Should you be using woodchips in your garden?

At a time when climate change is very much in the spotlight, gardeners are becoming more aware of how they can enhance soil, grow plants organically and generally help the environment. So, where does the humble woodchip play a part in all that?

“The most understood way to use it is as a mulch,” says Ben Raskin, head of horticulture at the Soil Association. “Historically people have used it on paths or under trees. It’s a good way of keeping weeds down, of holding in moisture, and typically reduces irrigating needs by about 25 per cent.

“But as well as those properties, there is a lot more potential.”

Mr Raskin has now written The Woodchip Handbook, explaining the many uses of woodchips as a renewable, eco-friendly resource for the garden and also something that can be used year-round.

He shows it has tremendous potential to enhance soil health and plant growth and is often readily available either through local arborists or by cutting back and trimming your own trees.

It enriches the soil
“As you are adding organic matter to the soil you are building soil health, so by adding a woodchip mulch you are gradually improving the health of your soil.

“Wood takes quite a long time to break down and has a complex structure called lignin. If you put a green waste compost or your own homemade compost on the soil it will break down quickly, whereas if you put woodchip down it takes longer to break down, so it effectively gives you a longer lasting organic carbon content to the soil.”

Read: How to enrich your garden soil for free

He says that if it rains, the woodchip nutrients won’t be leeched out. Woodchip will also hold on to lose nutrients – some farmers add manure to woodchips to get a slow release of nutrients.

It’s fungi-friendly
“Woodchip [mulch] favours fungi. Typically, our soils don’t have enough fungi in them. When you see a mushroom on top of the soil, that’s just the fruiting body. The mycelium (roots of the mushroom) spread out underneath the soil. Woodchip [mulch] builds soil fungi and feeds other soil organisms.

“When you have that network of roots under the ground, they transport nutrients around. Plants tap into that network. Often shrubs and trees will grow better if there are mushrooms nearby. They love a much richer fungal diversity in the soil.”

Read: How rewilding can boost your garden – and your life

“Mushrooms are also really good at sequestering carbon. With trees, you are sequestering carbon in the trunk of the tree and the leaves, but a good fungal network will also sequester carbon, so you get more bang for your buck.”

It can deter pests
Woodchips from strong smelling trees, such as eucalyptus, can deter moth larvae, which live in the soil under fruit trees and chomp through the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs.

But don’t dig it in …

“If it’s fresh you definitely don’t want to dig it in. People get nervous of nitrogen robbing. Because the woodchip [mulch] needs some nitrogen to break down, it sucks nitrogen from around it and in extreme circumstances, that can mean the plant you are mulching will be nitrogen deficient.

“But I have found the risk is much less than people are worried about.”

Is woodchip mulch ethical?
“It depends on where you source the woodchips, but in theory a lot of woodchip [mulch] is produced by tree surgeons cutting down trees that need to be cut down, whether they are diseased or overgrowing,” he notes.

Horticulturist Guy Barter adds: “Woodchips make good mulch that improves soil, conserves soil moisture and aids biodiversity, supporting many fungi, insects and other invertebrates.

“Many gardeners largely use chipped wood from local tree surgeons, which is highly sustainable.

“Commercial woodchip sources include wastes from forestry activities. Forestry in developed countries involves managed woodlands, replanted after harvesting timber, and in principle is sustainable.

Gardeners can recycle woody wastes from their garden by using a shredder to make woodchips in situ.

How can you make your own woodchips?
Hire a woodchipper if you have a small garden. Typically, a shredder will do the job of breaking down prunings and smaller garden materials.

A lot of tree surgeons have to pay to dump their woodchips, so if you have somewhere they can drop a little truckload off, you may get some for free.

Read: Gardeners share how to make the most of your lawn

Does the size of woodchips matter?

“If you want it as a mulch around trees, you want quite big bits of hard wood, which will give you the best weed control. If you are using it to mulch a ‘no dig’ vegetable bed, you want it well rotted and smaller because otherwise it will affect the growth of plants,” says Mr Raskin.

Smaller chip size is more effective at holding moisture but will break down quicker, while older chips that are already partly broken down will not last as long as fresher material, he notes.

The Woodchip Handbook by Ben Raskin is published by Chelsea Green, available now.

Do you use woodchips in your garden? How do you improve your soil? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

– With PA

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Written by Hannah Stephenson