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Planting in woodchips—what do you do for fertility?

 
gardener
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Hi everyone,

So I am thoroughly into my springtime planting season in my woodchips and plants are coming up.  I have some potatoes I planted right on top of the soil surface (older, amended garden bed) and covered with chips that had been sitting on the surface for the last year so they are aged.

The potatoes are growing up, but the foliage is not a dark green, being more a yellow-green.  The weather recently has alternated between high heat and drenching rain.  I am assuming that the color indicates a nitrogen deficiency and the heat is not helping.

I was wondering what everyone thinks about how to help them out.  I do have plenty of comfrey I could use, but I am wondering what is the best way to utilize the plant.  I likely don’t have time to make comfrey tea, though this would be good if I had it.  Instead I was thinking of chopping the comfrey and really shredding it, then pull back some chips, apply the shredded comfrey and re-covering with woodchips.  I was also thinking of mowing my lawn and raking the clippings for a top covering for the woodchips.

So what do you all think?  I want to try using only fertility from my own land, hence the comfrey.  I don’t really have a problem using dilute urine on crops like tomatoes and squash, but I question using urine on root crops (I do use urine on comfrey).  I thought the ground beneath was pretty fertile before planting.  Finally, I have a bunch of very old worm castings laying around.  I don’t know if age has affected them, nor do I know exactly what to do with them now that the plants are growing.

Thanks in advance and I look forward to your suggestions.

Eric
 
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Eric,

I have the opposite problem, mine are dark green in foliage but already setting flowers! Fresh woodchips on a bed of clover grown over the winter, with rock dust last fall in the clover patch. So I would assume you are low in nitrogen. I use fish emulsion mixed in compost tea for spot application when things look yellow. It's happening in my attempt at a three sisters garden in fresh chips, but ironically the corn is the only one showing deficiency. I planted some in sorghum and its green. some plants are really heavy feeders. Once the squash gets down it seems to do fine.  
 
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Pee on it?

I don't grow in wood chips, but the "wee bucket" makes a regular rotation around my garden.
 
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The way I did my potatoes this year, was to bring in several tractor bucketloads of aged horse manure from my neighbor's, and tilled it all into the soil as I shredded up the 60+ year old untouched sod (eventually we can do no-till, but right now, it's all just so hard to break through that the first season is always tilled, and then I try to landscape it into shallow terraces...), swaled it up along the contour of the slope, and spread what feels like a metric ton or few of aged wood chips that the chickens have had access to all over it, making sure to get 8-12 inches in the swales for water retention. Then topped off with regular woodchips from the top of the pile to "mulch". I side dress with the composted chips and more aged manure if the plants look peaked. They've been in the ground for less than a month, and some plants already reach my knees.

Sometimes it's not nitrogen, it's other deficiencies in the soil. You could try Epsom salts dissolved into water when irrigating for magnesium and sulfur. That works a lot of the time on other nightshade family plants. It depends so much on your local soil. I'm usually adding phosphate, lime, and trace amounts of other minerals. I'm not as shy about using manure on crops like potatoes, because they need to be cooked before eating. I might be a bit more wary with carrots and beets etc, so I save the "good" compost from the compost frames for them.
Aged-Woodchips.jpeg
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Well composted woodchips that have become rich black compost.
Woodchips.jpeg
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Woodchips that have not broken down yet.
 
pollinator
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As mentioned,  fish emulsion, or  urine both work well.  Personally,  on my newer areas that show nitrogen deficiencies, I just sprinkle blood meal on top of the chips around the plants.  That solves it pretty quickly.
 
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A big pile of fresh grass clippings is loaded with nitrogen and will turn into a hot pile of slimy sludge in no time flat. Maybe let it start to decompose a bit, but not completely, and then put some around each plant?

And I don't think maybe 10:1 dilute urine will hurt at all actually. It's sterile when it comes out, and nature has a long time to transform it into a lot of different things before you harvest -- that's a long time off!

Just the thoughts off the top of my head.
 
Eric Hanson
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Thanks for your help everyone!

So the consensus is Nitrogen, with perhaps some trace minerals missing.  I have used urine on other plants, especially comfrey.  My ideal technique is to pee in a cat litter jug for a couple of days.  The container has a wide mouth and a screw on cap and holds 2.5 gallons.

I have been a little hesitant to use urine on root crops, as I am still getting over the eww factor.  I may give in and sprinkle some bone and blood meal around the surface and water it in.  I believe I still have some of both laying around.  While I am at it, I may as while through in the worm castings.  I just might add some shredded up comfrey while I am at it.

Thanks for the input.

Eric
 
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Dave de Basque wrote:A big pile of fresh grass clippings is loaded with nitrogen and will turn into a hot pile of slimy sludge in no time flat. Maybe let it start to decompose a bit, but not completely, and then put some around each plant?

And I don't think maybe 10:1 dilute urine will hurt at all actually. It's sterile when it comes out, and nature has a long time to transform it into a lot of different things before you harvest -- that's a long time off!

Just the thoughts off the top of my head.



ive tried to work with several bags of grass clippings at once before.
i used a hard-rake to try and turn them
not fun. almost impossible, and lots of work.
if not turned often and thin, they can go anaerobic... bad microbes rain will filter down into your plants
or whatever you put them on.

best to lay them out thin, a couple inches at most. (depending on heat and moisture)
and/or mix them with ANYTHING else. the difference in size will let air in.
sand, wood-chips, gravel, hay etc...

i get 70 to 100lb of coffee grounds at a time
i throw 2 bags of slightly brown grass with a bag (80lb or so) of coffee
mix well, add 20lb of sugar sand and wet with a mix of %20 urine and a little fish.
turn daily for 2 weeks.
use as top-dress compost.

 
Dave de Basque
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Brad Mayeux wrote:

ive tried to work with several bags of grass clippings at once before.
i used a hard-rake to try and turn them
not fun. almost impossible, and lots of work.
if not turned often and thin, they can go anaerobic... bad microbes rain will filter down into your plants
or whatever you put them on.

best to lay them out thin, a couple inches at most. (depending on heat and moisture)
and/or mix them with ANYTHING else. the difference in size will let air in.
sand, wood-chips, gravel, hay etc...

i get 70 to 100lb of coffee grounds at a time
i throw 2 bags of slightly brown grass with a bag (80lb or so) of coffee
mix well, add 20lb of sugar sand and wet with a mix of %20 urine and a little fish.
turn daily for 2 weeks.
use as top-dress compost.



Wow, what a recipe, Brad! That stuff must be dynamite! I am not set up too well to try that out now but I definitely plan to later. With the added advantage that coffee grounds keep snails and slugs at bay. And something better to do with grass clippings, keeping it from going anaerobic easily. Genius.

Sugar sand -- that is a derivative of the maple sugaring process? Any substitutes possible for the unfortunate sods that don't live in Vermont or Quebec?
 
Brad Mayeux
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Dave de Basque wrote:
Wow, what a recipe, Brad! That stuff must be dynamite! I am not set up too well to try that out now but I definitely plan to later. With the added advantage that coffee grounds keep snails and slugs at bay. And something better to do with grass clippings, keeping it from going anaerobic easily. Genius.

Sugar sand -- that is a derivative of the maple sugaring process? Any substitutes possible for the unfortunate sods that don't live in Vermont or Quebec?



sorry, here , we refer to "sugar sand" as just a rough sand (large particles - like most beach sand)
because most of the sand we get is river sand, which is small particles, closer to clay.

the key is to mix in something, anything, to let air in.
you could run hay through a chipper, or sticks and stems, or even use finely ground wood chips.

the BEST compost i ever made was 1 bag of grass clippings, 1 bag of coffee grounds, 2 bags of wood-shavings.

i got the shavings from a cabinet maker.
the bags were 5ft tall 3ft wide, and finely shaved wood.
the grass, coffee, urine, fish all turned into a beautiful compost.

 
steward
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I've been experimenting with this, because I recently moved and don't have a real garden. I had 25 yards of oak wood chips delivered. I broadcast some kelp and fish bone meal and sprayed a biodynamic preparation then I spread the mulch out where I want my garden to be. I wrote about that in more detail here https://permies.com/t/67972/personal-quest-super-soil#933940

With a dismal start, I did get things to grow well after using liquid fish hydrolysate, some liquid kelp, and some effective microorganisms (EM). I sowed some winter squash, and one is doing particularly well. It's Red Kuri winter squash, and I just placed the seeds right into the undecayed wood chips, covered them lightly, and a few germinated. As soon as they sprouted, I watered them with the fish, kelp and EM. One didn't make it, and one survived, even after one of my chickens completely uprooted it as a seedling while scratching around, and I caught it in time before it began to wilt and did my best to replant it. The seed was sown on July 13th, and yesterday August 23rd, I took a picture of it. It's had the fish, kelp and EM once a week since it germinated, and I'll continue to do so to this squash (and everything else out there now) in hopes to have something to eat this fall/winter. I hope that next year, a sufficient amount of the wood chips will have decayed that I can lay off this crutch of weekly fertility and things will grow on their own, but only time will tell. I will say though, that fish hydrolysate and liquid kelp and microbes have worked very well for me.
IMG_20190823_093303302_HDR.jpg
[Thumbnail for IMG_20190823_093303302_HDR.jpg]
Red Kuri (cucurbita maxima)
 
Tj Jefferson
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James- seems like as good as you can do on fresh chips. I have some friends 24 yards of chips on my street from my strategic wood chip reserve, and they had decent success. However they used both inorganic phosphate and urea. They also used three household males peeing on them and were putting compost in the chips all summer from kitchen scraps in a turner.

My personal thinking was to not turn the chips into a glorified hydroponic medium, but I am trying to develop a lazy garden and this year was seed tryouts. I will say even the areas I buried deer carcasses and fish remnants were crappy. I think with a drip system or a rich solution like you did, you could probably get a really solid first year. I got amazing radishes over the winter in pretty fresh chips and parsnips, and I suspect they are both non-mycorrhizal.
 
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Yep, urine is my go-to. My soil is void of organic material, so I've been putting all sorts of carbon rich stuff it there including paper and cardboard . . . Whatever I can find. And everything that is getting primarily carbon material around it is looking less green. Haven't done my individual plant fertilizing lately (1x10 urine to water applied right at the base of the plant). Was just thinking it's time again.
 
Eric Hanson
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In the end I ended up using a couple of suggestions from this thread.  Firstly I added urine, added in between the rows.  I then added lots of dark green grass clippings and when they dried out I moistened them with more dilute urine.  

That did the trick.  Shortly after the urine/grass combination the potatoes greened up nicely and grew very well.

As it turns out, I ended up adding in a bunch of wine cap spores and added more chips and finally watered thoroughly.  Later this fall I plan on adding in a bunch more chips, hopefully to a depth of about 12” and I will let them decompose over winter and into spring.  With a bit of luck I will have a functional mushroom bed by late next spring.

Eric
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