How to put wood ashes to work for you

  • Wednesday, March 6, 2013 8:08pm
  • Life

By James and Morris Carey

If you burn wood, for warmth, cooking or whatever, the ashes that result can be unbelievably useful. And that’s a good thing because a cord of firewood will leave behind approximately 20 pounds of ash.

By the way, the use of wood ashes is not new. More than 5,000 years ago, people made lye by running water through ashes. Lye was combined with animal fat to make soap. It worked pretty well, too. So well that lye water was used for scrubbing wooden floors and laundering clothing.

Nearly 50 centuries later, we grew up using homemade lye soap that our great-grandfather sold in his grocery store.

There are tons of other uses for wood ashes in and around your home. Here are a few:

Ashes contain calcium, potassium and a variety of trace minerals important for plant health. They also work well as a lime substitute to raise the pH of acidic soils.

However, unlike limestone, which can take six months or more to change soil pH, wood ash is water-soluble and changes the soil pH rapidly.

Apply roughly twice as much ash by weight as the recommendation for limestone. And don’t apply ashes around acid-loving plants such as blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas or hollies.

Wear eye protection, gloves and a dust mask, and spread the ashes evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix them into the soil thoroughly. Hose off any ashes that settle on actively growing plants to prevent burning the foliage.

Caution: Don’t apply wood ashes to your garden, lawn or ornamental plantings without first having a soil test.

Wood ashes will irritate a slug’s moist body and send it running. Sprinkle the wood ash lightly around all susceptible plants. The repellent effect will disappear after rain or irrigation dissolves the ashes.

You can get traction on icy walks and driveways with a sprinkle of wood ash. Wood ash will melt ice and provide a safer walking surface.

Ash doesn’t work quite as well as salt, and ashes tracked into the house can make a mess. So, it’s important to take steps to prevent the ashes from being tracked into the house.

But ashes are free, and they won’t damage plants, animal paws or paved surfaces, or cause rust.

For tips from James and Morris Carey, go to or call the listener hot line, 800-737-2474, ext. 59. The Careys are also on KRKO (1380-AM) from 6 to 10 a.m. every Saturday.

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