With the rising price for disposal of wood ashes into landfills, many wood stove owners wonder what to do with the ashes produced by their wood burner. Did you plan on what to do with your wood ashes? Indiscriminately throwing away this residue should be your very last preference, if at all, when you read about the smart ways to make use of this ‘almost-magical’ powder. Ever came across a skunked pet? Wood stove ashes can be used to neutralize the foul odor of your pet! Once you understand what the ash residue is, your possibilities are endless.
Wood ash is the greyish-white powdered residue that is left behind after the burning of wood. Normally 1 percent of the dry wood mass results in wood ash – this does not take into account the mass of water and gases in the wood. A single cord of well-cured wood yields roughly 50 pounds of ashes. 
Wood stove ashes are of many types. Why do you need to know these differences? To make use of the wood ashes effectively, knowledge about the composition of this byproduct is very helpful. The differences in composition depend on the type of wood used in your wood burner. Wood ashes produced by the burning of hardwood such as maple and oak contain more potash and calcium than that produced by the burning of softwoods. 
What all types of burned-wood ash have in common are their constituent molecules. Generally, the amount of calcium carbonate in ash ranges from 25 percent to 45 percent; other components include oxides of potassium, magnesium, some phosphorus and traces of certain metals. 
The high amount of calcium carbonate is responsible for one manner by which the wood ashes are useful in your garden. The soil in regions of frequent heavy rainfall may become very acidic with a pH rising beyond 6.5, rendering your soil unfavorable for most plants to thrive. Use your wood stove ashes to neutralize the pH acidity! The calcium carbonate composition of superior hardwood ashes is two third times as effective as lime for this purpose.[4
Other Ways In Which Wood Stove Ashes Improve Your Gardening Experience:
- Deterring garden pests: Fluffy, whitish-grey ashes are an excellent pest repellant and the best part is they are earth friendly! Spreading a ring of wood stove ashes around each of your plants will keep off snails and slugs. Make the width of the ring about 4 to 5 cm and the height, 1 to 2 cm.
- Suppressing growth of pond algae: Adding just one (1) tablespoon of powdered wood ash per 1000 gallons of water will provide adequate potassium to allow your aquatic plants to flourish. They will then naturally compete with algae to control its growth.
- Enriching your compost pile: Supplementing your compost pile with wood stove ashes is very beneficial because of the nutritional content. Sprinkle a very light amount on each layer, as you build up your pile of organic goodness. Be wary of adding too much though, as wood ash is very alkaline in nature.
- As a fertilizer and for pumping up your vegetables: Burned-wood ashes do lack nitrogen, that’s true. However, they contain phosphates and potash; the other two key components of a regular fertilizer. They also contain other minerals such as iron, boron, copper, manganese and zinc that are important for plant nutrition. Hence, ashes from a wood burner are a great alternative to a commercial fertilizer, when used correctly with a separate source of nitrogen for the plants.
Wood ashes work wonders for vegetables such as tomatoes, corn, cucumber and asparagus, pumping them up two, three even four times the usual size. This is due to the high calcium content, which is responsible for the increased cell division and growth. Put one-fourth of a cup (two ounces) of powdered ashes directly into the hole you make for planting a calcium-loving vegetable.
Other Interesting Uses of Wood Burner Ashes:
The uses of wood stove ashes are not limited to your garden, yard and landscaping. There are numerous other valuable uses. They include:
- Melting ice: Ashes help in melting ice quickly, without harming the concrete or soil below. With the sun blazing, ice darkened by ashes will absorb more heat and hence melt faster. Without the sun, the ashes still help in melting the ice because of their alkaline nature. Additionally, ash particles add traction as well! Similar to how sand does, ashes sprinkled on your icy driveway would make it less slippery. 
- Controlling bird mites: Using cold ashes, you can make a dust bath for your birds and place it where they can easily reach it. Dust bathing helps control lice and other parasites.
- Neutralizing foul odor: Burned-wood ash works great as an odor neutralizer, in compost heaps, in chicken coops and in any other place you can think of! Dusting your skunked pet with a handful of ash neutralizes that particularly penetrating smell. Also, packaging ash in a t-shirt like material, then placing it into your stored shoes will keep off the characteristic unpleasant odor.
- Making soap: Soaking the ashes you collect from your wood burner, in soft water, produces lye. The best choice of ashes for this purpose is white ash formed as a result of burning well-seasoned hardwood. Boiling lye in combination with animal fat produces soap.
- We understand this use is certainly not for every wood burning stove user! However, there are numerous small businesses (a/k/a cottage industries) which do specialize in soap making. Make a quick phone call and do some networking to trade your ashes for some of their home-made soap.
- Hiding stains and cleaning glass doors: Stains like those of wet paint on concrete can be scrubbed away and partially concealed by direct application of ash. A moistened sponge dipped in ashes with some scrubbing will clean the tar and soot from your wood stove’s glass door. 
- ‘Buffing up’ your silver: By mixing ash with water, you’ll get a paste that is a perfect, very mild, metal polisher.
The uses ashes produced in your wood burner don’t end here. What has been described only gives a general idea about the diverse ways by which this versatile powder can be utilized. With a little creativity on your part, you can think of several other ways to benefit from the ashes churned out by your wood stove each winter.
Precautions When Dealing with Wood Ashes
Store the ashes you collect from your wood stove in a fireproof container made of metal. Ensure the lid is tightly shut so that any glowing embers die out. Use them only when they are cold – usually after 2 full days (48 hours).
Make certain that the ashes you use are purely a product of combusted wood. Don’t throw cigarette butts, plastics or even painted wood in your wood stove! These objects contain chemicals that may harm rather than help. For example, the element boron present in cardboard can potentially impede plant growth when in excess. 
Never leave ash in concentrated piles or lumps in your garden. This causes a build-up of salts, resulting in wilting of leaves and may actually reduce plant growth.
Do NOT mix wood ashes directly with a nitrogen fertilizer. If you do, the fertilizer will lose its nitrogen in the form of ammonia gas because of the high pH value of the ashes. After applying the wood ashes in your garden, allow at least one month to pass before you use a nitrogen fertilizer in the same area.
A long list of interesting uses and we have not even addressed ashes from pellet burning stoves, pellets mixed with corn, and bits of charcoal (ever heard of terra preta?). This list is lengthy to illustrate some of the imaginative uses of wood ash. By understanding wood ash composition we can experiment with using the benefits of this unknown resource produced by wood burning stoves!