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Dig raised bed aisles before filling in with wood chips?

 
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I have clay soil here in Tulsa, OK. When it rains hard and you walk on the grass your foot can easily sink like 8 inches; it's that bad!  

So I built raised beds, six of them, in a grid.  The aisles between the raised beds are pretty much dirt now from walking around in between.  Is it okay to say dig down 6" below grass level and then fill in with wood chips? (I could use the dirt I dig up for other projects as well.)  I rather not bury the raised beds 6" in chips.. I like not having to bend over too far.  (I can't get down on my knees to garden due to disability.)

My concern is would the clay adjacent to the pool of chips (the dirt which is under the raised bed) then shift / run off into the wood chips?

Trying to figure out what I can do.

 
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I cut in some paths that way. The plants were super happy. My one wish was that I had graded them so the water would not sit in the paths at all. My comments may not be super helpful because it's a different area and I didn't have clay soil like that but I filled my pathways with mulch one time and probably won't do it again. I wouldn't call it a disaster or anything, but I am in Ohio in a river valley and we have tons of rain, several rivers, and muggy summers so they just sort of..grew rot and mold which was..okay but not ideal around certain plants and I had much better luck just letting ground cover/weeds/grass/moss grow between mine. Before I put it all back I was having a great patch of creeping thyme spill over and take over one path and was really loving that!

Good luck!
 
Jennifer Lowery
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Should I perhaps just lay cardboard over the aisles and put a couple inches of wood chips over that?   Or perhaps buy some landscape fabric instead?
 
pollinator
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Jennifer,
I don't know your soil, but I think the wood chips would probably back-fill enough to stop the clay from collapsing. If you wanted to be hyper diligent (and work some mini-hugelcuture in to garden) you could lay round wood along the lower sides of your now relatively elevated beds to act as cribbing. If you don't like that look, just make sure your wood-chip cover the tops of the round wood when you're done filling up your pathways.

Do you think there's any possibility of your wood walking paths becoming chip canals? Do you have good enough drainage to stop the sunken areas from just pooling up with water?
In the long run, introducing wood chips to your clay is the solution to this problem, so if you can deal with soggy paths for a couple years it will fix it's self.

"Tulsa burns/ on the desert floor/ like a signal fire."
 
pollinator
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I have done pretty much exactly what you describe. To simplify I dug trenches a foot deep and mounded that up in between to form the beds then I filled in the trenches about 8" deep with wood chips. I did this last fall and after a winter and some heavy rain this spring I have had no issues with the beds "melting" into the chip paths. I have heavy duty clay also but its more of the "build up on your boots until you are 3 inches taller" kind. I say do it!
 
Natalie Lawrence
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Experimenting time maybe? Hopefully someone else will chime in that's more familiar with the clay soil. If you're just trying to build something firm under your feet it sounds like you've got a good plan to me. I had no major issues here for what it's worth. Just giving a heads up about the mold fungi issue and that mine got water sitting, but if they had been graded to drain excess runoff away I think it would have been fine, especially as the beds got higher. Long term if I had stayed there I would have probably made a more permanent sand and gravel over the chips, but that's a big undertaking. My soil did sort of slump off and creep into the pathways overtime without edging (maybe over three years after I cut them in) with them being lower, but it wasn't a significant problem where I had no bed left and it had disappeared into the pathway or anything, it just became a little less orderly looking raised bed.
 
pollinator
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Jennifer Lowery wrote:Or perhaps buy some landscape fabric instead?



I would try most anything at all before that.  Landscape fabric breaks down and then it is a nightmare to clean up.

I don't think you will have any problems with your idea of filling the paths with wood chips.  I think you will find in a few years, the soil beneath the wood chips will be much better than the surrounding soil.
 
Jennifer Lowery
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I'd get load after load of wood chips hauled to my driveway for free and cover my entire backyard with chips if I could.. but I don't know what to do about my 12' x 10' concrete patio.. it'd be lower than the rest of the yard.   Ideally I could some how skim off like 6" of clay from the entire backyard.. dispose of it somehow and then fill the entire thing with wood chips.

My drainage in my garden area isn't very good, water seems to settle on that half of the yard.  Part of the problkem I think is that I don't have a rain gutter on the back side of my home.  If I had a rain gutter and I could route the water to the other side of the yard which has better drainage.

Perhaps I better hire a landscaper to install some drain pipes for me or something.  We don't mind actually doing all the work, but just aren't smart enough to know how to do it right.
 
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Jennifer, I have heavy clay soil, and the trick with making paths is to put down some kind of polyester landscape fabric (not the black plastic with the holes in it), or old polyester shade cloth (or new if you don't have old, since it lasts for years and years and years), and then put wood chips or gravel over that.  Rock and wood chips will sink into the clay and disappear again and again and again unless there is indestructible fabric there to keep the stuff up.  Then you'll have a nice long-lasting walking surface.

Since clay only gets into real trouble when it is exposed to the sun, deep mowed grass/weeds or crushed leaves over the top or the raised bed, as organic mulch, will keep the raised bed protected from heavy rain, keep moisture in so it doesn't dry out, break down and improve the soil, and keep the heavy rain off of it.  Maintain a 3" thickness of mulch if you can, no bare spots, sometimes that means adding a little more every couple of weeks.

Mulching will also maintain a moisture level that will bring the worms up into the raised bed portion, and they love the broken-down compost the mulch turns into.

In a hard downpour the clay in the raised section might flow down, but any soil would flow downward in that situation.  I've found that my heavy clay soil stays really great when the rain doesn't pound on it.  In my greenhouse the rain can't get to it, and it's always easy to dig and plant in.  So if there is going to be some heavy rain I have a supply of sheer curtains, that I also use for keeping bugs and birds off the crops, that I put over the beds to protect it.
 
Cristo Balete
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Yeah, sinking 8" every step is not good.  More than an issue with your raised beds, it could be an issue with your foundation.  That's what rain gutters are for, to keep that kind of water away from the foundation.   Just about anything is cheaper than foundation/wall/house repair.
 
Jennifer Lowery
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Cristo Balete wrote:Yeah, sinking 8" every step is not good.  More than an issue with your raised beds, it could be an issue with your foundation.  That's what rain gutters are for, to keep that kind of water away from the foundation.   Just about anything is cheaper than foundation/wall/house repair.



The home was built in 1971 and never had a rain gutter in the back yard.  Several homes around the neighboorhood have needed to get foundation work / piers.  I guess I've been pretty fortunate.  I bought the home back in 2013.  I'll get the rain gutters installed soon.  Hopefully the company installing them will perhaps give me some ideas how to best drain the water off the roof and property.
 
gardener
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Ive never encountered the squishy kind of clay.
I wonder if stepping stones would be a good choice?
Something to spread out the weight so you don't sink.
I've been making bootleg walking paths by laying out pallet boards and nailing them together with a brad nailer.
Super ugly,  but effective.
Maybe you could grow something with fibrous roots in the pathways,  and walk on that.
Alfalfa?

 
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Jennifer,

I think digging out the clay and replacing with woodchips is a fine idea.  I suspect that the aisle woodchips will actually benefit the raised bed woodchips.  My only concern is that if you dig out say 6” and replace with 6” of woodchips, the woodchips will not stay level for long.  You will likely need to keep on replacing those chips, but as long as you are ok with adding in more chips, I see no reason not to do it.

If you do remove and replace, please keep us updated.  I am very curious as to how this will work out for you.

Eric
 
pollinator
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Cristo Balete wrote:Yeah, sinking 8" every step is not good.  More than an issue with your raised beds, it could be an issue with your foundation.  That's what rain gutters are for, to keep that kind of water away from the foundation.   Just about anything is cheaper than foundation/wall/house repair.



The contractor who built out house tried to cut corners by tying the downspouts into the foundation drains.  Needless to say, every time it rained, the crawl space flooded.  Luckily we had our suspicions and dug into the drains before he finished on the house.  Needless to say, he spent a weekend fixing the problem.

The rain has made my paths a soupy mess, but I need to wait until the fence is up to put down the cardboard and mulch.  
 
pollinator
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I would be concerned that digging down between beds would in fact increase erosion from within the beds.

I would watch it through rainy season, and then make minor adjustments to prevent standing water in the pathways.

Then i'd plant pathways heavily with clover.

I do have similar set up of raised beds on clay soil but mine has a bit more slope. So I'm still fine tuning the grade a bit. In fact, I poured some old rancid olive oil on the pathways to decrease water retention and to speed up the run off. Ie, making it harder clay. Worked like a champ.


 
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OK, so I don't have a clay soil.  But I do use woodchip on my paths between vegetable beds, and I have never used any sort of fabric under the woodchip.  I just add a load more once a year as they rot down.  Sometimes I dig out the rotted ones and throw back onto the beds, but that depends how much of a hurry I am in to get the woodchips before someone else has them.  

This is what it looks like shortly after a load of woodchip has been added and the beds are still mounded up with the winter mulch of dead leaves...
IMG_4321.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_4321.JPG]
 
Jennifer Lowery
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William Bronson wrote:
Ive never encountered the squishy kind of clay.
I wonder if stepping stones would be a good choice?
Something to spread out the weight so you don't sink.
I've been making bootleg walking paths by laying out pallet boards and nailing them together with a brad nailer.
Super ugly,  but effective.
Maybe you could grow something with fibrous roots in the pathways,  and walk on that.
Alfalfa?



I have been thinking about just putting stepping stones in.  We have them elsewhere in the yard and they do work very well.  I have 3 foot wide aisles.. 2 foot wide stepping stones would be nice.. maybe some flagstone or something.  I could plant dutch clover or somethign else between the steps and beds.  Is there a cover crop which won't creep too far over the stones so we don't have to edge them?
 
Eric Hanson
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Jennifer,

I think that having a flagstone “floating” on top of the chips for occasional stepping is perfectly fine.  It will not crush or significantly compress the woodchips, even with occasional standing.  I have done this occasionally, sometimes with an actual flagstone, sometimes with a piece of scrap wood.  

I like to minimize the walking space in my gardens as much as possible.  My beds are 8x16’, just a bit of a stretch to reach into.  So instead I like having a little standing spot right in the middle.

I think you will have good Luck,

Eric
 
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