It’s fire season in the garden. In the summer it’s too hot to sit out by a fire; in the winter it’s too cold for most of us easily-chilled Sydneysiders, but autumn and spring are just right for evenings with friends around the fire. “Suddenly, everyone wants to talk about fires,” says garden maker Michael Bates. And it’s not just the weather; fire bowls are suddenly the must-have item of a well-finished garden. Bates says the draw is both practical and aesthetic. “The warmth of a fire extends the season you can be in the garden with friends on a Saturday night; plus the moving flame adds life to the garden in the same way that moving water, or birds splashing around in a bird bath or kids and dogs running round, do. It’s beautiful and its hypnotic.”
There are many options for wood-burning outdoor fires: sunken pits; stone-edged circular fireplaces; terracotta saucers and, Bates’ choice, simple cast iron bowls.
The usual suspects – big box hardware stores, Ebay and Gumtree – have lots of affordable, if not always stylish, choices. (Robert Plumb has style, and the best pun, with the Angelina or a Brad fire pits.)
When it comes to siting the fire, Bates says you want to make sure it can be seen from the house. The movement of the flames and the glow of the embers is a show you don’t want to pass up just because dinner is ready. Make it snug and cosy too, with a backdrop so that people don’t feel they have their backs exposed to the elements. Seating around the fire needs to flexible enough to provide a bit of distance when the fire is at its hottest, but enable snuggling closer as it dies down. Bates favours curved stone wall seating so that you can sit as close or as far away as needed. “Late at night we might be on the ground close to the fire and leaning against the walls,” he says of the fire pit in his North Sydney garden.
On a practical note, make sure the wood supply is close to the fire, or you’ll think twice about lighting it. The other practical issue to consider is food. For many of us, glowing coals are an invitation to cook. But as anyone who has cleaned out the carbonised fat caught in the fat catcher at the bottom of the barbecue knows, cooking makes a mess. There are exceptions – toasted bread, grilled vegetables – but if you cook meat there will be cleaning. Or not. When I asked Bates about the grime caused by cooking over his fire pit, he laughed, “Mate, you’re asking the wrong person, I don’t see that kind of stuff. Too busy living.”