The new year has arrived with biting cold weather, and temperatures that wander perilously close to zero Fahrenheit. There is ice on the intermittent drainage creek, hellebore foliage is limp and looks as discouraged as I feel. For not only is it frigid outdoors, there's no snow cover to insulate perennials and bulbs. On the plus side, the wood burning stove is kept going night and day, and I'll have a goodly supply of high quality ashes from the maple we are burning. Hard wood - oak, maple, and such - not only provides more Btu per cord of firewood than soft woods like pine, their ashes are more valuable in the garden. I put a thin layer over plant debris in the compost heap, then add more vegetable matter in the form of kitchen scraps and blown around leaves, plus some mulch hay I was given late last summer. The idea is to keep a sprinkling of wood ashes sandwiched between a thicker layer of organic matter. Do not, however, add wood ashes to animal waste such as manure or urine-soaked straw. In that situation much of the nitrogen in the manure etc. will be released as ammonia gas. Though still valuable as a soil ammendment, the finished compost will be less nutritious for your plants. Wood ashes offer their own nutrients in the form of potash, and also raise the pH. I use wood ashes as a light top-dressing for those plants in my garden that prefer somewhat less acid conditions than the soil naturally provides. Hellebores, for one, while they do not want an alkaline soil, do respond favorably to an application once a year. My goal is to do so in the January thaw - though this year it seems difficult to imagine weather mild enough for such outdoor work. And the fine nature of wood ashes means that still air is also important lest the ashes get scattered willy-nilly, including over the gardener. I gently pull the winter mulch away from the root zone of each plant and dust the ground with a light coating. If the ground is sufficiently thawed, I'll gently cultivate the surface, then pull the mulch back into place. Spring rains will soak into the ground, taking the ashes with them.
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