them as deeply as you can. Once the new growth has appeared, you can begin harvesting again.
Gardening in Wildfire Country: It’s Not All Bad News
While wildfires require gardeners take extra steps to protect their vegetable and herb harvests, it’s not all bad news. There are some side benefits our gardens get from wildfires too. Knowing the benefits, you can capitalize on them, bringing the most benefit to your garden possible.
In desert drylands where fires are most prevalent, the sunlight is very intense. This high-intensity heat can cause plant burn and heat stress that lower plant immunity and make them more susceptible to pests and disease. It also dries out any exposed soil, rendering it barren. Barren soils have less insulative properties than fertile soils resulting in more extreme temperature swings that accelerate climate change.
The debris from wildfires diffuses sunlight. The soil and plants receive relief from the intense heat and light. And the diffused light also allows the vegetation to absorb light in areas that normally don’t receive it, reaching even the lowest leaves of plants. This increases plant vigor, producing healthier, happier plants. To get the most gain out of this, leave as many leaves on the plant that you can and keep your plants dusted. This will increase the chances the plant survives and thrives through the wildfire ash zones.
Wildfires also release a high amount of carbon dioxide into the air. While this isn’t a good thing, if your plants are dusted, they can get a super dose of this and increase their ability to thrive through an ash zone.
Fires also break down nutrients and minerals at rapid speed, paving way for super healthy growth. This new growth is nutrient-dense, providing a higher quality of pollen and nectar for our precious beneficials and pollinators. This brings growers an opportunity to increase their beneficial population. Take advantage of the post-fire opportunity by increasing the native plants that provide habitats for our precious beneficials.
Important Note from the GYOV Team
With thousands forced to evacuate and many more thousands dealing with poor air quality and other consequences caused by the wildfires, our thoughts are with you. Our hearts go out to those experiencing loss and we send our blessings to all of you. We hope the information in this article will help you harvest confidently during this challenging time, reduce future devastation to our communities, and rebuild stronger, thriving ecosystems.