Coal ash has been coming at me from all directions; by an odd coincidence, a recent commenter on last summer’s wood ash in the garden posts wrote about coal ash, even as I worked on the post about the great ash spill at the Tennessee power plant.
Jacqueline had been putting her ashes from wood and solid fuel on her vegetable garden for a couple of years, though she did the responsible person’s internet search first, finding only sites touting the benefits of ashes in general. Then, just a week or two ago, a response to a letter in the Guardian cited the smokeless fuel folks as saying that these ashes should under no circumstances be put in gardens.
Gulp. So—how bad is this bad news?
Here’s a photograph, taken on Friday, Nov. 28:
That, folks, is a thermometer. It’s the thermometer in my compost. It reads (in case you can’t see it) a hundred and twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit. (123°F.)
Others may be grateful for family, friends, turkey, jobs, whatever; I’m grateful for the compost heap (which I mis-typed as “heat,” a serendipitous error).
I built this heap on Tuesday the 18th, the day before surgery, and in the days just after, husband Steve brought me progress reports: 120° on Thursday, 140° on Friday. On Saturday I hobbled out to see for myself: 140°.
They say adding sand to clay soil yields cement. Maybe sometimes. But based on a highly unscientific experiment in my back yard, not always.
The warning about sand pops up here and there all over the internet, often coming from university Extension offices. The one in Colorado for instance, says flat out, “Don't add sand to clay soil,” predicting a consequence that would make any gardener quake in her gardening boots: “this creates a soil structure similar to concrete.” A specialist with Ohio State University goes even further, saying that the result is usually “a disaster.”
Given that my "Heavy Metals in Wood Ash" post appears to have gone over like a lead balloon (yuk, yuk), I thought I’d try a shorter version and see if that flies.
To start at the end: a fair amount of research has been done, all of it concluding that it is safe to use wood ashes in gardens in moderation. The ashes contain only trace amounts of heavy metals, and the metals do not move into whatever is grown in them. And yet, on-line question and answer gardening sites often do not mentioned this research or its conclusions.
That makes me mad. I expect people handing out advice to know their stuff. Silly me.
So I'm doing my research on soil amendments, (still for the same article) and I'm reading up on wood ash, and I see this: "they can also be a source of heavy metals that you don't necessarily want in your garden." Damn straight. But was it true? (If you just want the answer, go to the end of this post, Results, Conclusions, and Celebrations.)
That quote came from about.com's gardening site, and in this short article Marie Iannotti ended up taking the reasonable position that "a small amount of wood ash will add some nutrients and be beneficial to most soils," but that "Large amounts should be avoided."
Still–heavy metals? They're almost as scary as cancer these days. And since I've been using wood ashes for several years, I have a real investment in this. Also, I'm doing research, ya know, and when I do research, I mean, I DO it.
(One of my rules is to cite only government and university sources. Not that they're infallible–ha!–but since I'm trying to promote organic techniques, I figure I'll convince noone if I cite green organizations.)
In Search of an Answer
I dug around some. Fingers a-tremble, I typed "wood ash fertilizer" and fearfully scanned the results. One, a study by the Finnish Forest Research Institute, said that "Migration of heavy metals into plants is reduced when their solubility is reduced. Increased soil pH prevents metals from dissolving. Wood ash increases the pH value of soil, reducing acidity." Ash means higher pH which means fewer heavy metals in crops. Whew. Furthermore, they concluded that, in the particular soils they worked with, "wood ash does not accumulate metals in edible berries and mushrooms" even fifty years later. This was what they call a long-term study.