March 22

Why I don’t like using wood chips in my garden

Recently I started making a wood chip path in my back garden. After using 5 bags of wood chip mulch I have stopped. I'm not sure I like it so I want to sit with it awhile. I planned to make a wood chip path all the way around the perimeter of the back garden, but I think I am putting that on hold for this season. I am going to finish up this one section that I started and see how things go throughout the growing season. While I was working with these wood chips I came to the conclusion that I really don't like working with wood chips. Before I go into why let me first say...

Wood chips do not mimic nature

Wood chips are not a natural product; you don't find wood chips in nature. They are man-made and go through processing to get into chip or shredded form. So when people say they're using natural products when they use wood chips, that's not entirely true. Oh sure wood is a natural product. But not large areas of shredded or chipped wood. Out in nature trees sometimes fall and become logs. Branches can break off and fall to the ground. Sometimes bark flakes off of trees, and that, I guess, can provide a few chips, but not the amount of chips that people spread over their entire planting bed like they do when gardening or landscaping.

Just an observation.

How people use wood chips in the garden

Most of the time, wood chips are used as mulch. Now, it seems to me that people who use wood chips as mulch aim to simply put down the mulch once and never do anything else to it during the season. As far as weeding goes, perhaps their thought is, "I'll just pull out any weeds that happen to pop up through the mulch," but there's no cultivation of the soil after the wood chips go down. This approach seems to be done by a lot of avid gardeners.

Where I live, much of the time, no weeding at all takes place. Whatever weeds or grass pop up through the wood chips, pops through and stays there throughout the year. I'll assume these gardens are by people who really don't work that often in the garden. Which is fine for those people.

For myself, I can't do that. A weedy garden bed bothers me. Personally I think it looks awful and unkempt.

It seems with most modern applications of wood chips as a mulch, there is the before-hand step that involves putting down either cardboard or newspaper before you put down the wood chips. This layer acts as the actual mulch, functioning similarly to a weed barrier fabric, but instead of using fabric, it has become popular to use newspaper or cardboard as the mulch to keep weeds out. Unlike fabric, newspaper or cardboard will eventually decompose into the soil.

Then, on top of this layer, wood chips are added to cover up the paper or cardboard because nobody wants a garden filled with cardboard or newspaper. The wood chips are essentially just a decorative effect. Most of the weed prevention is taken care of by the paper covering under the chips.

I hate using cardboard or newspaper in the garden

Personally, I hate working with newspaper or cardboard in the garden! Absolutely hate it! If there is even the slightest bit of wind the sheets that you layed down on the ground lift up and are just itching to blow away. You try to use your hands and feet to hold down the newspaper. You reach out for bricks or stones you can place on top of the paper while you struggle to hold down a couple of sheets with a creative placement of your foot. It's like playing twister. Then one sheet sneaks out from under your grip and blows off. You start chasing after it and then another sheet blows off and you're chasing after them and feel like you're in a Charlie Chaplin comedy.

Yes, you can wet the paper or cardboard which makes it stay in place better. But, now you either have to get your hose involved, or a bucket filled with water and it's just an added hassle. However, in my experience, wood chips with newspaper under them will keep weeds out better than wood chips alone. Unless, you use a very thick layer of wood chips. And by thick, I mean. When you think it's thick enough, you probably need twice as thick a layer than you already have down.

Sure, if you put down a layer that's a foot thick, you'll have less weeds popping through. But, to get that much wood chips is expensive. Here's a screenshot of the mulch calulator at Home Depot if you needed wood chips for a good sized bed that was 20 ft by 10 ft and wanted the woodchips 12 inches thick.

Sorry, but to me, spending that much money as well as having to deal with 110 bags of wood chips is a ton of work and just ridiculous.

You might think "Ethan, 12 inches is overdoing it. Nobody uses that much. I've read that you should put about 3 inches of wood chips down."

Fine, here's a screenshot for the same area, but only 3 inches thick.

It's still going to cost $93. For shredded wood. Shredded wood! And, you're still going to have to lug around, open and spread, 28 bags of wood chips. I spread just 5 bags on the path I started and that was a chore. Imagine 28 bags.

That's a lot of hard, physical work that frankly, I'm not that interested in doing.

Ok, with all that being said, let me go over what I understand to be the main benefits of using wood chips in the garden.

The benefits of using wood chips

They keep the soil moist:

If the soil is covered, moisture won't evaporate as quickly and so your soil doesn't dry out. Better for your plants.

My response to this: Personally, in my gardens, I haven't had much of a problem with dry soil or plants not growing well because of dry soil. So, for me this is not an important benefit.

They help prevent weeds:

My response: The key word here is help. Wood chips, or any mulch for that matter does not fully prevent weeds. They help to keep weeds down. Like I talked about earlier, putting down wood chips doesn't mean you won't have weeds.

I mainly take care of weeds with a hoe. I actually like to hoe. It doesn't take long and when you use a hoe correctly I find it a pleasant and relaxing activity. To me, it's much less work than spreading bags of wood chips.

Wood chips prevent hoeing. It's next to impossible to run a hoe through the soil when it's covered by wood chips. Also, if you cultivate soil that has wood chips on it, you won't be able to help mixing them into the soil. That's very bad for your plants because the wood chips will start breaking down and decomposing which means they will use nitrogen and that comes the soil. Now, your plants need this same nitrogen in the soil to grow, so the nitrogen is going to have a hard time going to both your plants and to the wood. In summary, I prefer to take care of weeds in other ways.

closeup of mulch
Wood chips feed the soil:

My response: Sure. But, so do other things. Every organic product feeds the soil. And wood chips are one of the slower forms of organic matter you can use in your garden. Cover crops, compost, straw, and manure, are just some examples of organic matter that decomposes quicker than wood chips.

They look pretty:

My response: That's personal preference. To me, freshly worked soil looks prettier than a well spread out layer of wood chips. I love how freshly worked soil looks. But, that's me.

If you love the way wood chips look I think this may just be one of the best reasons to use them. Forget about function, you just love how it looks. It's hard to replicate that. I don't feel this way so this one doesn't affect me.

They protect the soil:

My response: Ok. But so do other forms of mulch. 

They are easy for me to get:

My response: I can totally understand this one. I'm a big proponent of using what you have. This is another reason that is hard to argue with. I suppose for me they are pretty easy to get also, but they can be costly. I was going to use that Chip Drop service to get them for free. I signed up for a delivery of chips twice, but never received a delivery. That's too much uncertainty for me. When would a delivery of chips arrive? How much would arrive? What type of chips would they be?

Eh, not for me.

However, here is where I am using wood chips - and why I am.

I do have wood chips in my front garden for two main reasons.

The first is, wood chips help to prevent mud. If you just have uncovered soil and it rains a decent amount, you get mud.

The wood chips in this photo are wet. Very wet. But they aren't muddy.

If you have dogs, they run in the mud. They come inside and make mud tracks. If you have wood chips on top of the soil, there is no mud. The dogs walk on the wood chips, their paws don't get muddy. They don't make mud tracks.

I just made a large area of wood chips around the tree in my front yard and will see how well the wood chips prevent a muddy mess over this coming gardening season.

mulch around front tree

I'm wondering if after rain, any wood chips will stick to my dog's paws.

It was still raining when I snapped the photo above. Nothing stuck to her paws. She didn't bring any mulch back into the house. If it was bare soil, or bagged compost I'm sure I would have seen a trail of paw prints in the house.

The second reason I have wood chips around the tree in my front garden is so I don't have to mow and tend the lawn in that area. You see this area of my front garden used to be grass. So, I would have to mow it. Trim it. It's in the front corner of my property. It's pretty uneven ground there. It's under a tree. It has some odd borders and getting the mower around the tree and in that tight space was a pain. It's a very difficult area to tend. I avoided doing it.

So, I dug out as much of the lawn in that area as I could. I used my electric tiller to help. And my hope is that I won't have to tend that area very much over the coming season. Let's see how it goes. I may have to add more wood chips (maybe twice as much as I put down) or do some weed pulling here or there. Again, I'll let you know how it goes.

Summary of why I don't like using wood chips

First off, for my vegetable beds, I really don't use any mulch at all. I use a hoe to remove weeds from the bare soil. I cultivate frequently. Vegetables are annuals so there's frequent planting, harvesting, removing plants and re-planting. Having mulch in the beds, especially wood chips would just be an added hassle to keep moving around.

If I am mulching, I would prefer to use compost as mulch solely for the reason that you can plant into compost and you can cultivate compost without worry of it getting mixed into the soil. In fact, most instructions on bags of compost tell you to mixing the compost into the soil. You can put seeds or transplants right into compost. You can't do that with wood chips.

Another thing I would rather use more than wood chips is straw. It breaks down much faster, it's lighter, yeah, it's a little messy, but I personally prefer the look of straw to wood chips. Now, that's a personal preference thing, fine, but if straw gets mixed in with your soil, I think it's much less injurious to the soil than wood chips are because straw breaks down so much faster than wood chips.

The one place wood chips seems to have an advantage is where you plan to not cultivate the soil at all. One place like this is pathways. Wood chips are good for walking on. Once they settle in they don't fly around that much even when it's windy (though a border will help keep them in place.) Chips won't get muddy and, in my experience, they drain very well. They also seem to have an advantage over straw as path material because when it is wet, straw can be a little slippery. Also if a heavy rain occurs, straw can literally float around and once the water from the rain subsides, it will have spread to all parts of the garden where you didn't plan on it being.

You will have to continually add wood chips however. And from experience, it seems like that larger the chunks of wood chips the better for places you don't want to cultivate at all. By better I mean, it lasts longer. But, I would put these types of wood chips down only only after I had planted whatever perennial that was going to be there. Moving wood chip mulch, that is made up of large chunks, so you can plant into the soil beneath it is no easy task and is not fun. But, this large mulch seems to last longer than fine smaller pieces of wood that looks almost shredded.

There are my reasons why I do not like to use wood chips in my garden. Perhaps one of the benefits of using wood chips is huge for you. In that case, you should use them. You may like working with wood chips the way I like weeding with a hoe. That's another case where using them may be the best decision for you.

There's no right or wrong to this. Only what's good for me, and what's good for you.


mulch, pathways, woodchips

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