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Paul Wheaton on the problems with importing wood chips to your land  RSS feed

 
Posts: 1113
Location: Mountains of Vermont, USDA Zone 3
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There is virtually zilch for down side.

First of all, the wood chipping is going on anyways.

In our case the wood chips are almost always coming off of our land along the side of our roads cut by the town and utilities. We do not allow them to spray so they must chainsaw and mow. There is no additional use of petroleum and the minor amount for the chainsaw and chipper is trivial compared with herbicides.

We're rural so the urban issue is not an issue or us. In other places, other problems.

If they didn't give it to us (the shortest possible drive) then they would have to truck it miles away (nearest neighbors) or further. Here makes the most eco-sense.

No termites here. If there were they would make great animal food. Besides, I build out of masonry so they don't worry me. Wood rots.

I want the wood to bind up the nitrogen, I'm using the wood chips to compost flesh. We raise livestock. Livestock means there will be deadstock. The best solution to deadstock is to compost it so the nutrients return to the soil. That takes carbon. Carbon is good.

No scorpions, thank you very much! Winter kills things like that. Since it is local that means no Emerald Ash borers and the like being transported.

Weed seeds, fungi, bacteria: Compost it right and there are no problems there.

Urine: that's good clean nitrogen, please pee into the chipper. And if it is too long it won't be.

Dead animals: more good nitrogen. It's all getting composted. I need nutrients on our thin mountain soil.

I appreciate getting free wood chips and there is virtually no downside. It's a matter of doing it right and some people's ick factor getting in the way of good sustainable resources.
Cheers,

-Walter Jeffries
Sugar Mountain Farm
Pastured Pigs, Sheep & Kids
in the mountains of Vermont
Read about our on-farm butcher shop project:
http://SugarMtnFarm.com/butchershop

Check out our Kickstarting the Butcher Shop project at:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sugarmtnfarm/building-a-butcher-shop-on-sugarmountainfarm
 
pollinator
Posts: 4437
Location: North Central Michigan
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tomorrow we are paying $400 to have a crane come in and take down the one tree that is too large to take down ourselves...the other several hundred trees on our property that died from the emerald ash borer infestation brought on by people bringing infected wood products across the county line..will be a huge huge loss to use (although we can burn them in the wood fireplace, still we are loseing more than half of the trees on our property)

Please DO NOT transport wood products on or off of your property..

In Michigan it is Illegal..because of not only the emerald ash borer, but the birch borer and some pine borers as well as something that is affecting some other trees..

we went from clean to dead in less than 10 years ..so sad
 
steward
Posts: 3425
Location: woodland, washington
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the advantage of wood chips tying up all that nitrogen is that the nitrogen won't be lost to the atmosphere through nitrification, and it won't be lost to the water table through leaching downward. that doesn't seem so bad to me.

to Michael Newby: what's the mechanism for wood chips reacting with atmospheric nitrogen? I haven't heard of that occurring before. my understanding was that bacterial symbionts were the only organisms that could use molecular nitrogen. on the other hand, lightning and diesel engines both create nitrogen oxides that are washed out of the air by rain. I believe that wood chips could capture nitrogen in that form.
 
Posts: 288
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
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Fusarium wilt should be one concern. I know of a local strawberry farmer who lost 3 acres by importing infected wood chips from apparently health trees. fyi.

Property rot, when I sheet mulched my back yard (newspaper, cardboard, compost then 12 inches of chipped wood. I did not take into account that I was building a giant sponge right onto my fence, I'm slowly losing it. Oh well, I'm considering some rolled aluminum to line the fence line but.....we'll see

I just wish I could convince local trimmers to deliver. I had to buy new chipped oak, very nice stuff but not nearly as nice as free.
 
tel jetson
steward
Posts: 3425
Location: woodland, washington
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David Miller wrote:
Property rot, when I sheet mulched my back yard (newspaper, cardboard, compost then 12 inches of chipped wood. I did not take into account that I was building a giant sponge right onto my fence, I'm slowly losing it. Oh well, I'm considering some rolled aluminum to line the fence line but.....we'll see



throw some mushroom spawn in there. might get something useful out of your rotten fence.
 
gardener
Posts: 697
Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
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tel jetson wrote:to Michael Newby: what's the mechanism for wood chips reacting with atmospheric nitrogen? I haven't heard of that occurring before. my understanding was that bacterial symbionts were the only organisms that could use molecular nitrogen. on the other hand, lightning and diesel engines both create nitrogen oxides that are washed out of the air by rain. I believe that wood chips could capture nitrogen in that form.



It is still a bacterial process, but the bacteria responsible (cyanobacteria and azotobacteraceae) have developed a way to protect the enzymes responsible for the Nitrogen fixation from Oxygen. Cyanobacteria are one of the most successful microorganisms on Earth and have been found in almost every environment so the chances of your wood chips developing a healthy colony is pretty high. Your totally correct to say that the wood does not react with atmospheric Nitrogen but rather with the products of Nitrogen fixation (ammonia, nitrites and nitrates).

There are also studies showing mycological transport of Nitrogen from from Nitrogen rich areas to Nitrogen poor areas which would help to equalize the Nitrogen content throughout a layer of wood chips.

One tidbit that I've noticed is that I'm experiencing faster decay of my wood chips when I spread them over an area which already has decaying woody material there, whether they be a previous load of chips or naturally decaying forest litter. It's anecdotal at best, but I'm pretty sure that the stuff that's already decaying is innoculating the fresh chips with all the different bacteria and fungi and giving it a little jump-start.
 
tel jetson
steward
Posts: 3425
Location: woodland, washington
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Michael Newby wrote:
One tidbit that I've noticed is that I'm experiencing faster decay of my wood chips when I spread them over an area which already has decaying woody material there, whether they be a previous load of chips or naturally decaying forest litter. It's anecdotal at best, but I'm pretty sure that the stuff that's already decaying is innoculating the fresh chips with all the different bacteria and fungi and giving it a little jump-start.



I think you're probably right. I've noticed that the chips I get from a tree service are all hot by the time they get to me, and they all sprout the same mushrooms. makes me think that the inside of the trucks are inoculating each new batch with the same organisms.


that's interesting about the cyanobacteria and Azotobacter. I had heard of both of them in different contexts, but I didn't know about their roll in the nitrogen cycle.
 
Michael Newby
gardener
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Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
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tel jetson wrote:
I think you're probably right. I've noticed that the chips I get from a tree service are all hot by the time they get to me, and they all sprout the same mushrooms. makes me think that the inside of the trucks are inoculating each new batch with the same organisms.



Yeah, I only give the inside of my chip box a good cleaning once a year and the forward corners usually have a 16" - 20" thick wedge of very active chips/compost. On cold mornings we've been known to burrow into a day old pile to keep warm while the equipment warms up. It's no wonder Jean Pain figured out a way to optimize and use that heat.

- edited to correct an unintelligible sentence
 
tel jetson
steward
Posts: 3425
Location: woodland, washington
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Michael Newby wrote:
Yeah, I only give the inside of my chip box a good cleaning once a year and the forward corners usually have a 16" - 20" thick wedge of very active chips/compost. On cold mornings we've been known to burrow into a day old pile to keep warm while the equipment warms up. It's no wonder Jean Pain figured out a way to optimize and use that heat.



had my first go at a wood chip hot water heater last year. my source of chips ran dry before I got it done, but it heated water for baths pretty well for several months. 160 Fahrenheit to start, and it dropped down to 110 or so if run continuously. there are several things I'll do differently next time, but I'm pleased with the first attempt.


back to disadvantages: neighborhood children may decide your pile of chips makes a great fort. children are a nuisance and should be discouraged at every opportunity.

I did notice that I was getting lightheaded and having trouble breathing during and after spreading chips once. not really sure what caused that. it was a pretty hot pile, and definitely had some cherry laurel in it, which I'm told can evolve cyanide under the right circumstances. could also have been ammonia. maybe something to watch out for.
 
Posts: 283
Location: SW Michigan
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Ok, as a firewood guy who always has mounds of scraps. This is my thoughts and methodology.

Big piles need water and time to degrade. In that time weed seeds, bugs and a lot of stuff composts. Here around large wood yards of tree bark and like the run off can be not so good for the water. But, I note. These are massive piles as large a buildings. Keep your piles manageable and out of the way. Let nature do the work. She is self balancing given realistic time and space. I like to keep them moist when it does not rain. Use common sense.

We are the front line here for many pests that have come in from parts Asia. Moving firewood has become a touchy subject. Compost also. But once it has set a while like a season it is treated like soil. Time and nature has done its work. Most pests that kill living trees don't live in composted wood. there is no food for them. talk to your county agent about this.

Walnut and some firs can affect the soils. I just mix it in with the rest of what we have. I also put my fall leaves into these piles. No problems. Balance friends.

My mom and dad say to smell the pile. If it is earthy, smells like composted wood and there are lots of living buggy squishy things. You are on the right path. Remember friends that this land was mostly woods 200 years ago. Great forests stretched all over. There was no one to put lime on them or test ph. It is why we have such good topsoil in so many areas. The ground water we drink today filtered thru rotting forests. It cleaned and made it all good. The wonderful thing about this is that the trees bring up minerals and stuff that gets washed away. In time all wood will turn to soil.

Beware of wood with preservatives and coatings. Man made wood is poison to your garden.
 
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Instead of dumping a bunch of municipal wood chips, what if you simply planted fast growing trees, like willows for instance, and in a few years girdle them? Once the whole tree died (in 1-2 yrs), you'd have your own mulch material above ground, and a rotting subterranean root system full of nutrients and food for fungi and other beneficial organisms.
 
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Welcome to permies R. D. O'brien
In my climate, if I girdled a willow it would just send out a million suckers. I have never seen a willow die without a great deal of help!
Not neccesarily a problem, but since the stump won't die, I think I'd coppice willow for chips etc.
Imagine all the hurdles I could weave...
 
steward
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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I guess one could say there is problems with food, but I probably won't stop eating it... just be more careful where it comes from.


Of course, we are fortunate, since I am a producer of woodchips and those wood chips come from trees we have grown. In all honesty, what you want is the tops, leaves and all.

Regarding stealing carbon. I think that mainly occurs if you mix the woodchips into the ground (i.e. rototill them in), not lay them on top as mulch. I think of them on top as time released, you will see the thin layer close to the ground changing first.

 
R.D. O'Brien
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Leila Rich wrote:Welcome to permies R. D. O'brien
In my climate, if I girdled a willow it would just send out a million suckers. I have never seen a willow die without a great deal of help!
Not neccesarily a problem, but since the stump won't die, I think I'd coppice willow for chips etc.
Imagine all the hurdles I could weave...



I'm thinking that alder might be a good tree to plant in an orchard. I know they send up sprouts when you cut them down, but perhaps removing the occasional sprout would be easier than always bringing in municipal mulch, no? I also wonder if deer would help control sprouts. I have a lot of them here. In the wild, apple trees often grow with alders, and the alders fix nitrogen in their roots. It seems to me that a lack of roots is the problem with most soil erosion, infertility, and water runoff. If I can get roots deep into the soil, especially roots with nitrogen nodules attached to them, then I'd have a healthier orchard.

I was fascinated by Masanobu Fukouka's success with transforming a dying modern orchard into a healthy natural orchard without fertilizer, pesticides, or compost. One method he described involved planting black wattle, a nitrogen-fixing (though highly invasive) tree in the orchard, and then cutting it down after a few years and burying its branches right there in the orchard.

I recently purchased farmland, with a foot of black topsoil remaining on it, but there isn't anything living in it. Decades of plowing, chemical herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides -- you know the story. I'm thinking European Black Alder might work for my northern climate (zone 4a) and would add much of what this soil is sorely lacking: hummus. Food for fungi and microorganisms. Soil aeration. Water retention. etc. I'm thinking this would be better than importing municipal mulch that could be contaminated as Paul mentioned.
 
Daniel Morse
Posts: 283
Location: SW Michigan
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This is the best quick and dirty solution. Leaves. Tree leaves from your local town or anyone wanting to curb up thier leaves. Pick and chose who you take them from. I know a lot of people who do not pesticide the lawns. Branches also work. The leaves just pile and it will be the best mulch very quickly. Sometimes ground just needs to rest. Maybe a plow in the spring with the leaves and branch mulch thrown on. Let it grow wild for a while. Use what you do and rotate. I know, so old school.

There a lot of nitrogen fixing crops and cover that will do just that, not be invasive and easy to deal with. By the way, OMG, Willow trees are such a dirty tree, hard to controll and need a lot of water. Roots will fill up a septic in a season. I am still chopping up suckers 10 years after the tree was cut down. Let nature do her thing.
 
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Hi

It's slightly progressing the topic but i'm wondering what the pro's and cons of using wood chips (particularly bark) for hugel kulture beds would be?

Any thoughts?
 
master steward
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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martyn parish wrote:Hi

It's slightly progressing the topic but i'm wondering what the pro's and cons of using wood chips (particularly bark) for hugel kulture beds would be?

Any thoughts?



I would use it as is - not chip it. When you chip, you homogenize the innards of the hugelkultur. I've heard several reports of that leading to huge pest problems. Plus, I like to have lots of "edge" both inside my hugelkultur and outside.
 
tel jetson
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paul wheaton wrote:
I would use it as is - not chip it. When you chip, you homogenize the innards of the hugelkultur. I've heard several reports of that leading to huge pest problems. Plus, I like to have lots of "edge" both inside my hugelkultur and outside.



I think there's a strong case to be made that there would be orders of magnitude more "edge" using chipped wood over whole logs. increasing edge is only useful to a point.
 
Mother Tree
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With hugelkulture, the bigger the bits of wood the better they will hold water longer take longer to break down. With bark chips, they would dry out faster and you might also get some nitrogen robbing. On the other hand, as I live in Portugal too and know very well that sometimes the only thing you can get is bark chips, it might be worth trying a bed with bark chips just to see. Just because it's not as good as it would be with bigger bits of wood doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth trying. Might need to add something high in nitrogen to offset any nitrogen robbing as it breaks down.

Chicken poop is good!
 
Posts: 202
Location: Zone 5b - 6a, Missouri Ozarks
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Only had time to quickly scan all the comments, sorry if this is a repeat. We get wood chips for free when the power company is out here destroying nature (which is awesome because we are off-grid and don't use the power company and they deliver for free). It's trees from this area so I'm not worried about contamination. If someone is getting wood chips to decompose and eventually plant in, that would be very low in nitrogen. If you are wanting to turn it into soil, I"d compost on top of it first for a few seasons.
 
Posts: 78
Location: Boston
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Poison Ivy.

I'm on the east coast and got a full tree of chippings for free last fall from a tree company. Thought it was a steal until I saw baby poison ivy plants sprouting all over the place this spring where I laid down the mulch. I was sure I hadn't seen a vine growing on the tree they were chipping but there must have been something small. And good thing it was small because it wasn't too much of a hassle to pull them all out. Still, I would be very careful where the chippings come from especially if you are in the Northeast where Poison Ivy is king... and very tough to get rid of.
 
Posts: 60
Location: Urbana, IL Zone 5b
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Michael Newby wrote: Usually large mega-grinding operations don't find it profitable to separate construction woody debris (think chemicals) from clean tree and brush waste. Most tree services work with trees only and any arborist worth their certification would refuse to give you known contaminated wood unless they'd discussed how to mitigate that contamination. Don't hesitate to ask the crew why the trees had to be removed or pruned, this will usually give you an indication of what to worry about in the wood chips. One of the best methods to ensure your wood chips are clean is to cover the pile with black plastic with soil piled around all the edges to act as a seal. Allow a few sunny weeks to pass and you will have killed any insect larva (think Emerald Ash Borer or Asian Longhorned Beetle, among many others) and the majority of any pathogens. If you're still worried or know that the wood was really contaminated, allow the chips to compost fully before using.



Thank you for your post- it was helpful. I am looking for wood chips for my garden paths and contacted my local electric company. They said they would drop a bucket load off in my yard when they were in my area. Would this likely be "clean wood?" I assume it's from branches that are getting in the way of utilities. The city, on the other hand, is refusing to give logs away right now b/c of the ash borer infestation. But you say that they larvae will die off in just a few weeks in the sun? I was hoping to get wood for my new hugelbeds from them.
 
Daniel Morse
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I have piles of wood bark, chain saw dust and bits of wood from cutting and splitting. It is amazing stuff. After you let it do its thing for a few years. Remember folks. It does not happen overnight. Nature takes time. Careful watering helps a lot. I dump all my leaves in the pile too. They make dirt quicker and it all gets mixed in, making it happen faster.

I never fertilize or use lime on anything. I do not need to.
 
Posts: 211
Location: Pennsylvania
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I have found that it is worth driving into a suburban area to get wood chips. One of the suburbs north of us has a composting and recycling center that uses a tub grinder to chip yard waste. In looking at the pile of material that goes into the chipper it looks like mostly tree branches and landscaping shrubs. I find that the material I get a high consentration of leaves and small branches, they really restrict what they will eccept into thier facillity; no lumber or construction waste, no bambo or invasive species, no grass. If I let it sit in the truck for a day it will be hot and composting the next day when I unload it. This facility will load it for free and the material is free. They also have compost for sale, but I just take the chips. I think that it is worth the drive to get this. I am also considering buying saw dust from a small family run mill a mile away, $10 a pick up load. i am thinking that I can start spreading the saw dust on the pasture to help build the soil.
kent
 
David Miller
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The attached file is how to use coppicing trees to produce your own manure/mulch for an orchard along with choosing nitrogen fixing trees for the task. Very cool stuff, currently my approach is to take all brush from the property and either lay it into my garden paths or chip it by hand when I need to bulk up my forearms. Either way I'm adding organic material, catching and holding onto water and fixing carbon into the soil.
Filename: alleycropping.pdf
File size: 414 Kbytes
 
Posts: 1
Location: Missoula MT
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Speaking of allelopathic conifers, would it be a mistake if I used the limbs from my douglas-firs as the basis for hugelkultur?
 
gardener
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I realize that this is an old topic, but it is important to mention Linda Chalker Scott's research on this topic. She did controlled studies that showed that wood chips if left on the surface do not rob the soil of nitrogen but they will if they are tilled in. They decrease weeds and evaporative water loss and are very helpful for gardens.
JohN S
PDXOR
 
David Miller
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John Saltveit wrote:I realize that this is an old topic, but it is important to mention Linda Chalker Scott's research on this topic. She did controlled studies that showed that wood chips if left on the surface do not rob the soil of nitrogen but they will if they are tilled in. They decrease weeds and evaporative water loss and are very helpful for gardens.
JohN S
PDXOR



Amen
 
Posts: 35
Location: Southern Georgia
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Mulch: questions to ask before it arrives.

1. What type of wood is it make of, what trees, leaves, etc. Some are better than others for mulch. I live in south Georgia, near the great swamp, so cypress is an easy choice here. It takes 5-7 years to slowly rot. Never use pine straw, it is a fire hazard (we actively remove it far off our property and well away from homesites) and it makes a perfect home for fire ants (they bed up in it, and buying pine straw can come with active queens in it). Pine bark floats away in heavy rains, so I don't recommend it either. Trees that are chipped and still green are ok, but usually rot fairly fast, 2-3 years. Avoid walnut tree wood mulch.

2. How much will be delivered? Critical, too much and you may have a huge fire if incorrectly stored. Yes, it will spontaneously combust. Never store huge piles of mulch.http://vdfp.virginia.gov/fire_safety_education/tipsheets1/preventingmulchfires.pdf and https://www.google.com/search?q=mulch+fires&espv=210&es_sm=122&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=L1wMU6vJG-f00QGoloDQDQ&ved=0CDoQsAQ&biw=1366&bih=643

3. How much do you really need? most types of mulch should be between 4-6 inches deep to provide weed resistance. Nothing stops wind blown seeds from germinating but if the light is blocked, it usually stops weed seeds already in the soil from germinating . Never place any mulch where it can be on trees or shrubs bark, its encourages rot, mold and bacteria.

4. PH changes: yes, its got a lot of carbon, it can lock up some nitrogen, so its a good idea to place it in pathways between the garden rows.

5. Insects: personally I have not experienced having a termite issue, but I usually don't have a lot of large piles laying around either. Using the best depth practices for it, in the right places should not cause issues with termites. Usually they prefer larger pieces of dead wood for food.

Yes, free is good, but be very sure there are no invasive tree/plant seeds in the mix or you'll soon be fighting to remove new unwanted seedlings. One last thought, lol, beware of getting stinkhorn mushrooms (the orange ones-Impudent Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus, ) delivered if the mulch is already starting to decompose. Been there, done that.
 
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Location: DFW
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On the bug problems: I understand from reading another thread that chickens will happily take care of any imported termites. Won't they also take care of any other bugs (wood borers, etc) that might come off a typical local suburban tree service truck?

 
John Suavecito
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In my experience, most urban wood is made up of older shade trees. Most people dont' spray them because you can't reach up to 35 feet tall or higher with a typical sprayer. Also they tend to be ok on their own. On a dwarf fruit tree that someone might have sprayed, they're small enough to take down that they don't need to hire someone, and they don't produce enough chips to give them out.

Around here, people get chips mostly from arborists, who need to get rid of the chips so they don't have to pay the dump.

Per my earlier post, I agree with Robin and Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott's research that if you leave the chips on the surface, they don't change the nitrogen/carbon ratio. Critters will take them down when ready. It's just when you till them in that it changes the ratio.
John S
PDX OR
 
Posts: 28
Location: Salt Lake City
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If you're concerned about termites, put some plants between them and your house that they avoid, depending on your location.
Egyptian thorn, aloe, chili peppers, and garlic to name a few.

From my experience the wood chips only lock up nitrogen if they get turned into and mixed with the soil. It might be that I haven't had problems because i rake the chips to the side before adding manure to the bed, and them shovel it back on top. I mostly don't use chips for my bed, it's for pathways, or swale trails as we call them. I use straw and leaves for the beds.
 
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No problems for us. We get wood chips, or wood dust from multiple places.

The owner of the land that wanted a community garden wanted a bed made only of wood chips. We did it, but nothing grew out of it. We knew that.

With fresh wood chips, we innoculate to make mushroom beds, or put it into our humanure compost, and if we know the source well, we use the hardwood to smoke food.

With old wood chips, we just use it in our humanure compost.

Thing is, I would never use it without thinking about putting it in a thermophilic cycle of a compost. It would kill off any nasties, add the necessary carbon to make a pile roar.
 
What's brown and sticky? ... a stick. Or a tiny ad.
global solutions you can do at home or in your backyard
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