Most organic gardeners struggle with weed control. It’s so time-consuming to keep the garden beds (and paths) clear of weeds. A little weed here and there is not a problem, trouble is weeds rarely stay small and rarely grow just here and there. If you are a little too relaxed about weeding you’ll soon have a big weed problem on hand….unless of course you use a thick layer of mulch.
Early summer 2015
Enter wood chips.
Several years ago we had the good fortune to see a short video clip about a guy who gardens extensively in a climate with very little rain. Maybe you’ve heard of Paul Gautschi and his “Back to Eden” gardening methods. If not you may want to google either his name or the title of his film. To preserve what little moisture he gets in the soil he covered his gardens with a thick layer of wood chips. Added bonus….less weeding. His plants are phenomenal, big, lush, juicy and sweet.
That all sounded very good to us and we started incorporating this method a few years ago. Farmer Hick bought a wood chipper
…and the boys started scouring our property for fallen tree branches and brush. Once those were chipped they started chipping small dead trees.
The chipper makes a glorious noise, not a quiet moment activity to be sure, but it makes quick work out of dead trees. The wood chip piles around here are plentiful.
You’ve got to start somewhere, even if you just wood chip one section of your garden or just the raspberry row this year. We certainly didn’t cover all gardens that first year, but probably within 3 years all the garden areas were covered. In the picture below, which was taken last week (March 2017) you can see the different stages of decomposition at work. Some rows have just received fresh chips last fall, in other areas the wood chips have been well decomposed already, adding to the richness of the soil.
The chips wick away moisture when it’s wet and rainy, allowing us to work in the garden earlier in the spring, and they also provide moisture when there’s a drought, keeping the plants happy.
Late summer 2015
Our soil was originally very poor I think. Over the last 12 years we’ve added decomposed cow patties and bedding to the soil every spring (and sometimes in the fall too, depending on how much compost we had on hand), and the soil is really nice now, dark, moist, crumbly with a good earthy smell, and it’s full of worms. Of course we compost our chicken coop bedding too, but it seems much “hotter” than other compost and needs a good while to decompose, we prefer to have a smaller, separate pile for that stuff, boy does it make the crops grow!
A big warning to all who’d like to try this method…make sure you’re soil is very fertile before you add wood chips. Once wood chips start decomposing (and they will) they use a little nitrogen from the soil which is not great if you’re growing vegetables, it could stunt their growth. The best way to counteract this is to apply copious amounts of compost before you add wood chips.
If you are short on compost then I suggest just mulching your paths with wood chips, that’s how we started.
the ‘herb and berry garden’ paths covered with fresh wood chips
For crops that need digging, like carrots or other root vegetables, it’s wise to rake the chips to the side before digging up your vegetables, a bit of a pain but doable. We’ve learned to heavily chip the paths on both sides of root crops, but leaving the row itself free of wood chips. It does mean more weeding in these rows but at least all the wood chips that would have been on that row don’t get mixed up with the soil at the end of the growing season when digging up the root crops. This is only of importance during the first or maybe second year after adding wood chips. If the wood chips have been added several years ago then this is not a problem anymore because they’ll have been nicely decomposed.
In the beginning when we started using the wood chip method I had mixed feelings about it. The weeding definitely became less time-consuming, the garden looked cleaner most of the time so that was all positive. But there was the added work of moving wood chips to bare areas and raking wood chips off a row before planting could commence. Small issues really, but I remember being a little bothered by them. Now that the wood chip method has proved itself I don’t even think about these small issues anymore. Adding and moving wood chips around has replaced pulling weeds (for the most part anyways) and digging the soil, there’s none of that anymore, the only digging we do in the garden is if we want to harvest root crops.
freshly dug parsnips, we kept the chips off the growing row
Another helpful suggestion for those not wanting to use a rototiller (and please don’t because it destroys the soil structure), is to cover a particular weedy section in the garden with a tarp, in the first picture of this post you can see one in use, it doesn’t look very nice but it gets the job done. Make sure you weigh the tarp down with some heavy stones or rocks because the wind loves to play with tarps. Within six weeks the weeds will be gone, you can remove the tarp and plant that section.
If you’re starting out from scratch, making a garden where there is grass now, collect a huge amount of cardboard, newspaper, compost and wood chips. Outline the perimeter of your future garden, cover the inside of this perimeter with a layer of cardboard or thick newspaper and wet the paper and cardboard down. Follow with a thick layer of compost of 6-12 inches, then apply your final layer of wood chips of at least 4 inches thick, more is better. You can start planting immediately….if you’re not exhausted at this point because this is a huge job. If you can arrange for heavy equipment to help with this job…DO IT, you’ll thank yourself. To plant, scrape the chips aside, put in your plant and cover the chips back around the plant. If you’re planting seeds, scrape the chips to the side, put your seeds in the compost, once the seeds have germinated you can put the chips back around each seedling.
Earlier I mentioned that rototilling your garden destroys the soil structure. This of course goes against all farming and professional garden advice. They’ll tell you that the soil has to be turned and give all sorts of reasons for that. Maybe they’re right…maybe not! Have you ever seen the black soil of the forest floor? Who’s been tilling in there? Nobody! The forest floor receives a rich blanket of leaves (compost) every fall, feeding the soil and at the same time covering it. People like Ruth Stout and Patricia Lanza have preached about their successful mulching methods for years and have written books on it. Wood chips are not the only mulch you can use, hay, straw, leaves, grass, coffee grounds, coconut coir can all be used. Why not start with what’s readily on hand or easily gotten and go from there.
raspberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes and small trees all benefit from compost and wood chips
To sum up the wood chip benefits:
- provides mulch
- adds organic matter
- reduces weeds
- balances moisture
- prevents soil erosion
- protects soil structure
…and I’ve probably forgotten about some other benefits. I just know it works!