Wood chip gardening, also known as the Back-to-Eden method of gardening, has gained popularity in recent years. It’s done so for good reason, but many people give up after just a season or two because they are not implementing the process correctly.
Here are 10 common mistakes that people make when wood chip gardening; this will help you to proceed with success in your gardening journey.
Mistake #1: The Wrong Kind of Wood Chips Were Used
Before you get started in wood chip gardening, it’s a good idea to research the type of wood chips that are best to use.
First, wood chips from your local garden center are generally made of bark or waste wood. These chips are low in the nutrients your garden needs to thrive. In addition, they may contain chemicals which can leach into your soil. Be sure to ask questions of your wood chip supplier.
Ramial wood chips, on the other hand, are made from the smaller branches of trees, and often the leaves. The branches are a source of carbon (small branches also contain some nitrogen), and the green leaves provide nitrogen. Using both branches and leaves as mulch in your organic garden will create a very fertile soil.
Mistake #2: Using Chips From the Wrong Species of Trees
Have you heard the term allelopathic? This refers to the effect one type of plant can have on neighboring plants. The effect can be either beneficial or harmful. When sourcing wood chips it is helpful to know what species of tree you are getting, and how that species may affect your garden.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds and there is helpful advice in the post Using Wood Chips for Mulch: What to Use and What to Avoid.
In addition to information on allelopathic trees, you’ll find information on using chips from diseased or insect infested trees.
Mistake #3: The Mulch is Too Deep
Wood chip depth is an important consideration and we have found it essential to success in using wood chips as a mulch in our organic vegetable garden.
From experience, we have found that 2 – 3″ is just right for wood chip mulch. Most problems from using wood chips on vegetables result from mulching too deeply.
Wood chips will need to be pushed aside at planting time so that you can plant your seeds, or seedlings in the soil, not in the mulch. Deep wood chips will be very difficult to push aside, especially for plants that are planted close together.
On the other hand, using less than 2″ will not provide the weed suppression that is so important in vegetable gardening.
Be sure to read my post on using wood chips as mulch in a vegetable garden for more information.
Mistake #4: Digging the Wood Chips Into the Garden Soil
One of the things you may hear about using wood chips in your vegetable garden is that they rob the soil of nitrogen. Whether this is true depends on how you use your wood chips. When used on the top of your garden soil as mulch, there will be nitrogen deficiency at the point where the mulch meets the soil.
Adding a high nitrogen material such as blood meal is a good idea, but not strictly necessary. The important thing to remember is to always plant below this point of contact so that nitrogen will be available to your plants.
We have found that plants with shallow roots, or tiny seeds that need to be planted near the surface of the soil, such as carrots, produce better using mulch that can be removed more easily. For these areas, we prefer to mulch with hay.
Digging wood chips into your garden soil, however, will certainly rob your soil of nitrogen as they decompose and should be avoided.
Mistake #5: Planting Seeds or Seedlings in Wood Chips Rather than Soil
As mentioned in mistake #4 above, as wood chips decompose they use up nitrogen and therefore seeds and plants should not be planted right in the wood chips, but rather in the soil below.
In addition, one of the reasons that wood chips make a great mulch is that they provide an unfavorable environment for weed seeds to germinate. This benefit in weed control, however, can be a detriment to garden plants as well.
Therefore, don’t make the mistake of planting right in the the wood chips; be careful to plant only in the soil below.
Tip: When it is time to plant it is best to push the wood chips aside to access the soil.
Mistake #6: Allowing the Chips to Remain Dry
Moisture is a necessary component of decomposition. Soil building is your main concern when gardening, and wood chips build beautiful soil as they decompose.
If you live in a very dry climate you certainly want to use mulch to conserve moisture but you may be disappointed if you choose wood chips as a mulch and they do not decompose.
In addition, especially if applied too thickly, dry wood chips can actually repel water. If you choose to use them in a dry climate it is highly recommended that you use a drip line under the mulch.
Here in the NE part of the U.S., especially the last few years, we have had the opposite problem. We have received higher than normal amounts of rain and our wood chips sometimes have to be replaced twice a year because they are decomposing so quickly.
Mistake #7: Not Giving the Wood Chips Time to Decompose
An acquaintance once complained that she had no success with using wood chips as mulch in her vegetable garden. She had lain down the chips and after not seeing any worms within a few months she panicked and removed all of the chips.
She clearly did not understand the process of decomposition. First, water, as mentioned, is essential to the process.
Secondly, nitrogen is necessary for fungi and bacteria to begin the process of decomposition.
And then, once decomposition begins, other organisms, like protozoa, arrive to feed on the decaying material. It is only after these organisms do their job that beetles, centipedes and earthworms arrive to complete the process.
My acquaintance had jumped the gun in declaring her project a failure because she did not understand that earthworms do not arrive until the last stages of decomposition and that she, perhaps, did not help matters along in the first stages.
It’s important to also remember that the slow process of decomposition also means slow release of nutrients and that is a bonus for your garden.
Mistake #8: Not Understanding that Mushrooms are Part of the Process
I am frequently asked about mushrooms growing in wood chips. People panic with this one for some reason.
In his book, Woodchip Handbook, author Ben Raskin says, “Woodchip without fungi is like a sea without fish: just wrong.”
Rotting wood and fungi just go hand in hand. Mushrooms are part of the process of decomposition of wood and are in no way harmful to your garden.
Mistake #9: Not Putting Compost or Manure Below Wood Chips in a New Garden
As mentioned, wood chips take time to decompose and that means it also takes time for them to build fertile garden soil.
One gardener I know decided to build a new garden in the fall by placing a deep layer of wood chips on top of a grassy area with no other preparation.
The fact that he did this in the fall did help since it gave the chips some time to begin the process of decomposition before spring planting. But still, the soil below the wood chips was still quite compacted at the time of planting.
His garden was not a complete failure but did not produce anywhere need as well as it could have if he had taken the time to first lay down a weed barrier of newspaper or cardboard, and then a layer of compost or manure.
This layer is where seeds should have been planted in the spring, rather than the still hard soil below the chips.
Mistake #10: No Source of Nitrogen Provided
Wood chips are generally high carbon and will benefit from an addition of nitrogen. While it is a myth that the wood chips will rob the soil of nitrogen, there is a nitrogen deficiency at the point where the mulch meets the soil, and is helpful to add a source of nitrogen at this point of contact.
Ramiel wood chips which contain both small branches and green leaves are one way to solve this problem as green leaves will offset the carbon in the branches. In addition, young branches have a higher nitrogen content than large, older parts of the tree.
Another reliable source of nitrogen is blood meal.
Have you tried the Back-to-Eden method of gardening? What has been your experience?
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