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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arborist Chips are a Gardener's Best Friend

Our pile that's being quickly disbursed.
Finally, I managed to flag down a tree service company in my neighborhood and put in a request to get a load of arborist chips. They delivered around 4 yards onto our driveway the next day. They couldn't get all the load out of the truck because the truck bed hit the sloped driveway not allowing it to be fully raised. But I got enough to accomplish some major sheet mulching around and in the beds. It's also important to note that the stuff was FREE. Sometimes the best things in life are free.

You don't have to pay $22 per yard for mulch. Many tree service companies are happy to offload their chipped up wood so they don't have to pay to dump it or store it themselves. You can call up a company who services your area and the next time they're around, they'll deliver the load. Even local utilities such as the power company will off load their chips for you.

This tree service company had a full truck and had to go to another job to work on a big leaf maple. My request was convenient for them so they wouldn't waste time and money taking the load to a dirt exchange or back to their yard to make room for the next load. They would have given me the whole shebang if they could (around 8-10 yards). Be prepared to get around 6-15 yards of the stuff, but you can always share it with neighbors and friends. In fact, several neighbors came over to get a few wheelbarrow loads for their own yards.

Twigs, leaves, bark and wood mixed together for a rich soil amendment.
I love using arborist chips as mulch for several reasons. The stuff mimics a forest floor. The first layer of soil on a forest floor is organic matter consisting of twigs, leaves, bark and wood which eventually breaks down and composts in over time. Arborist chips are made up of twigs, leaves, bark and wood which will eventually break down and compost in over time. Arborist chips retain moisture and add nutrients as the microorganisms do their thing. The chips suppress weeds. Put down a layer of corn gluten (seed germination suppressant) then the chips and you won't have much of any weed growth for the season. Any weeds that do grow are easily yanked out. Finally, some plants just grow better with some mulch around them. My poor artichoke plant just languished this summer, no matter how much water it got. The minute I put down a layer of chips, the thing perked right up and started growing like crazy.

Any plant that prefers rich, humus soil will love a layer of chips around its root system. They key is not to spread the stuff too close to the trunk or too deep. Three inches should do the trick, unless it's in a path. Any deeper, and you could suffocate a root system or, in the case of rhodies, inhibit bloom. Some plants don't like to be mulched at all such as lavender and sedums. Don't apply chips to plants that prefer dryer conditions and seemingly crappy soil.

Chips over a layer of cardboard around the beds looks nice.
Arborist chips works great as a path cover. I've been taking advantage of the nice weather to sheet mulch around the raised beds. I put several layers of cardboard down (also free from your friendly appliance store or snatch it off the curb on recycle days) then four or so inches of mulch down over that. I'm into getting rid of the grass in the yard, so sheet mulching should do the trick.

If you're concerned about spreading disease with mulch from many different sources, don't worry. Studies have shown that arborist chips do not spread plant diseases. In fact they can suppress some fungal diseases by burying the pathogen so the spores don't splash up onto the plant during a rain storm. Fungal communities found in wood chip mulches are generally decomposers, not pathogens. If you want more information on the benefits and myths around arborist chips, read this paper from the WSU Extension

Some folk don't like the look of arborist chips, preferring bark instead. I'm not a fan of 'beauty bark' myself. The raincoat of a tree is the bark, so putting bark down around your beds actually sheds water, creating drought conditions. Bark takes longer to decompose into the soil. Bark looks like poopy-doo within a a few months, so you have to keep reapplying it, which leads to a major reason not to use it: you have to buy it and it's fairly expensive. If you must use bark, put a top layer over your arborist chips (one inch of the three). You'll get the look and the benefits. And for cryin' out loud, don't use landscape fabric underneath the chips. It completely defeats the purpose of using mulch in the first place, but that's another entry.

So, now that it's fall, get that mulch down. You'll be happy with the results.


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  3. I just followed your lead and called a local tree service company asking if they ever give away their wood chips, and I was told that the trees that they're asked to cut down are generally diseased, infested, and "buggy," so they do not give the chips away or condone the use of those chips as that would be spreading the disease/fungus/bugs. So if you do get these arborist chips from a tree service company, I guess it's a good idea to find out if the original tree had any "issues." Darn, I so wanted free wood chips! lol

  4. I can understand their concern over wood chips spreading pathogens, but the evidence just isn't there. If you think about it, trees in the forest die from disease, etc. all the time and become nurse logs and decay back into the biome, recycling nutrients. Healthy plants tend not to pick up disease. In the article I linked to above from WSU it states:
    Most studies indicate that diseased mulch cannot transmit pathogens to the roots of healthy trees. Under no circumstances should wood mulch be used as backfill: not only is this a poor installation practice, but a potential mechanism for disease transfer as well. Fungal communities found in wood chip mulches are generally decomposers, not pathogens. Under healthy soil conditions, beneficial and harmless fungi can outcompete pathogens for space on plant roots. Furthermore, healthy plants are not susceptible to opportunistic pathogens such as Armillaria and Phytophthora, which are often ubiquitous but inactive in well-managed soils.

    The most I've seen out of wood chips are mushrooms including, on occasion, the edible kind! Also, what bug would survive a chipper? Don't give up. I would simply try to find another source for chips.

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