When the chips are down

Lee Reich Mulching his dwarf apple trees last week

Dryish and cold, but not frigid weather: What else is there to do outdoors, gardenwise, but mulch? (Pruning is best left until after the coldest nights of winter have passed, in late February.) Arborists dumped a large pile of wood chips near my neighbor’s garden, and he spread all that he could in paths and among berry bushes. What’s left is for me.

Not that I hadn’t myself been spreading mulches all through autumn. Compost went on the vegetable beds; wood chips from my own (long-gone) pile beneath my berry bushes and around trees; and horse manure mixed with wood shavings beneath the young row of dwarf apple trees.

Mulch is one of those things in life that you can’t have too much of, if you’re a gardener; so I forked the neighbor’s wood chips into my garden cart and hauled five loads over to my apple trees. The apples would be thankful because, as dwarf trees, they need the best-possible soil conditions to keep them growing vigorously – vigorously for dwarfs, that is. Also, manure left on top of the ground in winter – especially manure left exposed to the elements – loses some of its goodness as its nitrogen evaporates into thin air. Barring snow (not in the offing as of this writing), the wood-chips blanket should minimize that loss.

One other benefit of wood chips is that they look nice. They are dark brown, similar to dirt. Unfortunately, the five cartloads were enough to cover only half of the 150-foot row of apples.


I like to get on top of any gardening fad as it comes down the pike, although not necessarily to embrace it. One such fad concerns wood chips: not any old wood chips, but “ramial wood chips,” defined as wood chips made from wood no larger than about three inches in diameter.

Is there anything magical about ramial wood chips? These chips are surely better than the chunks of bark or wood mulch, some of it dyed red, sold in plastic bags. Ramial wood chips are cheaper, often free and, having smaller pieces, are more biologically active and better at smothering weeds and maintaining soil moisture than chunks. As compared with local arborists’ chips that would include chips from larger-diameter wood, ramial wood chips, with their higher proportion of bark and living tissue, would be higher in nutrients.

Still, no reason to snub your nose at any and all wood chips (except for those bagged chunks). When used as mulch, a dynamic interface of decomposition develops where the bottom layer of raw chips meets the top layer of decomposed material. Nutrients as concentrated as microbes gobble up the materials and carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are breathed away as carbon dioxide and water, so the nutritional advantage of ramial wood chips over run-of-the-mill arborists’ chips is lost.

Some people tout ramial wood chips as promoting beneficial fungi in soils, allegedly to the liking of trees – such as apples – naturally found in forests. But when any old kind of wood chips (any organic materials, for that matter) is laid atop the ground, it is worked upon by a naturally orchestrated sequence of microorganisms, fungi included. Yes, fungi are promoted; but so are bacteria and other organisms, standing ready to gobble up the more readily accessible foodstuffs after fungi have finished with them. No need to use special kinds of wood chips for special effect.

So, enough about ramial wood chips! Wood chips of every stripe are available free or cheap as a waste product. They’re all beneficial. I use any and all that are offered, and that’s what went on the ground beneath my apple trees. To quote Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”


Correction: Last week I wrote, “Not even worthy of consideration is any ‘indeterminate’ variety [of tomato] because their leaf-to-fruit ratio is too low for good-tasting fruit.” This is wrong! I meant to write that no “determinate” variety is worth growing.



Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com.




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