Wood ash is a great source of calcium and potassium, also providing some phosphorus and lots of essential trace elements. A 12-quart pail full of fine wood ash can be spread over at least 100 square feet of garden soil. Make certain that the ash is cool before spreading, especially if the soil is covered with dry leaves.
Wood ash should never be stored in cardboard, paper or plastic containers. Always place wood ash in a metal container and store under cover. Most of the calcium in wood ash is in the oxide form. This means that when the wood ash is mixed with water or when water is added, the mixture will become very hot.
The best way of spreading wood ash is to wear gloves and a dust mask. The ash is very powdery, and the slightest wind will carry the dust. Breathing in the dust can be very irritating. I always spread my wood ashes with the wind to my back. Using a trowel or small shovel, spread the ashes in a half circle as you back away from the area. Don’t worry about spreading a few pieces of partially burnt wood.
I divide my garden into three sections so that I apply ash only once every four years. Frequent repeat applications of wood ash over the same area can cause a sudden rapid increase in soil pH that can seriously affect plant growth.
If you allow wood ash to remain in your stove all summer, you might find it hardened due to having absorbed moisture from the air. If this is a problem, simply place the chunks of solidified ash in a five-gallon metal pail and crush them with the head of an ax, sledgehammer or the blunt end of a timber before spreading.
Thinking ahead: Growing potatoes under straw
Q: You wrote some time ago that you use unfinished compost around your potatoes to repel Colorado potato beetles. I do not currently have any compost. Do you think large amounts of straw would accomplish the same purpose, adding the straw as the plants grow?
A You can grow potatoes under a bed of straw, and they do quite well, though you might have a mouse problem. Mice love to eat potatoes. Get yourself a good cat.
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