Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Present For Nature

During this season of giving, it is only right to include the environment on your list of those that need a gift. While a tie, sweater, or a pair of socks is not appropriate for Mother Nature, the item that many individuals should consider bringing to our fields and forests is the ashes that are produced by wood stoves, fireplaces and outdoor wood boilers, as this material is one of the most precious commodities that our environment can use.

The off-white, powdery ash that is produced from the combustion of wood contains a variety of compounds that are beneficial to the soil, especially in the Adirondacks. Wood ash has been known for centuries to act as a fertilizing agent, and its importance in agriculture during the colonial era is well documented. The preparation of wood ash for commercial use was routinely conducted by treating the ash in large pots and creating a compound that was obviously labeled “potash”. (In 1790, Samuel Hopkins developed a more effective process for producing potash from wood ash and was granted the first patent. The U.S. Patent Office, a small government agency at the time, required final approval from both President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson for a patent.)

In the very early 1800’s, chemists isolated the main element in potash and named it potassium. Along with valuable potassium compounds, wood ash also contains a substantial amount of calcium carbonate, a compound that helps increase alkalinity. In the Adirondacks, naturally occurring tannic acid from conifers has resulted in soil low on the pH scale. Additionally, occasional precipitation from storms that cross the mid-west yield acid rain that has made soil conditions more acidic across our region. The acid soil in the Adirondacks creates challenging growing conditions for many forms of vegetation and can limit plant development.

Some homeowners regularly add lime to their lawns, flower beds and gardens in an attempt to “sweeten” the soil and make it more chemically attractive to the various grasses, flowers, shrubs and vegetables that they are cultivating. While lime neutralizes much of the acid in soil, so too can an appropriate amount of wood ash.

When placing lime, wood ash, or any fertilizing agent on a lawn or garden, it is important to avoid adding too much. Elevating the alkalinity level too much can have just as negative an impact as too high an acid content. This is why it is important to have soil periodically tested in order to determine the amount of chemicals needed for optimal plant growth.

Some forms of vegetation prefer acidic soils and increasing the pH towards a neutral reading can be harmful to these plants. However, most plants respond well to a small dose of wood ash, as it can both neutralize the effects of acid rain and add needed nutrients for healthy growth.

Another element in wood ash which plants crave is phosphorous. While this substance does not occur in as high a concentration as calcium carbonate or potash, enough still exists to be of value to all plants. Commercially produced fertilizers often contain much higher amounts of phosphorous, and the run-off from these products into streams and rivers has recently become a problem, as it has promoted excessive blooms of algae in Lake Champlain. This is why it is important to spread any fertilizing agent, including wood ash, at a time when a light rain shower causes the substance to soak into the soil rather than be washed away.

It is also imperative to use only the ash from wood fires and not from any other material. Stoves that are used to incinerate cardboard, wrapping paper and items with paint and ink are known to produce ash that contains chemical residues harmful to the environment. Because of the toxins created during their burning, such items should always be recycled rather than tossed into a fire.

A face cord of dry hardwood, like beech or sugar maple can yield about 20 pounds of ash. It is recommended by soil scientists that this amount be used over an area of approximately 1600 square feet, or a lot that measures 40 feet by 40 feet. If a lawn is bordered by a stand of pine or spruce trees that regularly drop needles into that space, more ash may be necessary to improve the quality of the soil.

Getting rid of the ash from a wood stove or fireplace is a chore, and hauling this material into a patch of woods, or a nearby field and carefully spreading it over the ground takes both time and effort. Yet nothing that is worthwhile in life is easy, and periodically helping to replenish the nutrient value of the soil is a great endeavor, especially during this season of giving. Have a Merry Christmas!

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

2 Responses

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I have several garden raised beds that are surrounded by heavily wooded mixed hard/softwood forest. Should I just sprinkle my ashes on top of the snow on my garden beds or should I stockpile it next to my compost area and spread it in the spring? Or could I just add the wood ash to my compost pile that contains kitchen vegetable material along with my chicken manure? Unfortunately I have not tested my garden soils but I filled them originally with horse/chicken manure, local top soil and gravel sand mix. Thanks for your help! Its just in time I have to empty my ash can!

  2. Tom Kalinowski says:

    Hi Elizabeth and Thank You for reading the Almanack. You can sprinkle your wood stove ashes anywhere. If you have a garden, that would be the best place to start. I just sprinkle mine out over the lawn, and in a mixed stand of hardwoods/softwoods that is near my house. It really doesn’t matter too much, as they all could use a dose of fertilizer, however you may want to avoid placing them in with the manure, as sometimes soil can be fertilized too much. Good Luck with the garden this spring.

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