Facts about Wood Chip Mulch garden Fork in ground

Wood Chip Mulch: A Gardener’s Guide

Thinking about using wood chip mulch in your backyard vegetable garden? Before acting, you should take into consideration a lot of natural facts. How exactly will it influence the plants in my garden? That should be the first question before making any change to the way you garden!

The answer to that question is vital for anyone’s vegetable garden. So, this article will share pros and cons of using wood chip as mulch so you can decide to spread it on your vegetable garden or not.

Facts about using Wood Chip Mulch

What is Wood Chip Mulch?

The word “mulch” does not inherently mean wood chips or shredded bark, commonly pine bark. “Mulch” is anything that covers the soil surface to retain moisture and is used for weed control or weed suppression. Mother Nature does not like bare soil, so something will cover it, if you do not first.

Mulch can be made of many different things and each should be considered before putting them on your vegetable garden.

Wood chip mulch, in particular, comes from the harvest and clean up of tree cutting. Branches are put through a machine that chews them up into small pieces or shreds. This is what is used as tree mulch or wood chip mulch.

Why are Wood Chips Used as Mulch?

Wood chips are used a lot as mulch because they are often free. Often people cleaning up downed branches, etc. are just trying to get it out of their yard. Having no use for the wood chips themselves, they are happy for someone to haul them away.

Also, nurseries would prefer you to think that wood is mulch because they are often paid to take wood chips and shredded bark mulch from tree cutters who are trying to avoid high landfill costs. If they can then sell it to you as mulch, they get paid twice.

Wood mulch does have its place in landscaping, and orchards and pathways. The natural aesthetic is part of what makes it popular.

We use it around our apple trees. This makes mowing around each tree so much easier as you don’t have to get as close and the wood chips keep the grass from growing around the tree. One thing to keep in mind when doing this is not to pile it up around the tree trunk itself as the depth can hurt the tree.

Wood chip mulch as makes having our perennial flower bed so much less work. The roots of the perennial flowers run deep, but new weeds can’t get established in the sod when there is thick mulch. It not only looks nice, but is practical as well.

Here are some more reasons why wood chips are used as mulch:

1. Inhibites Weed Growth

When applied in a thick enough layer, using wood chip mulch can prevent weed growth. They serve to block out sunshine inhibiting the germination of new seed. Being that wood is high in carbon, it also hinders weed growth by effecting the carbon:nitrogen ratio of the top layer of soil. This lack of nitrogen stops weed seeds from germinating.

2. Visually Attractive

Wood chips used as mulch make very attractive walk ways or pathway mulch application, flower beds, and a barrier between lawn and trees. Due to their small size, wood chips can be placed in areas of any shape and still will make a tight, neat edge. With the options of different colors, the wood chip mulch can even coordinate with the surrounding where it will be placed.

3. Reduces Waste

Wood chips often come from tree trimmers, be a professional service, or someone cleaning up fallen limbs in their back yard. Using a chipper, the wood is chopped up to make it easier for transport. By using these wood chips as mulch, it gives a second life to what would otherwise be burned or tossed in a landfill.

4. Retains Moisture

Retaining moisture in the soil can be of great benefit in some instances. Being that the chips block the sun from reaching the soil, less moisture evaporates. Also, the wood chips themselves absorb moisture from rainfall or watering which holds more moisture in that area for longer. This water retention can be very helpful in dry conditions.

5. Composts

Wood chip mulch needs to be layered thick to do the job. This also means that the chips on the bottom will start rotting. In time, the wood chips decompose and turn to dirt. This means the wood chips need to be replaced every couple of years, but the rotting wood adds organic material to the soil.

Using Wood Chip Mulch in Vegetable Gardens

Wood chips do have a use as mulch in some applications, but many people don’t think of the downside affects of wood chip mulch when using it on their vegetable gardens.

Despite many glowing (often short-term) trial reports after mulching annual vegetables in wood mulch, many are having experiences quite the opposite. Even though they follow all the rules for wood chip mulching.

And now, while studying up on permaculture, I’ve learned a new tidbit of information. It added one more reason to the case I’ve built about why using wood chip mulch in an annual garden might not be a good idea. (It’s point #5 and it’s pretty important!)

1. Using Wood Chip Mulch Can Mess With Your Garden Acidity

Many people who are flagging down tree services don’t know what types of trees are chipped up. Some trees are anything but pH neutral. You need to be aware that some mulches can have an adverse effect on soil acidity.  This typically affects the first few inches of soil, which shouldn’t affect mature plants, but will make it very difficult to start seeds or transplant seedlings.

You should make genuine research before concluding what plants are indeed harmful to your garden. There are also a lot of myths out there.

For example, the notion that pine needles change the soil pH so that nothing will grow or that it will damage plants has been out there for years. The truth is pine needles do not make the soil more acidic. It is true that pine needles have a pH of 3.2 to 3.8 (neutral is 7.0) when they drop from a tree. However, if you leave the needles there on the ground, they will begin to break down naturally and the microbes in the soil will neutralize them. 

2. Long-Term Use Of Wood Chip Mulch May Increase The Fungal Dominance In Your Soil Food Web

What’s the big deal about that? – you may think. Well, annual vegetables prefer and do best in bacterially dominated soil. Your vegetables might do really well the first few years, but once that fungal dominance is established, you may notice a decline.  This is the reason I started to rethink mulch gardening in the first place.

3. Wood Chip Mulch Requires That You Use a LOT of Composted Manure To Balance The C:N Ratio

The same reason why wood chip mulch is used to stops weeds is the same reason why you should rethink using it in your vegetable garden. It stops weeds, but inhibiting their seed growth. It will be the same effect on your vegetable seeds and they will not sprout.

To offset the high carbon to nitrogen ratio in wood chips, you need what I see as unfathomable amounts of composted manure. Vegetables need to have the delicate balance of their Carbon to Nitrogen ratio (C:N) preserved at 30:1 or lower. Fresh wood mulch has over 3 times that much carbon!

If you’re putting that much composted manure in your garden anyway, skip the work of the wood chip mulch altogether. (And the composting of the chips to get it even close to a carbon level that is workable.) A nice layer of compost will give you big beautiful veggies AND suppress weed seed germination.

In mulches with a C:N ratio greater than 30:1, not enough nitrogen is present in the mulch to support microbial growth, so microbes scavenge what they need from the surrounding soil, outcompeting plants in the process. In mulches with a C:N ratio less than 30:1, the amount of nitrogen in the mulch exceeds microbial requirements, leaving more for plants.

My Experience: Nitrogen Deficiency in Peppers

Two years ago, chippers came through our area. I know that wood mulch is a great mulch for perennial systems (like an orchard). I made sure we had them drop off several truckloads.

We carefully scraped off all of the wood chips, raking up as much as we possibly could. These wood chips were never tilled in. The pile only ever sat on top of the ground.

That grassy patch of lawn where it was dumped ended up being converted to a gardening space the following year. We made 100′ beds, 30″ wide. The wood chip spot had spanned a small portion of 2 beds.

I planted jalapeño peppers down the one row (center of the frame.)  Basil grew in the bed to the left of the peppers. You can see it flowering. And to the left of the basil were tomatoes.

As the season progressed you could see an almost perfect circle where the chips had been! The plants were all yellow and stunted. Being a lighter feeder, the basil in front of the tomatoes wasn’t as affected.

There are daisies in the foreground, followed by the stunted peppers, followed by peppers grown in the exact conditions/variety as the peppers that are stunted. (Same variety, started at the same time, transplanted at the same time, fertilized at the same time with cold-pressed fish emulsion.)

It’s not easy to see the tomatoes because of the focus and the basil, but the ones directly next to the peppers stayed a couple of feet shorter than the rest and produced probably close to half the yield.

Disadvantages of wood chip mulch in your vegetable garden

4. There Is NO One Sized Fits All Approach To Gardening

We need to be talking more about micro-climates instead of USDA zones. We need to be talking about testing our soils and replacing depleted nutrients to improve the nutrient density of our vegetables.

Wood chip mulching is being billed as the one-size-fits-all solution to garden problems. But the real problem is that what works for one plot, even short-term, might not work on your neighbors garden AT ALL.

You know, it’s ok if someone chooses to garden in a different style than you. I’ll NEVER attack any particular organic gardening method (Ahem. “Back to Eden”).  I’m simply sharing why we have chosen not to use wood chip mulch in our garden after I jumped on a bandwagon when I heard about it in the beginning. My goal is to help those considering wood chip mulching to at least make an educated decision.

5. Some Trees Are Poisonous To Other Plants

Here’s your new word for the day: Allelopathy.

Allelopathy is “the suppression of growth of one plant species by another due to the release of toxic substances.” So unless you are 100% certain what trees are in your wood mulch, you might inadvertently kill your tomatoes. Where we live there are black walnut trees everywhere.  And should the tree trimming service have that in the mix, my tomatoes are toast! 

Sawdust mulch, fresh sawdust or chips from street tree prunings from black walnut are not suggested for plants sensitive to juglone, such as blueberry or other plants. However, composting of bark for a minimum of six months provides a safe mulch even for plants sensitive to juglone.

Juglone can affect blackberry, blueberries, apple, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, & certain cole crops in particular.

A few of the other trees that can have an allelopathic effect on plants include hickory, pine, sassafras, and oak. (Oak is known to discourage herbs & grasses in particular… cover crops, anyone?)

Further Information About Wood Chip Mulch and Gardening

• The problem – sometimes referred to as “sour mulch” or “toxic mulch” – occurs when mulch is left in large piles and undergoes anaerobic conditions. This results in the production of acids and other compounds that can volatilize when the mulch is placed in beds, especially during hot weather. These vapors can quickly damage annuals and other sensitive plants.

• If you want to see how our hay mulched garden regressed after only 6 months of wood chip mulch, just read this. And to be completely honest, I would take my soil looking like that wood chip mulched section now over the lifeless, heavy clay brick-like soil we have got going on at our new home! Repairing this isn’t going to be easy, but I’m up for the challenge. I will be doing it with soil amendments, hay mulching, no-tilling, and radish cover cropping.

• If you decide to go with wood chip mulch, whether it be for your garden, flower bed, outdoor walkway, recreational area, just make sure it isn’t treated with something as you don’t want contaminants or dyes leaching out, no matter where you choose to use it. The best mulch to go with is organic mulch. There are also lots of other clean mulch options available besides traditional mulch from wood chips.

Final Thoughts

So after considering these disadvantages of wood chip mulch, if you DO experiment with wood chip mulch in your annual vegetable garden, know what trees are in the mix. Let it break down to compost as far as possible. Haul in just as much, if not more, composted manure to use alongside your chips. And, most important, respect other gardeners’ choices if they refrain from joining you.

Last update on 2024-04-13 at 20:44 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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  1. Truly, you are not following the directions. Really ! If you type in How to start a back to eden garden, put out by the people who made the movie, you will see that you are not following it. Orrectly, hence it not working. Also, i agree the early videos do not explain everything fully, but if you watch his videos carefully he explains things you simply have not understood. He speaks of all the problems you have experienced honestly, and it is in the methods and some other things which you are doing and not doing. That is why you are receiving criticiszm. Somplease do not take it personal, its not. People are trying to help you. Sompray first. You will see that as the first thing on how to start a back to eden garden. Put out by the people whom made the movie. Its online, i just saw it today. This works, it truly does if one follows all he showed and the how to thing also.
    Wish you the best, and hope you may find the truth and good success, and not bad results, but fruitful ones!

  2. Thanks for helping me understand that the gardening techniques differ from various gardens. Like you said, you shouldn’t follow impulsively the strategy of your neighbor since it can be different with your situation. I will share this information with my uncle since he said that he might try using a mulch for his farm since he saw one on TV. This will help him be careful about applying it so that the results will be great.

  3. Hi
    Thanks for the info. I’ve been on the fence, considering wood mulch for this year’s garden but feeling apprehensive about it. I really like the idea of putting a good layer of compost on top of the soil. There is a good source of sterilized mushroom and chicken manure compost available and will use that in place of mulch. I already wood chip mulch around my berry bushes and that works well. Thank you

  4. Quinn, Where do you get straw? I bought a few bales form a garden center and used it in my new asparagus beds, but after the first rain, I had beds of wheat grass! I must be missing something. I have a large garden and would like to figure out how to buy weed free organic or unsprayed straw. Maybe you have some tips for me? Also, what do you think about the use of oak leaves in a garden? We live in an oak grove and I am wondering how best to use this resource. Thanks for any tips!

    1. I actually find it easier to find old hay bales than straw for the reasons you mentioned. It’s real hard to find them unsprayed. Now, the good news is with the wheat grass, when it pops up as a weed it’s a lot easier to manage than invasive perennials. (Thistle and bindweed scare me the worst.) It’s easy to pull or cover up with more mulch and kill, is an annual so the only way you need to worry about it next year is if you let it go to seed. The oak leaves *could* be a great source of mulch! I would research first whether the tannins leaching out could have an affect on the garden soil. And if you find that the matting up is a problem, maybe try shredding them with a lawn mower mulcher first.

  5. fungal dominate soil is more beneficial then bacterial based soils, you have it completely opposite.

    1. Depends on what you’re trying to grow. Annuals prefer bacterially *dominated* soils and perennials prefer a fungal dominance in the soil. Both serve a purpose within their context. It’s not an either/or.

  6. My husband wants to take the pebble route for the yard, but I really want mulch. It’s interesting that you say mulch can mess with acidity, but I’ve read all over the place that hardwood mulch will improve the acidity of the soil. Thanks for the information and we’ll keep it in mind to make our final decision.

  7. UPDATE: Here’s my experience with wood chips: Two years ago, chippers came through and since I know that wood chips are a great mulch for perennial systems (like an orchard) I made sure we had them drop off several truck loads. The yard space that they dumped ended up being a small part of our 1 acre gardening space the *following year.* We carefully scraped off all of the wood chips, raking up as much as we possibly could. We grew 100′ beds, 30″ wide and the chips had spanned about 2 beds. I planted peppers down the one row, tomatoes/basil down the other. As the season progressed you could see a perfect circle where the chips had been. The plants were all yellow and stunted. Being a lighter feeder, the basil in front of the tomatoes weren’t as effected. There are daisies in the foreground, followed by the stunted peppers, followed by peppers grown in the exact conditions/variety as the peppers that are stunted. It’s not so easy to see the tomatoes because of the focus, but the ones directly next to the peppers stayed a couple feet shorter than the rest and produced probably close to half.


  8. I applied wood mulch from a green waste dump site from the city one year and it had an adverse effect on my plants. I then started to wonder what kind of chemicals were in it, of course, it’s green, so it’s going to start decomposing. At that time, I was not aware of the nitrogen robbing it could do. Some friends have been applying this to their gardens and seem to be doing fine. There are certainly more things to consider than I realized. Now, I use leaves from my property and my own compost pile. Gardening is a constant experiment! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Interesting article, great comments. I subscribed. Two months ago I built my first planting beds, two 10Lx4wx2d and an herb bed. I bought garden soil from a local soil seller and planted some vegetables from Lowe’s in one, seeds for green beans in the other. The plants and sprouted seeds all look outstanding. In fact, a had a yellow bell pepper plant that some animal ate every leaf from except two leaves, and the plant survived and budded new leaves where the original ones were eaten. It looks better now than it did before the leaves were chewed off. I suspect a squirrel or a bird not a deer, as my dog is chained in the fenced enclosure and it is right beside the house. I also leave a bright light on out there at night, and only the single plant was eaten.

    But none of that is why I am commenting :).

    I just raked up the wood chips from my hen house (first chickens, too) and spread them over the soil in my planting beds an hour ago. There is a decent amount of chicken manure in the wood chips, and I need the chips for moisture retention. We live in south Texas and it does not rain from June 1st to October. Well water is the only water available unless one buys a truckload of it and stores it in a cistern.

    I understand the arguments against high-acid wood chips, and mine are pine. OMRI certified, but pine. Should I switch to straw, and should I work either of them into the soil?

    1. I definitely wouldn’t work the chips into the soil. It’s no problem to work straw into it though. In fact, that would help with any compaction and keep the soil light and workable longer.

      I have a video I took last month that I’ve been meaning to share, but we planted a garden in an unplanned spot that had wood chips sitting on it last year (we use them in the barnyard and orchards). We scraped it all off before planting, but naturally couldn’t get it all off. Even the bit that was left that got mixed in stunted my plants in a shocking way. The peppers especially have barely gone beyond transplant size. And the yellowing of the leaves points to nitrogen deficiency. It’s amazing the way you can see a perfect circle where the pile was. So whatever you do, don’t mix the chips in. If you decide to go the straw route, make sure to remove as much of the chips as possible and give it a hefty dose of manure to combat the chips binding up nitrogen for a year or so till they break down. Good luck!

  10. Could I ask a question? You seem so knowledgeable and I am new to plants. I have found myself in a predicament where I’m being forced to plant some pre-purchased bushes in 100 degree heat in the middle of summer. About the dirt… everyone in my area recommends cotton bur – I read somewhere it’s 1-0-1 … I’ve read nitrogen increases growth and water needs. I will be watering a lot but I wonder .. will this nitrogen be too strong with heat like this? Here’s another question… I’m having trouble finding compost. I would prefer a compost that’s without wood but all I can find is compost with wood in it. Would it be better for me to plant the bushes with just a mix of peat moss instead of wooden compost? I was able to find a good deal on a horse manure/compost mix with leaves and wood from a farm, but, I understand horse manure is low in nitrogen -(nitrogen -.7) and I’m worried that the wood will take the remainder. So, would it be better to just mix with peat moss? And should I be worried about the nitrogen in manure or cotton bur with this kind of heat? Any suggestions appreciated!

  11. Reformation Acres personally I'm glad that you mentioned the Back to Eden method because that was the first question I had when reading this article, whether you were familiar with or referring to that method, thanks for including that and saving me the question. A sound mind should be able to digest an idea weather they accept it or not. I'll admit that I was a little disappointed in hearing that they back to Eden method isn't he cure-all approach butt where's the fun in that right? As you can see voice to text isn't perfect

  12. I’m about 2 years into using the BTE gardening method. I’ve put wood chips in my veggie garden and in all of my ornamental planting beds. The wood chips do reduce the need for watering, they are a free/cheap source of mulch, and they make weeding easier. But I’m not very happy with the abundance of mushrooms/fungi I am seeing in the wood chips.

    Last year there were only a few mushrooms, but this year they’re everywhere. So I’m going to rake some the chips off of my ornamental beds (which will be several yards worth of material) and replace it with shredded bark mulch instead. I’ll probably leave the wood chips in the veggie garden area for now.

    According to Penn State University, artillery fungus (aka: spore launchers) can grow in wood chips and a way to suppress it is to mix your mulch (chips) with 40% mushroom compost. So I might try that. If that works, I’d like to inoculate the mulch with wine cap (or other edible) mushroom spores so that if I have to have mushrooms, at least they will be edible.

    I’d be surprised if Paul Gautschi (father of BTE gardening method) has had to deal with the problem of fungus in his wood chips. He lives in Sequim, WA which is in the rain shadow of the Hoh Rain Forest, so they only receive about 16 inches of rainfall a year there (similar to what Los Angeles receives).

  13. No I didn't. Education & alternative options are not attacks. It's just that many BTE'ers are so militantly religious about the method that my defense in their attacks makes it seem as though I'm attacking the method. So no, I'm not attacking the method, as a Christian I'm defending my right not to have my conscience bound to use a gardening method that is touted as THE biblical way to garden when, in fact, it is not.

  14. You said "I’ll NEVER attack any particular organic gardening method" and then you go ahead and do exactly what you said you would do by immediately writing this, "(Ahem. “Back to Eden”)." How's that not attacking any peticular organic gardening method?

  15. I have a friend who uses woodchips on his garden beds very successfully (although only three years now). Today he and I got a three-ton truck load of chips for my organic garden, and I have already started spreading them to our garden beds.

    Anyway, I do have a question. I am wondering if there is any harm (or advantage) to using them on the beds in the greenhouse? In my enthusiasm, I put a layer over one of the beds in the greenhouse, and started thinking afterwards that maybe it wasn't such a good idea.

    Looking for an answer brought me to this website, where I found this discussion.

    Hope someone can help. Thanks!

  16. For what it’s worth? Through the winter I empty the ash from the wood stove and strow it over the garden plots. In very late winter/early spring I spread the manure from my chickens (usually about a dozen) over the plots (1,500 sq ft?) As soon as the ground is workable I till it all in and, after planting, I mulch with a heavy layer of wood chips. Only hard wood! Beautiful garden, earthworms galore and, if I can brag, the local Master Gardener folks toured my gardens and asked for advice. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the tip about the wood ash. I’ve been to Paul Gautschi’s BTE garden tour and noticed wood ash spread out lightly in his orchard. I was wondering how wood ash does on acid loving plants, particularly berries? Do you only use it on your vegetables?

  17. I've used it very, very successfully, and I don't have any of the problems you've described here. It isn't a fix-all veggie garden solution, but it comes close. If you have decent mineral content (which you do), then activating your bed with good compost tea, worms, etc. will keep it bacterially dominated. Fungal domination may end up taking place, but remember that your soil life is key. When you add compost and compost tea to it, you're getting the nematodes and arthropods necessary to eat the fungus at keep a good balance.

  18. Wood chips are an excellent mulch in perenial beds and orchards. Although they can be used in no-till gardens, care must be taken not to till or mix wood chips into the soil as they will tie up the N2 as they decay. I think grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw and disease free garden waste is a much better mulch in the vegetable garden (although if you're doing raised beds or no-till, wood chips are excellent in walkways).

  19. What if you WANT the fungus? I inoculate my wood chips with mushroom spawn as a way of increasing diversity. I don’t do this in all of the beds, but some (mainly perennial beds). Do you have any info/ comments on that? And what, specifically does the excess fungus do that is detrimental? I am curious because right now mycoremdiation is a very hot trend. I recently heard Trapped Vitter, the author of Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation speak and it was fascinating. I am curious if perhaps mushroom farming in wood chip mulch is ok for perennial beds. Thanks for any insights. 🙂

    1. It sounds like you are totally on the right track Jenny. I DO want fungus too! I want fungus on my raspberries, I want fungus in my orchard, I want fungus in my perennial beds. I DON’T want fungus in large quantities in my annual vegetable garden. Annual vegetables thrive best in a bacterially dominated soil. Fungus isn’t the enemy, there’s going to be some, especially in the no-till garden, you just want the balance to be in favor of the bacteria. I wrote about the scientific & natural, creation-based reasons why here: https://www.reformationacres.com/2013/03/rethinking-mulch-gardening.html and here: https://www.reformationacres.com/2013/09/berries-grapes-bacterial-or-fungal.html
      Take care & have fun growing mushrooms! That sounds so exciting, I’d love to try it some time! 😀

  20. Quinn, after reading your article here, I do not understand why you are so against using wood chips? I see many of your readers are doing exactly what was explained in the “Back to Eden” film – even though they fail to realize it. Paul Gautschi explains many times in his videos, and actually you see in his later ones, that he does not use wood chips in his high yielding beds. Matter of fact he uses nothing more than compost on them. However, these gardens were started with wood chips. He further explains that you can use any ground covering that is available to you in your area that is abundant. You cannot deny his success, and seeing other growers, even in your comment section, that his way works. Maybe I can explain his method of gardening to all of you in simple terms that you all can understand.
    Go out to your yard, cover a space in your garden area with a piece of wood, before you start it for the season. Check underneath that piece of wood, a week, or up to a month later. When you pick it up you will see nice, moist black soil in abundance along with a lot of worms. In many, if not most areas, you will be able to dig that soil with your hands. Now plant a vegetable in that soil, and cover it with any porous natural material. – You have just planted a “Back to Eden Garden” in your garden. It is that simple!
    The sole reason for using wood chips is that they appear to be the best to keep a sustainable garden with because you are keeping the soil moist and retaining the natural nutrients in the soil, while at the same time adding more nutrients for your plants. At the end of the growing season, you just place more wood chips on top of your garden, and next year you do not have to till or disrupt the soil, you pull them back and plant under them. After 5 years or so doing this, nothing more than compost is needed to keep your garden growing.
    Now in closing the truth is that are doing nothing more than starting a flat compost pile to grow your plants in. When you till the soil, all you are doing is throwing your soil up in the air which in turn means you have to replace the nutrients in the soil to keep your plants growing. If you want to get really technical, in which you don’t need to, you can adjust the ph of your garden or farm with what is added to the compost.
    Another thing very important to mention Paul tells you in his films and videos. — Do not use compost from animal waste from animals fed with GMO feeds.

    1. Two comments on an old post within the hour. Clearly a wood-chip-mulch lover shared my post again 🙂

      Let me point out that I am an AVID mulch gardener. I was mulch gardening before BTE so I’m thoroughly acquainted with the myriad of benefits. I’m not at all against using wood chips either. I just got 5 loads delivered this fall and plan to use them in my orchards, perennial beds, and bramble berries. I DO have some legitimate concerns about using wood chip mulch in *annual* vegetable gardens. (https://www.reformationacres.com/2013/03/rethinking-mulch-gardening.html)

      I’ve got no bone to pick with Paul either, though since so many of his fans are sharing that he actually doesn’t use wood chips in his garden anymore I think his feature video (*the* BTE video not youtube) should be updated to reflect that for the sake of complete honest disclosure. I don’t know if it’s here or in another post or in comments somewhere, but I do say that I believe compost to be the most ideal mulch, just like Paul has discovered for himself.

      If it is only mulching & not wood chip mulching that he promotes then his idea is no new thing under the sun. Ruth Stout was deep mulching her garden’s in the 70’s but doesn’t get the credit for the concept in any BTE circles. (Technically, she was more back to Eden since she liked to do her gardening in the nude 😉 )

      As to why so many of my “readers” have found this method to be so successful is that they aren’t really my readers. Like you, they’ll probably never come back again. For some reason, BTE followers are very devoted, defend the method passionately, and are the only ones to share their experiences. Hay mulch gardeners are more live & let live and don’t seem to care so much about which method another gardener uses. Frankly, I only shared this and my other wood chip posts because I said I was going to use the method and wanted to be honest about why I decided to go a different, time-tested, proven route.

      I apologize that my post has upset you. Garden blessings to you, Quinn

      1. No, your post did not upset me at all. No apology needed or warranted. I see so many people gardening with poor results after spending a lot of money on them. At the same time, many do not garden because they way over complicate it or believe it takes too much time and money to do so to make it worthwhile.
        Yes, I also know that Paul no longer uses wood chips, but at the same time, is years progress, I think it may be essential for it to be done again at some time.
        Now in saying the above, the wood chips are nothing more than laying a piece of wood on the ground to hold in the moisture to protect the underlying soil, while providing nutrients while they decay.
        What I am trying to convey is not to scare people away from growing their own food, when people should be encouraged to do so. This is the reason (IMO) that BTE followers are so devoted and lash out at people trying to over complicate something that is easy and cheap to do.
        My intentions are not to disagree or criticize your opinions. I just want to make clear what I feel BTE is trying to convey.
        I think a reasonable thinking person will agree, that most likely they will not get is good results that BTE shows, but at the same time, they will be able to grow enough food using the BTE method that they will produce enough food to sustain them and their family. I will also say this, that most will be more than satisfied with the results.

      2. He still uses wood chips, but only when needed, which is almost never now as his soil holds water and is very aerated, so he only needs to add chicken compost. Just note that he has lots of wood chips at the bottom of his chicken run anyway and the resulting compost is what he adds.

        Also for clarity, as I am not quite sure how familiar you really are with the movie, all Paul really says is that the earth needs to be covered. He started with leaves, but the blew away. He finally settled on wood chips because he liked how it absorbed the water and released it slowly and didn’t blow away. Over time he realized that the wood chips resulted in soil that held water very well.

        He really is a very unassuming and giving man that just shared the exceptional results he got with the world. He is inspiring a great many people that it is not hard to start their own successful gardens which is a really good thing, isn’t it?

        To me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I look at his fruit and veggies and hear how delicious every single person say it is and I don’t need anything else.

  21. I can tell this author is an idealist anti chemical fertilizer such as Miracle grow and any kind of technology such as GMO kind of guy. I have an awesome garden which I never till, the worms absolutely love it under my layer of wood chips, and I never have to weed. It is the lazy mans garden. If I have to toil hour after hour and day after day I might as well buy it at the grocery store. The worm population is huge. Their droppings are fertilizer. If I saw a plant looking a little pale I would fertilizer but this has been rare. I get more veggies than my family can eat so I let the neighbors pick. I do not have an overpopulation of fungus, again I have worms chewing and churning it all up underneath. I have a nice layer of very black rich soil developing underneath. It stays moist for much longer periods of time during dry spells. Ever been to a woods? As the wood chips get thin, due to composting and worm action, I lay down a layer of cheap brown paper and then put a new layer of wood chips on top. The paper keeps the occasional hardy weed from poking up through. No I am not a stupid guy with no education. I have a BSSED in Biology with a Chemistry supporting. I presently develop human diagnostic tests.

    1. How do you keep bugs out of the wood mulch? If I don’t keep the wood chips, shavings and debris picked up it gets full of earwigs. We don’t use any chemicals in our yard (except those left by critters) and saucers with beer for slugs.

  22. Question: I am currently using the BTE method and honestly, I really like it. We used some very “well seasoned” mulch last year and plan to do the same this year. Could the age of the mulch have anything to do with how well it acclimates to the garden soil? By the time we used our mulch I would say that it was a good 2+ years old. Even your excerpt about the Black Walnut mulch said that it would be safe after 6 months. Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly okay with the fact that the BTE system doesn’t work for everyone and am not trying to be controversial at all (I don’t like controversy either:)) I am just curious if the age of the mulch is something to be aware of when putting it on my little plot. Was the mulch that you used well aged?

    1. It’s possible that having well aged mulch might be a better starting point. I never actually grew a BTE garden. I prepared one and then moved before planting it and in the interim between gardening again did enough research to discourage me from wanting to go through the extra work of laying it down (cause hay mulch is a TON easier both to move and to find for free) and then run the risk of it not working and having to take it all back off. We do use wood chips to mulch other things like perennial plants and fruit trees.

    2. Paul Gautschi, the guy from the Back to Eden film, lets his wood chips age before applying them to his garden.

      He also says that any kind of mulch will do. In my climate zone (Denmark, Scandinavia) I think the key is to let the material compost for a year before I use it. The required aging period probably depends on your climate zone.

  23. Interesting. I hadn’t heard of the wood mulch method before. I’m more of a leaf mulch, no till except with a Broadfork type of gardener here in Ohio. One more thing to think about – some trees have been sprayed with weed killers that don’t break down well (like Imprelis). You are always taking a chance when using outside resources.

  24. Where did you get your stats that state you have to add enormous amounts of manure to offset the woodchips? Woodchips that are not worked into the soil, but stay ON TOP of the soil don’t throw off the numbers like you stated above. If you are digging chips and sawdust into the actual soil then yes, they would take your nitrogen but just sitting on top of the soil does not.

  25. Darn! I just laid down wood chips yesterday to help keep my soil moist and save it from getting pounded with each heavy rain. I won’t till it in, now that I know, at the end of the season, but I’ll scrap it up and reuse it in my flower gardens. Thanks for the info!

    1. Am I correct that tree mulch should never be tilled in anyway?

  26. I’ve seen debate on this all over the web and I find it interesting, if nothing else. Some folks give up after a bad first year. Some folks put all of their eggs in one basket after a tremendous first year. A lot of people on both sides want to tell everyone else why they’re wrong.

    We’re seeing improvements to our soil through wood chip gardening. I don’t know that it’s so necessary for those with decent soil to begin with. In fact, I think folks might be disappointed if they started out with decent soil and don’t see it through for several years.

    We live in a drought area where cattle have overgrazed and we have only subsoil, no topsoil. The wood chip mulch is readily available at a doable price and has shown (slowly) that is aiding our agrarian efforts since we first started using it 2.5 years ago.

    When you’re full-time homesteaders with very little income, I think you should do what you can with what you have and not worry too much about why someone else with completely different circumstances thinks what you’re doing is wrong.

    But then again, this whole discussion could only be controversial in an affluent society such as our own. 🙂

    1. I think that’s why I write against wood chip mulch more often than in favor of it (because I am in favor of it in certain applications). I hate the one-sized-fits-all mentality. And without chewing into my precious internet data to watch it again, I can’t recall if the BTE movie touts itself as that or if it’s others using the method doing so. Either way, it’s being said and like you pointed out- do what you can and not worry about what the other folks with different situations are doing. We do need to be paying more attention to our micro-climates and what our own soils needs are. With you being in TX and me in soaking wet & soggy OH, it’s silly to think we could or should ever garden the same. Here our wood chip mulch would be mostly black walnut, white pine, and oak so I’ll be steering clear. But that’s ok, cause all the Amish farmers around here are already giving us funny looks when we talk about hay mulch and no-till gardens anyway so I’m getting it from both sides 😉

      1. Oh see, THAT is helpful to know. i found your blog and have been reading through it, wondering where you are and if your situation applies to me, (cause reading an about page would be too much like work LOL) then i see this little tidbit and im like, Whoop, there it is!! Girl is from soaking wet and soggy OH, aka MY ToWN lol. (i dont know why the shift key on my brand new computer is messing up, pPout;;

      2. Hi there,

        I think the objective of using wood chips is in conjunction with the use of compost, much like a ‘lasagna’, no-till garden. The compost is what provides immediate amendment to the garden and soil, and also helps the wood chips break down over time, thus itself becoming compost over a longer period, while also providing a useful tool for moisture retention and vast weed blocking. It’s funny to me, that really, all of these ‘specialty’ styles boil down to the same method with just a different focus. We call one wrong or right or not one-size-fits-all, when really it all sounds the same to me.

        I’ve seen interviews directly from Paul on his BTE garden, and he explains that ANYthing can be used as a soil covering, and that wood chips is what he used as accessible and useful for him (which now he solely does compost because of health conditions for him being able to haul them where he needs them). I plan to use wood chips this year, but won’t apply them until after my last harvest in the fall, so that they can have time to mature. They’ll be applied over my compost and straw mulch that I’ll be using over the course of the growing season, which will only allow for the wood chips to do what they are, in fact, great at doing. Here’s another perspective from someone not necessarily following BTE, but uses wood chips:

        I get that you might be upset at people who would take a certain issue and place it on a pedestal and it’s now a god for them…but I think if we recognize these methods just as they are – helpful methods and useful tools -we diminish the false power they have and we can go on about our lives and not need to call so much attention to who screams what the loudest.

        1. I know it sounds like I’m calling one method right or wrong when in reality, and in a way I am by saying that BTE is wrong… for ME. I’m simply pointing out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Just because we see something working in another person’s garden doesn’t mean it will have the same effect in ours. When BTE first started being talked about years ago, all of those supplemental youtube videos weren’t available (the original film emphasized wood chips not mulching or lasagna gardening), yet folks were following the methods without thinking about whether it was truly best for their situation. In our case, the woods in our local are loaded with acidic pine and toxic black walnut. To use those in our gardens would be asking for trouble and my sole purpose in writing these posts would be cause people to think first. Not doing so could seriously do long term damage to their garden and many can’t just till up a new spot if they are working in small spaces. I’m not upset until I start getting attacked over sharing what I’ve learned and my experience with wood chips. It never fails to surprise me the backlash the few posts I’ve written on the subject have received. Good luck with your garden this year!

          1. Well, I certainly wouldn’t call my response to you ‘backlash’…but if it feels that way, I’m sorry?? Though I guess it’s part of being a blogger to state your personal opinion, and have opposing (or at least a variety of) opinions respond. Just in the same way others have posted what works for them, so have you! I wouldn’t get too worked up about it 😉 😉

  27. Since I’m already committed to the wood chip method and in the process of dressing the top of the chips with store bought compost manure, would adding blood meal help? What about adding grass clippings on top chips? Thanks!

    1. It’s my understanding that burying the wood chips would be detrimental. And that’s straight from the horses mouth so to speak.. if you check out some of my other articles about wood chips in the Mulch Gardening category above and read through the comments they all seem to say that where folks go wrong is by mixing the wood chips in (even though if you read the gardener’s word who had the bad experience she did NOT mix them in). As to the blood meal, you could do some math with your product and figure out how much you’d need to put down to compensate and correct the C:N ratio, but I imagine it would be very cost prohibitive.

    2. you should look at the back to eden garden tour video on youtube. I’m not going to say he has all the answers, but it is interesting to see someone gardening with wood mulch. His approach appears to be wood mulch every few years and a lot of chicken manure from his chickens tossed on top. One particular aspect that I think makes a big difference is he mulches in the fall. That gives the wood chips several months to break down.

      As for the reasoning for wood chips or leaf mulch its pretty simple. Plants grow in the woods without someone fertilizing them. They get everything they need from leafs, fallen limbs/trees, and from wildlife droppings. I can buy into the logic behind that, but the ratios that trees prefer vs vegetable plants are likely different. If you do go the wood chip route you will likely need strong chicken manure to keep the ratios in balance. I will say the results that I’ve seen from around the web look promising for several reasons (1. no tilling, 2. expensive fertilizers. 3. limited need for watering in many areas).

      If you do watch the garden of eden fellow please keep in mind that he is gardening in Washington state in what is clearly a very rainy area. I suspect that has a big factor in why he gets away with no watering. I also suspect his underlying soil is very good to begin with.

      As others will always point out local conditions usually lead you to the best path. All you really need is a decent mix of Carbon to Nitrogen in the soil, a decent amount of water, warm soil, and decent amounts of sun. What it takes to reach all of those is the challenge. (this coming from a guy who has had a garden on a deck in containers, and a garden in the ground, and grew up helping my dad garden in the corner of a big field).

      1. I seem to remember that his soil was compacted clay with rocks to begin with.

  28. Interesting conversation! I’m glad wood chip mulching isn’t definitely the best way to go because it would be very inconvenient. I am blessed to have next door neighbors who delivered horse manure to may garden all winter long. Add to that my newspaper & straw mulch in the spring/tomato garden and grass clippings in the Three Sisters garden and I have a very easy mulching system set up. I’m still ignorant about the tilling debate, and so we till at planting time.
    I’ve learned to garden confidently by intuition, inclination, and inheritance, blaming my tendencies on my grandmothers’ legacies. Wood chip mulching the veggie gardens never fit into that mindset, while I am compelled beyond reason to put down the straw or grass. Does anyone else go by that when gardening? The more I garden by instinct the better my garden does and the more relaxed I am.

  29. I have to comment that while I agree with everything you say, I live in an area that is dry, so I need to mulch heavily to keep the moisture in, and it is so windy that they only mulch that will stay down is wood chips. I tried straw one year, and it blew away in 24 hours. FWIW, I got the wood chips last fall, spread them on my garden bed, and let them sit over the winter to mellow some.

    1. I wonder if layering would work- put a decent layer of straw or grass down and then a thinner layer of wood mulch on top? The grass/straw would be closer to the plants & maybe the wood wouldn’t have as much of an affect.

      1. I’m not sure what the point would be since the hay/straw/grass would have the same impact you’re looking for (weed suppression, moisture retention) without any potentially negative side effects.

        1. i think her point was the wood would keep the straw from blowing away in 24 hours re the op’s experience 😉

          1. Ok, I see that now. Sometimes I’ll answer comments from a directly on Disqus and I can’t see if the comment is stand alone or part of a thread. So in context now, I sound like a buffoon. Oops. 🙂

            So then my thought about straw and then a little wood chips would be that just about no matter how thick you lay down the straw, it’s still going to decompose faster than the wood chips. So what do you do then? You could scrape them off, reapply the straw and then put the chips back down (that’s an awful lot of work). And if you put more straw on top of the chips, followed by more chips, well even the BTE folks will admit that mixing the wood chips in is bad, bad news. I still think that a thicker top dressing of compost would be a better mulch than wood chips even if it’s on top of straw.

          2. Mulch and controversy are two words I never would of thought of in the same sentence. Heh.
            A few years ago…five to be exact, I prepared a new veg garden here in southern VT. I had access to free wood chips, actually, sawdust. I knew where the trees came from and put them in my footpaths between rows. Then a neighbor came over and stood looking at my nice neat rows and sawdust paths and proclaimed that I had made a big mistake. He tut-tutted and muttered to himself and shook his head, then wandered off.
            He didn’t have a conversation with me. The next spring I tilled it all in with added compost, leaves and straw. Had two good gardens, that first year and the next. Didn’t add anything after the second year and didn’t have such a good crop the following year. Now I add anything I can reasonably get my hands on. Doing okay so far.
            Have another good blogging friend who experienced the same kind of whiplash you describe. He is The Deliberate Agrarian.
            People can be trolls sometimes.
            Thanks for sharing your expwriences with us.

    2. Perhaps try a layer of compost? It wouldn’t blow away, would suppress weeds, and provide fertility.

  30. Thank-you for putting this information together. I have been trying to communicate it to others, but you say it so much nicer and even have pictures!

  31. Great information, Quinn. Keep up what your doing and keep sharing with us!