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Homeyer: Solstice Bonfires

12/20/11 5:55PM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) Garden writer and commentator Henry Homeyer doesn't like these short dark days, so he combines garden clean up with a bonfire in honor of the Solstice. 

(Homeyer) The long nights and gray days of December can get to me. I like sunshine - and lots of it. It's reassuring to know that by December 22nd the days have reached their shortest, and that soon spring will be here. Well - not so soon - we still have to get to the middle of March before the days start to show real promise.

Meanwhile, what's a gardening guy to do? One thing I like to do at this time of year is to build a bonfire. It's a win-win proposition, if you've planned it right. For centuries people have built fires and lit candles to drive back the darkness around the time of the solstice. But I also like bonfires as part of the garden clean-up each year.

Once there's snow on the ground, most local fire departments gladly give a green light for bonfires, and I always have brush that needs to be burned. Each year I cut down some of the invasive honeysuckles that seem to pop up everywhere on my property. Cutting them down doesn't kill them, but it does prevent them from producing the seeds that birds can spread throughout the woods. I drag the branches out into my vegetable garden around solstice time and use them as fuel for a good bonfire.

If I've planned it right, I also have the vines from tomatoes, potatoes and squash plants to burn. I'm an organic gardener, so I try real hard to rid myself of plants that might overwinter insects or fungal diseases. Building a bonfire on top of a pile of dead plants will do the trick.

Getting a bonfire started isn't as easy as it might first appear. If you have freshly cut brush, or even old branches that have been soaked by rain all fall, it takes a while to get a bonfire going. The key is to have some dry wood and kindling to start a small fire; then  I add branches and garden waste once the fire is hot. I don't mind sacrificing a few pieces of my dry stove wood to get a good fire going.

Loppers and a sharp saw can be a lot of help, too. I cut off small side branches so that I can place thicker stems close together. A pile of brush that's full of empty spaces won't ignite easily - or burn well. I like the process of feeding the fire and poking it with a rake or a stick, getting the branches arranged just so, making the fire snap, crackle and burn with vigor.

There is something about a fire that speaks to my soul. Fireplaces and stoves are wonderful, but even better is an outdoor fire on a starlit night. Perhaps deep in my DNA is something that resonates with fires, going back to the time when my ancestors lived by hunting and gathering. I'm ready for my next bonfire.
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