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Hot tips for fire-proof gardens

Our Education Strategist Nel Smit recently ran a session with students at Dunalley Primary School to come up with some top tips for designing a low flammability garden. Find out how they got on.

Dunalley was the site of a devastating bushfire in the summer of 2013 which destroyed half the town’s buildings and the primary school. Most of the students experienced trauma including losing their houses, pets, being evacuated and being separated from their loved ones.

On my first meeting with these students, a year after the event, the stories were still emotional and raw. The students were open and candid about their experiences.

My task was to support the students to develop a low flammability garden and brochure for the community.

Take a look at their hot tips for a fire-proof garden.

First the students visited the low flammability gardens at the Sustainability Learning Centre at Mt Nelson which is also in a bushfire prone area. The gardens feature low ground cover and rainforest plants, using gravel as a mulch. The gravel reduces evaporation and weed growth.

The Dunalley students were briefed by students at Mt Nelson Primary School, along with researcher Sue Stack who had produced a fire awareness toolkit as part of a Climate Adaptation project funded through the Tasmanian Climate Change Office.

With these experiences to learn from, the Dunalley students discussed what made a low flammability garden. One of the first questions was, “What should we plant?”. We consulted the Tasmanian Fire Service’s low flammability plant list, our own resident restoration ecologist, Neil Davidson and with the landscape architect Sue Small. The students were surprised that the scientists and professionals couldn’t agree on a definitive list of plants. They had an ‘aha’ moment when they concluded that all plants can be flammable- it’s more how we arrange them and look after them that is important.

Some plants are more flammable than others, but all plants in the garden – living or dead- can be fuel for a bushfire. The moisture content of a plant is the most important factor that makes a plant flammable. High moisture means lower flammability.

With this in mind the students produced a list of the best plants for our gardens:

  • Green ground- cover plants can reduce the speed of a fire.
  • Plants that produce a lot of leaf litter should be avoided.
  • Choose plants with open and loose branches as well as leaves that are thinly spread.
  • Wide, flat and thick leaves and those that are soft and fleshy have more plant tissue. This means larger moisture content is in that plant.

Low flammability plants

  • High moisture content
  • Broad fleshy leaves
  • Low and dense
  • No dead material
  • Smooth trunks

High flammability plants

  • High oil content
  • Lots of dead material
  • Thick, stringy bark
  • Tall open leaves
  • Leaf litter underneath

Our next task was to choose a site near the school to build a low flammability garden.

The school gardens would not be built for another year but we consulted with the landscape architect who was keen to build low flammability features into her plan. The students had been working with the local council advising on the new playground in the park. Teacher Jackie King contacted the Council and a low flammability garden site was selected in the local park beside the playground. The students weeded the site and the Council installed a rock border and gravel mulch bed for the local ground cover plants.

I’m already looking forward to seeing how the garden develops over the coming seasons.

Nel Smit, Education Strategist

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