Spreading wood ash


Potash Kalium Connection

I wonder if my neighbors suspect that I’m engaging in some sort of occult ritual as I take rounds through the farmden followed by puffs of grey smoke. Perhaps I’m entreating tiny gnomes living within the soil to keep weeds at bay next season? Or begging garden gremlins to make my soil fertile? No, and again no! I’m merely spreading wood ashes.Spreading wood ash

I must be careful with my terminology: I’m not dumping wood ashes; I’m fertilizing my soil with wood ashes. Wood ash is a rich source of potassium, a nutrient required by plants in amounts second only to nitrogen. Potassium helps build strong stems and helps plants resist disease. It also regulates the opening and closing of stomata, the tiny pores in leaves through which gases pass for photosynthesis.

The close connection between potassium and wood ash is reflected in a traditional source of, and the root of the word, potassium — “potash.” Read more


Cardoon Gets to Stay

    I haven’t yet given up on cardoon — growing it. But eating it? I just about give up. It’s like eating humongous stalks of stringy celery having just a hint of artichoke flavor.
    As an ornamental is how cardoon has made itself garden-worthy. Like most perennial plants, it grew only leaves this past season, its first season here. But what leaves they were! As I said, like “humongous stalks of celery.” Not much good for eating but nice to look at. The edges of the three-foot-high stalks were winged with undulating, pointed blades (each stalk is a leaf), and the whole plant is a very Mediterranean-looking olive-green.Cardoon in late fall
    If all goes well, next year should provide an even better show, when flowers also appear. Cardoon is in the thistle family. It’s as if you injected our common (Canadian) thistle with steroids. In addition to those giant leaves, the flower stalks rise to 6 feet and are then topped by fat, spiky, cerulean balls, each a couple of inches across.
    Cardoon not only looks Mediterranean; it is Mediterranean. As such, is not cold hardy this far north. Temperatures in the 20s do no harm to the top of the plant, but the top will die back when temperatures turn colder. The crown of the plant and the roots, shielded in the ground, tolerate even lower air temperatures. Eventually, though, our winter cold penetrates the ground to do them in.
    But not if I soften that cold affront. Once temperatures turn colder, and stay reliably so, I’m going to lop back the tops of the plants, then pile on a thick layer of mulch, from a couple of large bags of leaves I stockpiled back in November. The reason to hold off until the soil turns colder is because in still-warm soil, the crown would have pushed out new growth beneath the mulch. That new growth would have died from lack of sun, or rotted.
    Cardoon’s fleshy crown is especially prone to rotting, so I’ll lay a flat piece of plastic over the pile of mulch. That should shed rainwater while allowing some breathing room from the side.
    Perhaps next year I’ll get to enjoy the flowers. Perhaps the stalks will be worth eating.

I Put The “Straw” In (On) Strawberry

    Cardoon isn’t the only herbaceous perennial that needs protection from cold. Another is strawberry.
    The crown of a strawberry plant is, in essence, a stem that has been telescoped down. Instead of a few inches from leaf to leaf along the stem, only a fraction of an inch separates a leaf from its next higher or lower neighbor. So instead of elongating a foot or two every year, like most stems, a strawberry crown elongates only a fraction of an inch each year.
    Still, over time, that crown rises higher and higher up out of the ground, each year becoming more exposed to cold. Mulching prevents cold damage to strawberry in the same way as it does for cardoon. As with cardoon, the time to cover the plants is AFTER cold has penetrated the ground. When the soil has frozen about an inch deep is about the right time.
    Strawberry crowns are not particularly prone to rotting, so there’s no need to lay a water shedding cover over the mulch. Or to cut back the leaves; strawberry leaves aren’t fleshy and don’t rise high above the ground.

Doin’ Some Dustin’

    In addition to leafy mulches, already spread beneath other trees and shrubs, one other sign of creeping cold is the gray dust that has settled on parts of the meadow, beneath the pear trees, and around the currant bushes. There’s more to come, and it’s not snow. It’s ash, from the wood stove.
    Spreading wood ashWood ash is both a waste product and a resource, depending on how much you have and how much space you have to spread it. As a resource, it’s high in potassium, an essential nutrient for plants, and contains other essential elements. Wood ash decreases the acidity of soils which, around here, mostly increases naturally over time.
    But too much potassium can be a bad thing. As can too little acidity; slightly acid soil is what’s ideal for most plants.
    Since wood ash varies somewhat in its composition, it’s impossible to put a number on how much to spread. No more than 20 pounds per thousand square feet is reasonable, except on alkaline soils (pH greater than 7) or beneath acid-loving plants such as blueberry, azalea, and rhododendron, which should get none. I disperse it over the whole farmden — on the meadow and the lawn, beneath fruit and nut trees and bushes — to avoid concentrating it anywhere. I also save some to spread on icy walks and to sprinkle around plants if slugs become a problem.


Do occult practices contribute to the health of my pear trees? After all, there I was, clomping through lily-white snow in boots tossing what looked like puffs of smoke at each tree. As I moved from tree to tree, a gray halo settled to the ground arround each tree’s base.
Yes, those puffs of smoke would be contributing to my pear trees’ well-being. No, all that puffing was not occult, not even really smoke, in fact.
The stuff was wood ashes, and I had three reasons for what I was doing with it. First and foremost, I was disposing of it. Wood ash is rich in potassium and alkalinity. Potassium is an essential nutrient for plants, and alkalinity is good to counteract the increasing acidity of our soils, where rainfall constantly washes out its alkalinity.
But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. My woodstove generates a panful of ashes every couple of days or so, and too much wood ashes on the ground causes an imbalance of nutrients in soil and plants, especially of magnesium, another essential nutrient. Too much wood ashes in one place would also make the soil too alkaline, which brings on deficiencies of yet more essential plant nutrients, such as iron and phosphorus, lessens the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients for later use by plants, and can increase plant susceptibility to certain diseases, such as potatoes, to scab. So I spread my wood ashes far and wide, at a rate where their goodness does good.
The minerals in wood ashes, and its dark color, have another use under my pear trees. It melts snow. I like snow as much as any child but mice, free from the gaze of predators, run amok beneath that white blanket, stopping to gnaw on bark. A few inches of snow also give rabbits a leg up to reach higher into young trees to do similar work on what were low branches. That gray halo eats away at snow near the base of each tree.
In throwing that ring of wood ashes at the base of each tree, some inevitably clings to bark and branches. If I were a rabbit, a dusting of wood ashes would make a meal of bark or branches less appetizing. Perhaps they feel that way, too. Anyway, that’s my third, neither occult nor particularly well-founded, reason for those puffs of “smoke” and halos of gray around each of my pear trees.
Winter has finally come. Besides all the beautiful, white snow, we finally have some cold. I’m keeping a close eye on how cold it gets, as should any good gardener, farmdener, or farmer, because the depth of cold is one determinant of what plants I can grow and how those I do grow might fare in the coming season.
Noting the temperature at 9 o’clock in the morning from a thermometer suction-cupped to the kitchen window or hanging on a post on the back porch will not do. Temperatures usually plummet to their lows around 4 or 5 in the morning, and by 9 a.m. have already risen a few degrees, especially on sunny days as days grow longer. Also, a thermometer sheltered beneath the roof of the front porch or house wall catches some indoor heat radiating out a window or wall so reads warmer than one hanging out in the garden near plants.
I’m not recommending anyone padding out on the snow to the garden in their slippers at 4 a.m. each morning to get an accurate temperature reading for the next few weeks. (Coldest temperatures usually arrive within a month on either side of the end of January.) Modern technology comes to the rescue in the form of minimum/maximum thermometers.
Minimum/maximum thermometers come in two “flavors”: mechanical and digital. Mechanical min/max thermometers have two sliding indicators that are pushed by either the temperature-reading needle of a dial thermometer or by the expanding fluid in a liquid in glass thermometer. One indicator stays where it is pushed to its high point, the other at its low point. High and low temperatures are indicated for the period since the sliders were last reset by being slid back against the needle or fluid.
Digital min/max thermometers work by . . . who knows? They do essentially the same thing as the mechanical min/max thermometers, except are reset with a push of a button. One advantage of digital thermometers is that some can transmit readings wirelessly indoors. I read the minimum, maximum, and present temperatures from the warmth of my bedroom while still in my pajamas. Still, mechanical thermometers are reassuringly simple and reliable. I have both kinds.
No need to reset a minimum/maximum thermometer every single day. Once, at the beginning of winter, suffices for knowing the ultimate depth of cold for the season.