Friday, March 21, 2008


”My life will be sour grapes and ashes without you.” Now I don’t know who the author Daisy Ashford (1881 – 1972) was referring to but I wonder whether she new that a sprinkling of ashes would have been good for her sour grapes?


When I visited the field with our three extremely-wide-surely-about-to-give-birth-soon-or-else-explode Ouessant ewes the other day, I found neighbour Alan at the bottom of his potager (vegetable patch) fiddling around with his soft fruit. He was concerned that the little fruit bushes, the gooseberries particularly, hadn’t got off to a great start and had read that they benefit from potash. The word potash can mean a lot of things but, in this context, is simply another word for the mineral potassium, one of the plant grower’s holy trinity of Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous. He asked if he could come and get some from our permanent bonfire site. Now, on our Brittany permaculture smallholding, we work on a need-to-know-basis: when we need to know something, which is regularly, we either look it up in our pile of books or, more often and more lazily, type the question directly into Google.


So I looked up “making potash” and found some useful advice on Philip’s blog. The ash needs to be collected before it gets damp / wet, otherwise the good stuff, the potassium, will leech away, leaving just the ash. I now realise that all the ash that I scrape up and sift every few months must be next to useless. Anyway, he advises you not to have your potash-producing-pyrotechnic-performance (I can never pass by a good opportunity for alliteration and if I’ve overdone it and confused you, I just mean a bonfire) on the site of a previous fire, so I thought to start afresh. We’re currently fencing in the top triangle of our large field to become a piggy-paddock, which needs to be ready by the start of April. The hedge on one side has been a bit neglected over the years and there was a good two metres of woody matter to cut away to get to the original fence line. Gabrielle, a bit of a time-and-motion expert, suggested we burn it more or less in situ, rather than dragging it all the way down the field to the regular fire pit.


We had our fire. It was very satisfying to drag—Gabrielle and I on either side equipped with garden rakes—a huge, nasty, prickly ball of brambles (“oh, what a lot of lovely blackberries you have in your garden”) straight on top of our raging inferno and hear it squeal. The evening brought a grey sky, a cold wind and the threat of une giboulée de mars, literally a March shower, which my Collins Roberts dictionary translates as “April shower”, and I thought we were just an hour ahead of the UK? Not wanting to get our potash wet, nor burn myself, I raked and raked the embers until I felt they were safe enough to overnight in a steel wheelbarrow. Even so, I placed a plumber’s fibreglass blanket between the metal barrow and my expensively lovely un-deflateable tyre.


The resulting residue has been twice riddled and shared out between us and Alan. And a word from Joy Larkcom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables: “Ash from wood fires and bonfires contains potash. Slow-burning hardwoods are particularly rich in potash. Potash is very soluble and is rapidly washed out in rain, so either work fresh ash into the compost heap or store it in a dry place and apply to growing crops in spring.” (p 49) Our permaculture potash will be sprinkled around our fruit bushes and roses and is even useful, allegedly, in deterring slugs and snails, on verra (we’ll see).


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