31 October 2011

Notes from the Fire Heap

The fire heap at Marsh Hall is tucked behind one of the long walls of the kitchen garden. It does get lit sometimes, when the house is closed to the public. Away from the aesthetic perfection of a manor house however, allotments and back gardens across the country have their bonfires on full view (above), and they are smouldering away at this time of year without apology.

Some people hate the idea of fire heaps and worry that they may be illegal in some way. They cram as much as they can into their green bins and wait patiently for the fortnightly collection. Other people build heaps for burning, to complement their heaps for composting. They know that they will have a good source of potash by burning woody plants (which take years to break down), and weeds both annual and perennial, which could easily survive a domestic compost heap. These pyro enthusiasts tend towards the slightly older, more traditional person. I am not making any judgments on my friend Peter, who is a friend from Marsh Hall and a knowledgeable gardener, with a double-sized allotment in Northamptonshire. But Peter is passionately pro-fire 'with reservations'.

'I would say that the fire itself is carbon neutral,' he declares. 'It releases as much carbon dioxide as the burning plants removed when they were growing. Although... We are releasing it back into the atmosphere and that in itself is bad I suppose. But,' he continues rebelliously, 'those people who complain will gladly use a wood fire stove at home and take their children to a local bonfire party. AND an occasional fire to get rid of pernicious weeds is very small beer compared with a Chinese coal-fired power station!'

 I sense that people like Peter enjoy everything about fires. But, he says, the soil enjoys it too.

'The bonfire ash is extremely good as a soil structurant,' says Peter, who uses words like 'structurant' quite freely. 'The soil here is very clayey and the calcined clay particles in the ash heap help to separate the clay platelet structure, making the topsoil more workable and friable.' Also, the potash created from burning the plants is in itself is a good fertiliser. 'Remember though,' he adds. 'Always store bonfire ash under a plastic sheet as the potash is soluble and will easily wash out with rainfall.'

Many allotments have their own Bonfire Code, naturally, which will include some of the following points: 
Check that you are allowed to have them; it helps if your allotment is on the edge of or just outside a village/town/city.
Do not light a bonfire when the wind is blowing towards the inhabitants of said v/t/c. Monday is absolutely out, as some people still do their washing on Mondays, here in the middle of England.
Ditto allotment neighbours: they don't wish to inhale your smoke.
Look after your fire and prevent it from getting out of control and burning down hedgerows, etc.
Do not burn plastic, which smells extra bad, or other more ambitious objects like bedsteads which should go to the local dump.

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