Sunday, February 2, 2014

Garden Tips A to Z: ASHES

Welcome to the first post in my new series, "Garden Tips A to Z"!  Coming from a long line of old-fashioned farmers from here in Connecticut (on my Dad's side) and backyard gardeners from mountainous upstate New York (on my Mom's side), I've accumulated a wealth of great tips which are effective, easy, and often quite thrifty.

Do you have any other tips for using "Ashes"?  Share your tips in a comment!
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My family has used ashes in the garden for decades.  Ashes are truly miracle-workers in the garden, from soil amending to pest-management.  (And I like them especially because they are FREE!) 

d  Wood ashes can be saved from fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and camp fires.  Avoid BBQ briquette ash and ash from treated wood, since it contains additional chemicals.  After emptying a fireplace or wood stove, store ashes in a closed, metal garbage can away from buildings. Embers can continue to burn for up to a week (even in cold temperatures), can re-light, and catch fire to nearby buildings.  I've unfortunately heard of house-fires starting like this several times.  We keep our can in the driveway far away from buildings and trees.

d  Ashes are a rich and natural source of potash, a vital part of healthy garden soil.  Potash contains potassium, which plants constantly use, as well as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.  When plants are harvested, the potassium is removed and must be replaced in the soil.  Potassium-depleted soil leads to weak plants which have low yields, cannot absorb water effectively, and are more susceptible to disease and pests.  You can simply spread ashes in the garden before cultivating and work them in as you plant.  To use as a fertilizer, spread 5-10 pounds of ash per 100 square feet.

d  I was curious about the origins of the word "potash" so I did a little research.  The benefits of ashes have been known for thousands of years, as ancient Romans used them in their gardens. Many Native American tribes would conduct "controlled burns" on their garden plots to replenish the soil with ashes.  "Pot-ash" actually derives from an old technique where wood ashes were boiled in large pots to remove the potassium for fertilizer.  The word "potassium" was also derived from "potash".  During colonial times, American entrepreneurs cut and burned timber, turned it into potash, and exported huge amounts to Great Britain as fertilizer, as England lacked in timber at that time.  In fact, the first U.S. Patent, granted in 1790, was for "U.S. Patent #1: An improved method of making pot and pearl ash".

d  Ashes are alkaline and can increase the pH in your soil. (Alkaline-loving plants include lilac, peach, apricot, juniper, coneflower, phlox, and candytuft.)  However, most plants like slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6 to 6.5.  (A pH of 7 is neutral; anything below 7 is acidic and anything above 7 is alkaline.)  We balance out the pH by also tilling in aged manure and compost, which are on the acidic side.  Your Cooperative Extension Service can also help you test your soil to determine the pH and what amendments you should add.

d  Avoid using ashes around certain plants that prefer acidic soil: raspberries, azaleas, blueberries, and rhododendrons.   Do not use on potato patches since ashes can encourage potato scab disease.  Never leave a large pile of ashes near the garden as it can leach an unhealthy amount of salt into the soil.  (The OSU Extension Service has additional useful advice on using ashes in the garden.)

d  We've always had problems with slugs eating marigolds and other plants... unless we made circles of ash around their stems.  Slugs and snails will not cross an ash barrier.  Repeat after heavy rains.  As a bonus, the nutrients in the ash leach into the soil and fertilize your plants!  Ashes can also be dusted on rose bushes and other plants to kill aphids and spider mites.  Rinse off after 24 hours.

d  Chickens love a good dust bath in ashes!  As they flutter around in the ashes, it will clog the pores of lice, mites, fleas and kill the parasites.  Fill a large, shallow litter box or crate with ashes and set it in a place where it won't get wet.  Or, as my hens have created "bathing holes" in their run, I regularly refill the holes with fresh ashes.  Chickens may also eat bits of charcoal, which is fine and can actually absorb impurities from their digestive tracts.  As with using ashes in the garden, don't use ash from briquettes or treated wood as it contains dangerous chemicals.

d  Ashes can be used as traction on ice and snow.  We use it on our path to the chicken coop, which goes across the lawn. We don't want to use salt or sand on the grass, but ashes won't damage it.

d  Add ashes to the compost pile in layers as the pile is built up.  Microorganisms break down the compost most effectively at a neutral pH level, while compost tends to be acidic.  Ashes will help maintain a neutral pH.

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