A bonfire can be an environmentally sound way of getting rid of garden material. Of course it’s better to compost vegetative waste where you can, but as long your fire is carefully planned the result is carbon-neutral waste disposal, which isn’t something that can be said of hauling it to the tip in your car.
Bonfires can be great fun too and bonfires in the autumn are especially good; my childhood memory is full of crisp, cold autumnal days, smoky bonfires, and mugs of hot chocolate cradled in hands made dirty by hauling branches and wood and leaves for my grandparents; even now, my first thought whenever I smell a bonfire is of my grandfather.
Burning stuff is an existential pleasure that takes us back to our prehistoric roots and should be a guilt-free pleasure that everyone should be free to enjoy. Here is our guide to how to stoke a fire in your own garden with a clear conscience.
Find out about choosing a wood burner for your garden
The law on domestic bonfires in England and Wales is very simple: there isn’t one; there is, however, a law against any subsequent nuisance that having one might cause. As the Government puts it:
You can’t get rid of household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health. This includes burning it.
However, the legal principle is that any nuisance must usually happen on a regular basis to be considered so:
Your council can issue an ‘abatement notice’ if a neighbour’s bonfire is causing a nuisance. A bonfire must happen frequently to be considered a nuisance.
Your neighbour can be fined up to £5,000 if they don’t stick to the notice.
So, the occasional bonfire should be fine as long as there are no local bylaws in place that prevent it (check with your local council) and you abide by the following two points:
- You must make sure that the smoke from your bonfire doesn’t blow across a road and so cause danger to the traffic on it, and
- you don’t burn anything that could cause pollution or harm to public health. That rules out burning anything like plastic, rubber, old engine oil, and anything else that might produce poisonous fumes. Burning stuff like this won’t just harm your health and that of anyone else around you, it is also likely to be a criminal offence.
Having said that, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Telling your neighbours what you’re planning is the right thing to do, if for no other reason than it gives them time to get their washing in and close their windows.
Finally, a quick word on the use of metal incinerators. We build freehand bonfires when we’ve got a lot of big stuff to burn but everything else is burned in a metal incinerator. We do this because using an incinerator makes it easier to keep the fire under control, and as we stand it on an old patio slab, it doesn’t scorch the earth either. We feel happier leaving it to smoulder gently (with the lid on) when we get lunch or take a break, something we’d never do with a live bonfire; any fire needs constant supervision, which can be a pain when you’ve misjudged your quantities and it’s still burning brightly when you want to go to bed…
Read our tips for lighting a fire
So, you’ve chosen your site and made sure there are no overhanging trees, fences or buildings that could catch light. You’ve chosen a still day to make sure that the smoke won’t drift across any nearby roads, and have warned the neighbours. The non-combustible stuff is waiting to go to the tip and you’ve got a couple of buckets of water to hand, just in case.
The key to a good bonfire is to get a good base burning; Mrs Boyce says that being able to start a bonfire with just the one match is the sign that you are a bonfire ninja, so she spends an inordinate amount of time making sure that her starter material is dry and placed just so. (I just use a couple of fire lighters, but the question of whether she is a better person than me was settled years ago.)
We also build each bonfire afresh. We stack the stuff we want to burn in one place and then move it across to the bonfire site piece by piece to make sure that we aren’t going to accidentally burn any hedgehogs, grass snakes, toads or other animals that might have sought refuge in there.
We compost whatever we can as we hate wasting all that lovely goodness. so anything smaller than a finger’s thickness is composted, while anything bigger is burned. (We make an exception for some weeds like bindweed, which I feel happier burning than composting.)
One of the few problems with bonfires is what to do with all the ash. The first point I have to make is that it will stay hot for days, so don’t be in a hurry to bag it up.
The second point is that ash is actually an incredibly useful thing to have around. A small amount will help lower the acidity of your compost heap, helping create an environment in which the little red worms that help create compost can thrive. A lot of compost heaps, especially those with high levels of grass clippings and garden waste, can be too acidic, which leads to the sort of blasted waste compost heaps that just sit and slowly rot rather than speed their way towards the sort of lovely, dark and crumbly compost we all love.
Ash can also be used as mulch around the base of woody bushes and trees, comprising, as it does, plant matter in dehydrated form. Just keep it away from the bark as it can scorch it.
Finally, it can be spread on paths and walkways when it snows; it might look unsightly but it’s cheap, effective and soon washes away when the snow melts.
Burning green leaves will create enormous amounts of smoke, so you might want to take it easy and feed them in gently as an act of neighbourly consideration! In fact, adding small quantities of fuel at regular intervals isn’t a bad way to feed any bonfire; it’s very easy to pile armfuls of wood on and suddenly find you’ve got a raging inferno on your hands and a very nice chap from the local fire station banging on your front door to check that everything is alright. (Although it has to be said that Mrs Boyce wasn‘t terribly upset to find half-a-dozen firemen in her garden...)