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Rethinking our gardens with bushfires in mind

When the threat of a bushfire is somewhat expected and not out of the ordinary, a city girl like me doesn't give it much thought. Until it impacts the area I've been a part of for the past 25 years, and have loved for most of my life.

And when my neighbours say their car is packed and they'll go when they see actual flames in the distant hills, I know this time it's not so ordinary. Having my property in Katoomba, yet living in Sydney, has seen me live a double life. One is consumed by what I like to call green-ness, vast views and the infamous saying "how's the serenity". The other is overtaken by endless paperwork, schedules, traffic and well – noise. Noise in all its forms. Cars, computers, commercials, with little relief in sight.

I've been blessed with being able to escape the latter to the Blue Mountains any time I've wanted to. And years of driving along the Great Western Highway and M4 are now done with my eyes shut. Figuratively speaking of course. In return for the 90 minute drive I'm rewarded by quaint antique shops along the way, now familiar to me, always guaranteed to produce a new treasure; majestic eucalyptus silently greeting me with their slender wave and a sense of calm as I get further away from the city.

Of course, the bushfires unprecedented in their scale and ferocity, surprisingly so for some of our politicians, have made many of us sit up and pay attention in more ways than one, no matter what part of the country we live in. When my electrician calmly told me that one of the fires would be "here on our side" by Christmas, I kind of looked at him blankly, and almost laughingly said, "that's three whole weeks away! Surely the fires will be out by then." Which shows just how naive I am, despite having had the house for so many years. Once I saw he was serious, I took a look at the gutters and thought "ok, they're clean" and upped my insurance.

However, having a property that backs onto the Blue Mountains National Reserve means the attitude of "she'll be right mate" is a thing of the past. It's time I start being a lot more proactive. You'd think that Australia being in the Top 20 UNESCO world heritage sites, the men at the top would be a lot more proactive too. I mean, just look at what they're doing with the Great Barrier Reef – the world's LARGEST coral reef system and SEEN FROM SPACE, but that's another story.

The first thing I've done is look into fire retardant trees and plants. Unfortunately, gum trees are amongst the most flammable. As luck would have it for this Italian-Aussie girl, mediterranean plants are some of the best forms of fire breaks to include as part of a property's protection. Sure, they're aren't going to stop a fire and will burn if the fire is intense enough, but plants with a high moisture content in their leaves, high in salt content and low in volatile oils will slow down the passage of flames and help against ember attacks.

Citrus, olive and grapevines apparently provide a natural barrier between a fire and your home. Some of the best fire retardant trees also include fruit trees including apple, pear, fig, stone fruit and mulberry – all of which we have planted at Fifth Ave Katoomba Retreat over the years. Even the old chestnut tree is a prime example of fire resistant trees, with no volatile substances. My mum will be pleased.

And my favourite has to be the bay laurel tree, with its rubbery leaves slow to combust and wood that does not ignite quickly. My trusty old dad planted this at the front of my house in the early years after I bought it, so it's now at least 18 years old. I must say, it requires no maintenance at all as I keep it in shape when I need branches to use in my decorating, cooking or thank you gifts. I think I've only ever sprayed it for pests once and it always looks lush and healthy. So I'd better grow a whole hedge of this one!

And now that I think about it, that one small olive tree we planted last year – well, I might just decide to do my bit for the Blue Mountains, and turn the 400 ft backyard into an olive grove. My dad will be ecstatic.


Photo: my dad setting up our "mini" vineyard

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