As kids, we used to make ‘Winter Warmers’ – an ingenious device made from a hole-riddled tin can stuffed with sticks and paper. The contents of the can were ignited and the contraption was windmilled around in straight arm arcs using a long wire handle. The flaming can would roar furiously as it span, and as the name suggests, made you warm. In winter.
Looking back, it’s not entirely clear whether the ‘warming’ part came from the heat generated by the can itself, or from the act of enthusiastically flailing it about your head. Either way, it prolonged our outdoor winter play sessions, which in those innocent days consisted of throwing stones at things, climbing up stuff and idly booting a football at each other. (This was a time before mobile phones and video game consoles, you understand)
When wire was not available, we used to fit our winter warmers with string handles which, with hindsight, was a bit of a design flaw. It did, however, add a frisson of excitement of not knowing when the handle would burn through and sending the hot can of fire hurtling through the sky like a tinpot meteor or slamming to the ground in a shower of sparks and hot stick shrapnel.
Common sense gleaned from old age (combined with STIHL’s stringent health and safety requirements) prevent us from recommending that you make one yourself, but a fire brazier – the Winter Warmer’s larger, ground-dwelling sibling – is a great way of keeping warm down the allotment or in your garden! A fire brazier is also handy for ridding your winter plot of non-compostable detritus that has built up during the season. We stoke ours with prunings from the cider apple trees, along with other woody odds and ends, before loading it with dug up weeds that would only regenerate and thrive if cast upon the compost – bindweed being a particularly good example.
When making a fire brazier for your garden, oil drums are best (though not always easy to get your hands on) but you can make a fire brazier out of any decent sized metal container. Old metal dustbins work well, and if you want to build something on a smaller scale, ask your local takeaway for access to their recycling where you may be able to pick up some industrial-sized catering cans.
Step One: Clean your can
Make sure you clean your chosen metal container carefully before use. Obviously, old encrusted food residue won’t have a detrimental effect on a flaming brazier, but an old oil can or similar might result in a nasty flammable surprise. Give it a scrub with a wire brush and hose it down before you start.
Step Two: Aerate your brazier
Punch a series of holes into the bottom third of your can. It’s best to use a drill equipped with a suitably large HSS (High-Speed Steel) drill bit for this. Before drilling, make a small dimple in the place where you want the hole, using a hammer and centre punch. This will stop the drill sliding around before it has a chance to bite through the metal. For best brazier performance, punch a few holes in the base as well.
Step Three: Build your fire
Raise your garden brazier off the ground by resting it on four large bricks. Place a pile of small, dry sticks in a ‘teepee’ formation in the bottom of your fire brazier, arranged around tinder such as a few sheets of scrunched up newspaper or dry leaves. (You can cheat and use a fire-lighter if you like – we’ve also seen people using Dorito crisps as firelighters, but would never endorse this wasteful use of such tasty triangular snacks.)
On top of your small-sticked teepee, add a couple of medium-sized branches, minding not to overcrowd your brazier, before lighting your tinder. When the fire is fully aflame and your medium-sized bits of wood have started to burn furiously, you can start adding larger sized branches and bigger bits of wood before adding any weedy waste you have. Go easy though – add your greens gradually to limit neighbour-annoying plumes of smoke.
The outside of your fire brazier will get hot, and will remain so for a while after the fire has burnt out. Make sure you keep your hands well away from the metal and, when you’re done, remember to douse the fire site with water. Bonfires have a habit of reigniting themselves – especially if the wind picks up – and there are fewer allotment misdemeanours more serious than leaving a bonfire unattended.
When your fire has died down and the brazier is cool enough to handle, you can also utilise the ash too. Some folk use it to help melt icy paths in winter, but in our experience, it’s not all that effective (and leaves behind a grey, sludgy mess). If you’ve got a compost heap that consists of predominantly food waste and grass clippings, ash will help bring the acidity down, making for a better compostable environment. You can also dig ash into areas where you plan to plant vegetables that thrive in alkaline soil, such as cauliflower, cabbages and onions. Wood ash also contains potassium so your plants will appreciate this extra, nutritional boost.
Have you made a fire brazier for your garden before? Do you have any hot tips? Let us know in the comments!