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Using Wood Ash Wisely

Question. Hi Mike: Is there a way touse fireplace ash that would be beneficial to my garden or lawn? Ifnot, what is the best way to dispose of the stuff?
            ---Chris in Berwyn, PA (formerly Newport, RI)

Mike: Like many of my neighbors here in Eastern Carolina, I have a'burn pile' where I dispose of storm debris, old trimmed branches(mainly pine and oak) and all manner of other garden/yard items. My question is: Is the leftover ash good for anything?  I know betterthan to put it in the compost pile. Thanks,
            ---Doug inBeaufort, NC

Answer. Thank you, Doug. As younote, I've long cautioned gardeners not to include anything other thanvery small quantities of wood ash in a compost pile—a little of thishighly alkaline material goes a long way. But those of us withnaturally acidic soils can (and should) use much larger amounts on ourlawns and gardens—as a substitute for lime.

Before we get to that, however, I'd like to take a moment to try andpry your incendiary little fingers away from those piles. Yes, we guyslove to set stuff on fire—especially in the name of 'yardwork'. Butsuch burning fouls the air, adds greenhouse gases we don't need, andwastes lots of nutrients. Pile up your "garden/yard" items and they'llturn into nice compost, especially with lots of leaves in the mix.Stack the branches on the outskirts of your property to provide habitatfor toads, birds and other beneficials. (And you'll find a surprisingamount of compost at the bottom of those piles after a few years.) Ifyou can't go completely 'burn turkey', consider cutting back to onesmall bonfire a year to satisfy your inner firebug, and get better useout of the rest of that wood.

And good quality hardwood ashes—that means no ashes from BBQ grills,cardboard, plywood, painted, or pressure treated wood—do have realagricultural use. (Softwoods have a lot less value, but you shouldn'tbe burning soft wood in a stove or fireplace anyway.) The bestinformation on how to properly utilize the valuable material in woodash is contained in a couple of great farm-scale articles from theGeorgia Extension Service and the government of Alberta's department ofAgriculture, Food and Rural Development. We'll post links to thosearticles at this end of this Q of the Week for those of you who wantall the details.

To help put the advice into garden-size perspective, we turned to JuliaGaskin, a Land Application Specialist for the University of GeorgiaExtension Service who recently updated their wood ash informationarticle. She explains that ash from good quality hardwoods contains avery nice amount of potassium; at least 3% by weight. Also known aspotash, this is the "K" in the fabled N-P-K scale of plantnutrients—the Dow Jones of Horticulture! Potash improves root healthand strengthens the very cellular structure of plants, helping themresist all kinds of stresses.


You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath