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.
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.