BAck to Eden/wood chips vs no mulch experiment results

elisa_z5June 20, 2012

Back a couple months ago I said I was doing a comparison experiment and asked if folks would be interested in knowing the results, and some folks said yes, so here they are. I apologize for the no photos (which I promised) but it turns out that without an eight year old to help me, I am too tech challenged to post photos.

Potatoes were planted on the same day, using the same method (stick shovel into ground, push shovel back to make a gap, pour liquid fish fertilizer into the gap, put seed potato piece into gap, remove shovel, which allows the soil to fall back into place).

The two places were:

  1. the best soil in my main garden (where the manure pile used to be 3 years ago, so the soil is black and rich) This will be called MG for main garden.

  2. where the tree trimming guys had dumped a pile of wood chips about 4 years ago and they had sat there and rotted down to a thin layer. This will be called BTE after the Back to Eden method, the movie about which got me interested in this in the first place.

The two places get sun all day and the water was equal -- rain only.

Type of potatoes: Yukon Gold


Potato bugs: more on BTE than MG, but very few overall

height of plants: taller in MG than BTE by a few inches.

amount of work: More for MG than BTE (had to hill in MG, but not BTE as per directions from guy in the movie)

ease of harvest: equal

Harvest: drum roll please . . . I'm getting about 1 pound from BTE for every 3/4 pound from the MG

So, even though the plants are a little bigger and fewer bugs in MG, BTE is producing better.

Now, I normally mulch with hay, and didn't do this in MG, and the hills were definitely dry (dryer than the soil under the chips -- no surprise there). Probably a better test would be to mulch in MG as well, the way I normally do.

One other disadvantage -- when I dug the potatoes in the BTE, some of the wood chips fell into the hole. There seems to be consensus on this forum that if you mix wood chips into soil that it robs nitrogen -- so some mixing is inevitable, which I suppose could affect the next year's productivity.

The movie, and discussion of it on here made me curious. I was actually really surprised to find the BTE producing better. But that could have been because of the no mulch. Still, I kind of thought that the BTE wouldn't do much.

I've only dug the smallest plants so far. When I get to the biggest plants, if there are different harvest ratios, I'll let you know.

Results: More research is needed! :) (don't they always say that?)

My personal results: I think if I saw tree trimming guys passing by, I would get wood chips dumped on an area outside of my MG and have fun planting in it. I would not, however, dump wood chips in my MG, since I've done so much to build the soil, and I wouldn't want to risk messing it up by mixing some of the chips in while planting, weeding, harvesting, etc.

Hope this has been interesting.

We now return you to your regular programming.

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Thanks for the update. The results are very interesting!

    Bookmark   June 20, 2012 at 5:39PM
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"I would get wood chips dumped on an area outside of my MG and have fun planting in it. I would not, however, dump wood chips in my MG, since I've done so much to build the soil"


If you have time for the wood to break down...and if your soil/moisture conditions are favorable to break it can "create" soil where you dump wood chips.'s just the seasons/years of waiting or dumping extra nutrients waiting for it to happen.

The method's thing about adding more chips season after season to your soil just seems like a race against your own soil creation to me. There's good stuff in the method, and stuff that makes me pause. Plus, you cannot count on wood chips degredading the same way in different dry regions you could be inviting all kinds of weird pests (especially termites in very dry regions).

Cool results, btw.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2012 at 5:53PM
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I saw that movie too and hoped the method might really help me.

I live in the woods and have lots of wood chips from chopping firewood, etc. I also have lots of pests in my garden and not a lot of fertility. We are not in a dry climate and I have a good watering setup with soaker hoses, etc in my vegie garden.

This year someone offered me a bunch of free (clean) sawdust. I didn't want to take a chance with anything too important, but I did mulch all my summer squash with it. I was cautioned that it could "rob the soil of all the nitrogen" but so far I have not noticed any adverse effects and the squash is all doing terrific. It's easier to see and catch the squash bugs and the cucumber beetles too--they have a hard time getting airborn on the sawdust.

I didn't see the other discussions on the BTE method--is the consensus basically that it does remove nitrogen from the soil?

    Bookmark   June 23, 2012 at 4:04AM
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That's interesting, Elise.

Potato yield is very dependent on amount of fertilizer, IME, so to draw any conclusion we have to be sure that you used the fish-goop very evenly between the two areas. If that is so, then the difference in yield is almost certainly the more consistent soil moisture in the heavily mulched area. I bet if you had mulched the other area it would be similar.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2012 at 7:35AM
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Va herb mom -- I think if you search (see up top in tool bar?) for Back to Eden Gardening method you'll pull up the other discussions. There was not a real consensus about the method, except maybe that, as nc-cm says above, that it is quite dependent on the place it is used.

Pat, yeah I think I may have inadvertantly researched mulch vs no mulch rather than the actual method. I did try to pour the fish emulsion evenly, but didn't use a measuring cup or anything. I also may have been testing weeds vs no weeds! My MG this year is basically a feast for beneficials -- but there is food there, too, so we are all feasting.

The chips do keep the soil friable. My husband and I planted potatoes yesterday on my neighbor's land, where it had been plowed and then rained and then dried. I don't plow or till my own garden, so I didn't have experience with this -- the ground was so hard!! Then I went with the last few seed potatoes and stuck them in the wood chip area -- like digging into cake.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2012 at 11:37AM
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Wow, that's late to be planting potatoes....

    Bookmark   June 24, 2012 at 12:13PM
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My experience using irregular arborist wood chips is only good. In thin layers it doesn't last as long as I'd like in my rainy climate. In our part sun perennial and shrub beds it lasted longer than in full sun in the vegetable and fruit garden.

We've also used horse manure + pelleted bedding(sawdust)+ some guinea pig manure and same bedding in all our gardens from time to time.

From one source they put it in a shallow pit & keep it covered. Horses eat oats, beet pulp, and alfalfa hay.

From another they pile it in a concrete 3 sided holding area on driveway. Horses eat beet pulp, black oil sunflower seeds, and alfalfa hay.

One batch was bright orange and mostly sawdust last spring. We used what we needed as mulch when perennials were about 4" tall. Then composted the rest in it's own pile.

kept covered
turned once to load in trailer
turned again to unload trailer to tarp near backyard gate
turned again to move pile shoveled into garden cart
turned again as dumped out of cart
kept covered
1 year later - dark & crumbly, loose. Not as dark as other compost piles. Have added some lime when we've spread it on the gardens again as mulch or used in the bottom of large pots before adding potting soil.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2012 at 12:17PM
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I just watched the movie last night and see a lot of merit to the BTE method- though it would be very expensive to bring in a few inches of good topsoil before adding chips as the people in PA did. I had a pile of chips delivered a year and 1/2 years ago in the fall and used about 1/3 for garden paths right away. In the spring when I dug into the pile to use it for new paths I was kind of shocked to see tons of worms. I believe they were probably there due to the fact that the chips had plenty of leaves chopped in as well.
This year I will try to locate some more aged chips and plan to mulch the garden with them instead of the usual hay I use, but will probably do some side by side comparison.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 6:45AM
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I just started a new garden plot in florida, and used a lot of wood chips as a thick mulch to hold in moisture. Evaporation from florida sand is a huge problem. As NC pointed out, the chips do create ideal conditions for insects, in the case of florida it is fire ants. The ants do not predate on healthy plants but they are significant irritant for gardeners.

In most cases thick piles of mulch will greatly encourage rodents as well. So while the moisture-retention is a big plus, the pest issues could be large also.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 7:48AM
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yukkuri_kame(Sunset 19 / USDA 9)

Thanks for reporting results.

Coffee grounds and wood chips make a nice tandem. You get some nitrogen to feed the bacteria and some finer material with the coffee grounds....

Here in socal, breakdown of wood chips is slow. faster if they are mixed with some more absorbent material, like leaves. I've also noticed the places where they have some sort of plants shading them, that they break down a lot quicker.

One option is to cover a chip pile with a tarp to conserve moisture. Also, spreading chips thinly across a larger area of ground is preferable to mounding. When they are in a mound in dry climates the center of the pile dries out, even with occasional watering.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 11:44AM
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Perhaps the concentration on wood chips is new but the idea of no till, permanent mulch gardening is older than I am. Back in the early 70s there were books by Ruth Stout about it. I didn't have the guts to try it then.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 5:40PM
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After experimenting with wood chips for the first time last year, I've gone over fully to using them everywhere, on the soil, in the soil, on the paths, ... even in some pots.

The biggest surprise for me was when I dug up some soil at the end of the season to compare a bed with wood chips dug in to part of the bed without wood chips dug in.
Roots loved growing into the wood chip soil, but avoided the clay soil w/o wood chips dug in.
Same with worms.

Nitrogen robbing was not a problem, just added extra nitrogen fertilizer at the beginning of the season.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wood chip soil pictures

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 11:47PM
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