Country Lore: How to Achieve a Clean, Top-Down Burn

Readers' tips on burning clean fires, deterring voles, freezing berries, and more.

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by Richard Ehrenberg
Changing the direction that each layer of splits faces creates pockets that allow air to travel through.

Burn Clean

Burning wood often releases a lot of toxic chemicals and dangerous gases into the atmosphere in the form of smoke. The majority of that smoke release occurs when starting and adding wood to a fire. Typically, people start fires by burning the bottom of stacked wood, so the heat warms and ignites the wood above as it rises. However, this method causes more smoke to escape and pollutes the atmosphere. There’s a much cleaner way to ignite a full fire.

Smoke is the result of a process called “pyrolysis,” whereby heat — not flame — chemically alters molecules in the wood, turning them from a solid into a gas filled with burnable substances. If the flames of the fire don’t ignite these gases and substances, they go up the chimney in smoke.

To reduce smoke pollution when starting a fire, light the fire at the top of the stacked wood, and allow the flame to travel downward. This reverse burning process initiates pyrolysis in the wood within and below the flames of the fire. As the smoke below rises, it passes through the flames, which ignites the burnable substances in the smoke. The substances that remain to flow up the chimney are CO2, water vapor, and heat. Not only does this reduce the smoke from a fire, but it also releases additional heat in the fire.

To achieve a good top-down burn, carefully place each layer of wood splits at a 90-degree angle to the layer beneath. Place the largest splits on the bottom layer, and use smaller splits for each succeeding upper layer. When stacking these layers, leave small spaces between each split; this creates pockets that allow air to freely flow upward. Build the top two layers out of kindling, leaving adequate air space between each piece. Finally, place two to three crumpled pieces of paper on the top, and light the papers. Too much paper will leave behind sheets of carbon that block airflow.

The initial fire will be small, but it’ll consume the small amount of smoke produced. As pyrolysis continues to increase, the flames will also increase and consume more of the rising smoke until a hot, vigorous, and clean burn is established.

Richard Ehrenberg
Whitewater, Wisconsin

Fighting Plant Infections

Many people use commercial sulfur-based fungicides to deal with garden diseases, but as an organic gardener, I only use environmentally safe products to control insects and pests. I like the feeling of knowing my garden is always safe for children, pets, and wildlife. I also enjoy the feeling of satisfaction that comes from finding a way to organically manage diseases. Knowing that I’m self-reliant and resourceful empowers me in the garden.

Almost daily, I inspect my garden for signs of black spot, powdery mildew, and other fungal infections. As with everything else, I know that preventing diseases on my plants is always easier than getting rid of them later.

Black spot is a fungal disease that thrives in warm, humid climates, and is one of the hardest fungal infections to remove from my rose plants. When it first appears, it shows up as a single black spot on one leaf, but it quickly spreads, turning entire leaves a sickly yellow color. A bad case can easily kill a plant.

Over the years, this disease has wiped out entire sections of my garden. When I’d finally had enough, I found a system to combat this illness plaguing my plants.

First, I trim the plant to create more air movement through the middle, minimizing the risk of humidity. Don’t water the foliage directly, because that creates a humid environment and encourages the disease to spread. Strictly water around the roots.

The better-fed a plant is, the better it can resist disease, so I give my plants organic plant feed every 6 to 8 weeks throughout the growing season. I also replenish the soil with an organic fertilizer.

Once I’ve made my plants as strong and happy as possible, it’s time for me to deal with the infection itself. I pick off the infected leaves, gather any fallen infected leaves, and burn them. I never put infected leaves in my compost, because the infection would just spread to my garden via the compost. After I’ve cleared the infection, I regularly spray the plant with an organic fungicide.

C. Manser

Tea Tree Against Ticks

Here in southeastern Oklahoma, ticks tend to be a year-round problem, and they love to pester my farm animals. Although I take two garlic tablets daily to ward them off, I always encounter a few ticks determined to affix themselves to me whenever I step foot outdoors to cut firewood. Luckily, a long time ago, I figured out that tea tree oil instantly kills ticks. I’ve used this trick for 15 years, and it works every time.

With a dab of the oil on your finger, lightly rub the tick for about 30 seconds, or until the tick has released from your skin. Once its grip has loosened, pull or flick the tick off. The tea tree oil should’ve fully killed the tick, but I still step on them to ensure they’re completely dead. For deeply embedded ticks, you may need to rub on the tea tree for a longer time, or reapply the oil to your finger and try again. Eventually, though, even the deepest ticks will let go.

This tick-removal method leaves behind no wound or swelling, and aids in relieving the itch caused by the bite. Best of all, there’s no risk of the head remaining in your skin, which commonly occurs when yanking out a living tick with tweezers. The tea tree oil makes the tick let go on its own, so the entire tick is gone.

Occasionally, I’ll water down the tea tree oil a bit and use a spray bottle to mist the animals around the farm, from my horses and cattle to my chickens and goats. (Tea tree oil is extremely toxic to cats and dogs.) Another great thing about tea tree oil is that it’s inexpensive; you can pick up a bottle for as little as $8 at any local pharmaceutical store or online.

CJ De Rosa
Howe, Oklahoma

An Infusion Invention

I’ve always been fond of using old industrial washtubs, tools, and buckets in my garden. This past summer, I again found a way to turn something old into a new tool for my garden. I converted an old minnow bucket that I bought for $2 at a yard sale into a giant compost tea infuser.

First, I fill the bucket’s insert with several scoops of my aged compost. I then put the insert into the 5-gallon minnow pail and pour water over the top of the compost. The water filters through the compost and out the holes in the side of the insert, landing in the minnow bucket. I let this mixture sit in the bucket for several days, shaking or stirring it twice a day to filter the water through more. After a few days, all the good nutrients have leached out of the soil and into the water, forming a muddy debris in the minnow bucket. The insert empties easily, leaving the compost tea ready to pour around my garden.

Deborah Calderwood
Prattsburgh, New York

A ‘Berry’ Fine Fix

Where we live in the Pacific Northwest, berry-picking season is just around the corner. My family picks and freezes many berries each season because it gives us a relatively fresh supply to snack on and cook with all year long.

We pick our berries straight off the vine from local farms, so we’re always careful to wash them and remove any dirt before eating and freezing them. However, when we’ve tried to freeze them after washing them in the past, the excess water has caused the berries to freeze in a giant clump, which is a hassle to tear apart when you just want a small handful for a snack.

We found a way to dry off our berries so they won’t freeze in these big clumps anymore. After washing the berries, we place a few handfuls at a time in a salad spinner and spin it for 15 seconds before bagging the berries and moving them to the freezer. The berries will freeze separately, making it easier to remove just the amount that you need at any given time — and the salad spinner won’t crush or damage the delicate fruit.

Tony Taylor
Sequim, Washington

No More Vole Holes

Here in Alaska, I don’t have too much trouble with insects in the garden, but I do have a rodent problem, particularly with voles and wild rabbits. I’ve put up fencing around my garden to keep out the rabbits, but warding off the voles is an entirely different matter. They destroy my garden every year. The voles go after my broccoli, beets, and cabbage plants, and until recently, I had no way to stop them.

I discovered that voles are deterred when I sprinkle crushed red pepper on my plants and on the soil around the base of each plant. I guess they don’t have an appetite for spicy foods! I’ve seen significantly fewer vole holes in my garden since starting this experiment. After big rainstorms wash them out of the garden, I need to reapply the red pepper flakes, but it’s well worth the labor to finally beat those voles.

Linda Mullen
Fairbanks, Alaska

Inspired Recycling

This past year, I received a Keurig coffee maker for Christmas from a friend. While it’s a very nice coffee maker, using the store-bought K-Cups creates a lot of waste. The plastic cups are used to brew one cup of coffee before being tossed in a landfill. However, instead of throwing mine away, I save them for school gardening projects. I’m a schoolteacher, and I like to incorporate outdoor activities with my students as often as possible using fun and creative methods. I use my saved K-Cups to show my students how to start seeds in the classroom. These cups have worked better as seed starters than I could’ve imagined! The cups each have a small hole punctured in the bottom from the coffee maker, which allows water to drain from the container without soil falling out. Although I use this in a classroom setting, gardeners may be able to find similar items around their home that they can save for seed starting.

Andrea Younker
Taylorville, Illinois

The Importance of Hydration

I’ve dealt with many cases of chicken pasty butt in my day, and I know that most homesteaders out there have probably been in a similar dilemma with their chicks. However, for the past few years, I’ve noticed that I have fewer cases of chicken pasty butt when I start the chicks off with water immediately after they’re born. Once they’re ready to eat a chick starter, I moisten their feed, which ensures they’re still getting plenty of water. Just the act of dampening their feed has virtually eliminated pasty butt for me. Even though moistened chicken feed makes feeding time a bit messier, it’s well worth the hassle and time I’m saving by avoiding a potentially fatal problem. The best part is that my chicks and chickens actually seem to prefer moistened feed. The only time I’ve found that moistened food becomes an issue is during winter, when the feed may freeze, but my chickens readily adapt to dry pellets, and I offer them the moistened feed whenever the weather allows it.

Christine Mize

Back to Base-ics

In my garden, I grow a fair share of vine crops. As most gardeners know, vine crops spread far and wide, and finding where the base of the plant is hiding beneath those vines can become impossible, especially when you’re dealing with multiple crops in one patch. Whenever I set out to water these plants, hunting for the base can be a time-consuming task, and many times, I waste water because I miss the roots. Wasting water is particularly troubling in times of drought.

I finally became tired of this problem and developed a method of planting my vine crops. Before planting, I place large posts in the ground all around my garden area, and then I plant all my vine crops around these posts. This way, once my vine crops grow out of control, I still know exactly where the root systems are located. This has saved me countless gallons of water, because now all I have to do is water around the poles.

Dock Hyde
Clover, South Carolina

Cashing In at the Bug Bank

We live among the potato fields of central Wisconsin on a small hobby farm. Because the large corporate farms around us drench their fields in pesticides to combat the dreaded Colorado potato beetle, we end up with an overabundance of the persistent insects on our potatoes every year. Because we also keep bees on our farm, we want to do everything as naturally as possible to keep our bees healthy and make sure that our raw honey is as pure as possible. This leaves us picking the pests off our potato plants by hand; on average, we harvest 300 to 400 beetles after inspecting the plants two or three times a day.

At first, we did what everyone suggested – we put the beetles in a container filled with soapy water to kill them off. It wasn’t until we got our first flock of chickens that we decided that this was a waste. We realized that our chickens could be eating those beetles, and that they deserved some snacks. We began brainstorming a way to collect and save the beetles without them escaping back into our garden.

We turned a recycled plastic container into our designated “Bug Bank.” The container has a small slit cut in the top of the cover, exactly the same way a traditional piggy bank does. Now, we deposit all those offensive Colorado potato beetles into the “Bug Bank.” When our search is complete at the end of the day, we take the beetles on a one-way trip to our chicken run, where the flock gathers around to devour the live treats. This simple fix is a win on all sides; our potatoes stay pesticide-free, our bees stay safe, our garden stays beetle-free, and our chickens are happier than ever! Although Japanese beetles are a bit harder to catch, we do the same thing with them when they make their annual appearance, and our chickens relish these beetles with equal enthusiasm.

Annette Tuttle
Plover, Wisconsin

Cool That Burn

A friend taught me a quick trick to prevent kitchen burns from swelling or blistering. Keep a bottle of soy sauce in your refrigerator, because chilled soy sauce can help ease the pain of a nasty burn. If you grab a hot pan or get hit by some bubbling hot oil while you’re cooking, quickly grab the soy sauce from your fridge, pour a small amount into a bowl or cup, and submerge the burn in the chilled soy sauce for a few minutes. Each time I’ve burned myself while cooking, I’ve immediately doused the burn with soy sauce and felt the soothing effects instantly. Since I’ve started using this trick, I almost never experience any redness or blistering around the burned area. The only pain I’ve noticed has been a light prickle the next day, but it hardly compares with the side effects of an untreated burn, especially from hot oil. Also, a bottle of soy sauce is cheaper than a bottle of burn gel, and it’s a tasty sauce to have hanging around your kitchen.

Susan Bliss
Hillsboro, Oregon

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