Use Fire Safely and Sustainably

Tips for Keeping Your (Garden) Flame Alive

Angelenos are wild for our fire features. It’s easy to see why we fall – with the help of a fire feature, we can actively enjoy outdoor spaces through the holidays. That said, circa 2018, California and fire have officially changed their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” Long story short, the new normal isn’t exactly cozy.

If you and your family enjoy roasting s’mores over your fire pit or gazing at the flames of the outdoor fireplace, consider these tips to ensure your fire is a safe, healthy and enduring element of your outdoor space and the LA community.


Design for Health and Safety

  • Know your home – some areas of county are extremely vulnerable to fire
  • Check with your local fire agency and municipality for fire-feature related guidelines before building
  • Ensure overhead structures are comprised of fire proof or resistant material
  • Use only non-combustible materials, such as “fireglass”
  • Place potentially flammable furniture, cushions, and fabrics at a safe distance
  • Keep highly flammable or dense foliage at least 10 feet away
  • Design seating with room to relax without placing hair, arms and legs in reach of flames
  • Ensure prevailing winds blow flames away from your home and other structures
  • Use natural gas or alcohol instead of wood to avoid smoke inhalation and protect air quality, as well as preventing the escape of embers (aka fire brands)
  • Provide easy to find and use fuel shut on/off switch


Build-In Enduring Quality to Avoid Hassles

  • Use locally sourced, fire rated or fire proof material
  • Select materials that tolerate outdoor weather, shrink and swell effects, moisture and high heat exposure
  • Match the fuel and fuel supply to the size of flame needed to produce the needed design aesthetic
  • Select enduringly lovely materials ultimately consistent with your home design


Use It – But Don’t Lose It!

  • Check with your municipalities and fire agency periodically for location-relevant fire safety guidelines
  • Keep debris and litter out of fire feature to maintain functionality and eliminate unsafe or flammable conditions
  • Check valves periodically to ensure they are shutting off and not leaking gas
  • Stay with the fire when it is lit…
  • Kick back and enjoy!

    Learn More

  • Fight Fire with Smart Design
  • Holiday Gardening Tips
  • Hosting a Hassle-Free Thanksgiving
  • Prunus vs. Cercis

    Want to Love Your Parkway? Exchange Cherry Plum for Western Redbud

    Updated February 2022. By JT Wilkinson: More than money grows on trees. Love does too! The beautiful, ever-evolving heart shaped leaves of Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) can squeeze into tight spaces and expand your love for LA. The petite, blooming tree makes a great exchange for Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera).


    Cherry Plum (Prunus Cerasifera)

    Famed for its distinctive look – deep purple leaves and white spring blooms – Cherry Plum is often seen in parkways and patio containers. While it can squeeze into tight spaces, it may put the squeeze right back on you – and California. We consider him to be a heartbreaker, as he:

    • Gets fussy. Plum will need supplemental watering and nutrients to survive LA’s low-nutrient soils.
    • Makes a mess. Cherry Plum fruit may attract some berry-eating birds, but it litters hardscapes with sticky falling berries – it’s a real maintenance nightmare.
    • Hosts pests. Among others, scale and aphids enjoy Cherry Plum a little too much their home.



    Western Redbud (Cercis Occidentalis)

    Like the Plum amplified, Western Redbud evolves in every season to recapture hearts. In winter, his delicate yet sturdy branches let the sun shine through to warm your garden. Before long, they fill with candy pink blooms. As spring brings warmth, Redbud shows his appreciation with nearly translucent, lime-colored, heart-shaped leaves. Just as you get used to this charm and start to want a little more shade, Redbud deepens the opacity and green of his leaves to cool the summer breeze.

    As the year ages, Redbud’s heart shaped leaves turn golden, bright red, rust and mahogany. If you thought you loved him in spring, just wait until his red hearts flutter and fly on fall winds or catch the rain for you.
    It’s easy to focus on Western Redbud’s good looks, but he is also an incredible provider. He:

    • Hosts love nests. Western Redbud attracts birds, bees and other beneficials.
    • Is flexible. He tolerates drought and poor soils – and he can be pruned to take the shape of a shrub or small shade tree.
    • Will feed LA! Hummingbirds and bees love to drink from those delightful candy-pink blooms – humans find them to be crunchy and delicious too!

    If you exchange a Cherry Plum for a Western Redbud, it may be worth creating an understory to love as well. We like plants that enjoy a little shade, add texture and complement Redbud’s extraordinary shifts in color. Alumroot (left), Spreading Rush, and Beach Strawberry make great Redbud companions.

    For inspiration, visit The Forbes Mountain Retreat (Garden 15) on the 2022 Native Plant Garden Tour Saturday April 23rd or the Santa Monica Conservancy’s Preservation Resource Center.

    More Information

  • Cal-IPC: Cherry Plum (Invasive Species) Profile
  • UC Davis: Cherry Plum Weed Management Strategies
  • Theodore Payne Foundation: Buy Western Redbud
  • FormLA Landscaping: Grow Money on Trees
  • FormLA Pinterest: LA Native Parkway Trees
  • FormLA Landscaping: More Plant Exchanges
  • Sun Gold vs. Silver Carpet


    By Cassy Aoyagi:  Looking for a low maintenance way to cover a large swath of ground? Ivy is a popular solution… and a popular habitat for rats and other undesirables. Both Lessingia and Gazania are cleaner, more water wise alternatives to ivy that also have the benefit of blooming. While both are lovely, the California native Silver Carpet outshines even South African Sun Gold. Here’s why.

    Gazania (Sun Gold)


    Native to South Africa, a Mediterranean climate with similar cultural hallmarks as California, Sun Gold is a staple ground cover in California and Los Angeles. Common in public areas, water-wise, low-maintenance, and comparably pest-free, Sun Gold provides a strong alternative to ivy in areas not susceptible to erosion. For example, it will spill over walls to soften structures and cover large spaces well. It needs only a simple but generous mow once a year, around February.

    Sun Gold does have a few blemishes, including:

    Inconsistent Performance. On its own, Sun Gold performs inconsistently and provides a short bloom period. When mixed with other varieties, given extra water, and frequently weeded, a Sun Gold mix will provide a riot of color for a longer period since each species will have slightly different bloom periods and habit.

    Slow-Spreading. Sun Gold does not spread quickly or broadly enough to compete with volunteers and weeds. If given the water it really needs, it can easily be overwhelmed by less desirable plants.

    Too Thirsty for Inland Use. Gazania will tolerate occasional water in cooler, moister areas along the coast, but it needs ample supplemental water to persist throughout the heat of summer in inland areas. It can become patchy or disappear if not watered enough, leaving the open areas susceptible to weeds and volunteers.

    Fussy about Soil. Sun Gold provides no help with erosion control, as its roots are relatively shallow. Also, it is not happy in the clay soil common in many areas of Los Angeles County.

    Lessingia (Silver Carpet)


    Silver Carpet provides a low water, low maintenance alternative to ivy, Sun Gold and even traditional lawns. Like ivy and Sun Gold, it will spill over walls, beautifully cover large areas, and looks stunning in hanging baskets. Yet, it also:

    Protects Slopes. Silver Carpet will protect slopes and provide erosion control in easy access and less sensitive slope areas.

    Tolerates All LA Microclimates. Native to extreme climates throughout California, and thriving from Baja to Oregon, Silver Carpet tolerates elevations of nearly 8000 feet. It adapts to both inland and coastal salt conditions. With a small amount of supplemental water inland, Silver Carpet can thrive in full sun.

    Spreads Quickly. A little Silver Carpet goes a long way. Each plant has a minimum radius of 8′ so there is no need to over plant. Nor is there a need for patience! Silver Carpet will provide 100 percent coverage in less than a year.

    Okay in Clay. It may grow a little more slowly than in other soils, but Lessingia will tolerate pesky, clay soil. Where most plants fail, Silver Carpet will quickly and vibrantly grow.

    Blooms Summer-Fall. Silver Carpet looks beautiful year round and dances with happy blooms from summer through fall.

    Easy to Maintain. Maintenance is easy too. Once Lessingia fills in, it needs just one “mow-like” cut across the top of the dead blooms in early fall. Take it down to about 2-3″ in September or October, and it will rejuvenate quickly, showing off its shiny silvery foliage for another year.

    Ready to rip out your ivy? Be sure to check the variety of Lessingias before you buy. Most native Lessingias are more variable and less reliable than Silver Carpet, and best left out in nature. Silver Carpet, on the other hand, seems made for the garden!

    Partner Lessingia with Lilac Verbena, other silvery foliage like Artemisia californica or Zauschnerias to add splashes of complementary color. To see Silver Carpet and its companions in their full glory, visit the California native demonstration garden at La Cañada County Library.

    For more guidance on where to plant big dry ones, see our past Wet-to-Dry Exchange articles.