Practical Permaculture – The Urban Fire Pit

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“Recycled Fire Pit” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This fire pit is made entirely from locally found recycled bricks… The bricks pictured have been in place for three years now… As you can see… A few will need replaced this year… But other than that… The pit is in perfect condition…

A few years ago, I built a small fire pit in our backyard using recycled bricks found locally in my neighborhood. When we first built this fire pit, the legality of it was a big question mark, as time has passed, we have come to the understanding that it is perfectly legal as long as we are not burning trash. Before constructing a fire pit in your backyard, consult with your local government as to the legality of burning in your specific locality… I also recommend talking with your neighbors, smoke can bother some people… Remember, even if burning is perfectly legal in your area, a complaining neighbor can usually convince the fire department to make you stop burning…

Now I know what you are thinking… But Chris… What in the hell does a fire pit have to do with gardening or permaculture?.. My fire pit happens to be one of the secrets of my garden… I can make the equivalent of an entire garbage can full of garden refuse disappear in a single evening… A better estimate of time might be a six-pack of beer… The secret is to get your fire as hot as possible… Then slowly add material a handful at a time, only adding more when the existing debris has burned away completely… After a few fires… Clean the ash out of your fire pit and spread it around your garden… I think of this as not only feeding the garden nutrients… But feeding it good memories… I know… I’m a big dork… Get over it…

Deadfall branches are commonplace in my neighborhood, I can burn an entire evening, just with the wood I find on the ground within 500 feet of my backyard… And I live in a very urban environment… Much of that wood is not the best burning wood available… In my corner of Wilkinsburg… Mulberry and Sumac are commonplace… And believe me, they both are poor burners… The secret to getting rid of these types of wood is exactly the same as with weeds and leaves… Get a very hot fire going using other woods… Then sparingly add the junk wood… Taking care to wait for the previous pieces to completely burn… Junk woods not only emit more smoke… But that smoke often smells bad… Lilac is one of the worst smelling woods I have ever burned, comparable to plastic or rubber…

Food cooked over… Or inside a fire tastes better than the same food cooked on a gas range… Living in the city, cooking over a fire is a luxury… If that luxury is available to you… Use it… Cooking on a gas range is not doing the environment any favors… Not saying that I don’t use one… But it is important to remember where that gas comes from… In my area… It comes from the Marcellus Shale deposits and is fracked out of the earth… Any available opportunity to screw that industry out of an impending dollar should be embraced….

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“Kindling” – © chriscondello 2013 – Highland Park – Pittsburgh, PA – My girlfriend pointed this shot out… If you are going to keep a pile of wood on your front porch… Might as well stack it creatively…

Almost all of the big box stores sell some type of ready to use fire pit, these are all perfectly fine… And surprisingly… I have nothing negative to say about them other than they are a bit expensive… And essentially all you are going to do is slowly destroy the thing with fire… If you have the money to buy one… And don’t care to build one… Then by all means just go and buy one… But if you are looking to build one yourself… Then this article is for you…

The basic purpose of a fire pit is to contain fire, a common practice is to find an old truck rim and simply set it on the ground… You can also bury the rim… I personally prefer my fire pits to be sunk into the ground, it makes the fire a little more difficult to detect from the road. My fire pit is nothing more than a brick lined hole in the ground, and it has lasted for three years with very little maintenance.

As far as specific dimensions are concerned, it will depend on the size of your yard. I like the hole to be the depth of a brick standing on end, or around 10″. My pit has a 36″ opening to allow me to burn wood that is a bit bigger than what would normally be burned on a small urban lot. Most commercial firewood is cut around 16-20″ long, the extra room allows oxygen to reach the fire, otherwise the fire would smothers and smoke…

Let me talk about bricks for a moment, after all I do collect them… A common question I am asked when people see my fire pit is whether or not the bricks explode… The short answer is no… They will not explode… Bricks are fired at high temperatures during manufacturing, they have already been exposed to temperatures higher than anything you can throw at them in one night of recreational burning.

On the other hand… Some bricks have a tendency to absorb water, it is not inconceivable to speculate that a water logged brick could shatter when heated… Or likewise… Shatter when a heated brick is rapidly cooled… But a brick will not explode with any type of force… I had originally put the red bricks on the inside of the pit, although they didn’t explode… They didn’t last for shit… They would fall apart after a few fires… The yellow bricks have lasted for three years now… They are noticeably heavier… And much harder than the red bricks…

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“Red Passion” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Another view of my fire pit… Just with a Red Passionflower…

The ring of bricks around the outside of the fire pit serves a few purposes other than just looking nice. The ring of bricks serves as an extra buffer between the flames and my grass… Which as you can probably tell from the photo… I take pretty damn good care of… The bricks also serve as a place to put your feet when sitting around the fire, without the bricks, feet would wear the grass down to bald spots. I no longer have that issue… And finally, the bricks serve as a place to set the smores sticks when you are roasting the marshmallows… If you wanted to put a grilling surface down, the bricks would work for that also…

The most difficult aspect of having a fire in an urban environment, is figuring out how to keep the smoke to a minimum. The only way I have found to accomplish this, is to keep your fire burning as hot as possible. Do not burn wood that is still wet, and I’m not talking about rainwater wet, but still green wet. Don’t let your fire smolder either, keep it fueled and flaming. Simply paying attention to your fire will typically be enough to keep it burning… Oh yeah… Excessive fire poking is not only annoying… It creates more smoke… And often sends sparks flying in every direction… Keep the fire poking to a minimum…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

I now have prints available to purchase online… You can find them here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free by the author… Me… At one time I had considered asking for donations… But that’s not me… So I have decided to sell prints of some of my photography… It is by no means a requirement… But it helps… If you have a few minutes to check them out… Then by all means… Please do…

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2 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – The Urban Fire Pit

  1. petrujviljoen says:

    Hi Chris, so far my internet connection doesn’t get me to the page where I can actually order a print. I think I’m going to contact you directly via email as soon as I have a bit of spare cash, get a travellers’ cheque from the bank and post it to you direct. I’ll sort out what print I want. It will be only one at a time I’m afraid. Lots of good luck with sales.

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  2. Thanks for all the good tips on urban firepits!

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