GARDEN THERAPY: The Fashionable and Functional Fire Pit – November 2017

By Mel Bellar

Landscaping has its fashions.  Plant varieties come and go in the nurseries (sometimes to my dismay) and suddenly the well-to-do all need to have an outdoor kitchen.  Some of this has to do with the industry calculatedly trying to sell new products but I think some of it also has to do with the trade following what is going on in the “mind belt.” When I first started my business in 2005, clients rarely, to never, asked for fire pits.  Of course, most folks in our area, like myself, had a spot somewhere on their property where they made fires to enjoy, to make s’mores or to burn brush, usually encircled with some of our abundant local fieldstone dug from the “pit.” Starting a few years back, it seems that at least half of my clients want a fire pit. I myself have started recommending them as they provide an opportunity for a cool architectural feature in the landscape. I guess I am kind of feeding the fire for fire pits.

Fire pits come in many shapes, sizes, materials and styles. Given the rustic nature and abundance of rocks in the Catskills, having a pit lined with nice river rocks or chunky fieldstone is an obvious choice. There can be a serious drawback to this style in that our local stones are all pretty much sedimentary rock; they hold moisture and air and can explode when they get really hot.  I have seen it happen on more than one occasion.  In the construction of one of my first fire pit installations, we created a fairly substantial fire pit with a natural stone border.  I decided to put a very large stone in as the floor of the pit. We put the lining stones around it and cut the bluestone patio surrounding it to fit fairly tightly, and it looked great. A few weeks later I got an email from the client saying that the fire pit was “dynamite, figurative and literally,” with a photo of a lot of splintered rock and ash.

Needless to say, that was quite unsettling. In our search for a solution we eliminated a fire brick lining because the client didn’t like the look. We then settled on trying sand as a heat absorber but the client didn’t like the look of construction sand and wanted black sand. Real black sand is prohibitively expensive so we tried Black Diamond Blasting Sand which is very cheap, about $80 per 50 pound bag. It worked perfectly and I have been using it in all fire pits ever since. I have to give credit to my dear wife (who was begrudgingly working with me at the time) for coming up with this elegant solution.

After this first experience, we started making fire pits with Belgian blocks set vertically in pea gravel lining the perimeter, with the mandatory black diamond sand filling the interior. It has a really nice look and is fairly inexpensive. Most clients were very happy with the Belgian block fire pits, but one client complained that it was too smoky and was told that a fire pit with sides with air holes would eliminate the problem. Personally, I still think that they were using wet wood, but it motivated us to start offering a constructed fire pit using a fire brick liner with air holes and a stone veneer on the outside. They are very attractive and the coping provides a nice place to put your coffee cup and s’more supplies. Perhaps they also allow for better ventilation and less smoke, but I can’t promise that.

Recently we had the opportunity to work on a very modern house where one of our rustic fire pits would not be appropriate.  We ended up having bluestone pieces fabricated to create a 4 ½ foot diameter circle out of 6”x6” bluestone.  It is very modern and cool looking.  I don’t know if it has even been used yet, but I am sure that it will be.  The only thing it has in common with the others is, yes, the black blasting sand.  It is pretty amazing the way the ashes just melt into the sand so when you clean out the pit it still has a nice clean look!

All of the fire pits I have installed were designed to burn wood, but I see a lot of gas ones in the landscape and architecture magazines. I personally don’t understand having an outdoor fire that would not involve a little cursing and poking, having the smell of the wood and all of the other color associated with a campfire.

I just googled fire pits and chose “images.”  I have done this many times in the past looking for inspiration and I am still just blown away by the range, from the absurd to the sublime. Every shape, size and ridiculous idea you can think of can be found.  Here are a couple of the more amusing ones:

One more bit of advice: don’t put your fire pit too close to your trees or shrubs.  We had a fire pit for a long time in a spot on our lawn about 20 feet from the woodland edge and got very attached to it.  Of course, our “campfires” are more like bonfires, but eventually the trees on the woodland edge GREW and for several years we had brown scorched oak leaves on a prominent tree before we finally accepted that we had to move our fire pit.

And it burn burn burns, the burning ring of fire.~

 Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.