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Got Wood Ashes? Manage Them Safely and Put Them to Good Use

December 22, 2011

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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If you live in one of the nation’s cold regions and burn wood for some or all of your winter heat, you’ve got wood ashes.

Each cord of firewood you burn leaves you with 20 pounds of ashes or more, depending on your fuel source, heating appliance, and woodburning skill.

Safety first
As with all aspects of wood heating, use vigilance and common sense in handling and managing your ashes. Store them in a covered metal container set on dirt or concrete a few feet in all directions from any combustible surface.

Even though the ashes may appear cold, buried embers may remain live for days, even weeks.

Using your ashes
Our ancestors learned to make lye, a caustic cleaning agent, at least 5000 years ago by running water through wood ashes, eventually learning to combine it with animal fats and water to make soap. Some hardy folks still do

Early Americans used ashes or homemade lye water for scrubbing wood floors, laundering clothes and bed linens, and soaking fresh-killed hogs to help remove the hair. For centuries, potters and ceramacists have used wood ashes to create beautiful glazes. Take a look

Instead of putting them out with the trash, put your ashes to use in and around your home. A few suggestions for modern use:

  • Amend lawn and garden soil Wood 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 acid 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.

    Don’t apply wood ashes to your garden, lawn, or ornamental plantings without having a soil test. Apply roughly twice as much ash by weight as the recommendation for limestone. Don’t apply ashes around acid-loving plants such as blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas, and hollies. Soils already in the pH 6.0 to 6.5 (optimum for most lawns and garden plants) can handle 20 pounds, or one 5-gallon pail of hardwood ashes per 1000 square feet annually without raising the pH unduly.

    Wear eye protection, gloves, and a dust mask, and broadcast the ashes evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix them into the soil thoroughly before planting. Hose off any ashes that settle on actively growing plants to prevent burning the foliage.
     
  • Repel slugs Sprinkled lightly about susceptible plants, wood ashes will irritate slugs’ moist bodies and repel them. The repellent effect will disappear after rain or irrigation dissolves the ashes.
     
  • Melt ice, provide winter traction Sprinkled on walks and driveways, wood ashes will melt ice and provide traction. They don't work quite as well as salt, and they can be messy if you don’t take steps to prevent the ashes from getting tracked into the house. But they're free, and they won’t damage plants, animal paws, or paved surfaces.
     
  • Clean glass and metal Hard to believe, but hardwood ashes make fast work of grease, grime and tarnish on glass, silverware, ovenware, grills, and glass stovetops, as well as gummy residues left by stickers and labels. 

    Dip a damp cloth in wood ashes, or make a thick paste of ashes and a little water, scrub lightly with a cotton cloth, and rinse away with plain water and another cloth. Wear gloves for these scrubbing tasks to avoid caustic burns.
     
  • Reduce or remove oil stains on asphalt, stone, and cement Sprinkle ashes on oil or grease spills, rub in with a cloth, and sweep up. Repeat if necessary.

Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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Comments

Ongoing argument about

By jerry wynne

Ongoing argument about fireplaces in our historical past. When I talk to re-creators at historical sites they all say the same thing. Fireplaces wre NOT used primarily as a heat source. Most fireplaces were used for cooking and the heat they gave off was a bonus but wood was way more important to cooking than heating. Was this true of the average home as well. Tks in advance JErry

The traditional fireplace is

By Margaret Boyles

The traditional fireplace is a notorious heat sink, Jerry, sending more heat up the chimney that it radiates out into the room. 

It can also spew smoke and spit sparks into the living space. 

But folks who love fireplaces have found modern materials and technologies that avoid these problems. Here's a "tehnical rant" from a fireplace afficianado.

Living in a state that's 85 percent forested, I'm a huge fan of wood heat. I live in a house heated exclusively by wood. In the winter, we cook with wood (kitchen cookstove) and dry our clothes on racks set up by the woodstoves. In spring, we spread the ashes in the gardens to raise the pH of our soil.

For the sake of efficiency, safety, and versatility, I much prefer an EPA-certified stove that's sized, located, and installed by a professional. Mos of them are sleek and attractive, and many have glass doors that allow fire-viewing.

Can charcoal ash from my BBQ

By Alisa

Can charcoal ash from my BBQ be used in the same way?

Experts recommend using only

By Margaret Boyles

Experts recommend using only hardwood ashes from wood-fired heating or cooking appliances in horticiultural setting. 

I wouldn't risk using your charcoal ashes in and around lawns or gardens, Alisa. Don't use them to make soap, either. You don't really know what chemical additives or other materials might have gone into the production of your BBQ briquettes. 

 

ash solution is a good

By Anonymous ¤ MUTUA C

ash solution is a good conductor of electricity it can also store electric charges and be used in batteries

Interesting! New information

By Margaret Boyles

Interesting! New information for me.

I found this short YouTube link describing the process of making a small battery with  wood ashes and charcoal: bit.ly/16bD7A8http://

Here's a longer video, which describes making homemade batteries using lye (from ashes) as the alkaline electrolyte: bit.ly/16bD7A8

article

By D Whitlock

Good to know, Margaret! I am using my fireplace more now to save on heating oil cost. I will definitely try some of these!
The description of your life sounds really interesting!

Thank you!

By my94fb

Margaret,
Wonderful article. My grandmother recently shared stories with me about her family using their wood ashes for many of the same things you describe. I have been adding mine to our garden this year (after I did a soil test) and plan to have a little fun trying to make some soap while it's still too cold to go outside & play. Thanks again!

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