This whiskey barrel bottom photographed by Granny Artemis with nothing growing in it yet sits beside the rainbarrel & in front of the red-twig dogwood, near our back stoop. The primary groundcover is Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum "White Nancy") which has white flowers in Spring & Summer, remaining colorful even when not in bloom thanks to the silver & green leaves. It spreads rapidly & enjoys the shade. In the far back corner you can also make out a creamy yellow-leaved "Lady's Eardrops" or Sharpton's fushcia, a hardy unfushcia-like fuschcia with pink blooms for summer & fall.
Pros & Cons of Fireplace Ashes
We had visitors for a week & one of 'em felt the need to feel useful & trumped up chores for himself. When my back was turned he cleaned out the fireplace box & threw the ashes in one of the gardens, declaring it to be a healthy & good thing he had done for our soil. I said, "Golly, thanks," but I was thinking, gack, wadda mess, right there beside the back stoop too. When our visitors were gone I cleaned off & tossed what I could, & turned under what remained.
It's becoming well known that fire can be a healthful part of the lifecycle of grasslands & forests, plants springing back healthier than before there was a burn-through leaving ashes. So too fireplace ashes contain potasium which can be a good natural fertilizer. Ashes contain so much calcium they have the same benefits as lime, though only if you really need the pH levels of the soil raised. Ashes are very alkaline & can be less than beneficial to rhodies, azaleas, madronnas, magnolias, evergreen trees, & anything else that wants the soil to the acid side & almost everything native of the Northwest does prefer acidic soil. Used with selective care, ashes can be good for a lot of veggies & tomatoes & grasses. They most certainly shouldn't be added willynilly to gardens month in month out, however, & here are some reasons why:
If you've burned any old pressure-treated wood the ashes will likely contain arsenic & so are hazardous. If you've burned any paper printed with vibrant colors, some of the metals in the inks may well be toxic. Painted wood can be a danger too. Ashes from charcoal burning barbeques are toxic from the bonding agents in commercially made charcoal, so never scatter ashes from a barbecue pit. Pressed wood, prestologs, cardboards, & plywood all have bonding agents, perservatives, & glues that can make the ashes toxic. Lots of miscellaneous papers may well be heavily chemicalized in the manufacture process. A little plain newsprint with black inks (which are no longer petroleum based, but are usually soy-based & harmless) is fine if the majority of the ash is from natural wood; but if the ash were primarily burnt paper, this will also have bonding agents & recycle-bleaches that can add toxic salts to a compost or garden.
Composting fanatics use woodstove ashes most gladly, but will warn against over-use not only for the possibility of toxic salts & poisons from burning chemicalized materials, & the threat of excessive alkalinity from using too many ashes too often, but also point out that an unexpected lingering coal can set the pile to smouldering.
If you haven't been totally in control of what gets burned, & unless while in control you've been careful about what gets reduced to ash, then you should regard the ashes as possibly toxic & not use them in your yard. But good clean wood ashes can be used as a healthful fertilizer, & Victorians used potash derived from ashes the way moderns use mined & powdered limestone. The trace minerals lingering in the ash are exactly the ones the wood had taken from the ground when still a living tree, & returning that the soil is superior to limestone which lacks the sundry trace minerals. Still, like any other fertilizer, ash can be over-used or abused.
Even healthful ashes are often added to gardens & composts in an unhealthy way. No one would take a bag of lime & potasium & dump it thick around the yard, then get another bag of it & throw that pretty much in the same place a week later. No one would add that much lime around plants that are harmed by high pH soil. But many don't even consider what fireplace or stove ashes actually contain, & think nothing of putting a bucketful of ashes in a small area to get gummed up in the rain, then do it again a week later as soon as another bucket of ash accumulates, & really believe they've done a good thing.
Even working it into soil so it isn't unsightly, if it is done repeatedly & often, the ground will eventually become so alkaline little will grow. So while on the one hand wholesome wood ashes are a healthful fertilizer when used correctly, the key to that being true is "when used correctly."
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