The bonfire of deplorables

Autumn turns to winter, the leaves are all but tamed, and a short window of opportunity opens. While it’s still warm enough to feel your fingers, there’s just time to clear the beds in preparation for a good, thick mulch. But what to do with all the stuff this produces – compost, or burn? It helps to have a plan.

The first gardener I worked for when I was learning the ropes swore by a two-trug system for her weeding and clearing activities (in reality, it was a two-trug-and-one-barrow system, but let’s not split hairs). Into the first trug would go all the benign green stuff bound for the compost heap – herbaceous leaves, stems, annual weed seedlings, dead flower heads – nothing too woody or seedy. Into the barrow that we’re not really mentioning would go all the tough, woody things for the bonfire.

But the second trug was for horticultural horrors; bits of uncooperative plant material that refused to obey the will of the gardener and go quietly into that good pile, instead showing a marked inclination to continue making its presence felt in the beds, irrespective of uprooting, chopping and/or relocation. These were the pernicious and weedy things, the bindweed, ground elder, enchanter’s nightshade, as well as the ephemeral and seedy things like... well, anything that we didn’t want scattered about the place but hadn’t gotten around either to weeding or to deadheading before the flowers had gone to seed. This red second trug (it was invariably red, presumably for DANGER! These plants display a marked tendency to GROW contrary to the DESIRE of MANKINDwas known as the Black Hole, for anything placed into it would be transported to a place without the immediate environs of the garden, from which any return, in the absence of some unforeseen quantum occurrence, was matter of negligible probability. The location of the Black Hole itself could be any number of places. In one garden it was a large pit next the bonfire, in another a group of bulk bags whisked away by the landscaper, the contents to be composted off site. It mattered not. Once in the red trug, those plants were history.

Except, of course, they weren’t. We never really get completely on top of the weeds, but you have to make the effort, always assuming your greatest desire amounts to something more than sitting in a deckchair, surveying the garden as it transitions through scrub to woodland (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And anyway, it makes us feel better to have a system. We can tell ourselves we’re in control. 

I too have a system – a variation of the two-trug caper, if I’m honest, though with the size of some of the gardens I tend I’d find trugs a little limiting. As I work, I tend to generate alternate piles of biomass, one for the compost heap, one for the bonfire.

And yes, I know that the compost of which I’m so proud will in all likelihood spread annual weeds about the garden, but you know what?


I don’t kid myself that the rest of the garden soil is sterile, and I’m confident that the benefits to soil structure and fertility from the compost I incorporate outweigh any time spent weeding. Anyway, I like weeding. And yes, I can see you there in the back, tutting about bonfires and carbon footprint. But let’s play How Many Foreign Holidays Have You Had In The Last Five Years – I’ll even throw in my food miles – and compare my bonfires to your share of aviation fuel.

Like I said. Pfff.

So, that’s how I roll. Or, more accurately, wheel. Alternate barrow loads, one full of the biddable, anodyne stuff that’s happy to sit and rot down into compost. The other, filled with the bruisers, the thugs, the bullies of the garden, bound for the pyre, which also has the distinct advantage of keeping a gardener warm on cold winter mornings. I just need to remember my matches, and to keep my firelighters dry.