Helen McGranahan, writer

Even though there is snow on the ground, the concern about serious drought and the spectre of wildfire remains.  Helen McGranahan from Custer recommended a new book, Surviving Wildfire and wrote a brief review for www.blackhillsgarden.

"Residents of the Black Hills can attest that the 2012 wildfire season was a wicked one.  With predictions that the pine beetle epidemic and drought likely will continue into the future, it is imperative that residents take a proactive approach to do what they can to protect their own properties and lives.  If you wait until the fire comes over the hill you’ve waited too long! 

But where do you start?  How do you go about it?  These long winter months would be a good time to begin with research and education.  A new book on the subject just hit the dusty back roads of the Wildland Urban Interface.  Surviving Wildfire: A Homeowner’s Guide written by Linda Masterson is a very comprehensive guide on the subject.   Masterson and her husband lost their dream home in Colorado to the Crystal Fire in early April of 2011.  Get that?  Early April?  Spring had hardly even arrived! 

Surviving Wildfire is not a lengthy book, but the 140 pages between its covers are packed with incredibly well researched information that all homeowners in the forest should be aware of.  You will learn what to consider before buying property; fire resistant building materials; Firewise® landscaping; why some wildfires become uncontrollable; the ready, set, go concept; how to evacuate in a safe manner; and heaven forbid, if you do lose your home to fire: how to be prepared to claim the maximum insurance that you have paid for.  

The fact that Linda Masterson had been through the whole process so recently, yet still had the strength to research and write a book on the subject is truly admirable.  Linda also gives tips on the emotional survival of getting through such a stressful event. Check out www.survivingwildfire.com for reviews and more information.  Then start preparing for the 2013 fire season that will be here before we know it!"

Is Your Landscape Fire Resistant?

Helen McGranahan, Custer County MG

Spring has come very early this year to the Black Hills.  Much to gardeners’ delight it looks as though we may get an early start in our gardens.  The mild winter and early spring have also brought an early fire season.  Thousands of acres of beetle killed Ponderosa pine promise to fuel wildland fires for years to come.  Is your property defensible?  Now is the time to act, because it you wait until the fire comes over the hill you’ve waited too long!

Whether you choose a more natural look or are into are into hard core intensive plantings of horticultural varieties, the principles of what makes a garden (and ultimately the home) fire resistant are the same.

 The first thing you need to do is determine your zone of defensible space.  The professionals recommend anywhere from 30 to 100 feet out from your house as reasonable defensible space.  Topography, lay of the land, and ownership will determine what is best for you.  If you are on the top of a hill or near a slope a larger defensible space is recommended, but if your house sits in an area that is fairly flat, in a meadow, or is on a confined city lot it can be smaller. 

What you plant and where you plant it is critical to making your home more fire resistant.  A common practice for gardeners and landscape architects over the last three decades has been to plant low growing conifer shrubs as foundation plantings.  That practice has to stop! Those cute little densely needled conifers are filled with pitch and resins that make them highly flammable.  Research has shown that most houses don’t ignite when the main conflagration goes through, but instead burn hours or even days afterwards.  The reason for this phenomena is because sparks land on flammable materials adjacent to the house. The sparks sit there and continue to build heat until the conditions are favorable to ignite a large piece of fuel, such as a home. 

Ideal foundation plants should be low growing, have fleshy leaves, high water retention capabilities, fine leaf texture, open growth patterns, and be non-woody.  Plants with fleshy leaves and high water holding capacity, such as iris, lilies, or sedum have been found to be only wilted and singed after fires where the houses burned down.  Plants with fine leaf texture and open growth don’t have as much space or fuel for nesting sparks.  Mulches for foundation plantings should be non-flammable, so avoid bark dust, bark chips, and pine needles.

In a fire resistant garden the trees and shrubs are situated further away from the home than in conventional landscapes.  There should be no branches hanging over the roof or deck.  Conifer trees should be at least 25 feet away from the home and have the lower branches trimmed up off the ground to reduce ladder fuels.  Deciduous trees that have open and leafy growth can be planted a bit closer because they are less flammable, yet the closer trees and shrubs are to the structure the more risk of ignition.  It is up to each homeowner to assess how much risk they are willing to take for their own desired aesthetics. 

Grass growing within 30 feet of the home needs to kept short.  Ideally, if grass is kept green it aids fire resistance.  Grass doesn’t necessarily need to be watered to keep it green, but if it does turn brown it is critical to keep it short.  Tall dry grass is like a tinder box, but fire has a hard time carrying in dry grass that is mowed short.

These are a few of the most important practices in fire resistant landscaping.  Your garden and home landscape, if planted and maintained correctly, can significantly increase the odds of your home surviving a wildfire.  Take a walk around your yard this spring and think about what you can do to protect yourself from wildfire.  For more information, check out www.firewise.org.



Maintaining a Fire Resistant Landscape

Now that you’ve incorporated fire resistant plantings around your home, don’t think that your home is totally safe from fire. Good maintenance practices are the #1 defense for your property in the event of a wildfire.  Following is a list of tasks that need to be taken care of to increase the probability of your home surviving a wildfire:

  1.  Whether or not you decide to keep the grass around your home green, it is critical to keep it mowed.
  2. Provide foundation plantings with enough water and nutrients to keep them green and healthy.
  3. Keep dry and dead plant material near structures cleaned up.
  4. Make sure the gutters and roof are free of pine needles.
  5. Limb up trees that are within your defensible space.
  6. Keep areas under decks and porches free of pine needles and dry grass.

As you walk around your property take note of areas where dry leaves and pine needles get blown in by the wind.  If leaves or pine needles pile up or get lodged anywhere around the foundation, near wooden steps or under decks, those areas will require special attention.  It can be assumed if dead plant material can blow into such nooks and crannies and get stuck there that burning embers will do the same.  Whether or not those areas are kept clean could determine if the house survives or burns.



Helen McGranahan, Custer County MG

(posted 2-22-2012)

So is there some garden variety that you've been wanting to plant, but have hesitated because you've heard it's only marginally acclimated to the local conditions?  There's a possibility that you could plant it, and it might even thrive if you have the right microclimate on your property. A microclimate is  the special climate of a small, specific place within a larger area that is in contrast with the climate of the entire area.

First of all figure out what your desired plant requires as far as exposure, sunlight,  shade, protection from wind, water, drainage and soil composition.  Then take a close look at your property for a place that might provide those same conditions.  The amount of heat, exposure and protection from wind can be distinctly different on each side of  a building.  Topography of the ground can also affect those same conditions plus drainage and soil composition.  Keep in mind the angle of the sun is going to be different in each season. If the soil is not quite right could it be amended to suit your desired planting?

It all comes back to proper planning in your garden.  If things are thought through prior to planting, a lot of headaches and expense can be avoided later!  

Propagating Plants

Helen McGranahan, Custer County MG

(posted 2-20-2012)

In a gardening sense, propagation simply means “to start new plants.”  There are many methods of starting new plants including: sowing seed; leaf, root , or stem cuttings; ground or air layering; and digging and dividing.  There are also many forms of medium that can be used when starting plants such as potting soil, vermiculite, regular garden soil or just plain water, to name a few. 

Once you learn to propagate your own plants, you’ll be able to try growing many varieties that aren’t available at the local nursery.  The do-it-yourself method is also a lot more economical too, as the cost of a packet of seeds or starts from a neighbor’s garden don’t cost near as much as buying nursery started plants, if they have any cost at all.  It is best to keep in mind that each plant has its own preference on how it will multiply.  So it is best to look at some references before you start to propagate a new plant that you haven’t tried before.  To grow a bountiful supply of low-cost plants you need to know nothing more than a basic knowledge of plant reproduction and interest in learning how to do it.  References and help for getting started on this venture are almost endless.  You can gain the basic skills by checking out the gardening section at the local library, doing an internet search, or asking a gardening friend. 

Happy propagating!

Record Keeping for the Garden

Helen McGranahan, Custer County MG

(posted 2-22-2012)

Even though it seems like we all spend way too much time in every aspect of life with record keeping,  your garden can also benefit from taking a few minutes to write a journal or jot down some notes.  Record keeping for the garden can help you track what works, what doesn’t, where you got the plant that someday may be one of your favorites, what the name of the plant is, where you planted each plant, etc. 

Record keeping for the garden is also vital for the “oh darns” that sometimes roll around in life.  If you don’t write down the details about when you made that herbicide application, you might later wish you had.  Say your neighbor’s favorite plant dies and they blame your herbicide application for it.  Whether or not it was your fault, if you don’t have a written record, it will be really hard to redeem yourself with a judge or neighbor. 

On a more positive note, if you keep some records for your garden on a long-term basis you will be able to track trends on weather patterns and how they are related growth pattern, plus much more.  How far you go with this is personal preference, but as time allows it is wise to keep a history of your garden.  You just might be able to thank yourself in the future!



Helen McGranahan, Custer County MG

(posted 2-20-2012)

When the serious summer gardening season finally arrives in the Hills, it finally is time to transplant into the outdoor garden.  Annual vegetable transplants should be stocky, healthy, free from disease, and have good root systems.  Make sure your plants have hardened off before you put them in the outdoor garden so they will easily adapt to the environmental change and endure less stress during the transplant process.    

It is best to transplant on a shady or partially cloudy day in the late afternoon or early evening to prevent wilting.  Water the plants several hours before transplanting and avoid letting them dry out.  Handle the plants carefully to avoid damaging them.  Dig a hole that is wider and slightly deeper than the root ball.  

Tomatoes are an exception to this rule and need to be planted very deep because they  sprout roots along the entire stem.  If the roots are growing in circles around each other in the shape of the pot, gently slice or break them up on the outer surface to encourage outward growth.

 Fertilize with some starter fertilizer.  If you’re using liquid fertilizer, lukewarm water gives an extra boost to warm-season plants.  If you are using granular fertilizer mix it in with the dirt in the bottom of the hole to avoid burn.  Fill the hole with soil and press the soil firmly around the roots.  For the first few days, protect the plants from wind and sun.  Water the plants deeply once or twice a week if rainfall is insufficient.


Miss Gardening? Grow Green Beans Indoors This Winter


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For gardeners who just can’t stand to keep their hands out of the soil for any length of time, growing food indoors in containers can be a great pastime during the winter months.


Green beans are a relatively quick-growing vegetable that can be grown inside your home and also look quite beautiful, as well.


Plants that you are growing indoors can be started any time of the year, but you still need to remember that they have certain environmental requirements. Green beans need plenty of light, so you will need to place them in a part of your home where they can get a minimum of six hours of sunlight each day. Alternatively, grow lights can work if you do not have a window that gets enough sun.