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An article for US Garden Variety on bonfire management.
GV’s France-based contributor Mike Alexander on garden waste disposal with a little help.
Every winter, like most gardeners on large properties, I find myself faced with the task of burning the large amounts of garden waste that have accumulated over the year. This consists mainly of all the clippings and fallen branches that were too big to compost. All four of my leaf cages are overflowing right now and I also have another huge pile tucked away out of sight, but the leaves continue to fall and I will be obliged to burn the excess.
If you read any garden magazine this time of year, you will likely find a little pearl of wisdom that is almost mandatory: Before burning you should check your heap for any hedgehogs or other critters that might be nesting or hibernating underneath. Having dispensed this advice, the writer then skips onto the next subject leaving you, the reader, faced with a pile of waste the size of a large sedan and no real idea how to check for animal residents without going through the entire pile by hand.
I would hate myself if ever I burned one of these delightful little creatures and I have a proven method of checking for them, but I am afraid it may not be for everyone. When gardening, I am often accompanied by my faithful four-legged assistant, Miss P. Before burning I throw her ball a few times and then I pretend to hide it in the leaves. Fetching is one of Miss P’s favorite pastimes, superseded only by digging into my car seats and rolling in fox droppings. After half an hour of “play,” Miss P will have explored every inch of that pile, at which point I miraculously produce the ball, thus reinforcing my position as lord and master. After that, I can burn confident in the knowledge that there is no living creature hiding in the leaves, cut foliage and brush.
Now, I know that not every gardener has a well trained Jaqueline Russell to call upon to assist this time of year, and, to be honest, I am a little pressed as to what exactly to advice in this regard. In some cases, you can see where a critter may have entered the pile but normally this is not the case. Short of turning over the whole heap, which may not be practical (and may result in the inhabitant being stabbed with a pitch fork), all I can suggest is to keep the burn very slow and start at one end. Hopefully this will enable the temporary resident to smell the smoke, sense the heat and make good their escape before being reached by the flames. Of course, if you have been more diligent than I have and kept on top of your burning, your brush pile may be small enough to make a thorough manual examination.
Bear in mind that in most areas there are fire restrictions for much of the summer and some places do not allow brush burning at all. So before lighting up, check with your local authorities to find out.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.