If you’re heating with wood, there’s always plenty of wood ash to go around. While you may be hard-pressed to think of uses for wood ash in a modern home, historically it was used in many different creative ways. Wood ash was a precious asset, used for food preservation, gardening, pottery, pest control, and even cosmetics.
Long before baking soda was discovered, wood ash based leveners allowed for holiday cookies. Our ancestors wouldn’t have invented soap without wood ash lye…the list goes on.
While some of these uses are merely a historical curiosity, many are still incredibly useful in our modern world. Looking for free garden fertilizer? Natural pest control? Stain and odor removers? Wood ash can do that!
Our homestead is relatively small by modern standards (~1200 sq feet) and the walls are nearly a foot thick and super-insulated. To save on wood (and work), we only heat our house to around 62 degrees day and night. Still, cold Vermont winters mean that we burn roughly 4 cords of hardwood each year, or 6 to 8 cords of softwood which has a lower BTU.
means we have around 30-40 gallons of wood ash in the spring. That’s way too much for any single-use, so we’ve had to find creative ways to use what would otherwise be a waste product.
YARD & GARDEN USES FOR WOOD ASH
Using up wood ash in your yard and garden is a natural solution. The minerals from the wood are restored to nature where they can be reused again.
Wood ash contains all the trace minerals from inside a trees wood, which are the building blocks needed for plant health. While it doesn’t contain carbon or nitrogen, those are in ready supply from compost. The University of Vermont recommends about 5 gallons of wood ash per 1,000 square feet of garden. Since wood ash will raise the pH of soils, it’s not good for acid-loving crops like blueberries or potatoes.
A small amount of wood ash can help give compost piles a boost. While birds may be beautiful around a backyard compost pile, in rural areas open compost can attract bears. We’ve found that dusting a bit of wood ash on top of the pile helps keep bears and other large omnivores from digging in the scraps as well.
After we started adding wood ash to our compost, we noticed that it was markedly more healthy. Stick a hand into the middle of the pile, and you’ll come out with a palm-full of hard-working worms actively converting everything into nutrient-rich compost.
CONTROL POND ALGAE
Since wood ash contains micronutrients that plants need to thrive, it can also help strengthen aquatic plants. The potassium in wood ash can boost rooted aquatic plants in a pond, making them better able to compete with algae. That in turn, slows the growth of algae in a pond. Be careful not to add too much.
Use some rough math to calculate the volume of your pond, and then add about 1 tablespoon per 1,000 gallons of water.
PREVENTING PLANT FROST DAMAGE TO PLANTS
I’ve heard that dusting plants with wood ash before an early light frost can help prevent frost damage. It makes sense, as the mineral salts in wood ash would lower the freezing point of water without harming the plant tissues as other types of salt might.
Our garden is always packed or undercover early in the season so I tested this method, but it might be worth a try.
PREVENT CALCIUM DEFICIENCY IN TOMATOES
Those ugly black spots on tomatoes are often the result of calcium deficiency. Eggshells and bone meal are often added to tomato planting holes to provide them with calcium, but wood ash can do the same job. Add about 1/4 cup of wood ash to each tomato planting hole and scratch it into the soil before setting out transplants.
RAISING SOIL PH
As noted above, wood ash helps buffer acidic soils and can help raise soil pH if that’s needed on your particular plot. This is handy for most garden vegetables, with the exception of potatoes which grow best in slightly acidic soils
Be aware that not all parts of the world have acidic soils, and if your soils are already alkaline then adding wood ash could cause issues.
SLUG AND SNAIL REPELLANT
Creating a circle of wood ash around crops prevents slugs and snails from crossing into plant beds. We use this around our homegrown shiitake mushrooms, which are particularly susceptible to snails and slugs.
It’s also a good solution for leafy crops like lettuce. The wood ash barrier is only effective until it rains or the ash gets wet, which is unfortunate because you’ll need to reapply regularly. The benefit, on the other hand, is that it’ll wash off easily at harvest time.
NON-TOXIC ANT REPELLANT AROUND KIDS & PETS
Placing a pile of wood ash on top of an anthill gives them notice that they need to move their nest. It won’t kill the nest, but they will have to pack up and relocate, which works great for relocating ants nests away from kids play areas.
PROTECTING BEE HIVES FROM ANTS
Generally, bees are capable of defending their own hives from intruders, but with all the challenges they currently face most hives are in a slightly weakened state. They can take all the help they can get! One of my readers suggested making a circle of ash around a beehive to help deter ants.
Since ants will move a hive in the presence of wood ash, it makes sense to me that this would help keep ants from invading a beehive to steal honey. I do not know if it would have unintended consequences, but I think it’s worth a try if ants are getting to your bees.
DUSTBATH FOR POULTRY
Since wood ash helps treat fleas and other insects, it’s perfect for helping poultry relieve themselves of parasites. Chickens and turkeys naturally dust bath to help clean their feathers of unwanted intruders and adding a bit of wood ash to the bath only helps get the message across.
Our turkeys had a particularly bad infestation of avian lice, and we filled a plastic children’s swimming pool with wood ash for them. They dove on it with excitement and spent long hours rolling in the ash. No need to apply pesticides, the birds know how to solve their own problems organically given the right tools.
No need to worry if they eat a bit since wood ash is also an avian mineral supplement…
FOR ICY WEATHER
Ash contains salt, so melting slippery ice isn’t a hassle! Sprinkle ashes on icy spots and they should be melted within the day without leaving salt stains on your car or clothes.
Using white ash only, here are some domestic uses to clean and maintain your home. These are simple and effective ways to save a bit of money on expensive cleaning products. Please exercise caution when trying these uses for wood ash. When using on or near fabrics, remember to test a small spot that is hidden first before trying, just in case.
AS A POLISH OR ABRASIVE CLEANER
Dry ash removes dirt and grime from many surfaces, such as glass, stainless steel, and even frying pans. Clean your oven glass by dipping a wad of newsprint in water and then in ash and scrubbing the glass gently.
FOR STAIN REMOVAL
White ash combined with water to form a paste can remove watermarks and stains from furniture. Gently buff into the surface, and then wipe off with a soft cloth.
Washing clothes and removing chemicals from cotton, bamboo and hemp fabrics is easy by using ash in the laundry cycle.
Tip: Coat fresh stains with dry white ash and wait 5 minutes, then rub with a soft piece of bread (the center bit) for emergency stain removal. Bread is a natural absorber for oil and moisture, so no wonder this works!
Just like baking soda, ash is a great odor remover. Fill a small bowl with ash, and place it in the fridge. Change it every couple of days until that bad smell is gone. Sprinkle in litter boxes to neutralize the smell there too!
Hundreds of years ago, wood ash was used as a method to protect and preserve cheese from surface damage or getting eaten by wildlife. This trick has been a tradition used for many centuries and is key to improving the ripening age of cheese. Today, most fresh goat cheeses are covered with activated charcoal powder mixed with salt for preservation. Some cheeses from France, such as Morbier, have vegetable ash running through the middle. This gives a distinct taste, as well as helps preserve the cheese for long periods of time.