As some of you know, my family and I recently moved into a new home, and one of the selling points of the new house is the abundance of fireplaces. There is a lovely large fireplace in our main living space, and a charmingly squat wood-burning stove in the back addition, where my husband and I share a desk, and from where I type this message. There is also a small brick fireplace, more of a modified firepit, on our patio. I cannot wait until the weather calls for all three to be blazing away.

However, with a fireplace, comes cleaning a fireplace, and the mess of sifting and scooping and bagging the ash. Personally, I would rather read Cinderella than be Cinderella, but the coziness of the fireplace makes it all worthwhile.

A friend was over yesterday with her children, and she is both an old hand with stoves and fireplaces and an avid and successful gardener. Over coffee, she was kind enough to give me a quick tutorial on how to use ash in the garden.

So, thanks to Harriet…

First and foremost, the technical and safety portion of the task – don’t burn wood inside that has been treated or coated, and obviously don’t use that ash in the garden. If you are unsure about the state of the timber, check with the supplier. When in doubt, leave it out (of the house) and throw away the ash. Hardwoods seem to be the best for garden use.

You need to pull on the Marigolds when you handle the ash; it’s not only dirty, but also it’s not the safest thing to expose your bare skin, or eyes, to for extended periods. As you will be distributing it to the garden while dry, put this task off if it is a windy day.

Last safety note: Do not add ash with nitrogen fertilisers such as ammonium sulfate, urea or ammonium nitrate. The chemical composition of the ash combines with these fertilisers in a very nasty way.

So, moving on to the benefits… wood ashes contain “potash”, which potassium-based salts and calcium, and a lesser amount of phosphorus, depending on the type of wood burned. They contain a good percentage of calcium carbonate, an ingredient in garden lime. This will affect (most likely raise) the pH of your garden. With a few exceptions, therefore, ash can go into and on top of vegetable gardens and flower beds. The additive is especially beneficial in areas where you have deciduous trees and shrubs, including fruit trees, vegetables (root crops), bulbs, annuals, perennials and deciduous vines.

Plants and places to avoid? Any acidic soil-loving plants as rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas, junipers and conifers. Also, stay away from your potatoes and blueberries.

On the other hand, tomatoes seem to benefit especially from soil that has been mixed with a small quantity of wood ash. I have been the beneficiary of bags and bags of Harriet’s home-grown tomatoes, so if this is her secret, I plan on stealing it for next year!


Francesca Biddle Weston

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