What to do with Wood Ashes from the Campfire | Kris Edler

wood ashes in the garden

What to do with Wood Ashes from the Campfire

I recently spent the weekend burning brush from a tree that fell on our permaculture test site at The Daniel Academy.  At the end of the weekend, I realized I had a small problem involving the amount of wood ashes remaining after the fire had long cooled.  In permaculture, one of the keys I learned from my PDC leader, Geoff Lawton, is that “the problem is often the solution.”  So, I asked myself what to do with the wood ashes from the campfire that remained?  How could I give those nutrients back to my environment in a useful way?

img_7678When looking around a permaculture property, there are many uses for wood ash which can be a great source of nutrients for your soil.   However, it’s important to know that with wood ash, your kindergarten teacher was right in saying, “A little dab will do ya.”  Use only a small amount and increase after a few weeks to make sure your soil pH says in the safe zone.  The reason for this is that ashes are extremely alkaline on the pH scale.

Wood Ash is Highly Alkaline

pH for vegetables
best pH for vegetable garden

Because wood ash is a high pH (often 9-13), we have to carefully consider what to do with ashes in our garden.  Optimal soils for most vegetable gardens have a pH of 6.0-7.2, so adding something like wood ashes can have a drastic effect on pH and do so very quickly.  However, using it appropriately can really help nature walk out it’s course of keeping your soil in balance.

Wood ashes are naturally occurring in nature and are a great way for nature to “reset” an environment.  In the Great Plains, the Kiowa Nations would often do controlled burns in order to reset and manage the land.  Next comes California, as devastating as wild fires can be to homes, it’s actually natures way of resetting the damaged landscape and ridding it of invasive annuals that we have brought to the area.  In upstate Washington, the fires clear out understory and add nutrients back to the soil to feed the remaining old growth forests.  This being said, though fire can be a source of destruction, it’s also a source of life in certain circumstances.

Nutrients in Wood Ash

Potassium and potash are two of the prime nutrients are available from wood ash.  The burning process makes them readily available for absorption by your plants.  In fact, potash is so soluble that if it gets wet between the burning process and the time you spread it on your plants, much of the nutrient value will have leeched into the nearby soil.

You can learn more about how to improve your garden soil here:  Ways to Improve Garden Soil

How to Use Ashes in the Garden

There are countless ways to use wood ashes in your garden and around your property, but understanding the soil make-up of your area is the first step before application.  You can easily find out the average pH by purchasing a test kit from a  local garden center.  You can buy kits to test it instantly (lower accuracy) or purchase a kit online that will test it overnight to get a better reading.  Either way, once you know your starting point, you can adjust your pH using organic compounds, like wood ash, to get into the optimal range.  Remember, start by adding only a small amount and give the soil a few weeks to adjust before adding more.  It’s also important to note that various parts of the property could have very different pH readings.

So, now let’s get to it:  How to use wood ashes from the campfire…

1.  Use it in the compost pile

This is especially useful if you are composting a lot of fruit waste, because fruit (being acidic) can really lower the pH of your pile, making it a wet / slimy mess.  You can bring it back into balance by sprinkling a shovel full of ashes over the top.  Always make sure your ashes are completely cool before using.

pH for trees and bushes
pH for trees and bushes

2.  Sprinkle them around berry bushes and fruit trees which prefer alkaline soil or extra potassium.

I generally use them first around apple trees, currants, gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.  They will enjoy the extra sprinkle a few times a year, especially in the early spring or late fall.

3.  Sprinkle on plants to deter pests

This application will only require a small amount of ashes to create a fine dusting.  If you do not have ducks to control snails and slugs, then wood ashes can be a great deterrent.  Carrots and turnips can also be susceptible to the flies and larvae, which can be deterred by the ashes as well.

4.  Light use in the vegetable garden

Often root crops like carrots, turnips, and beets will appreciate a sprinkle of ashes in the springtime worked into the soil.  Just a light dusting is more than enough.  I often use my wood ashes a few weeks before planting and then let it rain a few times before planting seeds.  Other plants that love the extra potash are beans, peas, and legumes.  Just remember, when using ashes in the garden, always test your soil first, so you stay in the optimal zone (6.0-7.2 pH) for growing veggies.

5.  Use them your lawn instead of lime

Wood ashes are a great substitute for adding lime to your lawn.  The easiest way to spread the ashes is to do so just before a good rain, so it soaks into the ground quickly.  This helps with the solubility and also prevents the dust from being tracked indoors or getting on your shoes.  I often use my grass seed spreader and put it on the lowest setting and broadcast the ashes that way.  Doing it by hand or with a shovel can often create piles in the grass which will over alkalize an area.

Now that you have a good use for those ashes, go outside, make a campfire and have a s’more (or three) and let us know how you have used the ashes when you are finished.  Again, make sure they are cool before spreading.  Remember, the problem is often the solution.  Happy gardening.



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5 Ways to Create a Kid-Friendly Garden | Kris Edler

5 Ways to Create a Kid-Friendly Garden

In a culture of video games, Pokemon Go, and fast foods – we desperately need to get kids and teenagers back outside.  Getting your children in the garden is easy, as long as you recognize they are not going to “enjoy” merely pulling the weeds or dead-heading flowers.  However, there are some really creative ways to create kid-friendly garden that will encourage activity, creativity, and connections with nature.

As a teacher at The Daniel Academy, a Pre-K through 12th grade private school in south Kansas City, I work with students and families on a daily basis.  Getting these kids outside to explore and imagine is truly one of my passions.

Before I share any of the tools and tips, it’s important to stress here that the overarching idea is that YOU GO OUTSIDE WITH THEM.  No toy, decoration, or tool is a replacement for spending actual time with you kids.  There is not a replacement for laughing with them, getting dirt under your nails together, and talking with them.  Regardless of age, quality time is the goal and the garden is just a place to make that happen.

That being said…Here are a few tips that are easy to integrate in your urban or suburban backyard.

1 – Literature directional signs from their favorite books

It isn’t hard to get kids to enjoy reading, as long as you make it fun.  Making these directional signs are a great way to keep the family busy on rainy days or weekends.  We painted these with our students this summer using acrylic paint and then added a clear polyurethane varnish to seal them.  You can hang them on posts, trees, or on the side of your shed.  Now, of course, you can always do signs from movies or TV shows, but I think we can agree that encouraging reading is a better practice.  Check out mine here (IMG_7679IMG_7680…)

hobbit garden2 – Hobbit / fairy furniture to spark imagination

The boys generally aren’t going to be real impressed with a fairy garden, but give them a place to rock their action figures and they are all set.  Use sticks to create fences or have the kids help you make your own furniture from popsicle sticks or wire.  I have a few of these around the school and one in my backyard, which the neighborhood kids helped me design.



backyard chickens kansas city3 – Involve animals

Whether you create a place for your dogs or get a few backyard chickens, there is always room for animals.  Kids love working with animals, especially when it’s outside.  In our gardening class at the school, my students will argue about which group gets to feed and play with the chickens.  They would rather be in the group with the birds than eating and picking berries or tomatoes;  when kids turn down food – you know it’s a big deal.  We have purposely selected a lot of heritage chicken breeds that have “cool hair” or have personalities that are more social.  The rock star rooster in the picture is Cogswell, he’s a favorite of our students and loves all the attention he can get.  The kindergarten classes even wave to him on their way past multiple times a day!

bird watching in Kansas city4 – Birdhouses, feeders, and watering stations

Attracting wildlife to your property or backyard engages the kiddos whether they are inside or out.  In the middle of winter, it gives that extra bit of interest looking out the window.  I still remember being a kid at my parents house in Millington, Michigan and watching the birds out the window.  My mom always did well at keeping the bird feeders full, so there was never a dull moment out the front living room window.  It was a collection of simple acts (mostly from my parents), like filling the bird feeders, that helped cultivate a love of nature that has lasted into my adult years.

outdoor fitness kansas city5 – Interactive fitness areas

Now it gets fun!  Start thinking beyond a basketball hoop or volleyball net, though those are a great start.  This summer at our school, we added pull-up bars for the gymnasts and a cool tire-run section using old tires from the side of the road.  You can hit two birds with one stone and not only help get kids moving, but also give them a lesson in repurposing and recycling as well.  With Pinterest out there, we have no excuse for up-cycling with our kids and finding creative ways to get them moving.

If you have enjoyed one of these tips, please share this with some friends on your favorite social media network.  Enjoy your afternoon – and GO OUTSIDE and take a few kids with you.

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