Saturday, March 19, 2011

Creating A Vegetable Garden From A Pile Of Wood Chips

While talking about adding organic matter and what's available Mike Nowak is ribbing her about having a source for organic matter that most of us don't have access to she says, "People make fantastic vegetable gardens using nothing but wood chips from utility companies. They come in and trim the trees and they may give you a pile of wood chips."

" It should be noted that people do NOT create gardens using nothing but wood chips and that making it seem like you could just start a vegetable garden using a pile of wood chips is wrong..." MBT aka Mr. Brown Thumb at Chicago Now in his final statement on the matter.

I suppose for the literal minded urbanite unable to follow the general context of a radio show conversation about the many ways to add organic matter to the soil in a vegetable garden this could be confusing. It is quite possible however to create a bountiful vegetable garden using nothing but a pile of wood chips for mulch.

In the very first paragraph of a snippy review of Michele Owens appearance on a Chicago radio show to promote her new book, MBT insinuates that "mulch robbing (robs) soil of nitrogen." That is incorrect and because they were talking specifically about wood chips, I attempted to set the record straight. It degenerated quickly from there.

A local garden "answer man" had called in to the radio show to expand on the wood chip advice and to express some fear that beginner gardeners might mix the wood chips into the soil where they can indeed begin to take some nitrogen away from the soil and plant roots as they decompose.

No, the wood chips are a mulch that stay on top and are raked away at planting time. Used as a mulch there is no significant loss of nitrogen from the soil.

(Added for clarity) What does happen is that the wood chip mulch decomposes over time and the natural biological processes of  the soil incorporates this decomposed organic matter into the soil, greatly improving it over time. Refreshing the wood chip mulch seasonally or as needed keeps this slow sheet composting method of adding organic matter to the soil an ongoing process. No tilling is involved. In fact this is an excellent way of having a no till garden.

And today it was time to plant the first potatoes.

This is the danger zone according to the Chicagoans. I am turning the soil for the potatoes and might get some wood chips mixed in there. This end of the garden is the most recent annex and was a former herb garden with stone paths of sorts. It has only been mulched about a year.

In that time the wood chip mulch combined with the natural processes of the soil have loosened the hard packed ground a good deal. I want to move things along by turning the soil and breaking up the harder layer beneath. This new tilth from a single year of wood chip mulch is letting me remove rocks I couldn't budge before.

In the older sections of the garden that have had wood chip mulch for three years I don't bother turning the soil. It is so soft and friable now there is no need. Chicken and cow manure, another form of organic matter, are added as a fertilizer. Confusing I know. Organic matter can be a mulch, fertilizer, compost and soil amendment. I don't even bother working it into the soil. Nature will take care of that.

I just dug a shallow trench and planted the potatoes.

A question on the radio show about planting an area that had been used as a dog toilet also wasn't answered to the satisfaction of some and later elicited this pearl of wisdom from MBT,
"Raised beds are the gardening version of Chris Rock's Robitussin bit; they're the answer to all the gardening ailments in Chicago."
Perhaps it is understandable that for someone in a large congested city were bare ground to plant in is a rare commodity and you have no idea who has been shitting in your garden that, um no, you don't plant the vegetables in the wood chips, you plant the vegetables in the ground may not be the default mode of thinking.

I was planting in my dirt and thinking about what goes in these raised beds and containers that urban gardeners are more likely to use than actual soil to grow their vegetables and the most delicious irony presented itself.

I know just a bit about what is available in the garden business and a thing or two about the basic habits of your average gardener. What is going to end up in the vast majority of these raised beds and containers is bagged potting mix from a big box or nursery shelf.

And what is by far the most common ingredient of bagged potting mixes?

Miracle-Gro Potting Mix : This product is regionally formulated with Forest Products Compost, sphagnum peat moss, perlite and a wetting agent. In Georgia this product contains 50 - 60 % Forest Products Compost.

Look in the bag of most any potting soil and it is mostly made of bits of wood. Grind up wood chips a bit finer, age them for six months to a year, bag em up at the factory, change the name to potting mix and behold Chicago gardeners are growing vegetables in a pile of wood chips in their raised beds.

" It should be noted that people do NOT create gardens using nothing but wood chips and that making it seem like you could just start a vegetable garden using a pile of wood chips is wrong..." MBT aka Mr. Brown Thumb at Chicago Now in his final statement on the matter.

Now to be fair my logical conclusion of what ends up in most raised beds and container gardens could be putting words into MBT's mouth. He never said what he put in them. Maybe in Chicago they have access to some great wood chip free potting soils the rest of the country doesn't. Perhaps MBT will stop by and enlighten us on the matter of what they put in raised beds to avoid having to use the real soil.

But my visit to his Chicago Now blog did not end well. When his authority was questioned he made sure he got the last word in and closed the comments. Then he topped it off with a tweetout that he knew the annoying commenter at his site must be drinking.

The truth however is that the annoying commenter does not drink and hasn't for a very long time. That little tweet and the entire tone of his post really makes you question his observation skills and whether he would be the kind of person to trust when it comes to judging what is really going on around him. It also makes you wonder what really motivates a person like that.

Some other interesting bits of information on the Miracle-Gro Potting Mix bag were these gems: Information regarding the contents and levels of metals in this product is available on the internet - and - This product has been registered for conformance to the standards of the Mulch and Soil Council for the indicated category. The Mulch and Soil standards do not contain a product category for pesticides and this certification mark does not apply to pesticide claims.

This is my roadside vegetable garden on wood chip mulch. I'll take my real soil over raised beds filled with who knows what any day.

It was a nice day devoted to gardening. Potatoes, sugar snap peas, spinach and lettuces were seeded in the vegetable garden. Along the edge of the driveway the wildflower seeds of Echinops bannaticus, Celosia and Ratibida columnaris were scratched into the soil with a hard rake. And here I was going to have a more civilized garden. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. But there will be plenty of time to organize things. I want abundance now.

Chionodoxa blooms along the drive. The spring bulb annex will gather numbers as the years go by.

The five big boulders were moved into the design of the creation. It is looking very face or mask like and I was not expecting that from the drawing. I think I like it.

In the warm, a hillside covered in 10,000 daffodils quickly turns yellow.

I'm just a land rich country man who knows how to turn nothing but a pile of wood chips into a bountiful vegetable garden.

The secret is in the soil.


Lola said...

Way to go Christopher. Tell 'em how it is.
I wish I had more land to plant in but you know how it is. Containers are a big help to me due to situation.
I kept 2 freezers full from the garden yrs ago. Not to mention what I canned. Fed quite a few people. It was good.
I'm very happy for you.

NellJean said...

Buffy and I are sifting some mighty fine compost made of wood chips from the power line cutters. The secret is in the cooking -- it takes several years for the transformation.

Last year's wood chips are just sitting there. Patience.

Christopher C. NC said...

Lola you would think with all this land there wouldn't be any potted plants, but there are at least two dozen on the decks. There is a small herb garden for easy reach from the kitchen, a cherry tomato for snacks and the rest flowers and hanging baskets.

Nell Jean I think wood chip mulch is the absolute best hands down. And you can see from my pictures I do a lazier sheet composting/mulching on the vegetable garden and let the earth worms do all the heavy work.

Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings said...

Thank you. Wood chip garden is lovely. Life is full of dog and other poo. We just have to deal with it.~~Dee

Frances said...

Hi Christopher, I have been following along as you first created the wood mulch veggie garden and the naysayer comments about doing so from the beginning, Having seen the results first hand, still remember those radishes as big as a fist!, can vouch for the veracity of your methods. Simply put, it works, and very well. :-)

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Of course you are right about the wood chips. The first garden I saw created this way was 25yrs ago. The guy turned a reclaimed mine area into a garden oasis, veggies, flowers, shrubs you name it grew in the stuff.

I love the way the mask is coming along. I do believe it is a bird face. A Limpkin maybe with those big eyes and long bill.

Carol said...

The proof is in the produce! Garden on!

Gail said...

Christopher, I have long admired your gardens and hope to see them in person before too long! gail

Robin Ripley said...

Christopher, you speak with authority and without resorting to name calling and insults. Your writing reflects the good and kind person you are. Of course, this isn't about wood chips and dog poo anyway, you know.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Your post has given me something to think about. I grow most of my edibles in containers because of the absence of full sun space here. I was just telling my daughter yesterday that you don't feed the plants, you feed the soil. I agree with you about the wood chip mulch. I've read studies which have found that it doesn't significantly deplete the nitrogen in the soil. After years of being covered with wood chips, the paths in my shade garden have much better soil than that in the beds, where I haven't put the mulch down as thickly or left the soil bare to encourage self-sowing. Maybe I should just pull everything out and plant in the paths and use the beds to walk on.

Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence said...

Christopher, I look forward to seeing your garden one day...maybe this fall as I make my way to the mountains for a photoshoot!

Kathy said...

Your garden is further along than mine. Crocus just barely getting started and no daffodils yet. Was down to 16F last night & only expected to get in the 40s today. But the sun is shining and that is a nice change. I think wood chips make an excellent mulch when you can get them cheap. And MMD, I bet if you mulch in mid summer after a good rain you will avoid the self sowing problem

Christopher C. NC said...

Dee In the roadside vegetable garden I have seen deer, raccoon and the invisible cow poo. There is probably some turkey mix in. It's all good.

Frances it works for sure compared the sad little plants I saw in there when I first arrived. The parents are thrilled with all this extra food.

Lisa I will use the wood chips throughout the gardens to be. It saves big time of weeding. The mask has surprised me. I see a bird too.

Yes Garden On Carol. The other point of this is to move away from chemical fertilizer as the soil improves.

Gail you should plan an Asheville visit with Frances.

Robin let's just say my snark is more subtle and literate and yes this is a bit about good manners as well as wood chip mulch.

Barbara when I went to visit Maui my neighbors daughter had spent some time in my former garden and said my soil was like black gold. I told her it was from sixteen years of wood chip mulch. Yes it will inhibit self sown germination, but as it thins it will let seeds that have been waiting germinate. That could be worked with by timing I think.

Helen just let me know. You can reach me at the blog name at gmail.

Christopher C. NC said...

Kathy some times this garden remembers it is in the south.

Mary Ann said...

Christopher, I loved seeing your garden, the hillside,the stone mandala, EVERYTHING. Wood chips, too, can be transformed.

I am reminded of a bit of prose (often used by my friend Scott):
"In the desert...
Rain falls down wet and gets up green."
From the poem, "Sometimes It Rains", by Alberto RĂ­os

Nancy said...

The best soil I have was made from wood chip mulch that breaks down every year after it's laid. The worms were happy, the critters were happy and the plants were downright ecstatic.

Xan said...

Not sure why you would assume that what goes into raised beds is Miracle Gro potting mix. Every raised bed I've ever helped with has been loaded with top soil, compost and composted manure, also available from the dreaded Big Boxes.

The thing that has bothered me about all side of this discussion is the assumption on all sides that the other guy is an idiot. Instead of assuming the stupidity, cupidity and ignorance of the other guy, could we just get a discussion about this, without the finger pointing?

It's too hard too learn anything through the noise.

Layanee said...

I applaud you for your attempt to bring reason to an unreasonable rant. I do always wonder why some people have to point fingers and seem to thrive on controversy and criticism of other gardeners. Fortunately, they are few. I am reading Michele's book and while I don't agree with some of her statements, i.e. soil testing, I am finding it an enjoyable read about her personal gardening experience. In addition, it promotes gardening which is what we garden writers and bloggers are trying to do. You are so right about the wood chips. I would like to point out that in addition to raised beds, which as you say will probably be filled with 'soiless' mix, a possible solution to a doggie doo problem in the garden area would be a simple soil test for pathogens. You always offer an eloquent and logical response to an emotional rant. Let's hope we can all be united in the future.

Leslie said...

I have an area in my yard that currently contains a slide/climbing structure. I have purposely used wood chips here so that some year when I can reclaim the area from toys our clay soil will be transformed. I already see huge improvements.

Christopher C. NC said...

Mary Ann the stone Mandala is my latest creation, but still a work in progress. Next I need to think about what to plant around it. Hidden or not in the summer lush, that is the question.

Nancy the worms go nuts in the wood chips and leave all those castings behind for the vegetables.

Xan Miracle-Gro was just what was lying around at a typical gardeners place where I could read the label as a good example of the main ingredients of all potting mixes. They are sure to have a big market share, but there was no implication that Miracle-Gro specifically is the most used thing in raised beds.

What is compost made of? Mostly wood products. What is cow manure? Grass and grains. Read that Top Soil label if it comes in a bag because actual rock based mineral soil is not likely to be the main ingredient. Real dirt isn't good in containers and some raised beds anyway because of the drainage differences between real soil and potting mixes.

Idiot is not the choice of words I would use to describe the other side and by other side since I don't tweet, I am referring to a particular post by a particular person who was needlessly rude to a guest in your most wonderful city. Signed Fanboy

Oh Layanee you sweet talker you. My inner bitch is just barely below the surface. I haven't tested the soil here and to be honest it nags at me constantly.

Christopher C. NC said...

Leslie as far as I am concerned wood chips are the miracle workers of good soil. On Maui there was a layer of dust on top of volcanic rock posing as soil. Shovels were completely useless until the wood chips changed every thing.

MrBrownThumb said...


I'm going to admit that I didn't read the whole post just skimmed sections of it.

I never insinuated that mulching robs soil of nitrogen. That's all in your interpretation. Which is ironic, no, since you seem to think the problem with my post is my interpretation of the comments on the radio show. I thought I was perfectly clear in saying that when they're mixed into the soil and begin decomposing is when they begin to use up nitrogen that would be needed by other plants. This mixing in, as the local "answer man" and I both pointed out happens when people turn over soil or till in soil for new plantings.

Since you left out the link in the Chris Rock reference and since you probably didn't follow the link, allow me to explain the joke to you. In the bit Chris rock is making fun of his father because his father thinks Robitussin fixes everything-even broken legs. When you speak with professionals in Chicago and ask about soil contaminations the default answer is always to build a raised bed. Like Chris Rock's father prescribing Robuttusin for everything that was wrong.

I don't know what potting soils have to do with anything, or why think potting soil would go into a raised bed. But like I mentioned to you in the comments I've seen some really dumb things in raised beds built by new gardeners.

For you to say that the comments are closed, is false. The comments are open and anyone can comment. What I did do was take away *your* trusted commenter status after you devolved into name calling in the comments of my blog. I'm sorry that you coming to *my* web property and tossing around insults did not sit well with me. I thought I was perfectly civil with you and welcomed you onto my blog up until the point that you decided to let out your "inner bitch."

Yes, I did think that perhaps you had been drinking because I had no other explaination for why you continued to operate under the fallcy that your arguments were (and continue to be) grounded in even after repeated attempts to show you that I was never making the argument you insisted I was making. Also, my only other real contact with you was at the reception during Chicago Spring Fling. Where you'd had at least a cocktail, and insisted on calling me by a name that isn't mine. Even though my name was clearly printed on the badge that was pinned to my shirt and I kept, politely, correcting you. There is also a comment you made that I don't think you would've made had you not had been enjoying a social lubricant or two. Ha!

Christopher C. NC said...

MBT you obviously have me confused with someone else. The only time I spoke to you directly at CSF was at Garfield Park Conservatory at the very end of the entire event. Otherwise you were largely AWOL the entire time due to other drama you were involved in. What I recall of the reception was that you disappeared before I even had a chance to meet you. You will need to look else where for your lubricated commenter.

Please go to your "web property" and find one single name I called you. Please find one insult. It is all there for you to copy and paste. What you did not like was me calling you out on your rude post. That is not an insult. It is an observation.

The mulch/nitrogen issue was settled. Remember. We have moved on. Ever heard of a no till garden? Ever heard of the notion in garden advice "Well that depends."? What does potting soil have to do with this? Think it through and see what you come up with. Read the post it might help.

"for why you continued to operate under the fallcy that your arguments were (and continue to be) grounded in even after repeated attempts to show you that I was never making the argument you insisted I was making."

I have read this several times and it still makes no sense.

That seems to be a problem. You are shrouded in confusion and don't seem able to follow a train of thought or a logical progression of ideas in a blog post or comment.

Your job here if you should choose to accept it is to tell us the best ingredients for filling raised beds and containers for vegetable production and how they are related or not to wood chips.

Can you handle that? Focus.

MrBrownThumb said...


No, Christopher. The time we spoke directly was at the reception when you introduced your friend that you brought along with you. You also invited me down to your cabin. Considering what I said above, I'm not surprised you don't recall the reception. I didn't "disappear" from the reception, nor was I involved in "other drama" there. I was the guy doing most of the talking, introducing the sponsors and helping with the giveaways. I was at the reception until the very end when only a handful of bloggers remained and we let people take the rest of the gifts sponsors had given to us to give to the bloggers.

Your "observation" in the comments of my blog was a passive aggressive way to call me catty and snide. I'm so sorry that my "rude" post insulted your delicate nature. Here I was operating under the assumption that I could do write about what I wanted to with whatever tone I wanted to employ at my blog.

I too thought the mulch/nitrogen issue was settled, but you brought it up in your blog post, again. Perhaps you should read your own blog then if my comment make sense to you. In your post you said I insinuated that mulch robs soil of nitrogen. I never did, this is all you. Again, you're arguing a point I never made. Not once. Never.

As for your questions: Sorry, I have no interest in answering your question. I'm off the clock.

Christopher C. NC said...

It is somehow appropriate that your comments keep landing in the spam folder. I have to wonder if you could even pick me or my friend out in a picture from CSF. No drama at CSF. That'a a laugh.

You are a master of avoidance. Congratulations.

Christopher C. NC said...

It is interesting how a person who states in comments many times, then brags on twitter that they don’t bother reading things through and writes that others need to learn how to listen properly, feels confident enough that they understand what is being said or discussed to even respond.

I checked with the better half of my memory and will concede that we did meet briefly at the CSF reception dinner as well as Garfield Park. Admitting my memory sucks is not a big new revelation. But as someone who celebrated 10 years of continuous sobriety this month, the repeated slurs that I was drinking are a bit too much. The better half of my memory was at my side at all times in Chicago and will back that up.

It is obvious that I am dealing with a pathology here, someone skilled at diversion, avoidance and attack as a way to avoid dealing with the actual issues being brought to the table for discussion. There is rarely an attainable resolution to be had when dealing with a pathology. It always ends up being a vicious circle.

It is best just to step away. At least for the many normal folks who find their way here they will see that yes indeed you can make a very fine vegetable garden with nothing but a pile of wood chips.

Christopher C. NC said...

P.S. Consider the typical southern hospitality invitation to stop by for a visit that rolls off the tongue like so much cool clear spring water flows down a steep mountain side, RESCINDED.

Anonymous said...

MBT - I was present at the CSF. I am the non-gardening person who accompanied Chris C. Simply stated, my principal objection to your original posts on CN is that you made inappropriately biting comments and tried to disguise them as professional expertise. For example, on your first blog post you quickly began criticizing Michelle O.'s performance, not the context. I believe a professional expert should defer from such commentary and stick to the garden topics. Here is what you said...

"What followed was hilarious on multiple levels as the author flubbed the only two questions..." Is this how a professional expresses a differing opinion?

Now you have gone too far. You have made clearly slanderous comments about C NC and his apparent intoxication. I can testify that he was not drinking nor did he drink at any point during the CSF events. How dare you make such erroneous assumptions and interject this into discussions about wood chips. This is truely petty, unbecoming and unprofessional. Stick to the science, if you can.
Outside Clyde Mignon

Lisa Barton said...

Thank you! I'm so glad to finally know of someone who used wood chips successfully in a vegetable garden! We've had our farm for 3 years now and I've been frustrated knowing that there should be a way to use chips in my garden but being told "no". I've been cleaning out our chicken coop and taking the shavings to the area of the garden we're not planting in this year in the hopes that next year it will be something special. My chickens assist by scratching the mounds flat and sort of tilling their manure in with the chips and soil so I have free labor! My question is this, we do a large lot of potatoes every year, I noticed that you scraped the wood chips away and planted your seeders, but do you then cover them with the chip/soil mixture or just soil? Do you only chip them when you've mounded as high as you can for the season?

Christopher C. NC said...

Hi Lisa. I use wood chips from tree trimmers strictly as a mulch in the vegetable garden. I never deliberately mix them into the soil, though I don't worry about the little bit of mixing that occurs naturally. I just cover the potatoes with soil when planting. The woodchips will gravitate back into the row of potatoes on their own, working as a light mulch closer to the plants.

To be perfectly honest I am one very lazy gardener. I don't even hill my potatoes like they say you are supposed to and always get a fine crop.

"Do you only chip them when you've mounded as high as you can for the season?" I'm not really sure what you are asking here. I don't make my own woodchips. Again too lazy and worse, too noisy. I just bring them home from where the tree trimmers dump them for the taking.

Betty Zorg said...

Hi, very good to see your woodchips garden. I'm about to have a go at this method. I just wondered, when you say it's not great for annual veg with shallow roots, what kind of stuff do you mean? Like lettuces and beets?

Christopher C. NC said...

Hi Betty. The extension research scientists said it is not good for shallow rooted annuals and vegetables because there is a small nitrogen loss from the decomposition process at the soil/mulch interface. I ignore that completely. Adding a bit of fertilizer, manure or any other nitrogen source when planting with a wood chip mulch more than compensates for that small nitrogen loss. The dramatic improvement of the soil over time from all the added organic matter will also lessen the impact of that small nitrogen loss at the surface.