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Throughout the Winter, and into the Spring, if you have a wood burning fireplace, you have to clear out the ash to make room for new wood. If you’re anything like me, however, you know things on the Homestead often have multiple purposes. What’s the old saying? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? Finding a second life for your wood ash covers all three ‘R’s.
Winter is one of my favorite times of year — it’s the quiet Yin to Summer’s Yang. It can also be difficult for this Type A personality to take it down a notch, but I thoroughly enjoy sipping a homemade wine, or herbal beer, or tea in front of a fireplace surrounded by my family. To learn more, about home brewing, check out Herbal Academy’s short course below. Their videos and printables helped me to make my Lavender Lemon Balm beer, mead, and kimchi!
We keep a bucket just outside of the sliding glass door that leads to our living room, specifically for wood ash. Every few fires we have, we’ll empty the fireplace out into the bucket and close it up. By the end of a Winter we’ll have at least one 5 gallon bucket full, if not a second.
What others see as ash is full of treasure (get it?). Wood ash does not contain nitrogen, but contains phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron and other essential nutrients. It can be used as a substitute for lime, but you’ll need about twice as much.
Be very careful when handling wood ash, as it’s extremely caustic. Keep it away from children, pets, green leaves and bare skin.
If you’re looking for a second use for this valuable resource, I’ve collected the top 12 from myself and other Homesteaders. I personally haven’t made soap from wood ash yet, but it’s on my list of self-sufficiency skills to learn. Take a look at the ideas below and let me know what you think!
Chicken Coop for Dust Baths
This is my favorite use for wood ash, so I’ve listed it first! Chickens routinely give themselves dust baths to prevent mites and lice from moving in on them. If chickens are enclosed all day, or the ground is particularly wet (like in Winter!) and they can’t find a natural source of dust, a wood ash dust bath is the perfect alternative.
However, since wood ash is caustic, you need to mix it with a few other ingredients. To make a dust bath for your chickens, combine equal parts wood ash, builder’s sand, soil (free from fertilizers or chemicals), and diatomaceous earth (make sure it’s livestock quality).
They’ll also eat some ash, which contains calcium and doubles as good grit for their digestion.
A word of warning: make sure the ash has cool at least two days before putting it in your chicken coop, or giving it to your chickens. Your ash could be harboring a coal, and you don’t want a fire.
Garden To Raise pH
Before you add any wood ash to your soil, you need to know the pH of it. Buy a soil tester kit to find out the pH of your garden. Wood ash is extremely alkaline, so if your garden has a pH of 7 or lower, you can sprinkle a layer of wood ash on top. Avoid using around plants that prefer acidic soil, like blueberries, potatoes or azaleas.
Different wood ashes have different levels of calcium or liming agent. When tested in a lab, wood ash would raise the soil pH 25-59% as effectively as lime. This means be cautious with your ash. If you can, sprinkle a bit on your garden and wait a few weeks before testing your soil pH again.
Err on the side of caution. If you add too much wood ash to your garden you run the risk of tipping the scales and throwing it into the alkaline range. The more the pH rises above 7, the nutrients in the soil (potassium, phosphorus and manganese) become less available to the plants and they suffer for it.
Also remember that pH is a VERY sensitive number. A pH of 6 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 7, and one hundred times greater than a pH of 8! So add wood ash very cautiously.
Add to the Garden for Nutrients
Now that I’ve warned you of the dangers of over-ashing, we can talk about the nutrients wood ash adds to your garden. I recommend letting the pH of your soil govern how much wood ash you add, but you should also make note of how much of each nutrient you’re adding as well, so you know how to fertilize in the future.
Wood ash is roughly 20% calcium (wood ash can vary greatly based on the type of wood burnt), about 4% potassium, and less than 2% phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum and sodium. As a fertilizer, wood ash would be labeled 0-1-3 (N-P-K).
What does this mean for your plants? Potassium (K) improves overall root health and strengthens the very cells in plants.
A wood of caution here: do not plant seeds or seedlings until at least two weeks after you add the wood ash to your soil, or add it sparingly around already mature plants.
To Kill Weeds
While we’re talking about wood ash’s effect on plants, we can add it’s use in killing them! Or at least the ones we don’t want. As I’ve mentioned above, too much wood ash can change the pH of the soil drastically, which can kill the plants living in it. If this is what you want, spread away!
If you have a batch of kudzu, or thistle, or Japanese Knotweed, you can drench them in wood ash, which will kill it off. However, after you’ve changed the soil pH enough to kill off weeds, it’ll be barren to anything else, so use with caution.
Use as a De-Icer
A better use in Winter, wood ash can be used in your walkways or driveways instead of salt or kitty-litter. It does a great job of getting rid of the ice and snow. The dark color warms up with the sunlight and helps to melt the ice. The chunks of coal also give you enough grit to give you traction on the ice.
The only downside to this is it makes an ugly, muddy mess that you don’t want to track into your home.
Fill Mouse or Mole Holes
I especially love this one because it’s a non-toxic way to deter mice and moles from invading your lawn or barns. Fill the holes with wood ash and stamp it down. You may need to go back and revisit the holes and possibly refill them on a daily basis, but after awhile the varmints will get the idea and move on.
Kill Ant Mounds
In the same light as the option above, sprinkling a good amount of wood ash over an ant mound is a free, non-toxic way to rid your lawn of ants. Here in Virginia the ants we have are more of a nuisance than actual problem. In North Carolina, however, the fire ants were a real problem, and would make playing outside a real hazard for the kids.
Mixed with enough water to make a paste, wood ash can be used to polish silver or scrub brick. If your fireplace is dirty or ashy from burning, mix some ash with water and scrub it. It may take a little more elbow grease than commercial cleaners, but again, it’s free and non-toxic.
I haven’t, personally, had to put up any fencing, but when we do I’ll be sure to add some wood ash to the post holes. Adding wood ash to the post holes is supposed to protect it from insects.
Wood ash can be used to make your own wood glue, sealant, or pitch. Harvest sap from pine trees, melt it down over a low heat and mix in wood ash until you have a cake batter consistency. Use it while it’s still hot.
Lye For Soap
Like I said, I’ve never personally done this, but I’ve researched it a lot and listened to other Homesteaders to learn how. Once I do it I’ll make a how-to post on it. To make lye out of wood ash and water, you need to drill small (1/8 inch) holes in the bottom of a water-proof container. Traditionally this would be a wooden barrel.
Elevate the barrel enough to allow a receiving bucket to be placed underneath it. Line the bottom of the barrel with large and small river stones, or charcoal for filtration. Then fill about half of the barrel with straw. The stones and straw work as a filter, leaving the ash and charcoal in the barrel, but allowing water to run through and out.
Once your filter is built, lay on your ash. Then slowly pour warm rain water over the ashes. Be careful not to add so much water that the ash begins to float. Using warm water will help draw out more potash from your wood. Be patient, and allow the water to filter down through your barrel over a few days. What you have in the receiving barrel can then be mixed with animal fat to produce traditional lye soap.
Another one I haven’t tried yet because I just learned of it is to store tomatoes in buckets of ash. Supposedly tomatoes will last a long time, nearly fresh, in a bucket of wood ash. I will definitely be saving some ash for the summer to experiment with my home-grown tomatoes!
Have I missed anything? Have a funny story about using wood ash? Add it to the comments below!