A month ago, I put down a thick layer of wood chips on part of our yard to start a Back to Eden/food forest garden. According to the localnurseries, the best time to put in our anchor trees/shrubs is around January. In the mean time, I wanted to plant some annuals to make good use of the space.
I planted some melons and pumpkins for a fall harvest by digging a furrow in the wood chips down to the native soil, adding a couple of inches of compost and planting in that. Those plants seem to be doing well, but I about killed my back hoeing back those chips. I still have half of the space available for growing and some plans for what I's like to plant next month for the fall garden.
In hugelculture, my understanding is one makes a berm over wood chips and branches with compost/dirt then plants in the berm. I'm wondering if I could get away with piling finished compost on top of the chips and planting in those rather than pulling them back to plant. Anyone with hugelculture or wood chip experience want to weigh in?
“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs” St. Francis of Assisi
The thing about woodchips is they have a LOT of surface area, so they will decay faster than logs.. and suck up correspondingly more nitrogen.
Hugels are often pretty poor growing places in the first year or so, if not WELL supplied with manure; I would expect the same issue here but worse.
I mulch my garlic with woodchips, and leave them in place for weed control. I am harvesting now, through the woodchips; I use a long bladed trenching shovel and drive it right through the chips with a stomp; maybe a similar technique could work for planting?
Barring that, I would think a real heavy tool would work best to scrape them back; a beefy long handled mattock, perhaps?
'Theoretically this level of creeping Orwellian dynamics should ramp up our awareness, but what happens instead is that each alert becomes less and less effective because we're incredibly stupid.' - Jerry Holkins
I would guess it will depend on how deep the compost is, what you're planting and what your weather is like. Compost is going to dry out quickly, even more with the air spaces in the woodchips. A thin layer of compost isn't going to support much of a plant, but if the plants put their roots down into the wood chips they may reach the soil. Something like a melon or a squash is going to have a quite extensive root system so might not lend itself easily to this kind of situation.
One possibility is to put the compost in a 5 gallon bucket with the bottom cut out. Another thing I am doing is putting small shelters, containers with the bottom cut out, down into the soil itself and planting there each spring. The wood chips still provide protection, but I avoid most insect problems and don't have to deal with scraping the wood chips back every year.
Zone 5b/6a, alkaline soil, 12 inches of water per year. For now the goal is a water independent urban homestead with edible landscaping and food forest.
I know this isn't what you want to hear, but I think you did the right approach the first time. I'm not an expert, but from what I have read it sounds like if you put the compost on top of the wood chips and grow plants that way the wood chips will suck the nitrogen out of your plants. I am growing a garden in an area I covered in wood chips last fall. I planted the way you did. I pulled the wood chips back creating a hole so to speak. I loosened the native soil a little, and filled the space with compost ( I added organic fertilizer, blood meal and bone meal to the compost.) I planted watermelon, crenshaw, honeydew, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and zucchini. I also added wine cap mushroom sawdust to the wood chips around the tomatoes. The tomatoes aren't doing very well, the zucchini looks wonderful, but hasn't produced, and all the melons are doing better then I have ever experienced. The vines look super green and healthy, and there is a ton of fruit. If everything continues as is I should have the best melon harvest I have ever had. (I hope I'm not tempting fate by saying that.) Hope this is a little helpful. Good luck to you. Happy gardening.
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” — Abraham Lincoln
Ideally with a hugle, you'd pile up big chunks of wood. Think logs as your base layer followed by smaller diameter branches. Then from there add whatever layers of biomass you can, such as grass, leaves, manure, etc. Mulch on top. Then leave sit for a season to break down. You'll still have some intact wood chips on top, but there should be well composted material underneath, so you'd just pull those chips aside to plant and pull them back around your plants as mulch.
What you are proposing is totally do-able, it's sort of like a time shortcut (you've just invested the time or dollars into finished compost instead of letting a hugle mound break down into compost.) I did the same myself this year so I didn't have to wait until next year to plant on my new huglekultur mound. Always a good idea to mulch around your plants with some wood chips. Just avoid mixing fresh chips down into your compost topping because that's when you might experience nitrogen robbing (the wood chips breaking down in the soil pulling nitrogen from your plants.)
I feel it depends on the plant's growth habit, the climate/environment, the type of compost, as well as the depth of the compost and chips (like others have said).
I tried last year to grow some brassicas in a layer of composted rabbit manure on top of wood chips and didn't have good results. Since the root systems of the things I planted are typically shallow, they basically kept the roots above the chip layer and dried out quickly, and never accessed the nutrients/minerals in the soil under the chips. Additionally, it seemed like every grass/weed seed that blew in and landed on the compost germinated & thrived. In an attempt to retain moisture and suppress weeds I tried adding another layer of chips to the surface, and found it was very difficult to dig through the 3 layers (which hadn't broken down much) this year. Oddly, though, the volunteer brassicas and the seeds I broadcasted over the chips seemed to do fine with sprouting in the chips and sending roots down to the soil.
With that said, I have also added compost to the chips and used a rake to mix the compost with the wood chips on the surface and planted seeds/transplants in the mix. Stuff like squash/melons, tomatoes, corn, and other rapid growers did fine with it; I assume because the roots were quickly able to reach the soil. Beans, peas and peppers were a little slower, but eventually took off.
Things planted before it got really hot and dry did much better than the things I planted later in the spring/summer.
You may end up with totally different results in your climate than I did in mine, so my thought is to try different things and see what does best. Let us know how it turns out!