We’re right in the middle of the time of year when bonfires are most used – by me too – so they seemed a good topic, especially as I remember very clearly how tentative I was when I first started burning some of my garden waste. Wood ash is great spread over the garden, of course, that’s why we burn it – to look after your soil is common sense as a prepper. And in doing that, you’re using something of value that would otherwise be wasted. Win-win.
Before you start
Are there any local bye-laws about when you can get one going, or allotment regulations if that’s where you’re siting it?
Will you inconvenience any neighbours? Ash all over a set of washing will not make you popular.
Is your bonfire material dry enough? Has it been raining heavily in the last few days? Stacking your branches upright, as opposed to letting them lay on the ground, will help, but if they’re soaking wet, it still won’t be an easy bonfire to get going.
Is your bonfire material old enough? Using prunings that are only a couple of days old just isn’t good enough to get a good fire going, they need some ageing, just like wood for a stove. Wood that’s comparatively dry means the fire will be less smoky, and will burn more efficiently
Don’t leave your bonfire material stacked in place, under any circumstances. Wildlife, especially hedgehogs, will creep in and use it as shelter. You do need to stack your material, of course – just burn it in a different spot, that’s all.
Not everything is suitable for burning, even if it’s natural wood: cherry laurel leaves have an appreciable percentage of cyanide. The thicker branches should be fine, but the leaves, in any big concentration, are not.
MDF, and painted and/or treated wood, of course, are not suitable for burning, not least because they’ll add toxins to your soil when you spread the ash.
For me, the tipping point came when I realised I didn’t want to build a bonfire directly on the ground, because of the potential for damage to my few-and-far-between worms – and any other healthy insects and bacteria scattered around, come to that. Several friends have assured me that worms go deep, in the cold and if they sense a bonfire’s heat, but for me, it made sense to have an incinerator, to do away with the problem altogether. It also does away with the problem of where to site it: in my tiny little 35 foot garden, with wood stacked here, there and everywnere waiting for me to get my bonfire act together, it just got too difficult.
So I used an incinerator. I have a bed in the bottom of scrunched up paper – plain brown parcel paper, paper bags, newspaper, things like that. No colour pages, nothing shiny – the additives are toxic in soil.
On the bed of paper,. I lay, or more accurately dump, twigs – as many handfuls as seem right at the time, one of my biggest discoveries is that this really isn’t a science, it’s an art form. On top of that, a personal choice: I have woollen rugs, and I have long hair, and the leavings from both of those things go on top of the twiglets. You’d be surprised how that builds up, and they act as the initial tinder, for the flames to first catch.
On top of that – there are small twiglets – not the snack! But instead, very thin twigs, quite small, just scattered over the bottom layers.
And filling up about half of the remainder, I lodge slightly bigger twigs, almost small branches, but I put those in vertically – these are starting to be the real fuel of the real bonfire, not just the starter elements.
Standing by, for when the flames are going well, are much bigger branches. I don’t bother sawing them ready, I just have them put by and when I want to use them, and hold them and stand on them to break them into the kind of size I want for the incinerator.
Of course, big branches like this could be used inside a multi-fuel stove indoors, and even in an emergency, it might feel good to gather around a bonfire. We do it every 5th November, after all.
Not using an incinerator?
And most people don’t, after all. It’s especially important to watch over the burn, and see that when it spreads, you rake it back in to a pile, maybe with a rake or a garden fork.
You’ll almost certainly burn more than I’m able to burn in my incinerator, so the cool-down period will be correspondingly longer. If you can handle the ashes with your bare hands, then it’s fine to move them.
Now we get to it! You need this, especially I confess, at first I used shop-bought firelighters. I’d bought them about a thousand years ago, and decided I might as well use them as keep them. Once they were gone, I experimented with dunking a few twigs in vaseline, and then with squirting hand gel onto a few. The vaseline seems to work, I have a lot and I don’t use it for anything else, so that’s what I use now, if I need it at all.
The light itself, I just use matches – no lighters, no flints, no batteries or bow drills. I have all of those things, but I have matches too, and they’re my go-to choice. It can take a while to catch, but when it does, it’s a steady job to keep it fed.
While a bonfire is alight
You keep an eye on it, first and foremost. Partly for safety – local animals, both tame and domestic, should be kept safe from it. If half burnt branches fall or pop out of it, you need to rake them back in. If sparks fly and ignite something they shouldn’t, you need to put out unwanted flames. You certainly don’t want your crops going up in smoke.
With such a small incinerator as I have, the bonfire needs constant feeding – I don’t have a huge monster of a firepit that means I put tree stumps on there to gradually burn down. Once I’ve worked on getting it going, I want to do as much as I can in one go. And it always amazes me how much I can burn before it gets full, and how small is the amount of ash.
If you’ve taken a break, and the fire has almost died down, it’s very simple – you put some of the smaller twigs on, even more twists of newspaper. There are no rules – a bonfire is just a way to get this material into a state that can be used in the garden.
Let it die, basically – let it take its time to use every scrap of material that can be burned, and then let it cool down in it’s own time. It doesn’t matter if it’s rained on, just let it happen. Even for my little incinerator, this usually takes a whole day. I don’t distribute the ash into the garden after each bonfire. I “stack” it in a corner, along with crushed, roasted eggshells and the contents of used teabags. This lets it age slightly, which I think is a good thing, and also lets me dose a good-sized portion of the garden in one go.
And one more thing
A countrywoman for whom I have massive respect told me a great way to use a bonfire that’s lit on the ground: burning off handles of old tools, handles that are full of woodworm and can’t be saved. It needs a little delicacy, to learn to put the handle into the edge of the fire, and not the tool itself, so the metal tempering isn’t harmed.
Bonfires. You have to love them. I absolutely do.