Gene Logsdon and Friends

Burning Brush Piles

In Gene's Weekly Posts on March 13, 2013 at 7:48 am

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From GENE LOGSDON

March brings the job I enjoy the most, fittingly for this drab season. I burn brush piles that have been collecting from cutting firewood over the past year. Authors who write books about nature are sometimes not pleased by brush pile burners like me. They want us to keep the piles around for wildlife protection. I used to think that, too, and put that advice in at least one of my early books. But I’ve learned that the best way to guarantee that your garden will be ravaged by wildlife is to keep piles of brush nearby. Now that much of the wildlife around us is on a population binge, it doesn’t need protection. And brush piles have a way of over-populating too. Besides, hawks and owls might starve if their prey can duck too easily into brush piles to escape them. I am for owls and hawks, especially owls that prey on feral cats let loose in the countryside by irresponsible pet owners.

The ideal brush burning day is windless so no sparks or flaming leaves blow away and start a fire where you don’t want one. A wee bit of the breeze is nice to drive the flames into the pile. Best if the ground has a slight covering of snow or at least the leaves or grass roundabout are frozen or wet. If not, rake away combustibles from around the brush pile a few feet so the fire doesn’t get away from you. I sometimes set a couple of buckets of water around just in case. It is safer to start a small fire and pile the brush on it gradually as it burns so as not to have a really big blaze at any time. If you have green brush to burn, start the fire with dry brush and pile on the green after the fire is well established. Big piles should be burned out in a bare field safely away from woodland.  But you all know that.

There is an art to everything. The experienced brush burner piles the brush with the butt ends altogether. This is the end where the fire is generally started. If there is a breeze, it should be blowing into the butt ends and up through the twiggy ends. I make a small, concentrated little stack of dry twigs to start the fire. Then several pieces of newspaper is all you need to get the blaze going upwards and dry the brush above it if it is a bit wet or snowy.

Then I sit down and watch and dream with a trusty pitchfork in my hand to push outer branches nearer into the flame if necessary and then as the flames consume the pile, to pitch unburned ends of branches at the exterior of the fire into the hot coals. I can’t explain why this job seems so peaceful to me. As the branches burn, they sometimes sing as the moisture boils out of them. The blaze keeps me comfortably warm. It symbolizes the coming of spring, reminding me of the ancient rite of lighting the Paschal Candle at Easter. The cats slip up beside me and stare at the flames, waiting for a mouse to run from the pile. A rabbit bounces out, hopefully an evening meal for the owls. Even the sheep come around, sniffing, reminding me that they need a fresh bale of hay. Eventually the hens sift through the woods, scratching up leaves as they come. They respond to the singing flames by singing joyously themselves. Then, if I get lucky, a rustle of wings comes suddenly into the trees around me and a chorus of croakings and cluckings and wheezes and whistles tell me that the red-wing blackbirds are back from the South. They remind me of one of those tone-deaf choirs, each singer rapturously chorusing away, blissfully unaware that his or her notes do not harmonize very well with the notes of the others. But because of the joyous unity of the flock, the concert sounds almost as harmonious as the Robert Shaw Chorale.
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  1. You might want to consider
    pyrolizing your brush pile
    into biochar
    sequestering the carbon
    while improving your soil
    :>)

  2. Or, you could shred it as you cut wood to make highly valuable brush compost and methane, à la Jean Pain:

    http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/jean-pain-zmaz80mazraw.aspx

    If you burn your piles of dead brush, make sure there’s no hedgehogs under them: They frequently hibernate under them for the thermal protection they offer, or return to them during the day after their nightly prowling and feeding to sleep it off and digest.

    After the writer Martin Gray lost his whole family in the 70s following a brush and forest fire in Provence, clearing out brushes to limit such fires has legally become a land owner’s responsibility in France.

  3. You describe to a T what I felt when we used to do burn piles at our old home. We were renting an old farmhouse on what used to be a dairy farm and I spent a lot of time the first year or so clearing blackberry vines – which make excellent tinder for all the other stuff that needed burning. We had a firepit of sorts and I’d set up a long hose to reach it. The metal rake was my best friend for managing the fire. Something very therapeutic about a burn pile. – For those worried about critters… generally I would pile up a lot of stuff next to the fire pit and feed it. Besides in our climate, everything is always so wet that it took so long to get a fire going, any critter would have more than enough notice to seek a new abode.

  4. We always save a brush pile to use as a crematorium for any sheep that die. The rendering companies can not take them, and it makes disposing of them so much easier than burying, especially in the winter.

    • Covering them with straw, then a polythene cover, weighted down with tyres and feeding them to worms results in high quality fertilizer and high quality protein for chickens.

  5. Rights of spring, especially the red winged blackbirds.

  6. If the wind would die down I’d go out now and start a small pile. I’m ready to start doing more chores outside.

  7. I’m not a brush pile burner although I don’t make any anywhere near my garden.I just push the brush up with my frontend loader and let it be,all sorts of interesting plants will grown up out of a brush pile as well as birds and rabbits will have some cover and nature will eventually reduce it down so I can run over it with the bush hog.

  8. This time of year I miss the years I spent doing controlled burns along my ditches, fence rows, and asparagus beds. Buckets of water spaced out and leaning on a shovel just can’t be beat!

  9. Gene- I like burning my brush pile (burn pile, here) also. It’s one of those jobs that means watching work get done that takes little physical effort from me. Also- I heard the cacophony of a great flock of grackles and red-winged blackbirds in the back yard again- noisy but wonderful.

  10. Being downunder, we’re currently in drought and feeding poplar and willow to our cattle. Each day I pick up the previous day’s branches and pile them up in anticipation of doing exactly as you describe, Gene, but to the accompaniment of a chorus of different birds and a slightly different set of wild spectators.

  11. It’s a continual discussion here. Although it’s quick warm and peaceful to burn it’s also regulated by the air quality police. SO I produce some fumes by running it through my shredder, thence into the goat barn. Allegedly the wood content of the bedding makes for beter nitrogen retention by the microbes as opposed to straight straw and leaves. But I’ve found, especially with fruit tree prunings and bery bush prunings that my goats go absolutely crazy over freshly pruned woody material in general. After they chomp off bark then it runs through the shredder easier than the fresh unchewed wood. It’s also easier to clean the barn with the shredded- and chipped wood as bedding as opposed to straight straw pack; which my injured back appreciates. After shredding it can either go to the barrel pyrolyzer for biochar to be burned (pyrolyzed) on cold nights to provide some frost protection for the fruit trees or just as bedding. ANd let us not forget that such small material formed the backbone of daub and wattle construction in Merry Old England and still does in many parts of the world. The end result is that although burning brush is FUN, there are also many other potential uses.

    I’m told by one USDA NRCS employee who spent a detail in Afghanistan, that nursery stock fruit trees intended to be used to help poor Afghan farmers establish orchards were instead diverted to the Black Market to be sold as firewood. SO let’s count our blessings that we have brush to burn or compost or use as building material or probably a host of additional uses if we thought about the subject for a while.

  12. I’m a brushpile builder. Weasels are brushpile lovers. They eat voles and mice. I give life-long vacations to feral cats.

  13. Im with you on that one Curt .

  14. Here at thetompostpile, we just wrote something similar: http://thetompostpile.wordpress.com

  15. I used to be a brush pile burner, but as of recently I’ve discovered hugelbeets/hugelculture. Do a search for it. Basically it is pile logs, brush then cover with dirt and plant. I still love a good fire.

  16. I may get jumped on for this, but I feel that the lack of fire sweeping the land is an unnatural state of affairs.

    Man has prevented it to preserve his creations, but the return he gets is disease and bugs of every description which are unhindered by their one natural flaming enemy.

    Not saying I have the answer, but we’ve made things different in an unnatural way.

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