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Wood chip mulch season 2

 
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I know Im over complicating this, but I would just like to understand.  I know lots of people use wood chips as mulch.  I understand on the surface the chips don't rob nitrogen.  What I'm unclear about is what happens next?  Where I live I'm able to plant a spring garden and a fall garden. I can basically grow some kind of veggies all year round.  To help make sure I have great soil I do lots of things, but most important is add compost before each new season ( twice a year).  How do I do this if the surface is covered with wood chips?  I'm not real thrilled with the thought of removing the chips, only to put them back.  I could just add compost to the specific spot the veggie seeds, or plants will go. But I wonder if that is enough.  I'm thinking if I put the compost on top of the wood chips, that will put them in a place to rob nitrogen from the veggies, and I now have to add new wood chips for mulch.  
I redid my garden this year so my fence was down.  The chickens solved this problem for me by removing about seventy percent of the soul from all my garden beds.  (We won't even talk about what that cost me). Anyway the raised beds and pretty much brand new.  I used organic compost, organic garden soil, and organic chicken manure.  I planted beans in every bed, and I don't expect much for this season, but with luck the fall will do better.  If I can bring life to the soil.  Thanks for reading this, I would love to know what you do.
 
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I'm guessing your familiar with the "Back to Eden" method of using woodchips in annual gardens. Once the chips are down, you don't top dress with compost like you do with a normal garden bed. The chips slowly break down over time and you add more chips as necessary.

The thing with Nitrogen... There are actually 2 forms of plant available Nitrogen. Nitrate and Ammonia. Bacterial decomposition of woody material involves a chemical reaction with Nitrate which is why there is an initial period of low plant available Nitrogen.

Nitrates inhibit the growth of fungi, and fungi are required for breaking down lignins in woody material, so that Nitrogen drawdown is an early succession phase that allows fungi to take over. Fungi in turn, synthesize Ammonia, which is the only form of Nitrogen that trees and shrubs can use. Annual garden vegetables are also able to metabolize it too, but most herbaceous early succession / pioneer plants do not. The ratio of Nitrate to Ammonia in the soil is a fundamental driver of what actually grows in the soil.

Another reason why yo don't top dress a woodchip system with compost is because that system is geared for a fungal dominated soil food web, while compost is typically bacterial dominated. Adding compost alters the ratio of bacteria to fungi in a system like that and forces an earlier succession state. It is effectively working against how the system is designed to work.

I would save the compost for use in garden beds that do not have woodchips, and for making compost tea that you can use to improve lawns, pasture, and other herbaceous plant dominated areas you may have.
 
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Jen, I use straw or shredded leaves to mulch my annual garden raised beds.  Specifically, I have found that by putting straw down in the paths, letting it decompose for awhile, and then transferring the partially decomposed straw to the beds for mulch works really well for me.  The decomposed straw is more manageable for spreading in between rows of tiny vegetable seedlings.  Then add more new straw for the pathways.  Just make sure the straw has not been sprayed with persistent herbicides.  Save the wood chips for mulched flower garden beds or the food forest with more of a perennial planting strategy.
 
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Nick Kitchener wrote:I'm guessing your familiar with the "Back to Eden" method of using woodchips in annual gardens. Once the chips are down, you don't top dress with compost like you do with a normal garden bed. The chips slowly break down over time and you add more chips as necessary.

The thing with Nitrogen... There are actually 2 forms of plant available Nitrogen. Nitrate and Ammonia. Bacterial decomposition of woody material involves a chemical reaction with Nitrate which is why there is an initial period of low plant available Nitrogen.

Nitrates inhibit the growth of fungi, and fungi are required for breaking down lignins in woody material, so that Nitrogen drawdown is an early succession phase that allows fungi to take over. Fungi in turn, synthesize Ammonia, which is the only form of Nitrogen that trees and shrubs can use. Annual garden vegetables are also able to metabolize it too, but most herbaceous early succession / pioneer plants do not. The ratio of Nitrate to Ammonia in the soil is a fundamental driver of what actually grows in the soil.

Another reason why yo don't top dress a woodchip system with compost is because that system is geared for a fungal dominated soil food web, while compost is typically bacterial dominated. Adding compost alters the ratio of bacteria to fungi in a system like that and forces an earlier succession state. It is effectively working against how the system is designed to work.

I would save the compost for use in garden beds that do not have woodchips, and for making compost tea that you can use to improve lawns, pasture, and other herbaceous plant dominated areas you may have.



I do it differently.  I do top dress with compost or any other amendment I want to add, whether it is azomite, sea-90, "complete organic fertilizer", whatever.  I just put it on top of the wood chips and let the rain wash it down through them.  I haven't noticed any ill effects.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:I do it differently.  I do top dress with compost or any other amendment I want to add, whether it is azomite, sea-90, "complete organic fertilizer", whatever.  I just put it on top of the wood chips and let the rain wash it down through them.  I haven't noticed any ill effects.



This is me too.  It works wonderfully.  I've never seen any evidence that wood chip mulch causes a nitrogen problem.  The chips are constantly breaking down too, and they attract a whole suite of beneficial soil critters that live in them while they do it.  By the next year, usually my chips are so decomposed I dig into them to replant, put any compost or amendments on top or scattered around, and then drop a new layer of chip mulch right on top of the old layer as soon as the seedlings are tall enough.  The only time I rake chips away from an area is if I need better access to the soil layer underneath, and then I just leave them in a row and hoe them back.  I've only had to do this once or twice; usually it's "dig into the old bed, plant, amend, drop new chips on top."

Just now I used a bulb auger on a hand drill to drill little planting holes into the area I sheet mulched last year with cardboard, horse poop, and wood chips. It all looks like slightly woody soil now, and while I was drilling, dozens of huge earthworms came launching out of the ground due to the vibration.  I have no worries about these plants growing.  
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Wow lots to think about.  That's why I love permies. So much valuable information.  I like the thought of not having to use so much compost. I suck at making it so always have to buy it.  Even though I buy organic, I question the quality.  Seems like the most valuable parts of a good compost would die in the bag.???  
I also feel kind of dumb. Of course  it washes down under the wood chips. You couldn't keep it on top of you a wanted to. Im just having one of those duh moments, keeps me humble.  
This post is making me want to play.  Maybe I will, I have 7 raised beds. I could do 2 with wood chips mulch adding no additional compost. 2 beds adding compost with the new growing season like normal. 2 beds get straw.  I'm not calling it an experiment because there are to many difference in my raised beds.  I have 1 hugel beet that is about 2 1/2 years old. 1 hugel beet 2 years old. 2 hugel beets that are new this year. 1 that is more lasagna style. I didn't dig into the ground. I just did layers of wood, soil, wood chips, compost, kitchen scraps, more compost and soil.  The last 2 are regular raised beds filled with organic soil and compost.  Like I said all the soil and compost is fresh this year thanks to the chickens.  To many variables to be scientific, but I should get an idea what works for me.   Thanks
 
Nick Kitchener
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Totally experiment! You'll find the best method for your context much quicker that way
 
Trace Oswald
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Here is a video that I got an email about today from the Back to Eden mailing list I'm on.  Interestingly enough, he talks about this very topic.  It is one of the demonstration gardens from the original Back to Eden film.  He talks about just putting manure or compost on top of the wood chips in the garden and letting the rain wash it down in.  He does it several ways, but the main one seems to be putting composted horse manure right on top of the wood chips and then more chips on top of that in case the manure still has any weed seeds in it.

Back to Eden demonstration garden
 
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I have noticed a nitrogen issue in one area of my garden this year- the only area with pure wood chips down. Not in other areas, which were mulched with yard waste (mostly fall leaves) and straw. The weeds (daikon radish that self seeded) are very yellow and rather stunted. I just planted there this week so too early to see how my plants with deeper roots are affected. I used fresh from the tree maple over cardboard in that area, and the chips were pretty thin so probably are acting at the soil surface. My plan is to buy some manure and topdress, then add more yard waste or straw on top once the plants are a bit bigger and I have a bit of energy. My soil chews through mulch in about a year so I feel like adding a thin layer of manure before I put the next layer down isn't a huge issue, he mulch in that area is too thin anyways.

I know the back to Eden method specifies chips that have gone through a chicken run, so adding manure to fresh chips makes sense to me.
 
Trace Oswald
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Catie George wrote:
I know the back to Eden method specifies chips that have gone through a chicken run, so adding manure to fresh chips makes sense to me.



I have seen people write that time and time again, but I've never seen it in any of the interviews with Paul or anywhere else.  Do you remember where you heard it?  I would love to see the original information.
 
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I think there is often a lot of confusion with the "Back to Eden" method of gardening, but before I elaborate, let me summarize a secret of gardening that is common among all of the popular gardeners (Eliot Coleman, Ruth Stout, Paul Gautschi, Charles Douding, and so many others), and all of their various, effective, methods of gardening. If you want the best garden you can have, you need mulch and compost. I am using compost in the loosest definition here as "something organic turning back into soil". Whether this is compost, mulch, compost as mulch, composting mulch, or any combination there of, the key to each of these various methods is that they are creating a living soil that contains all the nutrients (macro and micro) that plants need. Look at all the methods and you will see this common theme.

There are many different ways to accomplish this, and "Back to Eden" is a popular method. I personally am using a similar method in my gardens. People miss the importance of chickens (and a wet climate) in this method. In the original documentary, he talks about putting down woodchips as a mulch. The bottom layer starts breaking down increasing organic matter which in turn increases the water holding capacity of the soil (no to mention the water retaining effect of the mulch itself). He then takes the "compost" from the bottom of his chicken run, sifts it, throws a thin layer on top and sometimes mixes it a bit with the rake. The chicken "compost" is high in nitrogen, something everyone is worried will be robbed from the soil when doing this method. This nitrogen helps break down the woodchips faster, and (as was mentioned) the nutrients are washed through the chips to the soil by the rain. I don't want to take away from the mystique of this method, but it is, at its core, composting in place. Combining chicken manure and woodchips produces great soil right in the garden where you need it, while keeping the weeds down.

This is not a fast soil building process. I believe in the documentary he says it takes at least 3-5 years to really get the benefits. People expect this in the first year. In the first year, you have good mulch. Later you get better soil. If your climate is dry, this breakdown will take longer. If you don't add chicken "compost", it will take longer. Having woodchips on your garden can be great, and can still be great even if they take a long time to break down. It is not for everyone, nor for every garden. You have to weed less, and you have to water less, but until your ecosystem balances you may get flareups of certain bugs. Depending on the plants you are growing, you need to rake back the woodchips before you plant in the soil (this is another point of confusion, you never plant in the mulch, you always pull the mulch back and plant in soil). This method does not eliminate all work. It creates some new work while removing some old work. I love the way it looks and the fact that I don't get so muddy on rainy days. I hate weeding, and would rather haul woodchips, so it works for me. The "Back to Eden" method or as I call it, the "sheet composting in place" method is a great tool in the permaculture toolbox, but as with swales it can be overdone and people can misunderstand the purpose. You can have a garden without doing this. It will really help in some cases and will be unnecessary in others.

I personally have been guilty of coming across a really cool "tool" in the permaculture toolbox and try to fit it to my land. I am not a permaculture expert by any means, but I do know that one is supposed to match the "tool" to the land, not the land to the "tool".

Happy gardening and please don't take any of this negatively. Anyone gardening, at all, is doing something great.
 
Catie George
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Trace Oswald wrote:

Catie George wrote:
I know the back to Eden method specifies chips that have gone through a chicken run, so adding manure to fresh chips makes sense to me.



I have seen people write that time and time again, but I've never seen it in any of the interviews with Paul or anywhere else.  Do you remember where you heard it?  I would love to see the original information.



I have never managed to watch the full movie.

But on his website:

https://www.backtoedenfilm.com/how-to-mulch-a-garden.html#/

And also especially:

https://www.backtoedenfilm.com/organic-fertilizer.html#/

It's pretty clear manure is a part of the system, and also that the mulch he uses is far finer than what I have access to.
 
Trace Oswald
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Yes, I understand.  I've watched the movie about 20 times :) , as well as every interview I have been able to find.  I've been using that method pretty extensively for a number of years now.  

No question he uses the material from his chicken run.  In recent years, that is the only material he uses because he has more trouble walking now, and it's harder for him to move wood chips.  His material is very fine because he screens it before using it in his annual gardens.  

Edited because I don't think I was clear in the part of your post I quoted.  I was talking only about this: "I know the back to Eden method specifies chips that have gone through a chicken run", not the part about adding manure.  I'm sorry I was unclear.  

 
Jen Fulkerson
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Thanks all.   Trace I enjoyed watching the video.  Sometimes people make things so simple, and I think of course, why didn't I think of that.  My only disagreement with what he said was the length of time he gets out of wood chips.  Maybe mine were soft wood though I know a good portion of it was sweet gum which I think I read is hard wood.  Maybe it's climate, I don't know. But I get one year weed free, and that is only if the chips are 8 to 12 inches deep.  The area I'm trying to start a food forest in the chips are 18 months, maybe two years, but I don't think so, and it's totally over run with weeds.  My paths around my rose garden had cardboard with about 8" of wood chips last year, and it is also full of weeds. For me I have to put a new layer of chips every year.  I figured I would just have to keep weeding all summer. But now I'm going to try to get most of the weeds out ASAP, and gather my buckets, while the veggies are small enough and get a new layer of chips on. I just didn't think I could do it without killing everything that's growing.  Now I can if I'm quick enough, so thanks 😊.
 
Trace Oswald
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Also keep in mind he has been pulling wood chips in his orchard for 30 years, snd stopped tilling his annual gardens 15 years ago. That's a lot of time to build soil and get rid of weed seeds. The tough perennial weeds I have to kill by smothering first. Paul mentioned digging those before covering the area with paper or cardboard. I have areas I smothered for a year before planting a cover crop or covering with chips.  If I had unlimited chips I may be able to just keep piling them on, but I don't have nearly enough chips to do that. I did just buy a pretty heavy duty PTO wood chipper, so that will help a great deal.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Good point, I didn't think about that. I have only been doing this for two or three years.  It c gives me something to look forward to. Thanks
 
Matt McSpadden
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Hi Jen,
Don't get discouraged by how long you get out of the woodchips. He even talks about (not sure if it was the documentary or an interview) how he had to add woodchips every year when he first started, but over time he was able to go for longer amounts of time. I didn't even get a year weed free, so you are ahead of me there. But then I had more garden than woodchips to cover it, so I put about 3 inches of fall leaves with about 4 inches of woodchips on top. The worms loved it, and it certainly helped, but it probably should have been deeper to start with.
 
Joshua LeDuc
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I hear you Jen.  I spread cardboard and about 6 inches of wood chips for my brand new food forest last winter, and somehow the crab grass is poking through all over the place.  I sure hope that this issue subsides after a few years......
 
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I do it like this I used to compost and till in the gardens now I use wood chips in the sheep barn and turkey houses. I lay cardboard between the rows and lay six to eight inches of the chip manure mix down then the next planting I shift the rows and repeat the card board last around 5 months so I really composting in the garden I have no issues with low nitrogen and the hot manure is slowly release during rain storms and I have not had any burn issues doing this. Big plus very little weeding
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Just an FYI about getting woodchips for free. Check out https://getchipdrop.com/
The tree trimmers can come by your place and dump their load of what they just trimmed and shredded while working near you.
Then I pile it 1' thick around every tree and bush. I have seen a huge improvement in how everything grows now. Happy roots make for a happy plant!
 
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I love the wood chips in perennial beds, but I hate them in annual beds.  Trees and shrubs grow fine. I don't find that my annual plants grow very well in the beds with wood chips. I have some bed with annuals, including fruit and veg crops,  and perennials (including fruit bushes and trees), and all the beds initially had wood chips, placed in 2019. I'm in zone 9, Charleston, SC. I'm moving the chips away from the places where I plant annuals. My theory is that you can't really keep the chips out of the soil if you're planting and replanting an area, and that the chips are, therefore, robbing the soil of nitrogen.

If you're planting two annual crops per year, I wouldn't use wood chips there.
 
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I saw this video on the chipdrop site — https://youtu.be/ilAv8SzB_Aw — and decided it wasn’t for me. Where else are you all getting wood chips?
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I called my local tree trimming company.  They asked me questions like anything I don't want, is there a place to dump chips ect.  Then when they are in my area they drop them off.  It has worked very well for me. Good luck.
 
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Matt has pretty much said what I wanted to say.

Regarding the BTE method, and chickens. He never says it outright in the main video, but it comes up in a few of his later walking tours that have been recorded and put on youtube. He puts all his chips in the chicken run, where they spend a few months before being shovelled out. This kick starts the breakdown towards compost, and the chickens physically break down a lot of the material to a finer texture.  When he shovels them back out again he still refers to it as "wood chips". You'll hear him say repeatedly "This is just woodchips" or similar, while working with material that has been partially composted and put through a chicken run.

We use a lot of woodchips at our place.

On the various paths we put down fresh chips in a deep layer each year. They do break down in the lower layers, but their purpose is very much to keep the paths from turning into mud baths in winter.

Elsewhere, we use use partially rotted chips as a mulch. They often spend a year in a heap, before being applied. I found deep layers of uncomposted material to be unhelpful. It was intercepting even large quantities of rain, or overhead watering which wasn't getting to the root zone of the plants as a result. I would have saturated chips sitting on bone dry soil, with a very distinct boundary layer. 12 months later this is less of a problem, but it takes time for fresh chips to help. They do do an excellent job of supressing weeds, however. I imagine it would work really well with buried drip irrigation.

I have since found that once broken down a bit, the mulch material does absorb plenty of water, but seems to share it better with the soil beneath. There is more wicking taking place I think.

My big personal complaint about using "chips" that have not broken down is that it makes it harder to use my preferred weeding tools - a nice sharp hoe. The hoe gets snagged and clogged on the bulky chips. These days in areas where I will need to do weeding I prefer to use the well rotted chips from the chicken run, which have been physically broken down to a mine mulch. I run the mulch quickly through a coarse screen as I chuck it in the barrow, to sift out the worst of the big chunks.

On balance, chips have been a huge positive for me, but it takes some experimentation to get the hang of using them. And recognition that they are at their most effective when they are not really chips any more - the more broken down the better. To this end our chips now get inoculated with wine cap mycelium while it is heaped before spreading in it's final location. This speeds the decomposition, and has the added benefit of a yummy side yield of mushrooms. I have been picking our first flushes for the past two weeks, and I'm looking forward to lots more in the future as we spread the wine caps through the whole area, instead of currently two small patches.

 
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I very much appreciate the information in these posts.  I’ve been using wood chips for 5 years as my only source of mulch, aside from leaves which drop from my deciduous trees in fall. The chips I get also have leaves and pine needles mixed in. Except for an asparagus bed, I don’t have dedicated areas for vegetables. Instead, in late spring I put out a few tomatoes and peppers here and there, which get mulched individually.  My garden consists mostly of shrubs and trees.

Matt’s reference to sheet composting struck a chord.  I’m a somewhat unsuccessful compost maker as I am unable to match the amount of greens with browns, or vice versa.  My few kitchen scraps take a long time to break down.  Instead of waiting till fall, when I’ll have a little finished compost, it seems like a better idea to put out my half finished compost either atop or underneath the chips.

Dry climate here. The chips take a long time to break down. But they work very well to protect the surface of the soil and conserve water.  
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