Garden Bonfires

Well the weather has certainly been interesting this week. Some wild winds to say the least, wild enough to wake me up in the early hours howling down the chimney with hail battering the window.

Our blind cat decided to venture through the cat flap for the first time just before it started hailing. Poor mog couldn’t work out how to get back in so she yowled until I ‘rescued’ her by opening the door.

Happily she is now confident and following her best friend Luther the new kitten into the big wide world and, most importantly, back again. We’re rather pleased that they’re both using the outside toilet area so no litter tray in the back lobby. Not the most pleasant task, changing the litter tray.

Hedge trimmings create compost, potash and firewood

Anyway, a reasonable weekend. Saturday was almost pleasant in the afternoon. The main job has been in the orchard where the hedging was cut back. The privet is mainly long straight poles up to a couple of inches in diameter bushing out at the top. I’ve been cutting the bushy tops off and stacking them for the shredder. The long poles will be cut into short lengths, dried out for a year and keeping us warm next winter.

The bushy bits, when shredded, will rot down into useful compost pretty quickly with the addition of some urea to provide nitrogen.

The other component is hawthorn. Hawthorn is a tough old plant and makes great hedging material but it’s far too gnarly to easily make firewood and the way it grows makes it hard to push into the maw of the mulcher.

I expect the hawthorn will end up as a bonfire in a couple of months. I’ve an awful lot of brushwood that will be turned into potash around the place, which leads me nicely to an email I had over the weekend from Derek who asks:

Clearing an Allotment – Bonfire Burning the Rubbish

“We’ve just started an allotment, fairly well dug over! But there are lots of old pallets/rubbish etc. to dispose of. I intend to have a bonfire in March.
After clearing up after bonfire, can you advise me what is best do in this area and also the best things to plant after this?

Thanks for your web page letter, very helpful to an old man in new allotment.”

My answer to him might be of general interest

Garden Bonfires

There’s something about a bonfire that all men love. The flames leaping into the air and the smell of woodsmoke. Brings out the caveman in us or something. However, do be careful what goes onto a bonfire.

Burning plastics don’t just let off clouds of stinking smoke, they also leave chemical residues behind that can harmful to soil and I suppose they’re a health risk in theory at least.

Some would say to avoid burning painted or treated (creosoted) wood for the same reason but personally I doubt there’s any serious risk here with small quantities.

With a bonfire where you’re just burning wood or untreated wood products like old pallets, the ashes are actually a valuable source of potash – a natural fertiliser that’s particularly good for tomatoes and potatoes.

One tip for clearing those old nails left behind when burning scrap wood – a strong magnet. We burn a fair few old pallets that are damaged beyond other use on our stove and the magnet finds the nails easily.

Keep woodashes in a sealed tin or at least dry until you’re ready to use them or the nutrients will wash out.

The area where you’ve had the bonfire will have had the top of the soil cleared of bugs, which is good, and worms, which is bad. But nature abhors a vacuum and it will be repopulated very quickly. Ideally fork over the patch or rotovate after things have cooled.

Now the ground will have quite a bit of potash so potatoes could be a good crop to plant – but don’t forget they’re very hungry so extra manure or fertiliser will be needed. Otherwise I can’t see it really matters what is planted.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
2 comments on “Garden Bonfires
  1. Rob says:


    We use log burners for household heating, and occasionally add coal. Can the mixed coal and wood ash be used on the garden? If so, should I save the ash and use it when I plant potatoes, or just throw the ashpan contents on the veg patch daily?

    (New to gardening – first attempt at vegetables, excellent website)

    • John says:

      @Rob: I’ve had people saying that you shouldn’t use coal ash on the garden as it may contain chemicals. Woodash is a valuable source of potash, good for potatoes.

      My grandfather used coal ashes to make paths in the garden and lived to a ripe old age. Many gardening books suggested using soot (from coal fires) to darken the soil so it heated faster by absorbing sunlight.

      Do watch that you don’t add too many ashes as they can get claggy.

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