~Rethinking Mulch Gardening~

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I have been an avid fan of mulch gardening for three or four years now.

I never gave much thought to what improvement the mulch was making for the soil in my garden. I didn’t care about anything other than that I didn’t have to weed nearly as much as I did the year before. Many times you hear about gardeners losing their garden to the weeds. Maybe you’ve been there yourself. I know there have been some years when  I was just barely hanging in there, but now that I’ve begun to mulch, my time spent weeding is reduced from hours and hours weekly to less than one hour each week.

Last year we experienced our first drought since becoming gardeners. Looking back, we realized that we could count on our fingers the number of times the sprinkler was hooked up. Our hay mulched garden retained the moisture wonderfully and the plants were able to withstand the heat and dryness that was shriveling crops all around us.

Not being a glutton for punishment, I’m never going back.


There has been much buzz this past year about mulch gardening, generated from the online documentary Back to Eden which highlights an organic garden where heavy mulching of ramial wood chips are applied to deter weeds, retain moisture thereby eliminating irrigation,  and improving vegetable nutrition.

As I first began watching, I admit I was a skeptic knowing that wood chips and wood products are to be used very sparingly, if at all, in the compost pile because their carbon to nitrogen ratio is so extreme and take a long, long time to break down.

To keep the average C/N down, I put in nothing woody, nothing with even thin bark on it: no tree trimmings, no hedge trimmings. Trust me on this; you don’t want wood in your compost! The C/N of woody materials is way too high and will degrade your compost quality. For the same reason, don’t put in any sawdust if you want your end product to have much fertilizing power. If you seem to accumulate a lot of woody plant residues, make a separate compost heap of them outside of the vegetable garden… The wood compost pile will be a slow-working, low temperature heap, and it might be several years before it seems done. When it does seem finished, do not put it in the vegetable patch. Spread it as a mulch under ornamental or under fruit trees. - Gardening When It Counts

By the end of the documentary though, the gardener had explained that the difference is made in that the wood isn’t mixed into the soil, but sits on top and therefore doesn’t pose a disadvantage to the garden.

Otherwise, I was sold by the beautiful imagery and high production of his garden. It is truly an enviable plot! In one scene in particular, I noticed a shot where you could see his garden edge and the grassy yard that surrounds it. You could see there were the lawn surrounding the garden was green, evidently gathering moisture from the mulched garden, and beyond that the grass was dry, dead, and brown.

I watched it again with my equally skeptical husband who also completely changed his mind by the end of the documentary.

Particularly excited about the prospect of not having apply mulch as frequently (hay mulch usually needs reapplied 3-4 times a growing season), as soon as we could, we found a source of inexpensive wood chips and had 2 dump truck loads dumped in our yard for $20. Knowing that we would be taking a rest during the 2013 growing season, in the fall, I layered manure and bedding from the barnyard, fallen leaves, and all of that wood mulching- basically turning our garden into one huge lasagna garden- in the hopes of improving soil fertility during the rest.

But now I’m rethinking the whole thing.

This winter, I have read a gem of a gardening book for the purpose of educating myself about improving the soil fertility this year called Teaming With Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. I read a library copy and as I shared snippets aloud, we decided it is a “must-have”for our bookshelf.

Amidst the mountains of information, I learned a few key details about the soil food web and how it is ordered that made a great deal of sense and lined up with the knowledge I gained after reading The Holistic Orchard last summer.

In Teaming With Microbes, there are 19 “rules” for managing your soil food web. The relevant ones to mulching in the vegetable garden are:

1. Some plants prefer soils dominated by fungi; others prefer soils dominated by bacteria.
2. Most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils.
6. Aged, brown organic materials support fungi; fresh, green organic materials support bacteria. 
7. Mulch laid on the surface tends to support fungi; mulch worked into the soil tends to support bacteria. 
16. Most conifers and hardwood trees (birch, oak, beech, hickory) form mycorrhizae with ectomycorrhizal fungi.
17. Most vegetables, annuals, grasses, shrubs, softwood trees, and perennials form mycorrhizae with endomycorrhizal fungi. 

Connecting all of these dots, (and what I learned about organic orchard care- in a nutshell, part of maintaining an holistic orchard is to encourage fungal dominance, particularly of the mycorrhizal kind) it would seem that the Back to Eden garden is an anomaly.

If vegetables prefer bacterially dominated soils and trees soil that is dominated by fungi (supported by what I learned last summer), and if mulch worked into the soil supports bacteria and wood mulch worked into the soil skews the carbon to nitrogen ratio (supported by what I’ve learned about adding wood to the compost pile), then I should certainly reevaluate my plan of action.

Raised Beds

Let’s look a bit more at the last two rules I quoted above. I’m sure that most of you have never heard of mycorrhizal fungi. The term has been in my vocabulary for less than a year and even then I didn’t fully understand the implications it had in the soil food web until recently. I simply knew that it was to be encouraged to maintain soil health in the orchard and how to achieve it. 

So what is special about mycorrhizal fungi?

In return for exudates from plant roots, mycorrhizal fungi seek out water and nutrients and then bring them back to the plant… Without mycorrhizal fungi, plants do not obtain the quantities and kinds of nutrients needed to perform at their best. 

Mycorrhizal fungi are of two kinds. The first, ectomycorrhizal fungi, grow close to the surface of root and can form webs around them. Ectomycorrhizal fungi associate with hardwoods and conifers. The second are endomycorrhizal fungi. These actually penetrate and grow inside roots as well as extend outward into the soil. Endomycorrhizal fungi are preferred by most vegetables, annuals, grasses, shrubs, perennials, and softwood trees. Both types of mycorrhizal fungi can extend the reach as well as the surface area of plant roots…

Mycorrhizal fungi is certainly something that those of us looking to garden organically (and by organically, I do not mean using industry approved organic pesticides and herbicides which still indiscriminately destroy the soil food web) should be seeking to encourage in our gardens and orchards, yet recognizing the differences in each system.

Bean Seedling

One of the things that really drew me to the Back to Eden method of garden mulching is the appeal to created order that was made. (The gardener’s ability to draw upon Scripture was admirable and his desire to look seek the Lord’s creation for wisdom laudable!) And it would seem that his original application (the orchard) was a correct one, but the issue was in his drawing it into the vegetable garden.

(In regard to rules 2 & 3) These two general rules take the guesswork out of what could have been one of the most difficult things about starting to garden with the soil food web. The rules make it easy to figure out what likes what, but once you understand what is behind them, you will appreciate them even more… Early succession communities are bacterially dominated. As more and more organic litter accumulates in the waste products from these organisms and the plant life they support, fungal spores finally have enough nutrients at hand to germinate. With a place to take hold and the resources to support themselves, the resulting fungi thrive. 

Many other factors are involved, but to stick to what concerns us: as plant life and the soil food web become more varied, fungal numbers increase and more short-lived plants like annuals give way to more permanent, perennial grassland plants. More organic matter is produced, providing food for ever-increasing fungal populations. Shrubs move in, followed by soft hardwoods, expanding saplings, mature hardwoods, and finally the kinds of conifers you find in old growth forests. All the while, fungal biomass grows in proportion to bacteria, which cannot possibly compete because they are limited to digesting simple sugars and other carbohydrates- which are in limited supply given the ever-increasing mass of more complicated plants full of lignin and cellulose. 

Moving from the beach, so to speak, to grasslands to old growth conifers, fungal dominance increases in the soil each step of the way. Part of this increase is explained by the tentative nature of early plant life. It is hard to form mycorrhizal relationships with plant roots when the plant dies after only a short period of time. 

From this we learn that by observing created order for the entire cycle of plant growth in a given area, our annuals and perennials that we are growing to feed ourselves best thrive in soils that are not the same as would support mature hardwoods and conifers where you find that beautiful fungal duff.

Hay

Now after completely rethinking mulch gardening, I will no longer pursue converting my garden into a Back to Eden style garden. I will be looking to emulate the model set forth in Teaming With Microbes for promoting a soil food web best suited to what I will be growing in a given area- bacterially dominated vegetable gardens and a fungal domination in my orchard.

Mulches are easy to acquire and relatively easy to handle and use in support of your soil food webs. Simply apply the rules and the appropriate mulch (green or brown; wet or dry; coarse or fine) in the appropriate way (dug in or on the surface) around your plants (vegetables, annuals, and grasses, or trees, shrubs, and perennials). Be careful: add a layer any thicker than 2-3 inches and you may end up blocking moisture and air and smothering mycorrhizal fungi. 

Lawn clippings are a terrific green mulch to use around your annual flowers and your vegetables during the growing season. Even though they lose their color and turn “brown,” they are still considered “green mulch because when they were cut, they contained sugars that remain even after the chlorophyll has faded. The same is true of straw. 

When the weather warms in the coming weeks I’ll removing all of the wood chips we laid down in the garden this fall. I’ll spend my afternoons hauling load after load across the yard to the orchard. It is slow, heavy work moving the wood chips (another disadvantage over hay or straw or grass), but I’ll be glad for the excuse to be out in the sunshine working my winter-weakened muscles. Then it will be time to start seeking out some barns that need their floors cleaned of last years hay before the first cutting is brought in.

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Teaming With Microbes.

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  • Marci

    Ok…. I am reading this and my mind is not wrapping around all that you are saying. I am sure you have heard of the Ruth Stout method. She mulches HEAVILY and has for years and her plants do great. We watched Back to Eden and the thick wood mulch (which included leaves and twigs, etc) works wonderful. Here is what I think I hear you saying… Keep using the straw that we use, but don’t let it get over 3″ thick or I will smother the mycorrhizal fungi. I am also hearing you say that the wood chip pile I have might be benefical to put around our fruit trees?? We have many fruit trees which should be producing by now and they do not. Any thoughts?

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Hi Marci, I started mulching after hearing about Ruth Stout and have been a mulching fan ever since! I believe that she said 8-9″ of hay at the time of application but that it with compaction over time it settles. I have a hard time keeping mine at even 3″after it settles. I would guess that whatever you’re doing is fine. :)

      The wood chips would be a fantastic amendment for the orchard. In The Holistic Orchard Michael Phillips recommends dumping one load, say on the north side of each tree this year, one load of wood chips on the west side of each tree next year, the south side the third year, and the east side the fourth year. Then repeat. Each pile will be in various and differing stages of decomposition and bring different benefits to the tree.

      He has a whole system of orchard management and this is just one (vital) facet to his plan. Spraying with fish emulsion at different, specific times of the year is another part. Hope that helps!

  • RebekahW

    Hi Quinn! I’m not sure if I’ve ever “introduced” myself but I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and have been very blessed by it! I am terrible at commenting but I’m going to try to do better :-) Anyway, this post was very timely for me. Thank you for sharing this information! We actually just bought Teaming With Microbes and after perusing it, I was going to send it back since I wasn’t finding any alternatives to tilling ( we planted a rye/vetch cover crop last fall and, while intrigued with the no-till concept, couldn’t find any information on what we should do about the cover crop besides till it!) But after reading this post, I think I’ll give the book another try and read it all the way through.

    I just finished Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which was absolutely excellent, and actually gave us the answers for our cover crop dilemma: using “chicken tillers”! Only problem is, our birds don’t seem to like the rye at all. But at least next year we know what to do. Anyway, those wood chips might make good chicken bedding too! We’re just starting to experiment with deep litter in the chicken yard, and so far are very pleased with the results.
    Ok, before I write a whole book here, I’ll stop. Thanks again!
    ~Beka
    (daughter of the King, joyful wife, thankful mama of two (so far!), working on our little homestead, slowly but surely!)

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Hi Beka! It’s nice to “meet” you! No worries about not commenting- believe me I understand! I don’t comment nearly as often as I like. I have a habit of pulling up a page to comment on later and then never getting around to it :)

      This book isn’t an easy read because of it’s technical nature, but it was so educational and helpful, I highly recommend it if you’re interested at all in gardening this way. I believe the alternative to tilling up the gardening while the soil is still too compacted to dig easily is a broadfork. You can even make them yourself- there are plans on the internet. That’s on our “to-do” list. But a broadfork loosens the soil without turning and then you only dig where the seeds or plants go. I have yet to try cover cropping so I can’t speak to the issues there, but I imagine that if you can’t come up with a solution that you could hoe them in without damaging the soil too deeply and I wouldn’t think they would regrow. The poultry book you mentioned is definitely on my list of books I want to read! I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. I think wood chips would be great for the chickens. Now that the days are warming up, mine are in the garden scratching through nearly all the time. It really encourages their natural behavior :) Blessings!

  • Chelsea

    Do you use straw or hay in your garden as a mulch? Thanks in advance!

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      EIther will work just fine. As far as contribution to the soil food web goes, they’re identical.

      I would use whatever you can find the cheapest. We bought straw the first year, but now that we have livestock there is usually quite a bit of hay lying around the barn or under the feeder they won’t touch. Last year, my husband cleaned out his friend’s barn where he stores hay he sells.

      Now the only problem with hay is that it could have seeds in it, but if you notice them start to sprout, you could use a hoe to knock them out of the soil or if you have it, throw down another flake of hay. But it’s not so much of a hassle that I would pay for straw when I can get the hay for free.

    • Isis Loran

      I heard that hay has a lot more weeds seeds than straw does?! We try and use straw when we can on the beds and wood chips for the pathways.

      • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

        It can have seeds in it, absolutely. I’d have to ask my husband- he’s the hay expert around here- but I think though that hay that is mown at the proper time (for the most nutrition) shouldn’t have gone to seed yet. Most of the hay I’ve thrown down sprout, but where it has, it is easy to just cut it off from the roots with a hoe or throw down another flake of hay to smother it. The only weed that I can’t stop with the hay is thistle, but even there, the hay makes it grow in such a way that if you move the hay aside, there are no thorns at the bottom of the plant. Straw is a great for the garden, but it’s so expensive these days! It’s crazy!

  • Africanaussie

    Oh I am glad I found you through the blog hop – will definitely be following along. I also was very taken by the back to eden film, but wondered about the nitogen drawback. When you looked at the piles he was getting his mulch from though, they were steaming, so I think had already composted. I think everything adds different components to the garden, so it is important not to add the same things year after year – don’t you?. Last year I added composted wood mulch, this year some lovely leaf mould I have had aging in a bin for a couple of years. I use either hay or sugar cane mulch in my veggie patch. I have reserved teeming with microbes from the library – remembering it was something I had wanted to read a while ago. thank you for passing on all the research you did.

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Perhaps it is that he can get his hands on so many wood chips that they have time to compost before adding to the garden that it hasn’t had a detrimental effect on his vegetables. I do remember that in the Gardening When it Counts book, he basically said if you have wood that needs composting to put it in a pile (with nothing else) away from everything else and let it sit for a really, really long time. The problem is that many people I’ve seen (obviously myself included) were so eager to replicate his beautiful garden that we found freshly chipped wood and turned our gardens into that compost pile. So I commend you for having the foresight to used it composted already.

  • thefarmrusharbor@gmail.com

    We are doing the same thing here on our farm! We were intrigued by the Back to Eden Garden and the principle works fine. It did not give our vegetable garden what we hoped it would, however, and this year we’ll be mulching again with straw and grass. Thank you for spelling this all out so clearly so other readers don’t end up having to cart the wood off of their gardens like we are!

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      I’m thankful that you shared your experience here to add to the discussion. Since I haven’t planted in my newly wood chipped garden, this is all head knowledge as far as I’m concerned :)

  • justc

    Isn’t hard how just when you think you’ve gotten a thing figured out then your understanding changes. *sigh* I’m so glad you shared all this info. I haven’t had time to read and process all of it *grin* but I will. We were planning on doing wood chips next year, and a thin layer of newspaper covered in hay for this year. Mulch is certainly a blessing though! LOVEc

  • Rose Petal

    I appreciate what you have shared here. We have used lots of hay as mulch simply because it is easier for us to get than woodchips (leftovers from our livestock as you mentioned). But we have recently found a good source for free woodchips if we haul it ourselves, and thankfully so far have only placed them in fruit and coconut tree areas. I suppose using the woodchips would work fine for mulching between rows in the garden. Do you have any thoughts (based on your research) as to why the woodchips work so well for some people in their vegetable gardens (eg Back to Eden)?

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Sorry- what did you say? All I saw was coconut trees. Having a little Zone envy here ;)

      I’m not sure why it works for them. In fact I never did understand it, but just knew that I wanted my garden to look like that so I was willing to copy :) Another commenter here mentioned perhaps it’s because his pile of chips was so big and aged that it was well into the composting process. That seems plausible. But I think that many who are watching the movie and going out (like we did) and dumping freshly chipped wood straight onto their gardens first and that could, in light of what I’ve read, be a problem.

      • Rose Petal

        Thanks for the thoughts. About the coconut trees…we are in zone 9 (central FL) but inland far enough that we really shouldn’t have coconut trees as it freezes too often. But so far this winter (and it has been COLD for FL) we have successfully protected our avocado, mango, papaya, and banana (using covers and candles as we’re off grid, and watering before the sun rises if there is frost). We’re still preparing an area for coconut trees, but we are getting only dwarf varieties (so we can cover them) and planting them on the south side of our greenhouse for protection from the north wind. Tonight it is supposed to freeze again!!! That will set a 98 yr record here.

      • Chug

        The secret is either leaving woodchips a season, or better two seasons, to compost and then use, or lay down some good organic compost 4 inches deep and then the same of new, or old woodchips on top.

        Fresh woodchips wont work, you need good 4 inches of compost at the bottom.

        If you look in the back to eden video at about 40 odd mins in he explains how his chickens turn the woodchips to compost(and add their droppings) and he uses that as top dressing feed too.

        I spent hours searching after finding the video and watched many other vids, folks that use old composted chips, or lay compost first then chips are the ones that have wonderful success! and the ease of planting, weeding and harvesting, and not having to till is such a reward, if folks are still unsure try a few trials like I did, just a few buckets and pots planted up using good compost and woodchips has convinced me to go bigger scale from now on.

        I must say I inadvertently discovered the method when I added woodchips to my chook run to keep the mud down, when I scraped the top off many months later it was lovely compost which I used in trials and it worked well so I was halfway there, the finding the vid inspired me to experiment further.

        • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn
          • Chug

            Yes, exactly, the woodchips must be well composted(my compost is stuff I’ve collected from my chicken run and its almost three years old now) or just start with some good organic compost(no soil) and cover with 4 inches of woodchips.

            I really think the chickens are an important part though, the woodchips on their own take much longer to achieve nice compost.

            I’ve had really great results this season and wish I had discovered all this before I turned 50 it would have saved a lot of digging and aching muscles and back over the years, my fork and spade are virtually redundant now!

          • Chug

            Looking at the chart from your link I would say composted chicken waste would be comparable to manure, so combined with woodchips would presumably give the combined compost a lower carbon ratio than the 30:1 C:N that microbes require

          • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

            I remembered that Steve Solomon broke down C:N ratios in Gardening When It Counts. Chicken manure is 6:1 so its actually lower :) But I would think that coming up with enough chicken manure so you could put 50/50 chips to manure would be quite a feat in order to make those numbers work. (And I have around 30+ hens they couldn’t possibly produce that much.) Unless I’m not understanding something in the math- which is entirely possible. Math is not my forte :)

          • Chug

            I only have 15 chooks but it’s not 50/50 needed its that they dig and turn the chips as well as adding their bit to it, this helps it break down much quicker. I also throw in all green stuff from the garden, grass clippings and food scraps.

            A new layer I added a six weeks to two months back of 1 year old chips is hardly visible as chips now just some of the larger bits here and there and even those are well browned.

            I’m just waiting on my neighbour to deliver some more chips and I’m gonna do some experiments with different methods to compost the chips, adding already composted stuff appears to help from my observations of a section where I did that so gonna try that properly and also a Jean Pain stile pile http://permaculturenews.org/2011/12/15/the-jean-pain-way/ and one covered and one uncovered with just woodchip piles.

            Yesterday I was scraping back top few inches of woodchips on my paths and sieving the composted stuff from underneath, it is such lovely dark and moist stuff and my other half commented that the pile I had made was much moister on top today than the bed she had dug onions from yesterday which is one of our last beds with soil in, so today I removed all the soil and replaced it with compost ready for a woodchip topping when they arrive.

            http://www.mofga.org/Default.aspx?tabid=700

          • Chug
          • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

            The Laval study is actually the one Michael Phillips references to support the use of ramial wood chips in the orchard setting to promote creating the fungal dominance that trees thrive on. :) But how many folks calling up for free wood chip delivery are ensuring that they’re getting ramial wood chips using “twig wood less than 7cm in diameter… the tops of deciduous trees and woodsy shrubs- not much more than 2 1/2 inches around at the large end of the branch… pruned and subsequently run through a chipper into coarse pieces.”? Not many I imagine. I know I sure didn’t. You take what you get. Thanks for posting the link. (Ironically, while I was looking up the reference I just quoted from The Holistic Orchard, I noticed the very first note in the book from chapter one he suggested Teaming with Microbes to learn about the balancing the soil food web in the organic garden.)

          • Chug

            Thanks for the heads up with teaming with microbes too, just finished it. I thought it might be good when I saw the intro by Elaine Ingham, it puts the fungal importance across well, easier to read than Mycellium Running by Paul Stamets, but along with others give a good overview of the importance of fungi, and again they agree that wood chips when composted and are fungally and bacterially right as some have managed, are a fantastic compost.

          • Chug

            Forgot to say I’m lucky with tree surgeons either side of my plot and they know which chips I like

          • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

            I’m not intending to argue Chug… I’m posting this for future readers who will read your comment and take from it that I misrepresented the info in TWM and that they would support the BTE mulch method and that simply isn’t what it says. I think it’s pretty clear from the following rules they wouldn’t advocate laying wood mulch down on top of a vegetable garden based on the science and research they’ve done.

            “Rule #2- Most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils.

            Rule #3- Most trees, shrubs, and perennials prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungally dominated soils.

            Rule #6- Aged, brown organic materials support fungi; fresh, green organic materials support bacteria.

            Rule 7: Mulch laid on the surface tends to support fungi; mulch worked into the soil tends to support bacteria. ”

            – Teaming with Microbes- Appendix: The Soil Food Web Gardening Rules

            As I pointed out in a comment yesterday on another post on this topic, everyone is free to do as they choose. I’m simply saying why I’m not going this route after I had announced we would be. I’m not convinced that in the end it would be the most beneficial and productive and with a family of 10 to feed, I don’t have the time to invest in waiting to get the chips to compost well enough to see if they’d work and then run the risk of having to bring that all back in balance if it doesn’t. My family needs their food now. I definitely don’t believe it is the “biblical” way to garden or that it “works for every gardener’s situations” as the folks running the internet publicity for the video state. (I don’t know if Paul G. makes those claims without going back and watching everything recorded, but I have seen those words used to describe it on the internet.) Blessings to you and your garden!

          • Chug

            No argument intended here either, I was only trying to help others too.

            The research I’ve read by people scientifically studying soil biology say that it’s the plants who are in control, plants will exude certain chemicals through their roots to attract particular fungi and bacteria in exchange for what the plant wants the fungi and bacteria to give the plant in return. If a plant needs nitrogen, or potassium or whatever it will provide exudates to attract the relevant fungi and bacteria to provide the relevant nutrients

            I have had good results this season and I have mostly seen good reports about the RCW method and yours is one of the only places that isn’t singing it’s praises that allows comments.

            P.S You might like to add these links to your blog to some great lectures on soil food chain.

            Jeff Lowenfels Soil Food Web Lecture
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKTcbLbb2Wc

            Role of Soil Biology in Improving Soil Quality Presented by Kristine Nichols, Ph.D., Soil Microbiologist, USDA Agricultural Research Service
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGxjcxVMbsg

            SOIL not DIRT – Dr Elaine Ingham talks Soil Microbiology
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEtl09VZiSU

          • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

            Thanks for the links :)

            I’m not entirely understanding the comment about plants being “in control.” If that’s the case, why aren’t all of our plants healthy enough that we don’t have to battle insects and disease? Why do our soils get depleted of nutrients from year after year of exporting the nutrients? Why do we need to bring in manure, let alone wood chips? If a soil is fungally dominated because of the wood chips, then wouldn’t there be less bacteria for a bacteria-loving annual vegetable to attract? If we know what the plants needs are, shouldn’t we be encouraging that instead of making them work harder to attract the bacteria then?

  • k.kae

    Thanks so much for this post!

    Let me share real quick… I am also a big fan of mulching but have done so for many years using primarily cedar. Past couple weeks I’ve had this nagging thought (Thank You, Holy Spirit!) that I need to rake it up & off my vegetable/flower beds. We have not been here quite a year, so had not gotten it spread to extensively. I do plan on keeping it on our front landscaping, which will be more formal permanent plantings like shrubs & ornamental trees, for aesthetic purposes & because I don’t really know what else to do with it at this point (no orchard yet, except for the Mulberries strewn throughout the tree rows ;).

    I have had such a wealth of knowledge thrown at me this spring, with all the homesteading (chickens, composting, more extensive gardening) we’re hoping to accomplish, that it’s been a bit overwhelming. Having you share these concepts in a nutshell has been MOST invaluable to me!

    Blessings to you!

  • k.kae

    One more thing ;)…

    My mother uses spoilt alfalfa in her garden with good results. She was told by someone visiting their house once that spoilt hay/straw is better in the garden & alfalfa is best. Plan on planting a small plot on our back 3 acres to attract pollinators & harvest for use in the garden/compost.

    Off the subject but mentioned in a previous comment – definitely get you hands on The Small Poultry Flock – so glad I’m reading it now as a beginning “chickeneer”!

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Now that you mention it, TWMicrobes meantioned using alfalfa meal as an garden amendment quite often. This must be why! Using the spoiled alfalfa would be killing two birds with one stone. Thanks!!
      (And I plan on using the rest of the chips around in the flower beds instead of buying mulch for those this year too :) )

  • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

    Stacy says, “I have used hay bales in the past and things sprouted from them. I noticed you said straw and at one point hay. Isn’t there one that doesn’t sprout? “

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Either one will work for the purpose of mulching in the garden, however hay will sprout if it is from a bale that was harvested late enough in the grasses life cycle that it has begun to go to seed. If that is the case, knocking the new shoots down with a hoe or smothering it from the light of day with more mulch will kill them nicely.

  • 58gardener

    You tried the BTE method. It worked. You were thrilled with it. Then you read a book and decided to rethink what was working in your own garden.

    What I’ve learned in life is that there are always experts who will naysay anything that goes outside of conventional wisdom. Many time, those experts are closed minded and refuse to accept that there can be other ways of acommplishing a goal.

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      We actually had only begun to implement the wood chip method. We put them down last fall and haven’t planted in it yet, so I don’t know if it works or not based upon my personal experience. I’m rethinking how I’m going to proceed based upon the biological science of microbial soil life I’ve read about from numerous resources.

  • Renata

    Hi Quinn
    This is very interesting since I just watched the ‘back to eden’ film yesterday! I think I need to reread it to digest all you’ve written, but I will say that the back to eden film was certainly very convincing talking about their method. I have used a thin layer of hay mulch, but am experimenting with a thicker layer this year over my winter garden ( summer was a complete loss due to lack of water, escapee cows & pigs & a month of extreemly hot days).
    Hope you are going well ~ thinking of & praying for you often! We have been on holidays, but I am enjoying slowly getting back into routine!
    Blessings
    Renata:)

  • grace

    please put in a warning about working with mulches what ever they are made from the airborne mold spores are very dangerous and can damage you long term health all spoilt mulches should be applied using a mask as should moldy woodchip/bark what is good for the trees is not good for you … do it properly WITH A MASK

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      You’re absolutely right Grace and I thank you for the reminder! It’s called “Farmer’s Lung” and I have personally experienced respiratory problems years ago after spreading clearly moldy hay that caused asthma symptoms that have thankfully gone away. Repeated exposure is what makes it so dangerous- the cumulative effects upon the lungs. Thanks again!!

      • Melinda

        I have twice had really serious lung infections, to the point of coughing up blood, that took months to recover from, and both times I had been spreading mouldy hay the week before. Ever since I realised the connection I have worn a dust mask and no more lung problems.

  • Kim in IN

    Hi Quinn! I’m fairly new here, and I know you are in the middle of your big move, but I had to write about our Back to Eden experiment. Last year we put half our garden into raised beds that were double dug per the book Mini Farming, Self Suficiancy on 1/4 Acre. After 4 of the 12 beds it occurred to me that I was turning my lovely topsoil under & bringing up pure clay to plant in! We forked the others. Our garden was amazing, in spite of the drought, incredible yields even with the clay issues. Then I watched the BTE movie…. We brought in 6 pickups full of 2 yr old, composted chips. Back breaking work! We planted all the boxes and waited in anticipation. The other half of our garden didn’t get chips-I ran out of time and had to plant. Most everything sprouted, but by late May I knew we were in trouble. Everything I planted-seeds or transplants- was very pale green and stunted. The peppers were actually almost white! We brought a truck load of 8 yr old manure in & spread it over the chips,working it in. Things greened up, but remained stunted. Our yield this yr will be a fraction of last yr. The weeds have been mostly non-existent, but other than that it is a total failure in my book. I searched t he net 4 other people’s experiences. Most of what I found were folks planning to use the method because of the results in the movie. There were a few people with wonderful results though. I read the Teaming With Microbes after reading your post and now realize I have likely killed, or nearly so, my soil food web. We will be raking the remaining chips off after our pitiful harvest. I am hoping you can advise me on my next step. If I understand the book,does it sound correct to you if we spread another layer of the manure over the soil, then mulch with hay over it for the winter? Then next spring do we just plant in the decomposed hay? Or do we need to pull that back and plant in the soil under it? One more question-do we need to rotate crops with the Teaming method or not? Thanks for any time you might have to answer!

    • Rachel T. Scott

      Plant in the soil underneath not in the mulch material. If you check out my link above this is the common mistake people make.

    • Eddie Lutz

      As I understand it you don’t work the mulch into the soil. It sits on top. You move some aside and sow into the moist soil and worm castings underneath (created by the worms that go crazy for the rotting carbonaceous material). Every season you rake some compost (the Back to Eden guy uses the deep litter from his hen house) in with the wood chips, adding nitrogen to aid the breakdown. It’s similar to lasagna gardening where you sow through a small hole in a layer of cardboard. Instead of cardboard, you’re using wood chips. I would try it the correct way on a test plot. Many people have had great results.

      • Kim in IN

        Hi Eddie, we made sure that our wood chips did not get worked into the dirt, just sat on top. We knew that would tie up the nitrogen. I really have no idea why it was such a failure for us. We aren’t new gardeners and have had generally successful gardens every year before this. Last fall after the freeze we built a sieve out of a wood frame with hardware cloth. I shoveled the chips into the sieve, shook/rubbed the chips thru it over a wheelbarrow. Anything too big to go thru the sieve was thrown onto the path between the boxes, what fell through into the wheelbarrow was dumped back into the box. We mixed this with more of our rotted manure and the complete fertilizer recipe from the Teeming with Microbes book. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this year will be better. So far all that has been planted is the peas and they are not coming up yet. Hoping for a better result this year.

  • Vicki Olson

    I have been reading your blog after first watching your wood chips versus hay mulch utube video. I thought you might want to hear from someone with almost 40 years of no-till, lasagna…Ruth Stout….and square foot organic gardening experiments under her belt. I have done it all…and I actually became a back to eden gardener quite by accident….free chips, lol…..years ago with mixed results, depending upon how old the chips were. I have used all sorts of wood chips, also, including the dreaded black walnut and all I can say is not to believe everything that you read as much of it is either motivated by for profit corporations, or written by people who know a lot about theory, but have not actually tried what they are telling you not to do because it won’t work…lol.
    Each time, I had a diverse result with my wood chips, I found it quite easy to fix…and mostly, it was in regards to using too new chips and needing to add nitrogen, something that I could correct in just a week or so. I have also found that if I start with a layer of cardboard, then a layer of compost…with a manure base of some sort…horse, cow, chicken, duck, etc…about 3 to 4 inches, and then a layer of wood chips…about 6 inches or so that this formula works great on new beds, but if I am adding to an established bed, I still add cardboard under each new layer of aged chips.

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Thank you for sharing your experience Vicki. I’m always quite interested to hear how some things will work for one and not another. My daughter and I were just talking about micro-climates in the garden yesterday and how we need to observe what works the best for our situation and consider whether the gardening tips and tricks of others would really be best in ours. :)

  • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

    I’d be interested to hear how it’s going for you after several years. If you ever think of it, please stop back and give us an update Chris. Take Care!!