Is Wood Ash Good for Plants?

In the right conditions, wood ash can add key nutrients to your soil.

Wood ash in garden; hand holding shovel mixing in wood ash

Helin Loik-Tomson / Getty Images

Your soil may not need it, your plants may not want it, and it's possible to use it incorrectly. But when properly applied, wood ash can be good for plants. This guide explains how to add wood ash to your garden for optimal plant growth.

Treehugger Tip

Before adding anything to your soil, get a soil test from your county extension office or university extension service to determine what your soil needs.

Healthy Soil

Wood ash is high in calcium carbonate (lime), so it is good for reducing the acidity of the soil. It's an excellent substitute for the commercial lime sold in garden centers, which have a high carbon footprint. Soils in areas of heavy rain tend to be more acidic than soils in dry regions. If your pH test shows that the soil is already too alkaline, skip the wood ash.

Wood ash can also help with soil structure and porosity, allowing water to reach roots more easily. Take a fistful of moistened garden soil and give it the squeeze test. If it immediately falls apart, your soil is too sandy. If it makes a solid ball, it's too clayey. Wood ash can help to break up clay soil.

Healthy soil is rich in carbon, and wood ash returns organic carbon to the soil. This means wood ash also plays a role in carbon sequestration—not a large one at the scale of a backyard garden, but every bit helps.

Rich in Nutrients

Beyond calcium, wood ash also contains the potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium, as well as trace amounts of other elements, all of which are essential nutrients plants need.

Potassium, calcium, and magnesium are very water-soluble, so their effect is quicker than other elements. What's missing from wood ash is significant amounts of nitrogen. Adding human urine makes it a nearly complete fertilizer.

Plants That Like Wood Ash

  • Beans, strawberries, and stone fruit trees.
  • Onions and garlic.
  • Grasses.
  • Root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and beets.
  • Greens like collards, lettuce, chard, spinach, and arugula.
  • Brassicas like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Lavender, basil, sage, catmint, and many other herbs.
  • Phlox, sedum, rudbeckia, clematis, columbine, foxglove, and many other perennials.

Pest Control

Both as a diluted solution applied to leaves and as a dust, wood ash has proven effective in controlling a wide variety of garden pests, from slugs and snails to beetles and borers. In laboratory settings, for example, wood ash proved 100% effective at controlling Colorado potato beetles in both adult and larvae form, and equally effective against granary weevils.

Don't expect such stellar results in the real-world conditions of your garden, however. Wood ash becomes much less effective once it is moist, and easily blown away when not moist.

How to Apply Wood Ash

The best use of wood ash is to mix it into your compost pile, especially if your compost is high in vegetable matter, as the ash will lower its acidity. Be sure to mix it in well and use it only occasionally. Because ash is very fine, when it is moist it can form a barrier layer, reducing the level of aeration that is necessary for decomposition.

If you want to apply ash directly into your garden, simply collect wood ash over the winter in a fire-proof container, then apply in the late winter or early spring. Before application, make sure there are no hot embers. Sift the wood ash to remove any large pieces. Wear gloves, long sleeves, eye protection, and a dust mask, as the alkalinity of the ash can irritate skin, eyes, and lungs.

To apply wood ash around existing plants such as trees or emerging perennials, mix some ash into any mulch you might place around your plants. Avoid applying wood ash directly onto plants, as the lye and salts in wood ash can burn them.

If you are starting a new, unplanted garden, you can apply 1 to 2 pounds of wood ash per 100 square feet, or roughly two handfuls per square yard. Don't apply wood ash on a windy day or before a rainstorm, as the ash will easily blow or wash away. Applying the ash to moist soil will allow it to remain in place and begin leaching its nutrients into the soil. But a barrier layer of moist ash on top of the soil will slow down the penetration of air and water into the soil. Work the ash lightly into the soil with a garden rake or garden fork, trying as little as possible to till the soil.

Plants That Don't Like Wood Ash

  • Apple, peach, and pear trees.
  • Sweet corn, peppers, eggplant, rhubarb, parsley, sweet potatoes.
  • Potatoes (Wood ash can lead to potato scab.)
  • Blueberries, raspberries, and most other berries.
  • Roses, azaleas, rhododendron, and hydrangea.
  • Birch trees, red maples, and pin oaks.

Choose Your Wood Wisely

Avoid ashes from any materials containing paint, glue, plastic, or colored paper. Never apply wood ash produced from pressure-treated wood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns against burning pressure-treated wood because of the potentially toxic chemicals used to treat it.

Hardwoods like oak contain more nutrients than softwood like pine or fir.

Compared to heartwood, bark contains higher levels of sodium, which can stunt plant growth, but would only be of concern if the wood ash came exclusively from bark.

Sustainable Fertilizer

Don't go chopping down trees just to create wood ash. But if you regularly use a fireplace or woodstove, you have an inexpensive alternative to synthetic fertilizers, which are costly, have a large carbon footprint, and use non-renewable resources.

View Article Sources
  1. Boninc, Tanja and Stanislav Trdan. “Comparison of Insecticidal Efficacy of Four Natural Substances Against Granary Weevil (Sitophilus granarius [L.]) Adults: Does the Combined Use of the Substances Improve Their Efficacy?Spanish Journal of Agricultural Research, vol. 15, no. 3, 2017, pp. e1009., doi:10.5424/sjar/2017153-11172

  2. Boiteau, G., et al. “Wood Ash Potential for Colorado Potato Beetle Control.” American Journal of Potato Research, vol. 89, 2012, pp. 129–135., doi:10.1007/s12230-012-9234-7

  3. Schoessow, Kevin. "Using Wood Ash in the Home Garden." Wisconsin Horticulture.

  4. "Chromated Arsenicals (CCA)." Environmental Protection Agency.

  5. Sano, Tetsuya, et al. “Composition of Inorganic Elements and the Leaching Behavior of Biomass Combustion Ashes Discharged from Wood Pellet Boilers in Japan.” Journal of Wood Science, vol. 59, 2013, pp. 307–320., doi:10.1007/s10086-013-1337-3