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Bonfires, bones and ash

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:22 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010



This November has been rather traditional with cold, damp, grey days enveloped in fog and mist, alternating with howling windy days and even flurries of snow and hail. It’s retarded my pruning for which I need bright dry days. Still I love it, because this is how November should be.

Certainly I remember such as a child. Often it was just like this year with the firework night bonfire postponed as either too wet, to light or too windy for safety. My twins have likewise been kept waiting till the bonfire had dried enough and the wind was not blowing anywhere really inconvenient. Indeed with a still evening it was perfect, misty and really not cold - when I went back later that night to check the bonfire had finished I popped out in a t-shirt.

Oddly it is the day after I enjoy as much. There is something satisfying about tidying a dead bonfire. Collecting up un-burnt twigs and branches to start the next then sieving the still warm ashes. These ashes are especially valuable as I’ve light sandy soil and potash/potassium is soon washed out. Spreading wood ashes replenishes this; I save them in the dry to spread in spring when growth is underway. I’m careful never to burn anything nasty such as plastic, rubber or whatever but just thorny and twiggy stuff. Anything woody and larger than my thumb is converted to firewood but I produce an awful lot of bramble, hawthorn, rose and other thorny prunings. Most thorn-free bits are stacked up as wildlife piles but the sheer quantity makes some bonfires necessary. Just the perimeter hedge alone produces enough for a couple.

Of course I could stand all day with a shredder burning electric to reduce all to compostable trash; I tried it, then sold the shredder. Too noisy and too slow, it took longer to shred the hedge’s trimmings than to actually cut it!

Anyway I sieve ashes - first to mix them up uniformly and remove any odd detritus such as bits of wire. But also to fetch out bits of charcoal - when the evening festivities are over I drag the bonfire together, add all the old bones I have saved up, rake ashes around and over the lot, apply some turves on top finally covering it all with old corrugated iron. (This last also keeps any rain from washing out the goodness before I collect the ashes.) The bonfire’s heat then turns the remains to charcoal and baked bone. Coarse sieving means any chunks of charcoal can be saved for summer barbecues and the smaller stuff, broken up baked bones and charred soil get intimately mixed.

Come spring I’ll sprinkle this around the apples, currants and gooseberries, and in between the onions. Some will be added to potato trenches and more mixed in compost for the tomatoes. There is seldom enough to use it elsewhere except sparingly. Given more almost all of my garden would benefit, and the compost heaps could absorb any amount.

Bob Flowerdew is an organic gardener and panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time.


  • Comment number 1.

    For non thorny hedgecuttings, simply rake into a pile and then run the hedgecutter down vertically enough times to make then more manageable. Then simply apply them to the top of the soil as a mulch between crops, keeps moisture in and stops weeds germinating.

    Bonfire ash must never be applied around rhododendron or camellias, I forget the chemical details but it act like lime to them. When the tea planters cleared forest for the planting of tea, where bonfires had been to burn the vegetation, no camellia would grow.


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