Dan Hinkley on Heating the Great Outdoors


Guest Rant by Dan Hinkley (as promised



We have been rather sun-starved in the Pacific Northwest this spring, setting a record for the
longest stretch of sub-75F since records have been kept.  It has been sometimes disheartening, though
the chicories, lettuces, peas and beets are happy.  But tonight it is sunny and warm(ish) and I will
not rail against the weather.  It is,
after all, pointless and irrational; rather like neocons screaming at the
cycles of the moon.

However, there
some things I want to get off my chest. 
I lift weights three days a week. 
I make protein smoothies.  It is a
big chest.  Bear with me. 

I was recently invited, kindly enough, to a rather celebrated landscape.  It
was that type of garden that lots of money can make, though this one was sincere
and kindly attended to.  I was entranced until we made our way towards the
heated pool.  It was a gloriously sunny day and perhaps too hot for my comfort
zone (meaning that of 56F and raining).  At this point, my host insisted on
demonstrating a tres-cool-pool-side terrace heater.  I walked away quickly so he
would simply shut the g-damn thing off – a feat more deftly accomplished than
plugging the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier that day, I had been treated to lunch at a very nice restaurant.  In
their landscape, as a means of welcome, was a roaring, dramatic tempest of
flames. It was too warm to sit in the sun, so we asked for shaded seating.  At
our table, in the shadows, we were all slow-roasted by a propane torch.

What the
hell?  Experts  now consider outdoor heaters to be the most inefficient use of energy on the
Yet restaurants are welcoming customers to outdoor terraces by heating the out-of-doors. 
After all, we just love that toasty feeling of warmth, don't we?  Pelicans and herons drenched in oil can
attest.  How about getting your ass out
of the chair and putting on a sweater?  While
you are at it,  don't bitch to me about

Worse still
is the embarrassingly indulgent popularization of fire-as-entertainment.  I recently perused a nationally respected
design publication.  I should not mention
it's name, but its initials begin with Garden Design.  There were no less than six large
advertisements for  garden-fire systems,
and no less than three garden features that promoted the frivolous consumption
of fossil fuels. In my book, a designer or landscape architect that has to rely
on non-sustainable theatrics to make their work interesting should instead
be designing padded toilet seats.

Am I without
guilt? Absolutely not.  We have a
greenhouse that we maintain with propane during the coldest temperatures of the
winter.  We start our vegetable garden
there,  and harvest produce from it
every month of the year.  I also consume
electricity to circulate water through our landscape; from this system has
arisen a healthy population of frogs and a remarkably diverse spectrum of bird
life.  Still, I attempt to justify. These
practices are consumptive and assuredly someday will be considered part and parcel
to the abject disregard of energy use by our contemporaries.

Yet, the
flagrant burning of fossil fuels for our sissified comfort and entertainment is
as transparent and troubling as it gets. 
It is evocative of a flabby mind and fat bottom.  It is like hanging a mirror in the garden and
then wondering why birds are found dead beneath.  As gardeners, we should be better. 

Photo credit: Living Water Aeration.


  1. And the heating/cooling of greenhouses for the annuals industry?
    Chemicals/fertilizers/plastics/soils used in the annuals industry. Trucking plugs, trucking finished annuals to garden centers then gardeners drive to the garden center to drive new annuals home. Oh my.

    Landscapes NEEDING annuals are failures.

    Self-seeding annuals aren’t good enough?

    Thanks for that fire-in-a-fountain pic. Looks like a garden in a Bewitched episode circa 1966.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this post. There are ways to have a beautiful garden without being wasteful, like reducing the usage of annuals, as Tara mentioned.

    Personal pet peeves of mine are sprinklers that are on all night watering ridiculously manicured lawns, washing the pesticides into the stream across from my house. (That’s where our drinking water comes from, you fools!) Also in my neighborhood, every evening at 5pm on the dot, the husbands drag out the tricked out tractor mowers (with deluxe cupholder) and spend all of the early evening driving back and forth across already mowed areas to get the “lines.”

  3. What would we say about Cave Men if they still existed and their use of fire? Ah…..they would get an “indigenous rights exemption” to continue their millenia old customs. We let tribes run casinos, smoke dope, govern themselves, sell tobacco and fuel below cost. We let Mexicans sneak across the border into Texas unabated because it used to be their land. We let low life crooks off the hook because they did not get milk and cookies at home, as well we pass underperforming students so as not to stigmatize them. But we get to heat our greenhouses in the winter because we grow food in it and start seedlings. It is alright for you to use enrgy but not me to have my hot tub and fire pit.
    This is the Al Gore effect. I know how to use energy better than you so I get to use it how I see fit.

    The TROLL

  4. Okay, Dan, you had me at “neocons screaming at the cycles of the moon.”

    I have LONG considered you the punkest of all garden writers and could never believe that magazines whose initials might be Garden Design would actually publish somebody so spiky and funny.

    I’m very happy to have you here!!!

  5. Thanks. Superfluous use of fuel angers me more than ever, as I received an email that one of the best galleries here in NOLA is closing, because the fumes are affecting the health of one owner. It is not every night, but some evenings when BP is burning off oil, it stinks outside, one night sending some neighbors and us hacking back into our houses. Yes, come visit, we’ve had several friends come recently to help with tourism spending, you can still have a good time, but use finite resources wisely.

  6. And the ‘eternal flame’ of JFKs Arlington memorial?

    In the Republic of Cameroon, village elders maintain a burning log, continuously, and ceremoniously.

    We have always been entranced by the eternal flame. In our culture, of flash and superficiality, it makes sense that this would transform into something rather easy to dismiss as meaningless and wasteful.

    Contemporary ‘internal combustion’ is the modern, industrial transformation of our fascination with eternal combustion. It is so utterly a part of our common industrialized existence, that it has lost its spiritual essence.

  7. Ohio restaurants/bars have outdoor heaters because of the ban on indoor smoking. They all have added on patios to have an area for smokers. They heat them in the winter, and have fans in the summer.

  8. Thanks for the great post. I live in the PNW too, and had to fire up my woodstove for heat a lot later into Spring than ever before (that’s my only form of heat). Mea culpa. But I have never seen anything like the “fire fountain” in the picture; that just seems absurd.
    Some of my favorite restaurants in Portland have outdoor eating areas with propane heaters, but they all wait for the customer to ask for the heat to be turned on before they do it. Also, they tend to be in converted houses with limited indoor seating. They are very nice in the Summer when it warms up, and probably save on air conditioning by having outdoor seating exposed to the breezes.

  9. Great post, Dan, and a thoughtful response by Tara re commercial production of annuals. The Troll seems to have got mixed up about renewable resources ie. wood, and non-renewable resources namely oil.

  10. Oh, I sooo agree with you. It’s right along with 6 year olds in strollers. Can’t they walk?

    I was on a Garden Conservancy tour and saw a house with an outdoor fireplace in the walls of the house, plus electric heaters. The happy hosts would face the fire, being toasted by the heaters, back to the garden. Why bother? Stay inside and put on a video of a fire crackling ;->

  11. frank@nyc, a comparison between a campfire and the ridiculous vanities outlined in the article is specious. The elitist and degenerate mentality that one may squander resources as long as they can afford it is what’s under fire here.

  12. While I admit this post was amusing, of all the sustainability issues in the gardening world today, is this one REALLY rant worthy? I design gardens in a part of the country where outdoor living is year round, and while fire features may get editorial or ad space in high end design magazines looking for fresh content, very few homeowners actually ask for this. McMansion gardens like the one you visited are often filled with all kinds of environmental excess – was this truly the most egregious offense you saw?

    Maybe I’m confused by the photo, but you seem to be lumping private and public ornamental fire features together with restaurants that provide outdoor heaters to make the dining experience more pleasant. How is that different from providing air conditioning for indoor diners on a hot day? For the record, if I asked my restaurant server to adjust the temperature, I’d probably be less than thrilled to be told to “get off my ass and get a sweater.”

    Finally, I can’t help but ask, were you more annoyed at the energy consumption, or the fact that you personally prefer cooler temperatures and disdained the additional heat?

  13. Interesting post to say the least. This argument can be used against so many other “offences” that we all commit on a regular basis in our garden. Do you use rock phosphate or greensand in your garden? Did you know they are open pit mined and not renewable? Do you use peat products? It’s not sustainable either and the harvesting of that destroys delicate ecosystems. Instead of saying “get a sweater!” I could tell you “move to a better climate!” regarding you using propane to heat your greenhouse in the winter. Of all the unsustainable things us gardeners do, I don’t find this one to be the most offensive.

  14. Great post.I was pulled into that beautiful fountain for a second and than I saw the fire.Like fingernails on chalkboard.Disconcerting and absolutely ridiculous.

  15. Thanks for sharing Dan, am reading this post with interest..56 degree should be cozy enough..I guess you must be really afraid of heat:)

    Agreed with Tara & Kate’s comment on the annuals part. You don’t have to be rich to design your garden..for me, garden is a personal zone. It’s a place for your family, friends, and yourself or even guests to enjoy..we should keep it simple and green, but not over exaggerating.

    Jay Chua
    Publisher, PorchSwingSets.com

  16. Wow! Like reading fan mail from a bunch of groupies. Let’s all say it together shall we: DAN-TASTIC! Yea!
    I think Susan Morrison has the right idea. I personally can find many other more rational situatons to complain about than propane patio heaters and gas burning fire pits. The current trend toward replacing wood burning stoves and/or fireplaces with gas and propane is a much healthier solution to a urban household and garden. Burning wood is very bad for air quality and endangers many people suffering with breathing disorders. Camp fires often are the cause of terrible fires that consume thousands of acres, often with homes that are lost. I can’t remember the last time a huge fire was started by a propane patio heater, enlighten me.
    The situation in the gulf is horrific. But to stop the world’s addiction to oil based technology will take more than shutting off a few greenhouses and outdoor heaters. To change the world we will need a new approuch, a lifestyle that everyone can embrace. Telling someone to put on a sweater isn’t going to cut it.
    So, tell me more of this big chest of yours…

  17. Damn it. Your telling me the line of mirrors I have hanging on my fence DON’T attract birds? What the heck? Can’t I at leaast use them as a mini solar farm?

    I’m tired of turning on DIY or HGTV and it’s all about creating outdoor rooms. Once you get that outdoor room, it’s not long before you want screens to keep the bugs out. Then you want windows to keep the chill out, then you install an energy-sucking window a/c unit. And who tosses throw pillows and blankets on the loungers? Sets up dinnerware? How long before birds poop on it or the wind tosses it all down the street? If I didn’t have four seasons I’d never appreciate any of them–down with outdoor pillows and fireplaces.

  18. Kaviani,

    But I disagree -the question is not specious.

    “Worse still is the embarrassingly indulgent popularization of fire-as-entertainment.”

    This is the statement that led me to campfires. Campfires I have sat around rarely provided the warmth that some polartec could have, generally functioning as an audio-visual focal point for the evenings story telling or just plain mesmerization.
    Campfire has become part of our wilderness theater. And fire as entertainment, c’mon -can we say Hollywood.

    Ever since class materialized in the human community, there were those who, however elitist and degenerate, were capable of paying for those things that represented their social status and promoted their proximity to the divine (which could be represented in the form of fire beheld).

    That said, I’ve gone and turned off my sidewalk heater. The larger question is where is our common ground so that we can draw lines we can all live with. Snarky rants about silly fire fountains that 99.99% of us don’t have just makes me want say gimme a break. The real problem snags us all.

    If anything, the rant is specious.

  19. Great rant, Dan. It reflects the general frustration I feel towards our overly consumptive society, and our willingness to point fingers in every direction, except towards our selves.

  20. I totally agree… and yet there is a little pyromaniac inside of me who remembers weekend camping trips as a child tending the fire and feeling connected to something “real”. But perhaps making a fire to cook some food and stay warm for a few hours, using wood from trees that grew in the present (as opposed to ones that stored their carbon in the ground millions of years ago) isn’t quite the same thing as burning fossil fuels just to watch them burn.

    I think future generations will look back upon us with wonder and disdain. Of course that assumes that the planet will still be able to sustain human life a few generations from now, which I’m not at all certain about…

    Nice rant, thanks!

  21. Thanks for deconstructing the outdoor heating phenomenon. If it is cold outside, you put on a sweater or a jacket. If you absolutely must sit out there, take a mug of tea to warm up with, and a blanket.

    The thing that offends me about outdoor fireplaces and those heatlamp things outside at eateries, and the like, is that for starters it is a waste of resources, and secondarily it imposes civilization into a context it doesn’t need to go. I watched a home and garden show on ION network a few weeks ago and these ladies were designing this outdoor porch with a fireplace and this centerpiece with a huge hurricane candle, and hey, you can add all these seasonal things around the candle as the seasons change… like pine cones and potpourri and the like, and I’m thinking, screw the fireplace if I’m going to have that dangerous candle torch thing in the middle of the room that isn’t really a room because it’s a porch.

    If I want fire outside, I fire up my baby Weber and roast a crapload of peppers to take advantage of the dying coals, after I grill various things for dinner and for the next couple meals.

    And no, this is not a debate on how indigenous peoples deal with fire out of doors, it is about overtechnologized overconsumers being overindulgent.

  22. On come on. I think it was Johnson who lamented that watching a joint roast over an open flame was much more convivial than cooking it in an oven. If something has been popularized since the 18th century, there might be a deeper reason.

  23. But can’t we agree that fire seduces and entrances no matter which culture or class one belongs to?

    To capture it and display it -that goes way back, no matter what we may feel or reason about garish displays today.

  24. So, what’s a better solution to having a small intimate gathering with friends over a small firepit in my garden?

    How ’bout a controlled campfire where we can cook the salmon we caught and roast marshmallows?

  25. As a landscape contractor, I have seen heat and fire on multiple projects in the last couple of years.
    Usually the fire/ heat is on the multiple unit projects – apartments, condos, etc. a a shared amenity, just like pools, bocce ball courts, built in grills, exercise rooms,fountains and the like. If that’s what it takes to convince people to live in higher density places, I think it’s just fine. If not for the fact that I’m an avid gardener and have large dogs, I wouldn’t mind having all those things at my service.

Comments are closed.