I have been fantasizing about woodchips for the better part of a year now. This may strike you as a little odd but if you love gardening and understand the benefits of woodchip mulch as much as I do, then it probably sounds just right. Woodchips as mulch and ground cover has been shown to be more effective than other material (i.e. grass clippings, leaves or straw) at soil moisture retention, temperature moderation and weed control while also preventing erosion and compaction. It improves soil structure and increases gas transfer, nutrient levels and biodiversity of beneficial organisms. The myths that woodchips leave the soil more acidic or could spread disease from tree to soil have been busted. If you don’t feel like doing the research but do want to be inspired, you can watch a free documentary online called Back to Eden.
Yet with all this wonderful knowledge we have, it still requires us to get woodchips and lots of them. My approach to things like this is different than most people I know. My whole approach to everything is “What if there was no Home Depot (or mom and pop for that matter)?” What if I couldn’t just drive into town and buy whatever I needed? Not that I am a purist of some kind, but I do like being resourceful and using what I have in new ways so I don’t have to go buy things if I don’t need to. Once I have exhausted all means, I will use outside help. After all, even the first European colonies in the new world relied on regular shipments of supplies before they got on their feet. Being reluctant to change for sustainable purposes is silly because it doesn’t even have to include much change. It just requires new ways of looking at what you already have.
For example: My next door neighbor has a wood burning stove. It’s great for a heat source but living on ¼ acre lots all piled next to each other in suburban Olympia as we are leaves most people buying their wood supply to cut at home. My neighbor is one of these and certainly with no judgment here because this isn’t my point. Instead I’m focused on how days after Christmas their real Christmas tree is outside on the curb waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. Let me rephrase this, they buy wood labeled ‘firewood’ for heat but throw away wood labeled ‘Christmas’. You bought that tree, why not use it all? I keep all my Christmas trees and I have a pellet stove. Once they are dried I cut the limbs off and split the tree into logs for our fire pit. I may not use the logs for a year or so after, but when the power goes out on a cold night or we decide to have friends over for a campfire and watch the stars, we have everything we need on hand.
I look at my tree trimmings the exact same way. I used to just pile up the branches behind our tool shed until I needed them for something. I quickly had a big pile just sitting there not being used when one day I wondered how I could use them as woodchips. I don’t have a wood chipper and didn’t want to rent one just for small branches. I looked online for hand-operated ones to own, because I like finding options that don’t require gas like my reel mower and hand saws, but found basically nothing. I had a great idea to just put the branches in a trashcan and smash them into little chips with a shovel, but that didn’t work out at all how I envisioned it and so quickly gave up. One night, I saw a clip of a native preparing a root tonic for a ceremony. He had a club and was smashing the roots to more easily pull them apart before adding them into the cooking pot. Here was my light bulb moment.
The first thing I do is put on a good podcast to listen to. Spending six years in the navy taught me to use all my time wisely so while I am doing some mindless task, I like to learn stuff at the same time. Some organic gardening or sustainable podcast does nice here.
I trimmed all the branches of about 1/4” to 1” inch thickness of their smaller twigs, making clean one-branch limbs and kept the smaller twigs as kindling or compost material.
I would load up a trashcan of these limbs with just enough to take less than an hour to go through them all. There was no reason to do it all in one day. We are busy creatures in today’s world and so a little at a time gets the job done.Using my heavy hammer I would smash the limbs just enough so I could thread them apart and cut them easier. The drier limbs that would break into dust by smashing them I would just cut. The greener branches are the ones that need to be softened before cutting.
Once I softened them all I would use my trimming tool to cut the smashed limbs into 1” inch or so song pieces. You can do longer pieces but I went smaller for this round. Whenever I would get home from work and wanted to spend a little time outside before the sun went down, I would go gather some limbs and make woodchips. About five trips of this went through my entire wood pile taking about five hours total, way faster than I thought it would take.
Now I have a cleaned out back of the tool shed, organized kindling and compost pile, new wood for the firepit and woodchips for the herb garden. On top of this I got fresh air, moderate exercise and a sense of satisfaction after using my land wisely. Talk about win-win (and win). Most people wouldn’t spend the time doing this but that’s ok. The point of this article is to remind us that we have resources available but our consumer culture has trained us to throw it away without thinking about it. Don’t be the one who tosses grass clippings then buys fertilizer for your struggling yard. Don’t be the one who throws away veggie scraps when you can compost them. Don’t be the one with the woodstove who throws out your Christmas tree.
Aaron Miller lives in Olympia Washington where he grows organic vegetables and herbs. He and his wife make natural products at home in pursuit of a simpler life. They share their products and ideas at www.TheMillerCollection.org and ItsAllTheSameThing.Wordpress.com.