Friday, May 10, 2013

About Wood Chips, Ashes and Grass Clippings

What do preppers, and organic/sustainable gardeners have in common? Well besides an interest in plants it should be yard waste.

Around the Small-Hold we have the rather dubious luck of having several old retired horses and plenty of decayed manure to use as compost and fertilizer. We also have sheep droppings that get cleaned out and used as well but the sheep will never keep up the demand and the horse days are numbered and NOT on a replacement plan. Of course we plan on adding in some more livestock as the horse numbers decline but we also plan on staying within a sustainable boundary.

Yard waste is the most important step in our sustainable gardening endeavors by far. Our yard waste also includes wood ash which combined with other yard waste rounds out the balance quite nicely.

During the Winter months as we burn large amounts of wood for heat the ash is dumped all over the frozen ground especially in the garden and raised bed areas. I store the ash as it is removed from the furnace in a five gallon metal trash can until any embers are extinguished. It is best to wait for a slightly windy day or better yet when we have snow cover and then spread the ashes out in a light dusting allowing the moisture to soak the ash into the soil which will then be tilled in the Spring. One five gallon bucket per 1000 or so square feet is what I have read as being recommended.

Wood ash will change the soil PH to alkaline if over applied so it should be avoided if you desire acidic soil and it does not add nitrogen, however it does add other nutrients. Applying the ash in Winter also insures it is well broken down and the beneficial trace elements soaked in long before planting. I have found adding it to the soil in this way has not changed my soils PH balance much at all over the years but has eliminated the need for adding lime completely and it has greatly fluffed up the hard clay soils we started with.

When Spring arrives I begin the next stage of garden fertilization by hauling grass clippings into selected sections of the garden area.  Grass clippings contain a large amount of Nitrogen which make them a perfect partner to the nitrogen free wood ash. The clippings are allowed to dry for at least two days in the Sun and then raked up before being added. I do not use a bagger for this step as the drying process is important to lessen any heat damage and decrease the massive amounts of nitrogen transferred from fresh clippings. This step is somewhat labor intensive but the clipping mulch will last almost an entire season once laid down so it isn't an ongoing process. Also you don't want to remove all the clippings from your yard anyway. Usually by the end of June the clipping mulch process is completed for the year.

I lay grass clippings down heavily in the squash/zucchini bed area, around the tomato plant rows/under the trellis and within the melon patches. The clippings block out most weed growth, keeps the ground moist and adds some natural nitrogen to the soil. It also acts as an insulation barrier between the soil and the fruit types that can rot when they lay directly on the dirt. I have also found that squash bugs and slugs/snails don't seem to like to travel over the dried grass carpet as much.

I have read that grass clippings can begin to stink and become slimy with time but I have not experienced this in my gardens. Perhaps allowing the clippings to dry for a few days prevents this.

The combination of the high nitrogen grass clippings with the no nitrogen wood ash lessens the amounts of other fertilizers I need to add to the garden and also acts as a mulch for weed control. The down side is it does nothing for controlling the various bindweeds (like morning glory) and creates an environment moles absolutely LOVE during the hot, dry Summer months.

Wood Chips are a yard waste I also use extensively but not as a permanent mulch in my garden area. The reasons I haven't used them in ways some have found beneficial is more than likely due to local conditions than anything else. Large wood chips should not be tilled into the soil ever as they will deplete the oxygen and cause other issues as they decay. As a permanent ground cover they render bindweed control almost impossible to perform without using herbicides that I refuse to use. The only way to remove bindweeds like morning glory is to physically remove the root system from the area and eventually it will grow back (quite quickly) I might add. Tilling simply chops up the roots and makes the bindweed spread, turning one root into dozens of new plants but I have found frequent tilling can eventually starve the bindweed roots to a point. Pulling bindweed vines out of mulched soil can also get enough of the root to set the plant back a ways as well but eventually you will need to dig out and sift an area to get as much of the root as possible and you cannot do this with a permanent ground cover mulch like wood chips. I have also found a good Winter tilling will kill off the bindweed root sections that get frozen.

Bindweed is simply as act in temporary control methods. An ongoing problem that is you have you will never get rid of and must always stay on top of.

If it wasn't for the Bindweed/Morning Glory issue I would more than likely use the wood chip (Eden) method of gardening and simply spread some wood ash out over it in Winter allowing the moisture to soak it into the soil. Over the years I have noticed my methods of control have rendered only three weed types as a problem. The Bindweed I mentioned, the Bindweed-like crab grass and the pigweed which is easily handled. The pigweeds pull out easily now and the crabgrass also needs to be dug out, especially along the edges but is not as insidious as Morning Glory.

I currently use woodchips as mulch around my fruit trees and plan on using the Eden method in a half acre orchard I have under construction as the bindweeds do not harm the trees like they do the vegetable plants. I have also had good luck with wood chips as weed control over areas that see foot traffic although I suspect it just allows the morning glory roots to remain hidden and spread the vines out around the ground cover/mulch. Still this works well for walkways between the raised beds and building edges. As the wood chips breakdown you can also dig up these areas and use the soil under it as well.

Bottom line yard waste isn't waste by any stretch and should always be added back into your sustainable planting activities.

Keep Prepping Everyone!!!



  1. PP,

    I agree with you totally. My yard waste is never wasted, it's always reused.

    1. Sandy - I admit some of my branches do go to waste. I am looking into a chipper/shredder of my own. I am finally getting enough trees that it might be useful.

  2. Critter poop & yard clippings are a wonderful way to recycle and we use it where/whenever we can here. Ash from the wood stove I've been just spreading around the newly-dug up/dozed areas, not really knowing what it would add to the soil, but figured that there wasn't that much going out there that it could hurt anything.

    1. Carolyn - Ash will also help keep down some pests. Slugs especially dislike wood ash. I will lightly dust my plants with it sometimes.

  3. Thanks PP, I'm trying the grass clipping method. I was thinking about composting it, but this looks like I can get double duty out of it.


    1. Dan - I hope it works as well for you as it does for me. There are of course many variables I have not explored like varieties of grass etc. Yet it works very well for me.

      The labor getting it put down is the pain part of course.

  4. Grass clippings vary a lot depending on what region your in. Not all areas have the same type of grass. We are in a marginal-Fescue area and you get a lot of weeds (and their seeds) mixed in with the grass. So I don't bag the grass and let the grass mulch the grass.

    I have often pondered the merits of storing a fair amount of 10-10-10 as a basic PA necessity. The stuff has to be one of the best bargains out there.

    1. Russ - Weed seed is another reason I allow the clipping to dry a few days before raking them up and placing them on the garden. You can also accomplish ridding yourself of the seeds by composting it or bagging it and leaving it in the sun a few days but that retains the nitrogen.

      Most of the moisture and nitrogen is gone if you leave em out a bit.

      As for varieties of grasses I cannot speak to. I have a lot of fescue myself but it tends to get over run when cut frequently.

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