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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Venturing into wood-chip gardening

A month ago we had two trees taken out in anticipation of having our house reroofed. The new roof is on, and after some back and forth with the company, we're pleased with how it looks. Today is the first day of rain since the roof was replaced, so we will see how well it works.

As I'd mentioned before, one of the trees was a birch tree, with lovely white bark. I've used some of the more level logs as tables and stools around our fire ring. I'm thinking of using some of the rest of those logs in the landscape near the wooded part of our property. The other tree was a cedar. I've yet to find a use for those logs. The branches of both were chipped up by the tree removal company. We asked that they leave the wood chips with us. So they dumped about 10 cubic yards of wood chips on our driveway. Initially I used about 1 cubic yard of those chips under our blueberry bushes and on a pathway alongside one of the potato beds. The other 9 yards sat on the driveway for several weeks.

One evening this last week I watched a documentary (Back to Eden) on no-till gardening that relied on wood chips as the mulch layer on top of the beds and beneath fruit trees. I was intrigued by this idea, as I had 9 yards of wood chips at my disposal and wanted my driveway back for, you know, driving on. I then watched a few other videos on wood chip, no-till gardening and gathered as much information as I needed to begin. 

The other day I spent about 5 to 6 hours hauling wood chips to various parts of our yard. I primarily used the chips under our fruit trees and on our pumpkin patch. But I also topped the tomato bed and cabbage/Brussel sprout bed with some chips. 

The idea is that you don't till these wood chips into the soil but allow them to break down slowly over time, releasing nutrients at a very slow pace and eventually improving the soil texture. New wood chips are added every year to maintain a good mulch that will hold in moisture and suppress weeds. The speaker in the documentary also said that wood chips are not the only kind of mulch that can be used in no-till gardening. Stone mulches and rotted compost mulches will also work. 

I chose to use the chips under fruit trees and on the pumpkin patch as those two areas are the most needy in my garden and orchard. Our pear trees have suffered tremendously over the last 5 years. Last year and the year before, I mulched under both trees with compost, hoping to improve the vigor of these trees. We all noticed this spring that the pear trees do indeed look better. I don't think there are very many pears on this year's trees, but the trees themselves look healthier. The only thing different that I did for these trees was to mulch them well two years in a row. I'm hoping the wood chip mulch will help them even more. Some of the wood chips also went under the apple trees and one of two cherry trees. This is simply anecdotal, but a few years back I put a wood chip mulch under the other cherry tree and we've since had more cherries each summer. When I get more wood chips, I'll spread some of those under this other cherry tree, too.

After spreading a thick layer in the orchard I spread an equally thick layer on the pumpkin patch. The two issues I've had with the pumpkin patch is lack of water retention and overall poor soil. On the hottest days of summer I've needed to water the patch twice a day. I'm hoping to reduce watering and increase yield in this gardening space.

We will see how wood chip, no-till gardening works out for me. For more information on this method, I recommend watching Back to Eden. You can watch the entire film on You Tube for free.

Anyway, the other part of all of this that I wanted to share with you is a way to get free wood chips delivered to your property. Not all of us will be taking down trees soon for our own wood chips. But there is a website that coordinates arborists (tree trimmers) with folks who want the chipped-up wood. Sometimes logs (to use for firewood) can be gotten for free through this service as well. The problem for arborists is that after pruning or taking out a tree, not all homeowners want the residual chips or logs. This leaves the arborist with the job and expense of disposing these by products. 

ChipDrop is a service that matches up arborists and homeowners. You register at the website for wanting wood chips, fire wood, or both and the site hooks you up with an arborist in your area. Arborists pay for the service, but the recipients don't, although there's an option to make a donation if one desires. I had heard of ChipDrop before. I believe one of you mentioned it a while back. I'd never really looked into this service until recently when one of my neighbors got a huge load of wood chips through them. My neighbor was using the wood chips on his ornamental beds and to make a long pathway through the yard to the kids' play area. So this isn't necessarily a service that would only be applicable to folks with orchards or large vegetable gardens. Any gardening space one has that is in need of a natural mulch layer could benefit from a truck drop of wood chips. 

A couple of good tips for using ChipDrop:

  • share the bounty. If you don't need a full truckload of wood chips, offer some to your gardening neighbors.
  • best time to sign up is immediately after a large storm passes through your area, damaging lots of trees.
  • worst time to sign up is in spring (like now) as homeowners are getting their yards fixed up for summer. Once summer is under way, there will be fewer competitors for those truckloads of wood chips.
  • you can make some requests, such as "no fruit trees" or "no conifers" or "wood chips only, no logs" or "logs only" if you're concerned about tree diseases spreading to your own trees, or you want only chips or only logs.
  • be prepared to have a dumping on your driveway without warning. When you sign up, you're agreeing to accepting any delivery, the entire delivery, at any time. Of course, if your situation changes, you can always unenroll or cancel your request.
  • once you get one delivery, your information is automatically removed from the listings, so you won't receive more than one delivery. If you want more, you need to list yourself on the service again.
  • wondering if ChipDrop is in your area? On the FAQ page of the ChipDrop website there's section that can tell you if they are active in your area. I entered a bunch of random cities and states, just to see, and all that I entered had active users of this service. It might be helpful to understand what is involved with this service by reading that FAQ page in its entirety, for both the arborists and the gardeners.
  • while this service is free to the homeowner/gardener, you can increase your chances of receiving a delivery sooner rather than later by offering to pay the $20 fee that the arborist would have paid to the service. $20 for a truckload of wood chips is a bargain. However, if you're more like me, you might want to wait until near the end of summer, when utility companies are trimming trees in the way of power lines and homeowners are assessing the trees in their yards that should come down before fall storms begin. Later in summer is when the bulk of tree trimming and removal usually occurs, resulting in an increase in arborists needing a spot in which to dispose the wood chips. 
  • If what you're hoping to receive is logs to use for firewood, most folks aren't really thinking about burning wood for heating their homes in spring and early summer. Now would be the time of year to sign up for the service to receive "logs only".

Have you used ChipDrop before? If you keep a vegetable garden, have you tried no-till gardening? Any tips to share?


  1. Several years ago a lady from work was building a house and had a lot of trees removed from the property in order to build. She allowed anyone to come and take shredded chips any time and if your timing was right, they might even use the equipment on site to load into your trailer or truck. Last spring we had a big tree cut down and asked for the shredded chips to be dropped on our driveway for use around the property. I will definitely look up chipdrop because that would be perfect for a refresh on the wood chips already in place.

    1. I hope ChipDrop is serving your area, Alice. More wood chips sound like they would be appreciated.

  2. We have used wood chips around shrubs from fallen trees from our yard. One time we got a load of chips, but they were not dumped where we wanted them and that caused a problem. However, most arborists are happy to drop wood chips because they have to otherwise pay to dump them

    1. That's too bad the wood chips were not dumped where you wanted them, Live and Learn. From what I've heard, the best time to request wood chips are when you see an arborist at work in your neighborhood. So many of my own neighbors are not interested in keeping the wood chips. So, like you said, the arborist has to pay to dispose of them and is happy to drive them right over to your place.

  3. Lili, it's funny we never talked about this, because we also saw Back to Eden years ago, bought it to keep, and liked it very much. We used it to establish our berry patches and orchard here, and think you'll probably get the results you're looking for, especially for the pumpkin patch. We've found that the moisture retention is much better than the surrounding ground, and although our 6-8 inches has NOT killed off the weeds, as the filmmakers found (not sure that was part of Mr. Gauchi's experience), it's super-easy to weed out the (flourishing! LOL) pasture grass, red dock, and most other weeds we have, because the soil beneath is super-soft. Good luck with this new (and thrifty!) technique! Sara

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thank you for sharing your own experience. I've spread a bunch of the wood chips under my blueberry bushes. I'm hoping these bushes become more productive in the long run. And yes, really hoping this makes a difference in the pumpkin patch, at the very least not needing to water as often would be appreciated. Did you lay out some cardboard or newspaper before spreading wood chips in order to thwart the weeds? The one couple in the film who also tried this used newspaper first. But they didn't comment (or I didn't hear at least) on whether or not this blocked the weeds. I know some weeds and plants are so persistent and will come through cardboard when it breaks down, even after a couple of years. I really liked the film and will likely rewatch it.

    2. Lili, yes, we actually did a test plot, half of which had newspaper layers, and half which didn't. Some had the original weeds "whacked" to the dirt. None of it seemed to make a lick of difference. (Actually, we thought that the part with the newspaper was slightly lusher. Go figure! LOL) YMMV! :) We've re-watched the film several times to try and get a better feel for what Paul Gauchi actually said, and what the filmmaker girls and their families took from talking to him, and we're still not completely sure. We actually hoped to go to Mr. Gauchi's in person for one of his open-house days, but never got over there. It seems to me that he mostly says weeding is easier, not that they're blocked. I know cardboard is used in some weed-control bed construction, and it seems like it might be harder to grow through. But I also don't know the pros and cons of stratified layers, for bugs and good/bad bacteria/molds. We're not unhappy about our results at all -- and because of botanists in the family, I completely believe the no-till philosophy -- but we've warned a few people we've recommended the movie to that starting with a weed-/grass-free area would probably make for the LEAST weeding. (Our orchard area was so big, digging or scraping all the weeds away was not going to be practical. Also, weed seeds do like the rich, nutritious environment, too! WINK) I don't know about the pH of birch, specifically, for blueberries; but I HAVE noticed that anytime I've added chips around the base of existing plants/shrubs, they've improved. My assumption is that it's that combination of moisture-retention and nutrients filtering down. Sara

    3. Hi Sara,
      I am hopeful that the plants and trees will improve with the mulch. I guess is makes sense that improving the soil in any way would make weeds grow well too. At least they may be easier to pull out of the mulch than out of the compacted dirt.
      Thanks for sharing your info.

    4. Weeds are absolutely easier to pull. A LOT easier! (Thumbs up!) Sara

    5. Good to know, Sara!

  4. We use coconut coir that seens to work like a mulch. I am afraid to use wood chips because there are ground termites where we live.

    I am curious how you compost your kitchen scraps. I don't think I'm doing it correctly.


    1. Hi Laura,
      You had mentioned using coconut coir before. I think this is the same or similar material that wire frame hanging baskets are lined with. It's supposed to hold water well. So that would be good for your garden I would think.

      We have 2 composters, one a tumbling one and the other a large black plastic round bin with lid. We thought the tumbling one would be the better of the two, But we like the stationary one better. The tumbling one holds too much water in the material and it seems to take longer to break down. With the large bin, I layer kitchen and green garden scraps with lightweight paper and thin cardboard (brown material) as we go. When it is filled, I move the bin (it lifts off) to a new spot and let the compost continue to break down. After a month or two of sitting without adding anything new, I turn the pile over into a spot on the dirt next to it. I do this, going back and forth, a few times. It takes about a full year for the material to break down. It's best if scraps are similar in size, with no big chunks. If I have something like the cobs from corn on the cob, I'll chop those into small chunks. Some items, like avocado pits, will remain in the compost as is for a couple of years. Some people screen their compost to get the chunks out, then use the finer stuff in their gardens. I use it all as is in the garden, removing only the really big chunks or things that may encourage a raccoon or squirrel to dig around in the garden.

      You know, before we had any sort of composter we had a compost heap behind a tree, out of view. Yes, animals did dig in it from time to time. But for the most part, it did pretty well. I would turn it every couple of months and stuff would break down. After a few years we had some of the best soil in that spot. So, I think composting is less complicated than many people think. If your compost begins to smell bad, you probably need to add some brown matter, like paper or torn cardboard. Same on if the compost is too wet. Some brown material will usually help that. If it's breaking down too slowly, turning it or stirring it (you can buy a tool for stirring the compost) will add oxygen to the mix and speed things up. I hope this helps.

    2. Thank you so much for sharing your composting methods. It seems the important take away is making sure there is enough brown matter and keeping the compost dry. I've been drying garden leaves and stems before adding to the pile and cutting them smaller so I'm glad to hear that you do that too. We don't have rain often, so I don't have a lid but maybe next time I will cover the pile if rain is in the forecast. I've been tossing it everyday as I add new kitchen scraps. I think I will do what you do, just leave it and start a new site, after awhile toss the compost remains to the dirt next to it. Thank you so much for this info.


    3. Hi again, Laura. One thing on moisture content of compost heaps/bins -- I've heard they should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. So, not really dry, just not soggy. Good luck!

    4. Thanks. Just curious why brown matter helps. To absorb excess moisture?

    5. Brown matter does a couple of things for the compost pile. It adds carbon, which is a primary nutrient for the microbes which break everything down. It adds structure to the pile, as brown matter decays more slowly than green, providing air pockets throughout, oxygenating the pile. And third, the brown matter does absorb the excess water content, so the pile doesn't become one big slime-ball. It's a balance between greens and browns, but you don't need to get the proportions between the two perfect. Good luck!


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