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Score! Truckloads of ramial wood chips - recommendations for use?  RSS feed

 
S Carreg
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Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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I got a great score, I spoke to the people trimming branches from around the power lines in my area and they are very happy to dump all the chipped material in my yard. I currently have what looks like 4ish cubic meters of it. Since it is branch trimming rather than trees, it's ramial (spelling?), and includes a lot of leaves. I can basically have as much as I want, there will be lots more coming.

So, suggestions? I am using yucky old woodchip in my chicken run so that it composts faster, I could spread some of the new stuff in there but it seems a waste. I will use some on garden paths.

Currently the things that I have mulched are the potato patch and the strawberries - mulched with rotten hay - as well as onions. I need to do a lot of soil improvement but I'm cautious about mulching around other veggies because our area is quite wet and we get bad slugs problems.
I have lots of baby trees, many of them in meadow getting choked by grass. Would these woodchips be good around trees? If I trim the grass and then put a thick mulch of chip down to suppress the grass at least a little bit?

I have little veg seedlings in most of my beds now so I dont have any 'blank canvases' but over the next few months I will have beds empty, what would be a good way to use the chip then? Could I just dumb thick layers on beds? Do I need to dig up the soil and put chip down and then put soil back (mini-hugel bed type thing?)

Please give me ideas on how best to make use of this windfall resource!
 
Jonathan 'yukkuri' Kame
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Location: Foothills north of L.A., zone 9ish mediterranean
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Spreading the ramial chips thin won't hurt anything, but I suspect most of the nitrogen content will just head to the atmosphere, rather than speeding decomposition.

A pile at least 1sqm watered and turned a few times will get up to hot composting temps - you could use that to heat something or just make soil quickly.

If it were me, I'd probably try making a ramial-hugel(?) First get the pile cooking... won't be too hard, they already have carbon, moisture and nitrogen and have just been oxygenated. Even just moving the pile from your driveway will re-oxygenate. Water it once or twice. You might not get up to burning hot temps, but it will definitely warm up quite a bit. Then cover with a foot of soil and plant it. That way the nitrogen stays under the ground and available to plants. And you will have a warm and cozy garden bed to extend growing into your cool season.

Woodchips will encourage slugs. I'll never mulch strawberries with woodchips again.
 
S Carreg
Posts: 260
Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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Thanks. It's going to be really hard work to move it into the garden area since it's probably 3-4 cubic meters and errr, far away (100 meters or more) from the garden and just for added fun there are also some steps up into the garden. But there is a space in the garden where I was planning to build some more raised beds to use as cold frames. So i could use it there. Two questions: how quickly do you think I would need to build the bed - is the quality of the fresh chip going to go down quickly? And how much soil and what quality soil would I need? I have very little top soil, of poor quality. I do also have cow muck, a few months old, in a pile in the field. Could I make a bed with a foot or two of woodchip, a foot or so of cow muck (semi-composted cow shit with straw), and nothing else? How quickly do you think this would become workable soil without the addition of 'ready made' topsoil?
 
Michael Cox
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Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Have you looked at the Back to Eden method using wood chips?

This is what we are experimenting with, with good early results. Most ramial chip methods seem to recommend digging them into the soil, which seems like hard work! Also, one great bit of advice I got when first starting mulching is, if you have limited amounts of chips, to mulch one small area well rather than spread them out to try and cover a larger area.

One direct observation from my own garden is that areas where I spread chips one to two inches deep were a little better than bare soil for ease of weeding, but the real benefits were seen when we spread it 4 inches or more:
  • Realy good moisture conservation - soil is damp regardless of weather etc...
  • Hand pulling of perennial weeds is a doddle - thick chips leads to nice loose soil structure and root systems that just lift free.
  • We managed to clear a large area of creeping buttercups following a 4 inch application of woodchips. This was a series of herb beds where the buttercups had resisted hand pulling over a number of years previously. They grow up through the chips (no cardboard down as the plants were already in place in this area) but then can be easily lifted free.
  • Annual weeds have been supressed
  • - previous battles against (very pretty) self seeded forget-me-nots were pretty much on going, now the few that pop up are easily dealt with.
  • So far, no issues with nitrogen leeching


  • I've used both chips aged for a year in a hot compost heap and fresh cut chips. Fresh chips layed down thick seem to do a good job of killing weeds and grass etc... I guess because they are still composting so pretty hot.
     
    S Carreg
    Posts: 260
    Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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    thank you also. i'm not keen to use them as mulch on veg and fruit beds because we already have a vicious slug problem, and we get nearly 2 meters of annual rainfall, so keeping the soil moist is usually not an issue. interesting about the buttercup though - we've got a lot of that! including in the raspberry patch. i might dump a big load of chip in there and see what happens.

    i think i'll have as much chip as i could possibly want, i'm expecting at least several more loads of this size (3-4 cubic meters)... by the time i've wheel barrowed it all around i will have ARMS OF STEEL hahaha
     
    Alder Burns
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    In a damp climate that woodchip will turn into compost sooner or later no matter what you do with it....you will just hasten the process by adding cowdung, or pee, or water when it's dry, or turn it now and then. But one of it's best properties is that it will be slow to compost, especially if spread out as a mulch where it can dry out when the weather isn't actually wet. Laid on top of some cardboard around the new trees and anything else you're trying to get started in a heavy grass sod would be one of it's very best potential uses. 2 layers of cardboard and four inches or so of woodchip, in a circle four feet wide or so around each new tree and you shouldn't have to worry about grass or weeds there until the tree is big enough for it to not matter much.
    Don't till the chips or turn them into the soil whatever you do....the decay process will take up available nitrogen. This is not so much a problem if they are left clumped together and buried, as in a hugelkultur (although in a proper hugel there are larger pieces which decay slowly from the outside in), or else left on the surface as a mulch.
    Other potentials include growing mushrooms and making biochar......
    In conclusion, take all they are willing to give you. You will find something to do with them. Even if they just sit there, in five or ten years you will have the most wonderful compost to just go shovel out and grow stuff in!
     
    John Elliott
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    I recommend you ignore the suggestions about hot composting and inoculate it with some fungi. Since it is ramial, you are going to have a low amount of nitrogen anyway, so it might be hard to hot compost it unless you layer some manure in with it -- too much work.

    Go on a mushroom hunt and every one you can find, bring it back and blend it up with some water and sprinkle it over the pile. If you can find shelf fungi that are growing out of a stump, those are especially good to use. If they sell oyster mushrooms at your local grocery store, those are another good species for inoculation. You don't have to mix it into the pile, the spores will get down into it by the action of rain. You do have to keep the pile wet (like that would be a problem in Wales!) and aerated. As long as it's not more than 8' high or compacted by having heavy equipment run over it, it should be fine.

    In about two months, you should be able to dig in a few inches and see lots and lots of white hyphae growing on everything. This is a good sign that the fungi have gotten established and now you can start drawing from the pile. Use it for mulch, building raised beds, and it will be good at suppressing the grass around your young trees.

    As far as the slugs, these are a harvestable resource. If you don't have ducks or chickens, you should, because they will eat all the slugs you can collect. There is the classic beer trap, but I like to use a piece of old wooden house siding as a collector. You can paint the down side of the board with either beer or sourdough starter to give it that yeast smell that attracts the slugs.
     
    Michael Cox
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    Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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    S Carreg wrote:thank you also. i'm not keen to use them as mulch on veg and fruit beds because we already have a vicious slug problem, and we get nearly 2 meters of annual rainfall, so keeping the soil moist is usually not an issue. interesting about the buttercup though - we've got a lot of that! including in the raspberry patch. i might dump a big load of chip in there and see what happens.

    i think i'll have as much chip as i could possibly want, i'm expecting at least several more loads of this size (3-4 cubic meters)... by the time I've wheel barrowed it all around i will have ARMS OF STEEL hahaha


    We've just this month spread them through our large raspberry bed. We have struggled year after year with weeds in there, especially with bindweed which climbs the canes and eventually pulls them over in a horrible tangle. So far with a combination of wood chips and regular weekly weeding I've eliminated the weeds in this patch with the exception of the bindweed. I've taken out about 10 large plastic buckets worth of thick tangled bindweed roots (there was previously black plastic down and the roots had been hiding beneath), all of which is being left in the sun to die, then being dumped on a burn pile.

    I've definitely not got all of the major roots, but I've broken the back of it. Here is where the wood chips come in though; when the bindweed in snapped it sends up a new runner from each piece of root.

    The new runners grow up through 4 inches or so of chips, which takes about a week. As the new shoots poke up I just scrape the chips away by hand and follow the thin new tendril back by hand. The soil is now nice and friable (rather than baked hard in the sun) so I can usually trace it back to the major root left in the ground and pull a substantial chunk out. After half a dozen or so thorough weeding sessions (2 hours plus) I can now do a quick sweep through the bed in just 20 minutes. My aim is to beat the bindweed this year.

    I fully expect the weeding alone to be insufficient, but the repeated pulling should weaken the roots sufficiently that painting on roundup will hopefully finish the job. Unfortunately it is rife through this area, growing in every bed, lawn field etc... so I'm expecting to need to defend this area again year after year.

    Regarding the slugs, I too was a bit concerned but figured that it couldn't make the slug problem any worse! So far the damage in chipped areas seems no more or less than other parts of the garden.
     
    Michael Cox
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    Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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    John Elliott wrote:
    As far as the slugs, these are a harvestable resource. If you don't have ducks or chickens, you should, because they will eat all the slugs you can collect. There is the classic beer trap, but I like to use a piece of old wooden house siding as a collector. You can paint the down side of the board with either beer or sourdough starter to give it that yeast smell that attracts the slugs.


    BBQ tongs make a handy slug grabber to avoid the slime! No chickens here yet, but they are on the agenda!
     
    S Carreg
    Posts: 260
    Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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    Ooo my sympathies on the bindweed, it was a horrible problem on our allotment in Bristol. We dont have it here! Just about the only problem we don't have hahaha.

    John Elliot - I'm really interested in your idea but I'm afraid I don't quite understand it. You are saying I should innoculate the pile with fungi spores, and then use the chips as mulch after that? Is the innoculation just to get more beneficial mycellium into my soil (eventually?) If I innoculate with spores of edibles, for example oysters, will i be able to harvest oyster mushrooms?

    We do have both ducks and chickens but are still trying to work out the practicalities of using them as slug patrols - at the moment the ducks are too flighty - too young still - and the chickens would eat all the veggies! Once most of the veg beds are empty in the fall you bet I'm putting the chickens on there!
     
    Michael Cox
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    As I understand it, low nitrogen ratio favours fungal breakdown rather than bacterial breakdown of the material. They have different end products and I believe that the fungal path gives more durable/stable humus for soil improvement where bacterial gives lots of available nutrients which plants can use quickly, but the benefits don't last as long.

    From the various batches of chips we have used and spread, there is clearly no need to inoculate anything with fungal spore. Every pile has had random fungi popping up and if you disturb the chips you can see the white tendrils of mycelium. You might choose to inoculate if you are hoping to harvest specific edibles, but otherwise the naturally occurring fungal spores will rapidly colonise and do the job.

    You can also favour fungal breakdown by ensuring your chips are moist and not stacked too deeply (deep pile heat up, promoting bacterial breakdown).
     
    S Carreg
    Posts: 260
    Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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    Ok, that makes sense to me. I did think though that ramial woodchips were meant to have a higher nitrogen ratio, or have I got that wrong? There's quite a lot of leaf matter in there as well (well shredded and mixed with chip so it's not going to mat and go anaerobic).

    I am a compost failure thus far - what was supposed to be a hot compost heap of horse dung and straw has spectacularly failed to do anything at all, and what was supposed to be an active bin of duck poop and straw is refusing to heat up, not decomposing quickly, but growing the most fantastical looking mushrooms.

    So hmmm. still not sure on the woodchips. I think I will definitely use them to mulch my baby trees for now, and maybe my raspberries too. And I will think about the feasability of creating a hugel-type bed with them. Actually, I do have some rotten logs I could use in that as well, the problem as I said above is that I just do not have topsoil. If I were to build a mounded hugel bed in the garden, the only way I could then cover it with topsoil would be by tearing up strips of sod in the meadow and excavating underneath, which seems like insanely hard work.

    So no one thinks it's a good idea to build a raised bed with woodchips and cow dung? It won't magically be soil next year if I pile those two things together?
     
    Michael Cox
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    Regarding Hugel beds... the general advice is that large pieces of wood are better because they break down more slowly so don't compete so much for nutrients with the plants. I'd avoid using them for that.

    Ramial chips do have greater nitrogen than, say, chips made from heavy trunk wood but it is still nitrogen light compared to the supposed ideal 20:1 C:N ratio. This is why you pile is likely getting hot, rather than staying cool and turning fungal.

    Spreading the chips around fruit trees is a good idea, we've done exactly that in our meadow. Use thick cardboard layers first then drop the chips in a nice thick layer. Again, it is working very well for moisture retention and has helped control the bindweed which tries to grab branches and pull them down! The stuff is as bad as a field full of triffids here!

    The season is late here, but the fruit trees all seem to be heavy with fruit and no sign yet of losing any due to the june drop. I don't know if that is the improve water retention and decreased competition or simply the randomly late summer. I'll have to do a lot of thinning of fruit unless some drops soon. If they all ripen my poor baby trees will collapse!
     
    John Elliott
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    I'm really interested in your idea but I'm afraid I don't quite understand it. You are saying I should innoculate the pile with fungi spores, and then use the chips as mulch after that? Is the innoculation just to get more beneficial mycellium into my soil (eventually?)


    Yes, the point is to make it an active pile of vibrant mycelium. Oh, if you left it there, a few spores would blow in on the wind eventually and break it down, but how long do you want to wait? If you dump a few liters of mushroom gazpacho on the pile, you will be adding billions of spores. Remember, there are a lot of soil critters that eat mycelium, whittling away at the amount of fungi in the soil. This is your golden opportunity to put it back.


    If I innoculate with spores of edibles, for example oysters, will i be able to harvest oyster mushrooms?


    If you are fortunate, yes. Mushroom farming is more art than science, and some for some species like the common meadow mushroom, the recipe of how much cow manure and what temperature and how long it takes is well known; for other species like the porcini (Boletus edulis), independent cultivation is not possible and you need to have an inoculated oak tree and some luck to be able to produce some.
     
    S Carreg
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    Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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    That makes sense, thank you.
     
    David Hartley
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    I would recommend not cutting the grass around your trees. Rather; lodge it (bend it over to the ground at the base, laying it all flat). Then putting down your layer of mulch 8~10cm thick (or cardboard and mulch).
     
    S Carreg
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    David Hartley wrote:I would recommend not cutting the grass around your trees. Rather; lodge it (bend it over to the ground at the base, laying it all flat). Then putting down your layer of mulch 8~10cm thick (or cardboard and mulch).


    Ok, I mean, great that is even easier. Why is this approach better?
     
    Michael Cox
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    I'm guessing here, but I suspect that cut grass will find it easier to push new shoots straight up through your wood chip, bent grass will try to grow, but will end up sending new growth horizontal.

    Worth a small test to see.
     
    S Carreg
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    Location: De Cymru (West Wales, UK)
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    Michael Cox wrote:I'm guessing here, but I suspect that cut grass will find it easier to push new shoots straight up through your wood chip, bent grass will try to grow, but will end up sending new growth horizontal.

    Worth a small test to see.



    ooooo clever! definitely trying this!
     
    Alder Burns
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    This is definitely true of those noxious Southern (US) grasses, bermuda and nutsedge. They can send spearlike points straight up from underground when they are mowed, tilled, hoed, etc.; whereas when sheetmulched over when in active growth (better than done in winter, when they are dormant), the runners just wander around sideways under there till they turn white and die. I have seen the "spears" of nutsedge grow right through potatoes, turnips, etc.
     
    S Carreg
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    Thankfully we are not plagued by those, though we have our own nasties. I will definitely be trying this.
     
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