Wood Chips—The Secret to Effortless, Inexpensive Biodynamic Gardening
Wood Chips—The Secret to Effortless, Inexpensive Biodynamic Gardening
If you’re passionate about your health, you ultimately will reach the conclusion that the quality of the food you eat in large part determines your health. You need nutrient-dense, non-GMO or non-glyphosate contaminated foods to stay healthy.
You can purchase organic from the store but this is typically shipped long- distance, and in many cases from a different country. You can purchase from local organic farmers but you still have logistical challenges and it may have been picked several days prior to your eating it.
Fortunately, regardless of your income, it is possible to nearly effortlessly grow your own food right in the comfort and convenience of your own backyard and virtually eliminate the time from harvesting to eating.
Paul Gautschi has been a personal inspiration to me, and his garden is a testament to the fact that growing large amounts of healthy food can be very simple, and doesn’t require a lot of time.
The documentary Back to Eden was my first exposure to his work. I struggled for years seeking to unlock the puzzle of growing nutrient-dense food before I came across his recommendations—the simplicity and low cost of which really appealed to me.
The key to growing nutrient-dense food is to have a soil that is abundant with microbial life and nutrients. Sadly, very few of us have access to this type of soil but the good news is that it is relatively easy to create it.
After studying his technique more carefully, I realized that using wood chips is probably the single best way to optimize soil microbiology with very little effort.
Shortly after watching the film, I called my local tree cutting service and was able to get three truckloads of wood chips dropped on my driveway for free, which I then spread onto my landscape. Each load is around 10-15 yards and weighs about 7-10,000 pounds. So far I have had 13 truckloads delivered and I plan on doubling that.
Why wood chips?
You can actually use virtually any organic material for mulch but wood chips seem to be one of the best, as they are concentrated sources of carbon that serve to feed the complex soil ecology. Typically, carbon is one of the nutrients that is far too low in the soil.
Additionally, by covering the soil around your plants and/or trees with mulch, you mimic what nature does naturally, and in so doing, you effortlessly maximize the health of the soil. And soil health, as I’ve discussed in many previous articles, is the key to growing nutritious food.
Actually, the effortlessness comes after you do the hard work of moving the chips to where you need them to be. But once there, over time they work their magic and virtually eliminate the most concerning garden tasks, which is weeding, watering, and fertilizing.
Ground Cover Reduces Water Needs
Covering the ground with wood chips dramatically reduces water evaporation, thereby minimizing the need for watering. The wood chips also tend to absorb moisture from the air at night and release it back into the soil during the day when the plants need it.
Water shortage was in fact part of what inspired Paul when he first began. He’d moved from Los Angeles to Washington State where he built a house and planned an orchard. The problem was, his well didn’t produce enough water for irrigation.
“It was August ‘79… It didn’t rain the whole summer… And I’m saying, ‘God, how am I going to grow fruit trees for my family without water?’”
His answer lay in the woods behind his house. Those trees were all lush and green, and when he poked around, he realized they were surrounded by deep, dark, lush, fertile soil—courtesy of all the fallen leaves and twigs that had never been cleared away.
“I started planting my trees and covering [them]. At that time, I had straw and sheep manure; now I’m doing the wood chips,” he says. “My orchard has not been watered or fertilized for 35 years, and it’s produced abundantly beyond what people can imagine…
Wherever you live, there’s something in nature that you can use to cover the ground with. If you have nothing but rocks, they make a great cover. You can grow wonderful gardens in rocks because rocks are minerals and they hold moisture…
Whatever you’re growing, put it back. It’s that simple. If you’re raising corn, chop the stalks and put them back. If you’re raising grain, put the straw back.
Whatever you use, put it back… Any organic material lying on the ground will decompose, return to the soil, and the plants work out. It’s so commonsense simple.”
Compost, Biochar and Tilling…
Now, some people use wood chips, but they put them into a compost pile. Composting must be created correctly, it takes a little practice to get the balance of nitrogen and carbon right while maintaining a proper temperature.
It seems obvious to me that when you use wood chips for ground cover, you’re mimicking the type of environment that soil microbes are naturally adapted to. The key here is to create stable carbon complexes.
Biochar is another great tool to help building your soil, the surface area of biochar is what gives it such great qualities when used in farming or gardening.
The chips and leaves gradually break down and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil. Once the carbon can’t be digested anymore, it forms humates that last in the soil and provide a host of benefits that I will describe below.
Other gardeners till the wood chips into the ground, which is by far your worst option. It’s actually important to avoid tilling the earth as it tends to destroy soil microbes, especially the complex and delicate mycorrhizal fungi. When you use wood chips as ground cover, tilling becomes completely unnecessary. As Paul notes:
“My stance is that nature has been doing this [since] before human history. It’s really intelligent… I need to pay attention to what nature does and copy it. This whole idea of creating compost piles and mixing and turning is a waste of time. You lose all the compost in a place don’t want it. Put whatever you have where you want it. Get out of there. Leave it alone. It’s well without you.”
Wood Chips Effortlessly Create Lush Top Soil and Eliminate Need for Irrigation and Fertilizer
A few short months after putting down a deep layer of wood chips, you will end up with lush fertile soil beneath the chips that will happily support whatever you choose to grow. It is important to never plant in the actual chips, you need to move the chips back and plant in the soil and then cover the plant to below the first leaves.
One major reason why most people don’t want to garden is they abhor weeding. Wood chips will radically reduce your weeding, probably by over 90 percent, and the weeds that do grow are easily pulled out by their roots so it becomes relatively effortless to keep the area clean.
Many parts of the country are also challenged with droughts and may not get more than 10-20 inches of water a year. Wood chips are the ideal solution as they will eliminate water evaporation from the soil. Better yet, at night they will grab moisture from the air and release it into the soil in the day when the soil needs it. Paul only gets 14 inches of rain a year and hasn’t irrigated his orchard in over 35 years, yet still grows incredibly juicy fruits and vegetables. Paul notes:
“I’m growing wasabi, which is impossible to grow at any place but standing water and shade. I’m growing it in full sun and in wood chips right next to sage, side by side and I’m not irrigating. Here I have the extremes of water requirement – one wants nothing as a plant and one that wants to be on standing water – and they’re thriving in the same place and I’m not watering.
This system is so perfect it meets all the requirements of anything growing and there’s absolutely no adjustment anyone has to do… I’m doing all the things that they say you can’t. I’m intentionally doing things that aren’t supposed to work. I’m growing potatoes underneath my apple trees. I’m growing asparagus in the shade of my apple trees. I suddenly get that all these things they say you can’t do is because they’re coming from the broken side of things. And in nature, nothing’s broken.”
Another major benefit is the elimination of fertilizers. One of the reasons why industrial agriculture is so damaging is their use of chemical salts that decimate the soil microbes.
“When things are healthy in nature, no bug touches it,” Paul says. “Bugs and insects only attack dehydrated, stressed, and unhealthy plants. That’s the design in nature. Everything in nature is so in line with this maintenance and support of the environment. It’s not negative. See, when an insect attacks your plant, it’s telling you that your plant’s not well; it’s dehydrated. Don’t go killing the insect. Correct the problem and the insects will leave.”
Other Incredible Benefits of Wood Chips
When you use wood chips you not only radically increase the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, the wood chips also attract earthworms, which create vermicompost—one of the best composts on the planet. I believe the mistake most people make with vermicompost is to purchase it or create it by establishing earthworm farms. Then they have to spend loads of time collecting and spreading it. It is far more efficient to feed the worms that are already in your soil. They love wood chips and leaves and rapidly reproduce. You can easily create many tons of free compost every year right where you need it most, under your plants, with no effort on your part!
Wood chips also virtually eliminate the need for expensive soil testing. Most tests are seriously antiquated as they have no measure of the quality of the soil microbes. They are artifacts of an ancient era when farming was thought to be a chemical experiment. Wood chips will normalize whatever soil you have. Paul recently had his soil tested after decades of using wood chips, and most of his nutrient levels were literally 10 times higher than what is normally considered “great,” yet he never adds any fertilizers.
“Listen to these numbers,” Paul says. “On the test, you get two lines – the desired level that you want, and your lab results. The nitrates: the desired level was 40; my lab result was 120. Phosphorous, the desired level is 174; mine is 2,345. Potassium, the desired level is 167; mine is 1,154. Coming down to the smaller numbers: zinc, the desired level is 1.6; mine 21.5. What I love about this is I didn’t do anything!”
Last but not least, wood chips serve as a great insulation blanket for your soil and moderates the temperatures in the summer and the winter. When you have a one to two foot deep blanket of chips over your plants, it’s highly unlikely that the soil will freeze in the winter, thereby damaging your plants and slowing down the soil microbes that build soil quality. And, during hot summer months, it keeps the soil cooler so the roots can work more efficiently with the soil microbes.
How to Work with Wood Chips
Simply look up “tree cutting services” for your town on Google. Most tree cutting companies will drop the chips on your driveway for free. Typically, companies dump them in a landfill as waste, and pay to do that, so they are more than happy to dump them on your property. It’s still highly recommended that you tip them; $20 is good. You can go as high as $50 if you’re feeling generous.
Even at $50 this is an amazing bargain as you are getting around 5,000-10,000 pounds of material that will give you incredible soil. Even on a small property, you will likely need many truckloads. Wood chips work because of the volume of carbon you are dumping into the soil. Even though a truckload may be bigger than your car and weigh thousands of pounds, it is likely you will need many truckloads to convert your soil. I am converting about ¼ of an acre at my home and am using about 20-30 truckloads or about a quarter million pounds of wood chips.
Once you lay the chips down though and your soil is established with the earthworms, you can go for many years without having to put them in again. Depending on how much you put on right from the start, you may or may not need to top them off each year. “I put 16 inches [of wood chips] around my trees. That was 14 years ago. I’ve done nothing since. I’m starting to add now because it’s broken down. But that was 14 years of absolutely no work, no input, and abundant return,” Paul says.
As Paul mentions, you don’t have to use wood chips, but I do believe they are the best. If you don’t have access to them you can use pretty much any other waste biomass that you have freely available in your area, like straw or cornstalks. You could even use sawdust but it is far inferior to wood chips as it is far more natural and won’t overwhelm the soil like sawdust can.
Ideally, it is best to use hardwoods like oak. When they have fresh leaves on them, the leaves are loaded with phosphorus and nitrogen and balance the carbon in the wood. Ideally, it is best to spread them shortly after the wood is cut. If you wait more than 48 hours, they will start to decompose and when you move them in the wheelbarrow there will be loads of dust that can cause problems. If you are using older chips, please wear a mask so you don’t inhale the wood chip dust. This is not an issue with fresh chips.
Put at least four inches of chips down if you are planting a vegetable garden. If you are preparing your soil for next year, you can go much deeper as much of it will decompose over the winter. You just need to hmake sure you only have four inches when you put your plants in otherwise the chips will cover the plants.
It takes time for the wood chips to break down and create soil. So now is the perfect time to lay down a six to 16 inch layer of chips in your planting areas. The thicker the layer the more it will protect your soil during the winter as wood is an insulator and will help protect the soil from freezing and keep the microbes going strong all winter. Plus you will have half a year for the chips to be digested by the soil to produce a magnificent environment to create carbon in the forms of humates that will happily feed your new crop next year. I had my team put 75 tons of wood chips around our Chicago office a few weeks ago so we can start growing organic crops for our staff next spring
Never plant in wood chips. You only plant in the luscious and magnificent soil it creates immediately below the wood chips. Also never bury the wood chips, which would violate no till principles and consume massive amounts of nitrogen to digest the chips. You can go to 16 to 24 inches if you are laying the chips around your trees. It is not necessary to keep the chips away from the tree as they will be just fine. Just make sure the chips are below the first set of leaves or branches.
“The one thing I just want people to get is that the Creator, who can do anything, never disturbs the ground and He never mixes. All He does is layer. We need to pay attention. Observe the master. He’s the master gardener. Just observe and copy. What’s so amazing is that the easiest is the best. All that work we do is counterproductive,” Paul says.
Growing Your Own Food Is One of the Best Ways to Optimize Your Diet
Ultimately, you have to have good food. If you don’t have healthy nutrient-dense food, it is really difficult to be healthy. Growing it yourself is in many cases the simplest and least expensive option. What makes organic gardening so effective is the focus on soil health. And your health truly begins in the soil. By optimizing the soil microbiology, your plants will be healthier and more nutritious, and these benefits translate into health benefits when you eat them.
Optimizing soil biology also strengthens plants against pest infestations without having to resort to chemical warfare that kills far more than the insects they’re designed to destroy. You can easily apply these principles to your own home garden—no matter how small it is. Even if it’s just a few pots on your balcony. There’s no doubt that urban gardening and small-scale farming is an important step toward building a more sustainable food system.
“If people became responsible to grow their own food, the chemical companies would become extinct because no one would buy their products, because you don’t need them,” Paul says. “I have absolutely no need for any fertilizer, any pesticide, any herbicide, or any fungicide ever. I have no need.”
For most it is now a bit too late in the season to prepare your soil for this year, but you can easily do it for next year. One common challenge is finding the space to plant a garden. You can easily convert your lawn to a garden by laying cardboard over the grass and putting the chips directly on the cardboard. The grass won’t grow through it and it forms terrific compost. Just be sure to take all the tape off the boxes and not use any boxes with shiny ink as that would be detrimental for the earthworms that otherwise love cardboard. If you start now, by the time spring rolls around, you will have soil that will be the envy of most.