When we first watched the documentary film, Back to Eden, about two years ago, we fell in love with wood chips. It’s a fascinating journey through the beautiful gardens and orchards of master gardener, Paul Gautschi, who lives in northern Washington state. (You can watch this inspiring film for free on the Back to Eden website.) Even though we had two successful vegetable gardens up to that point as new home owners, we were looking for a way to increase yield, control weeds, and decrease watering costs during the summer, just like every other gardener in America. We resolved to try wood chips as a mulch in our garden as soon as we could find the time. Fortunately, for us, one of our family members owns a tree service company that dumps wood chips for a small donation at local venues.
(Note: the type of chips I’m referring to are from the entire tree, including the branches and leaves, not bark chips. Wood chips freshly cut from full-grown trees have the most valuable nutrients as garden mulch.)
Wood Chip Spreading Commences
In the fall of 2014, we had a full truck load, then another half load dumped in our front garden. (A year previously, we had tilled up the entire front lawn and turned it into a vegetable garden.) Between the two of us, it took Jim and I about four hours to spread out the chips evenly with rakes. A couple months later, at the beginning of winter, we had another full load dumped in our driveway, to carry to the back garden for spreading. We raked the mulch to about four to five inches deep over both the front and back gardens. And there the wood chips sat all winter and most of spring, starting to break down and creating lush, moist soil underneath.
We have plans to incorporate more landscaping in the front garden in between leaving large patches for vegetables, as finances permit us to buy more expensive plants. For now, the front garden looks clean but fairly brown through the winter. I’m glad the neighbors haven’t seemed to mind.
Spring Planting Defeat and Victory
We were excited to begin in late spring, so I planted summer squash seeds in early May in the front garden. I may have begun too soon, but this year, we had such a warm spring (those of you who live in the Northwest know that we have had one of the warmest springs in recorded history!), I thought that we would have success with an early planting. To my surprise, only three or four seeds out of 15 survived! Compared to previous years, this was an abysmal record. What to do? Try, try again. Thus, I planted from seed a second time, and again, only two or three survived. Then, I started to take notice. The new growth was being eaten by slugs! It seems that the wood chips attract tiny slugs and they are everywhere. Even though I couldn’t always find them, their slimy trails and half-eaten squash leaves were evidence they had taken their toll on my fresh plants. (I have not studied slug habitat, but don’t they come out more at night?) The third time, I got smart. I started well over a dozen squash plants (just to be safe!) in small black garden containers and then planted the starts in the soil, once they were at least five inches tall. Finally, success! Now, all of my squash plants are growing and not one of the “starts” has died.
First lesson? Plant from starts, not from seed. In this first year of my Back to Eden garden, I’ve learned that squash plants do much better from starts.
(Notice how the squash plants are in different stages of growth. That’s due to the first and second plantings of seeds dying off from slug attacks! The third time, I planted starts that were at least five inches tall and had success.)
Our back garden of carrots, turnips, rutabagas, collards, kale, and more was planted much later in June, for various reasons. We followed the rules for a first year Back to Eden garden. On the page, How to Grow an Organic Garden, the website states:
“If you are using raw wood chips, pull them back and plant in the soil or compost (material below the wood chips). Allow the seeds to come up before pulling the wood chips back around the base of the plant.”
We did exactly that – pulled the wood chips back to make “soil trenches” to plant in. The results have been less than stellar. Why? It seems at this early stage, we might have “too many” chips. Even when we pull them back and try to plant directly in the soil, the chips fall back into the trench. From my limited experience, it’s my guess that the chips are smothering the new growth, at least when planted from seed. The turnips and rutabagas have done the best and seem to be growing fairly well. Only about 50 percent of the carrots, kale, broccoli, and kohlrabi have made it.
The Pros and Cons of Using Wood Chips
I have to admit my love for wood chips is not as fervent as it once was. I really thought this first year would go more smoothly. But with every new venture, you should expect bumps in the road, right? In some senses, wood chips are the best thing to happen to our gardens. In other ways, I dislike the chips for making me work harder than I thought I would need to. As the wood chips break down and become a part of the soil, I think future plantings will be easier and more successful.
Let me share our observations about using wood chips. There is good news and bad news.
- Wood chips do a fabulous job of weed control. In the past three months, I’ve only pulled about two dozen weeds (no joke!). That has been wonderful. In years past, I have spent hours and hours pulling weeds throughout the summer and fall. I won’t be doing that this year!
- With wood chips, the few weeds I’ve had to deal with are easy to pull. Weed seeds don’t have a chance to get into the soil because the wood chips are so deep. Out of the ones that do survive, their roots are thin and very easy to pull and discard.
- Wood chips make vegetable plants big and super healthy! Even after a rough start, our squash plants are absolutely beautiful and producing lovely, juicy fruit. (Notice the zucchini and blue Hubbard in the photos below.) They look bigger and better than plants from our previous gardens. We believe the wood chips are creating a rich, more vibrant soil. They have also caused rapid strong growth in our fruit trees and raspberry crop. (We spread the chips everywhere in our garden!)
- Wood chips have decreased our garden water consumption dramatically. Compared to open bare soil, the wood chips keep water in the soil and plants. Now that the squash plants are almost to full maturity, we’re only watering about twice a week, even in the hottest of weather.
- Wood chips seem to attract slugs, especially in the spring when the ground is still moist. This is bad news for new growth coming up from seed. In a different climate, where there is less rainfall, this might not be the case. But in our zone 8 with lots of rain throughout the winter and spring, I’m guessing that slugs are more of a problem. I also confirmed this with our CSA farmer, who tried using mulch on a large scale one year. His said slugs were a major problem. The solution? Planting from starts (not seed) seemed to help. But you could also use Sluggo Snail & Slug Control, a natural organic slug killer, or Epsom salts around each vegetable plant or row to control the slug population.
- Wood chips seem to smother new growth from seed, at least in the first year. The Back to Eden website is absolutely correct. You must pull back the chips and plant in the soil. Otherwise, the seeds have no chance. Even then, the wood chips tend to move and fall back into the “soil hole.” One possible solution we have not tried: place a plastic barrier in between the soil and wood chips, so they don’t fall back into place.
Four positives and two negatives is not a bad ratio, but the two cons were big surprises for me in our first year Back to Eden garden. I’m looking forward to learning more and sharing our experience in future updates. I believe wood chips will end up being a good choice for our vegetable gardens in the long run. This is a different style of gardening and we have to adjust our expectations, as well as do things differently to get the best out of our wood chip garden.
Do you have experience with wood chips? Or a different kind of mulch, like hay or straw?
Have you ever seen Back to Eden? I recommend it, especially because it showcases God’s amazing creation and power to grow abundant food. Let me know what you think when you watch it.