Ashes should not be used on a compost pile

A simple compost pile undergoes complex chemical changes as it converts garden trimmings to compost. (Walter Reeves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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A simple compost pile undergoes complex chemical changes as it converts garden trimmings to compost. (Walter Reeves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Q: How much fireplace ashes should I use on my compost pile? Will ashes make it break down faster? Drew Kimball, email

A: You should not add ashes to a compost pile. Something that seems such a simple process (piling up garden trimmings to rot) is pretty complicated chemically. The different microorganisms that chew up your lawn clippings and weed stems prefer different amounts of acidity in the pile. Ashes decrease the amount of acid, which may inhibit microorganism activity and slow down the whole process. Rather than adding them to your compost heap, spread the ashes onto your lawn. You can scatter 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet with no problem. The ashes perform the same service as garden lime. To make sure you are adding the right amount of acid neutralizer, have the soil tested by the UGA Soils Laboratory. Details at georgiasoiltest.com.

Q: We are dealing with a woodpecker issue. Our house is a split level with wood siding. The birds peck holes in the siding. We have tried patching the holes, hanging spinning light fixtures, banging on the walls when they peck, and even placing fake owls nearby. All of these were unsuccessful. Between the bird noise and our 16-month-old, we are not getting much sleep. Hunter Neely, east Cobb

A: Good news! Your child will grow up to be a wonderful human being because of the extra time you’ve spent with them between bird visits. The pecking might be caused by male birds trying to mark territory and find a mate. Other times, the pecking can occur if you have carpenter bee larvae in the wood. Check the edges of each siding board for half-inch round holes. If you find them, fill with wood putty. If the pecking is the result of “swiping right” on Woodpecker Tinder, it commonly stops in a few weeks. In the meantime, two of my Master Gardeners reported bird deterrence success with a spider toy that drops down on a string when it detects drumming and then pulls itself back up while waving its legs and flashing its eyes.

Editor’s note: This answer was updated Feb. 22 to correct the calculations involved.

Q: How do I figure out how close together I can put trees and shrubs? Lauren Spahn, email

A: It’s easy to calculate. For accent plants like coral bark maple, paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), and threadleaf yucca, look on the label for the mature width. Divide by two and you have the first part of the distance beyond which you can plant something else. To finish calculating the planting spot for the second plant, you also must add the adult radius of the second plant.

Email Walter at georgiagardener@yahoo.com. Listen to his comments at 6:35 a.m. on “Green and Growing with Ashley Frasca” Saturday mornings on 95.5 WSB. Visit his website, www.walterreeves.com, or join his Facebook Page at bit.ly/georgiagardener, for his latest tips.