Using Fresh Wood Chips as Mulch Around Vegetables

terrynewMay 30, 2012

Hi, I just received a few cubic yards of fresh wood chips from a tree service, our local hydro company. It is mostly hemlock with some cedar. My hopes are to use this as mulch around my vegetables, fruit trees, and shrubs. To my dismay there are also a lot of green needles mixed in with the chips. I'm worried that this acidic mulch will steal nitrogen from the soil around my vegetables and fruit trees, harming their growth.

I plan on putting a thin layer of shredded newspapers down first, with 2-4" of chips on top. Will the newspaper layer protect the soil from nitrogen theft by the chips, allowing them to compost safely over the year? If not, can I sprinkle lime over the chips (or between the chips and the newspaper) to compensate for the acidity? Or are these fresh chips just too nitrogen-hungry for vegetables and fruit trees, such that I should give them a year or two to compost elsewhere first?

I also have some straw, in case anyone thinks that that's a better layer between the soil and the fresh wood chips.

My soil, by the way, is sandy and could use the organics from these chips, so I'm hoping that after using them as mulch this year I can turn part of it into the soil next year, and more the following year.

Thanks for your advice,

...Terry in Eastern Ontario

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Could you sprinkle a little lime to counteract the initial acidity?

Here is a link that might be useful: Pine Needles

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 2:18PM
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Wood chips, fresh or otherwise and including needles, will NOT pull nitrogen from the soil when used as a mulch or topdressing. This ONLY happens when the chips (or any other wood-based mulch) is incorporated into the soil.

They won't make your soil any more acidic either. Both of these are rather well-used but unsubstantiated gardening myths.

Here is a link that might be useful: woodchip mulch myths

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 2:31PM
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It can be of some use in conserving soil moisture and keeping the ground cooler by blocking the sun. As noted, it should not get tilled in the fall or spring, so one has to work around it or take it up to use later. That's why I leave chips in piles and don't use it for at least two years, and a lot longer would be better.

So get more loads whenever you can and in a few years you'll be set.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 3:44PM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

Terry, I use loads of mulched trees, but never on my veggies as I can guarantee I'd dig them in.
As gardengal says, it's fine as long as high-carbon mulches are just on the surface, and while pine needles are initially acidic, they break down to roughly neutral.

Here is a link that might be useful: pine needles

    Bookmark   May 30, 2012 at 6:56PM
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I have chipped/shredded fresh tree trimmings. The pile of chips get very hot, over 140 degrees, but soon cools off. As gardengal says, just use the chips as a mulch, on top of the soil.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2012 at 12:34AM
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While I do think Lee Reich knows a lot about gardening and making soils healthy I do know hwe is way off base in that article he wrote for Fine Gardening magazine. the link gardengal provided, by Linda Chalker-Scott, is much better and the link provided by feijoas has information I have written here many times over the last 25 plus years.
Many times I have asked for loads of fresh wood chips that have included leaves or pine needles only to be told That I did not want that stuff because it would rob my soil of Nitrogen. The leaves or pine needles, still green, will have a lot of Nitrogen in them and I have seen piles of wood chips with green leaves mixed in spontaneously combust because of the heat generated by the bacteria that are digesting them.
The newspaper will suppress "weed" growth by blocking access to light by any plants tht might try to grow under the paper. There is no need to put any kind of lime on the wood chips to "counterbalance" any "acidity" myth tells us might be present. The wood chips will not "rob" Nitrogen from the soil.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2012 at 7:40AM
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Terry -
Wood chip mulch will not affect the nitrogen levels. Just spread it several inches deep, with your drip irrigation tubing UNDER the mulch. Also mulch the paths several inches deep.

When the vegetables are finished, slice them off just below dirt level and leave the roots to decay in the ground. It creates aeration channels and leaves organic matter so deep you could never till that deeply.

Next year, when you are setting out new plants, move the mulch wherever you want to plant something, then spread it back into place. Add more as needed.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2012 at 7:41AM
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Thanks to all of you for this good news. I'm very impressed by the support you offer the gardening community by sharing your knowledge and experience. Kudos!

    Bookmark   June 5, 2012 at 3:29PM
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