Monday, August 12, 2013

Woodchip Woes and Mulching Madness

While my compost bin is getting a huge workout this Summer and producing quite nicely as well, the self made wood chip experiment is just not keeping up with demand. Not even close.

Estimates I have read around the average rainfall and moisture levels we get here in Missouri are showing anywhere from two to four inches of organic mulch loss per year over the entire area covered. That's a damned lot of wood chips when you figure the surface area I am covering. Yesterday afternoon I pruned a bunch of branches and some woody-like sunflower casualties and amassed a good sized pile of stuff to run through the chipper/shredder. Almost two hours of stripping and feeding and shredding/chipping produced maybe a gallon and a half to two gallons of viable material.

At that rate I figure the amount of material I got would be enough to resupply maybe a weeks worth of mulch loss at current usage, maybe a day's worth at the levels I would like to cover eventually. I have lost count of how many pickup loads of free woodchips I have hauled this Spring and Summer so far but I can tell you there is no physical way to even touch the demand here while using a small engine sized chipper/shredder alone. Perhaps if I had a larger forested area and one of those commercial grade chippers the road crews use but that is pretty solidly out of my price range.

The barn mulch mixed with sheep manure cover I used for the garden is holding up quite well and achieves the same result as the wood chip mulch but is now beginning to show some wear around the edges. The crabgrass especially is damaging to both types of cover as it breaks it down with all the spiderweb-like roots. As far as attacking ground mulch goes, crabgrass is worse than morning glory/bindweed in the wood chip sections. Many times removing the crabgrass does more immediate damage to the mulch area trying to remove all the tendrils and crabgrass appears to be quite happy living on the woodchips themselves.

As a side experiment I have let the crabgrass grow unmolested in a section or two and in just over two months of growth it has already completely engulfed a three foot square section to where you can barely tell there are any woodchips under it. As it breaks it down it loosens it up for the other grasses and weeds to push through.

The thicker matting the barn mulch creates appears to be more crabgrass resistant but does little to nothing against the morning glory and other bindweeds. Of course morning glory has one good feature in that the bees will actually forage on it some but still it is a hard to impossible weed to control with ground cover.

Both types of ground cover do negate the mud factor very satisfactorily. However the barn mulch may add too much direct nitrogen as it decomposes much faster than the woodchips causing more explosive growth but less blooming and fruit setting. It also appears to be very favorable for pumpkins to re-root themselves in which is causing an entirely new set of problems I hadn't foreseen.

Grass clippings appear to have the same overall effect as barn mulch but my guess is overall it applies more nitrogen and much less of the other additions that come with barn mulch. It doesn't last as long either but does appear to be much less appealing to crabgrass for some reason. I used grass clipping almost entirely around the squash and it is still holding good but also gives a good cover for the squashbugs to hide out in.

All three types of cover preform excellent moisture retention though.

My final analysis is this. None of the ground cover types are perfect. The fact that once covered with wood chips means tilling is out of the question as well as plowing means there is just no way you can use wood chips in an area that you cannot keep resupplied, therefore it is out as a garden cover but works great for raised beds. A combination of barn mulch and grass clippings work well for the garden area but require more manual labor each season unless of course you are using wood chips of your own making then the manual labor rate is about the same. The advantage to barn mulch especially is that it is something you have to remove constantly anyway and you have to do something with it. Grass clippings on the other hand may not be viable in a grid down situation without constant fuel inputs to gather.

In other words use what ya got folks. Each has it's advantages and drawbacks. For me a combination is the best compromise. If I had easy access to a constant supply of woodchips I would go that route but I don't. I do have easy access to a constant supply of old, trampled down hay infused with sheep waste and grass clippings so I will use them on the spots that I will plow and till every year.

It would be nice if lambing season was finished by the time garden planting started to allow easier access to the barn mulch but that doesn't happen. The lambs are usually birthed by then but still too young to be put in regular pasturage.

Unless you have a supply of anything that makes an end run around some part of the labor process there is no easy alternative. Even with a  good supply of chipping material getting the end result is just as much work as weeding in my opinion.

Keep Prepping Everyone!!!


  1. Using what's available makes perfect sense, and sure beats griping about what you don't have.

    Well done.

  2. Maybe some of the tree trimmer people who chip the brush would dump off a truck load at your place, they probably have to pay to take it to a landfill.

    1. That's what I was thinking.

    2. I have in fact signed up on several sites volunteering to take wood chips from the trimmers but so far no takers. I have even stopped and told the crews when I see them I will take em but this Summer it appears I am further away from where they are cutting than other places I guess.

      Still I am attempting to set up a system that I can sustain myself ina grid down situation. Ideally of course. I figure those crews won't be running after the real financial collapse hits.

  3. We have a wood chipper for the back of the tractor but don't use it that much. It's just SOOO much work for so few chips. I remember Paul just feeding & feeding & feeding that thing branch after branch and then looking over after a while and only having a garbage can filled up. But when we do make wood chips, I use them in the small pathway from the front yard to the goat gate or in the raised flower beds. There never seems to be enough to cover even those small spaces let along using them in the vegetable gardens. We did get a BUNCH of sawdust last year and spread it on a path in the garden and it has worked VERY well. But it was probably laid a foot thick. The few weeds that do come up (damned morning glory) are easily pulled out. If we ever get a chance to get more sawdust, we'll use it in the other paths in the veggie garden.

    1. Carolyn - that is exactly my take on the whole self made wood chip thing. There is just no way I can generate the volume I need or even enough to make it semi useful.

      I tractor mounted chipper is something that might work better but I have yet to see one I could buy. Where did you guys get yours?

    2. Paul said it's something like Jyn-Mar or something, china made, got it off the internet several years ago. Works ok, but Paul says it's too much work, easier to just burn the brush & beg the professional tree trimmers to drop off chips.

  4. I was under the impression that woodchips would be nitrogen negative if within the soil body. The introduction of nitrogen into their mix greatly speeds up their decay. In our culture of quick and easy 10-10-10 that is not such a big deal, but should be accounted for.


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