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Wood Chippings on the Vegetable Plot

I had an email asking me about wood chippings on the allotment. It says:

I was reading the tips on clearing the allotment, the overgrown allotment. I have found it to be very useful as I’ve had my plot a year now and I have managed to clear it from brambles, weeds and ferns (which seem to be never ending).

Now I have got some beds in place and will soon be growing my own vegetables but there’s a new problem. The allotment site have cut the boundary trees on my plot and they are now shredding them on to my plot. I don’t know if they’re getting rid of it but, if not, what do I do with all the tree shavings as they’ve covered three quarters of the plot?

Wood chippings are a natural material and will, eventually, rot down providing valuable organic matter to the soil. This improves the soil structure but doesn’t add much in the way of nutrients like a manure or compost would.

In fact, there is a short term problem with wood chippings in that the process of them rotting down will cause a shortage of nitrogen. The wood is heavy in carbon so to rot down it requires a lot of nitrogen.

If you were to mulch with wood chippings, then you’d notice poor growth for a year or two until the chippings have rotted away – especially with leafy crops. Nitrogen is vital for leaf growth.

What I have found is that wood chippings are great for making paths on the allotment. They keep your boots clean in wet weather and if you move beds around can be raked up and moved. After a couple of years they rot into lovely stuff which can be dug in.

But you can have too much of a good thing and the question is “what to do with load of wood chippings?” Those that aren’t used on the paths, which can take up much more than you expect, are best put into a pile to eventually rot down. This could take 3 or even 4 years! To speed up the process you need to add a lot of nitrogen. The quickest way to do this would be to mix sulphate of ammonia or prilled urea into the pile. These are fairly cheap high-nitrogen chemical fertilisers and will reduce the rotting time down to a year.

There is an even cheaper and organic answer as well. Just pee on the wood chipping pile. Urine is high in nitrogen and, being liquid, will soak into the wood helping it to reach the parts where it is needed.

Peeing directly onto the pile may not be advisable in a public place, so use a watering can in the privacy of the shed and add water to make it go further. Incidentally, urine is sterile when fresh presents no health hazard.

In a nutshell, wood chippings are useful and eventually beneficial to the plot but you need to rot them down before adding to the growing soil.

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary
20 comments on “Wood Chippings on the Vegetable Plot
  1. sharlean bishop says:

    thank you so much for the answer i’ll be trying that tomorrow, its gonna be a big help.

  2. Lisa says:

    On the subject of peeing on wood chippings, can i ask a question. Would it be safe to apply used cat litter made from 100% wood pellets to allotment pathways between rows of raspberries. When i say used, i mean has cats pee on it not the other business. Have 2 cats who seem to prefer to use litter tray than go outside, so go throught he stuff quickly! The wood pellet litter from pets at home says its biodegradable and 100% wood. just not sureif i like the thought of cats pee around my raspberries.

  3. John says:

    We too have a litter tray and use the wood pellets. The builders outside worry some of the cats so we popped an indoor loo up for them. Anyway, cat pee, like human pee, is perfectly safe but it’s the faeces that present a theoretical risk. There is a small risk that they can pass a disease to humans.

    So my official line is that you should not use the contents of the cat litter tray in the garden. Now I can’t get sued!!

    What I do myself is to compost it for at least a year and then use it. Add as much green matter as you can to balance up the wood pellets.

  4. jane davies says:

    Wood chips – we use wood chips under the cattle in the cubicles ( rather than straw as this is too expensive) and when they are cleaned out this mixes with all the other good stuff, that they produce, this makes a truly wonderful addition to the veg plot.

  5. John says:

    That’s because the high nitrogen content in the manure balances the high carbon of the wood chippings allowing them to rot and not rob nitrogen from the soil.

  6. P Storry says:

    I saw my logs for the fire on my plot since the sawdust rots more quickly than wood chip.

  7. Pauline says:

    can the charcoal that left after burning wood on the allotment be used on the soil.

  8. John says:

    Wood ashes and, to some degree, the charcoal are actually a potash rich fertiliser. In fact you could do worse than save wood ashes in an airtight tin and use them as a top dressing on your tomatoes.

    All the usual caveats about using treated wood ashes (especially tanalised) apply.

  9. jen parkinson says:

    we have recently taken over an allotment. we had a massive pile of wood chippings, which had rotted down, and mixed them half and half with horse manure as a mulch, which we have put mainly on the mounds next to the potato trenches. after several hours hard work, one of our allotment neighbours said it is a bad idea to put wood chippings on the beds as they have too much acid? should we remove the wood chips, or not?

  10. John B says:

    I had a smallholding in France for 9 years. The soil was iron rich clay with limestone underneath. In the 9 years I worked this plot I added wood ash from our stoves, grass cuttings from the garden and verges, leaf mould from the garden and adjacent lane and shredded shrubbery. I also had 3 compost bins for domestic vegetable waste. I found that if I buried the leaves and other collected compost in October/November, by the time I came to planting in March the bacteria/worms and whatever else was in the soil had done their trick and the material had rotted down. Over the 9 years, the soil depth increased from about 30cms to 80+cms over the whole plot and the colour had changed from a rusty brown to a very dark, almost black colour.

  11. Bill McGree says:

    Wood chippings are not harmful to the soil on your allotment but must be applied thinly and dug in in the autumn.They have the effect of keeping weeds at bay in selected areas and what I did was move the clump of chippings from one area to another. I have seen a major decrease in weed growth but the chippings themselves did nothing for the soil and indeed may have contributed to this year’s low yield. Chippings can be useful in the strawberry bed but again spread them thinly otherwise slugs can ‘hide’ in clumps.Best of luck with chippings but I would not recommend a large scale use of them.

    • John Harrison says:

      @Bill McGree: Bill, I use them primarily for paths and wouldn’t recommend them as a mulch around crops because the rotting action will initially at least cause nitrogen robbery. They probably would result in lower yields used as a mulch around strawberries.
      With trees things are different again, the roots go down further and their main requirement tends to be potash. Using a slow-release fertiliser initially combats any nitrogen depletion and once the trees are established the mulch has done its job in preventing competing weed/grass growth.

  12. Andy Michael says:

    Interestingly, I’m going to try the ‘Back to Eden’ method next year on half my plot. I have therefore covered the area with 3″ of woodchips (which also contain leaf clippings). To plant, I will rake a channel down to the soil and plant directly into the soil. As the plants grow I will push the woodchip back over.
    Opinion is that the nitrogen depletion occurs at the junction of the woodchips and soil but over time (as the woodchip decomposes) the nitrogen becomes available.

    If you can get past the ‘god bothering’. It’s a thought provoking watch.

    https://vimeo.com/28055108

    Regards

    Andy

  13. Pete Lakin says:

    I have been trying the back to Eden method of using wood chips this year . So far results have not been great . But this year as been a very wet season and the wood chip as kept the soil even wetter . The plus side is my plot is weed free and I can walk on it whatever the weather . I think results should be better next season after the wood chips have decomposed more . Over the winter i intend to cover the chips with manure to help speed this up . I am going to stick with this method of gardening as I think it is a long term project and think results will be good in the future . Next year could de a dry summer but that will not be a problem with wood chip mulch .

  14. Pete Lakin says:

    I think that is true of all videos and gardening programs they make it all look so easy and trouble free . In reality it isn’t or else anyone could do it with out any of the work and failures . As for using wood chips I am convinced it is a good way to garden it just takes time . I think my soil will be like black gold in years to come if early signs are anything to go by . Next year I will not make the mistakes I made this time . But that ispart of gardening , you learn from mistakes and improve .

  15. m.jones.ntl@gmail.com says:

    I started using the back to Eden method in Feb of this year on just six of my allotment beds (although I’ve had wood mulch under the trees for years). Results for me were good, in fact better than expected. I scattered chicken manure pellets to offset any nitrogen imbalance and the crops did fine. The lack of weeding and watering has been most welcome and improvements in the soil so impressive I’m spreading out the experiment to cover more beds.
    The wood mulch we get (for free) contains lots of Leylandi and is best stacked in a pile for a few weeks to start decomposing before it’s used, ideally it’d be better I guess if allowed to rot even more before spreading.
    I’m hoping too with the increase of soil-borne critters I’ll see more natural predators to restore a balance with the pest numbers we’ve seen increase over the last few years. Certainly there’s a marked rise in earth worm poulation so far which has to be good news for soil fertility.
    Agree with earlier post, I reckon this is a long term practise rather than a quick fix. (Agree also about You Tube vids claiming over-inflated results).

    Regards
    Martin

  16. John B says:

    I used to live in Poitou-Charente, France. Locally we had a company that supplied a range of wood by-products. The most useful for paths were the bark chips from the pine forests of Les Landes. These were hard wearing and the ones I laid 5 years before moving were still good for a few more years. The company also supplied partly composted shreddings. As the description suggests, these were mixed materials and included leaves, twigs and some wood chips. These made an excellent mulch but did not last long. I experimented with a few bags by burying the contents under part of the vegetable plot in September. By the end of February, the material had completely rotted away leaving a healthy population of earthworms.

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