Ashes to Ashes

February 26,2011

Warmer days do appear to be on the horizon, but many of us are still warming up next to the fire as our thoughts begin to wander to outside.  For those who have fireplaces they also begin wondering what to do with the buckets of ash that have accumulated all winter long.


The simple solution is to combine the two (the ash and outside, not your thoughts because after being cooped up all winter you certainly don’t need any help in that department).


Wood ash is an age-old fertilizer that works wonders on acidic soil, as well as certain plants, and is a perfect ingredient for your compost pile.  According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, the average wood ash contains roughly one percent phosphorus, five percent potassium and trace amounts of various other elements that are beneficial to plants.

Spring fertilizer


Many people are hesitant to use ash in their gardens or yards because they think it’s an old-wives tale or that it will make the soil acidic — which is actually the opposite since it’s an alkaline and a great substitute for limestone.  Others do the extreme opposite and dump a bucket full of ash in their raised bed and then wonder why the roses have suddenly shriveled up and died.


If used properly, wood ash will add essential nutrients to the soil that are organic and will also act as a pest and insect deterrent, as well as neutralize acidic soils (but don’t forget, azaleas’, rhododendrons and hydrangeas LOVE the acidic soil).


When the soil water comes in contact with potassium in the ash it combines to create an alkaline substance commonly referred to as “lye.”  According to my organic chemist peeps, this substance is “KOH” or “potassium hydroxide” and it’s what reacting in the ground to raise the soil’s pH and make it less acidic.


Gardening, like many things in life, is always about finding that happy medium.  Cooperative Extension recommends getting your soil tested before you turn your backyard into your own personal Pompeii, which they’ll do for you if you bring them a sandwich bag with some dry soil and $3.


“The general rule is that two pounds of wood ashes is equal to one pound of ground limestone in regulating soil pH.  This means you can add twice as much ash as the recommended amount of lime,” according to the Cooperation Extension office.  “In order to avoid problems of excess salinity, alkalinity, and plant nutrient availability, you should limit the application of ashes to five pounds per 100 square of feet of soil each year.”


So in other words: Spread the love around!  Don’t just walk outside of your garage door on a cold, windy 39-degree morning and fling a bucket of ash across the lawn just because some landscaper said you could (besides, you don’t want your neighbor thinking they parked next to Mount St. Helens).


I suggest that if you’re a little unsure, just go with a light dusting around you garden beds and even your lawn.  The best time to put down ash is while there’s still snow cover around, but you can still fertilize with ash after the white stuff’s melted all away.  You shouldn’t apply ash to germinating plants or directly to roots because you can chemically burn the plants.


Wash off the leaves and needles of any plants you apply ash to.


As I mentioned, all your excess wood ash makes a fine addition to any compost pile and it really doesn’t get any more organic than that folks, as long as you’re not using the ash from burnt garbage or plastic (or the occasional urn).


If you’re looking to get your garden soil tested, then drive over a sample (remember, sandwich bag) to the Albany County Cooperative Extension at 24 Martin Road, P.O. Box 497, Voorheesville and fork over the three bucks.


It’s well worth it … and if the yard and garden get toasted and turn brown again this year, then you can use the soil sample to prove that your neighborhood has been sabotaging you all along!

Categories: Lawn and Garden


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