JoAnne Skelly: That’s landscaping? |

JoAnne Skelly: That’s landscaping?

JoAnne Skelly

I saw the darndest landscape last week. I was in Incline Village at a friend’s house that backs up to Tahoe Boulevard. My friend said, “Look at the neighbor’s backyard; you won’t believe it!”

The first thing I saw was a sunken patio area that looked all right. But when I looked left on the Tahoe Boulevard side of the yard, I couldn’t believe my eyes. They had planted row upon soldierly row of all the same 8-foot evergreens. They were so densely planted that you couldn’t see any light between them. Each had a stake chokingly tied to it. It was like looking down on an overstuffed wholesale nursery lot where they were waiting to make a discount shipment. There was no artistry, no aesthetic influence, just row after row of congested trees. My friend said, “Some already died and they replaced them to look exactly as before.”

I thought that was bad enough, but there was more hideousness there. Along the fence, they had planted tall spindly pines that had very few branches and even fewer needles. I realized what they were doing. They were trying to block the traffic and vehicle lights from the road coming into their house. But my oh my! This attempt was wrong on so many levels.

First, it was so ugly. Still, it’s their house and my aesthetics are not necessarily theirs. Secondly, the trees didn’t look like varieties that will even make it in Incline. OK, they might have more money than sense. However, the third objection is the critical one. By planting all those evergreens so close together, many along a wood fence, they had created a huge fuel load and fire hazard. That would be OK if only their house were the one at risk. But their unthinking and dreadful “design” puts their neighbors and the entire neighborhood at risk of ignition.

Instead of planting evergreens (fuels) in such density, on a zero to 20 percent slope there should be a defensible space area 100 feet wide. Within this area there should be no limbs (ladder fuels) lower than 10 feet from the ground and evergreens and other flammable plants must be thinned to have at least 10 feet between them.

There are so many beautiful ways of creating screening with plants and landscape structures that are less of a fire risk. A key component to an effective defensible space is the selection and use of less hazardous plants in the residential landscape. For information, go to

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at