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How to get wood chips - the Permie White Whale

Posts: 1340
Location: Virginia USDA 7a/b
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Sort of a compendium about wood chips documenting how I have been thinking/working on this. I think based on the threads and my own experience you can be rolling in the humus! Hopefully Marco and Todd and some of the other wood chip aficionados can input as well.

If you are urban/suburban, generally waste collection companies will have a location they chip, and it is often free or cheap. The downsides are that quality control can be poor (I have gotten chopped up bottles and glass from one of these sources, I assume one of the employees had a "give a damn moment" and just chucked it in there), and you almost always have to pick it up. It will often contain lots of chopped greens as well, whatever people put out for collection. For large volumes it literally may be cost effective to hire a 10-14 yard dump truck driver to deliver (around here its about $120, I found one on Craigslist), but some places will not allow more than a certain size load.  I can only get a couple yards in a full size truck bed and would burn about the same amount of fuel making 5 round trips (ours is 45 min away), plus it takes all day.  Your math may be different. After a major storm they may waive the load limit. This is probably the best source for small chip amounts (<40 cubic yards/year).

Arborists/Tree Companies: THE. BEST. SOURCE! Generally clean, local, and they often have to pay to dump hundreds of yards a year. Strategy here is to have relationships with a few of them, and understand their motivation/issues. They generally want a place they don't have to call ahead of time with good (preferred hard top) access, has no power lines or soft soil (these are tall heavy trucks) and they can train their employees to use with minimal headaches. I prepared a location for the coming bounty of wood chips, marked it with flags and signage, and got nada! It turns out that they would rather pay the $20 fee to dump (or whatever) than pay their employees an extra half hour dumping at a new place. So suck it up and offer to pay them, or hire them for a job with the understanding that you get wood chips as part of the deal. So far I have gotten one load, but that is one more load than I got last year! I have called/met five different ones. I always offer to pay them, show them pictures of the signage/dump area, and even include an address link in the text/email. Using a combined strategy has at least been somewhat effective. I got a load of 8 yards for $20, which is pretty awesome. The guy says he will give me as much as I can handle, and didn't blanch when I said I wanted at least  200 yards a year. If I can get more than that I will compost in place and post pictures to make people jealous.

Utilities companies: If you have contacts with someone, they often have internal service trucks to remove trees. I have made one contact but it takes some effort, they again probably just want to finish the job and go home. Probably legally iffy to pay them, but I am trying to come up with a sweetener. If anyone has ideas let me know. They love beer, maybe just a promise to have a case there under a tarp? No joke, the best place to meet these guys are at gas stations at the end of the workday, getting some drink. Same for arborists! Close second is at the beginning of the workday getting coffee and snacks.

Landscape companies: Expensive! Around here $20-30 a yard plus delivery. This sucks! Generally good quality, often artificially colored though. If you only need a few yards maybe it makes sense. Or you have lots of money.

Craigslist: Seems like a maybe source for a yard or two. Of course you have to shovel it into your truck, plus all the usual Craigslist weirdness.  

Chip your own: If you have literally a ton of brush, to me this seems better than burning. I know Paul disagrees with chipping, but I got all I needed (but not all I wanted) last year from chipping for two days and 14 gallons of fuel. It was about 14 yards total. I don't own a chipper so it would have been cheaper to buy chips rather than pay for the rental, but it kept the carbon on my property. Big stuff gets hugelled, little stuff rots in place, and medium stuff gets chipped.

I plan on amending this based on input. I know there are a bunch of prior threads on the value of chips and if it keeps raining I may throw them in here as well. This is basically a procurement thread!

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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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My best strategy has always been to follow my ears to the sound of the chipper, drive around until I find them, and then talk to the head of the crew.  2 out of 3 times, they say, "Sure".  Actually, around here, they say "Si", as all the tree trimming crews are Spanish speaking.

I've gotten good at looking at the job they are doing and estimating how long it will take them before they are done ---- then I drive back over and wait for them.  I'll lead them to my place and show them where to dump.  If they've got a big job, sometimes you'll get more than one load.  I got 3 loads last year from one crew working a big job.  I've got a wide and deep driveway (a 3 car garage off the front of the house), but 3 loads of chips is a LOT of biomass to deal with.  That took us about 10 days to move.

If you don't wait there for them and only give them your address, over half the time, they'll ditch out on you.  

Since I've been doing this for 17 years, I run into the same guys frequently.  

Beggers can't be choosers.  You've got to take what they give you.  Yes, that means that their fast-food lunch trash will be tossed up into the back of the truck, but I've never had glass, as you mentioned above.  You'll find the remains of an old wood rotted fence, or other scrap lumber.  No biggie.  I just keep a trash can handy as I'm moving the chips.  I always ask, "Is there any palm in this load?"  Palm trees run through a chipper are a stringy tangled mess.  You can't move the chips very easily—like trying to untangle a pile of week-old spaghetti.  I'll pass on a load if I see a big pile of Queen Palm or Mexican Fan Palm branches laying there.  Brazilian Pepper is something of an invasive tree around here.  If you get mulch from a Brazilian Pepper tree, you've got to be prepared to pull sprouting trees for the next 2 years.  For me, it's worth it, but it's still a pain in the ass.

City crews (working city streets or the parks) won't give you their chips.  They don't care about saving money or time.  For them, they just collect their salary, so if they have to drive a truck an hour to a dump, that's an hour less they have to work.

Basically, the rule of thumb is that if they speak Spanish, they'll be willing to give them to you.  If it's a bunch of white guys in nice uniforms, forget it.  If they are Union, forget it.

There is a local college that has a lot of tree work done at the end of summer right before students return for the Fall semester.  They hit the campus with several trucks and 2 chippers -- a big crew of about 10 guys.  If I can catch those guys, they give you great mulch.  Their chippers always have a sharp blade to the chips are finely chopped.  They are usually good for 2 loads every August.  I don't want much more than that at any one time, as you need to move the chips pretty quickly or mold spores develop, and then you have to wear a mask.

I wish I had a lot where they could just come and dump them, and then I could leave them to age for a year before I moved them.  
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Location: Zone 6b
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Here the feds got nasty so we have to send our trash 100 miles to a landfill, I kid not. I am on speed dial from the power and phone companies that service this area because I will take anything they chip. For free, if they deliver. No having to truck it away or pay to have it hauled. The recent super late blizzard we had, I have been gifted with a big windrow pile. We even made stakes with flags to move to the front edge of the pile on the 'road that doesn't exist' so that delivering trucks/trailers know where to back up to. I also run an open compost pile and the four lawn services, are allowed to dump leaf and grass clippings, again I have a flag on where to dump right now and they don't have to pay to get rid of it. Having two acres and two abandoned/platted but will never be built streets, helps too. So yes, make the right friends... heh.

Edit for Marco Banks.. sometimes the guys in the nice uniforms will be nicer if you bring along a cold six. You have to gauge that carefully. I know last big urban I lived in, trash guys were always nicer for a beer each especially on a hot day; and the tree services, just wait until they start going through the neighborhood. Where I'm at now, the fact I'm getting to be understandable in Spanish goes a long ways to the Hispanic crews. Beer doesn't hurt there either. Though do make sure to offer adult beverages at the END of the job.
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