Since man discovered it, fire has been a vital source of warmth and comfort. So if the best it does in your backyard is scorch hot dogs on the grill, it might be time to return to the romance of flame.

"Fire has always been something we gathered around as a community," says Michael Zimber, the president of the functional sculpture company Stone Forest. "It is a real focal point for gathering, and [watching fire] is something like watching waves - it has an almost trance-like or calming effect on people." If you can't quite reach nirvana, you can at least fulfill a longing to brown some marshmallows with a backyard fire vessel.

1) Plan ahead

"The best thing is when you are remodeling your patio or outdoor environment is to plan the whole thing from the get-go," Zimber says. That way you won't run into problems with septic or other underground systems if you decide to run a gas line. And before you strike any matches, be sure to check fire department and neighborhood codes.

2) Know your options

The Santa Fe, N.M.-based Stone Forest creates architectural sculptures, and their fire vessels are sculpted by hand from a single block of granite. Stainless steel, cast iron or copper bowls are available at local retailers of all sizes. You can choose between a gas and wood-burning vessels.

3) Take control

If you want something quick, easy and permanent, you can take the do-it-yourself approach. Head over to a hardware store to get landscaping blocks and a steel ring.

"I had seen different types of fire pits at the store, but I didn't really like them. I wanted something that was more permanent in the landscape," says 46-year-old Debbie Graney. She figured building her own would be "easy enough" and decided to do it with the same type of stones she'd used earlier to build a retaining wall. Graney and her boyfriend took photos of their construction project and eventually made a slideshow over 50,000 people have watched on YouTube.com.

4) Keep it simple

Graney's project, which doesn't use mortar or expensive bricks, might be the simplest fire pit how-to. She simply dug the trench, placed the brick circle, filled the inside with pea stone and put some flat stones on top. She couldn't be more pleased with the result.

"It adds a character and warmth, and it is just attractive," Graney says. "It's something people like to look at … when you are having a party people love to gather around a fire pit."

5) Think safety first

Graney says she didn't want to build the pit too close to her house or too close to the flower garden, so she chose a spot away from these high traffic areas. And since most of her yard is wooded, she was sure to build where sparks couldn't blow into the trees. Scott Cohen, of the Yucaipa, Calif.-based Concrete Network, suggests building at the edge of your property if you have a gorgeous lot for people to see.

6) Consider the inside view

Think about how things will look from indoors; it is possible to enjoy the fire from a living room window. Zimber says a fire pit can really go anywhere, as long as it is integrated with its surroundings.

© CTW Features

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Flower Power

By Genevieve Knapp

CTW Features

If your silver bells and cockle shells are wilted and bug-eaten, maybe you should give marigolds or zinnias a try. For a novice gardener or a rueful plant-killer, planting easy-growing flowers is a good way to start creating a luscious garden space. Bob Hill, a staff horticulturalist for Park Seed in Greenwood, S.C., suggests that new gardeners start out with one or two varieties of seed, and then add new kinds each year.

"I am just fascinated, and I have been since I was a kid, to watch a little seed germinate under the right temperature and moisture conditions," Hill says. It is a challenge to watch it grow, mature and flower, and it gives self-satisfaction to know that I, along with nature's help, have grown that plant." Annuals will bloom 75-85 days after they germinate, so if you start your seedlings in April or mid-May they will flower. Here are Hill's ideas for five robust annuals to try:

1) Marigolds: These golden, orange or yellow flowers have a long flowering period and grow everywhere but the coldest climates.

2) Zinnias: Sun-loving Zinnias bloom in many colors and they attract butterflies. They won't really grow until temperatures are above 50 degrees.

3) Blanket flowers:Blanket flowers are dense colonies of red, yellow-rimmed flowers up to four inches across and two to three feet tall.

4) Cosmos or Mexican Aster: This bushy two-foot-tall plant produces masses of colorful blooms from midsummer until autumn.

5) Gazanias: Rosette-formed pastel or bold-colored Gazania blooms tolerate poor soil, dry climates and heat.

© CTW Features

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