Q. We are burning wood this year to heat our home. Can we throw the wood ashes on our vegetable garden?
-- N. D. of waterloo
A. Wood ashes do have fertilizer value depending upon the wood burned. Most wood ashes have hardly any nitrogen value but they have 1 percent phosphate, 10 percent potassium (potash) and trace elements of iron, manganese, boron, copper and zinc. The highest amount of nutrients is calcium carbonate at 25 percent. This is common lime, which will raise the pH of the soil.
Since these particles are very small, they will react quickly and completely in the soil. This may raise the pH very quickly and damage the nutrient uptake as the best range for nutrient uptake is a pH of 6.5 or a little lower. If the pH is raised above 7.0, phosphorous, iron, born, manganese, copper, zinc and potassium will not dissolve and will not be available for plant growth.
If you do use them on your garden, spread the ashes very lightly and uniformly, Do not dump large quantities in one spot. Plants may not grow healthy in these heavily-dumped areas for several years.
Q. During the Christmas holidays, I got into a discussion with a relative about bioremediation (using living organisms to clean up the environment). Do you have any information on this? Can mushrooms be used for this purpose?
-- D.L. of Belleville
A. Several methods have been used to clean up contaminants to our environment. Paul Stamets has researched the scientific literature and has performed his own experiments with bioremediation techniques. One study showed the most expensive method of cleaning up petroleum hydrocarbons was incineration of the soil, costing $1,500 per ton of soil. The least expensive was mycoremediation (using mushroom spawn) at $50 a ton.
The correct placement of fungi controls the flow of nutrients and gives rise to a natural order of organisms sequencing through the damaged ecosystem -- starting with fungi, followed by vertebrate animals and insects, followed by bacteria, followed by plants, followed by another group of vertebrates and insects and finally by more fungi.
At least 36 species of mushrooms have been identified that can absorb arsenic, cadmium, radioactive cesium, lead, mercury or copper. He warns mushroom collectors not to collect mushrooms near roads, mining sites, landfills, parking lots, steel smelters or shooting ranges.
I recommend the book "Mycelium Running" by Paul Stamets ISBN 978-1-58008-579-3 if you need an in-depth look at mushrooms and their earth cleanup capabilities.
Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.
Do it now
HOUSEPLANTS: Check to see if your indoor plants need to be repotted. This is a good time to repot because the plants are not growing very quickly and will avoid stress.
SHOPPING: Order plants early for the garden and landscape so you get the best selection.