Last spring, I spent hours digging raised beds in an 80-by-130-foot community garden plot. The weeds were fierce, and although the walking paths were nice, they became overrun by the overzealous grasses of the northern Midwest. Oh, and don’t forget the mud puddles from the above-average rainfall last spring.
There are obvious benefits to the raised garden bed method, but my experience last spring made me wonder about other methods I could incorporate into my own home garden this year, back in Kansas after living in Thailand and then a stint in Fargo, North Dakota.
A gardening community group on Facebook, Wichita Black Growers, is where I was reintroduced to the wood chip mulch method. A post from the administrator of the group included some photos and the multitude of benefits he and his family were reaping from using the wood chips.
Cost savings sparked my interest. Although I knew adding wood chips to a garden could provide nutrients, I learned a great deal more about what these wood chips can do over time. Wood chips can allow you to:
Save on your water bill. Wood chips will slow the process of water evaporation and prevent the loss of water from the soil.
Save time pulling weeds. Wood chips will reduce the growth of weeds.
Stabilize soil temperature. Wood chips keep the soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, thus maintaining a more even soil temperature.
Prevent wind erosion or soil erosion due to splashing. Wood chips will also prevent the splashing soil-borne disease onto the plants.
Add nutrients to the soil. Decaying mulch releases its carbon and other nutrients to the soil.
Prevent crusting of the soil surface, thus improving the absorption and movement of water into the soil. This also helps prevent soil compaction.
Support roots. The plants will end up having more roots than plants that aren't mulched, because mulched plants have been shown to produce additional roots. You’ll be growing some nutrient-dense plants.
Provide aesthetic benefits. As a bonus, it looks nice and can add to the beauty of your gardening landscape with its rich color and added texture.
A 1990 study that rated 15 organic mulches found that wood chips came out on top in three important categories [see Stinson, J.M., G.H. Brinen, D.B. McConnell, and R.J. Black. “Evaluation of landscape mulches” Proc. Fla. Hort. Soc. 103:372–377.]:
Moisture retention. Covering the soil with 2 inches of wood mulch slows moisture evaporation from the soil.
Temperature moderation. Wood chips block the sun and help keep the soil cool.
Weed control. Weeds have difficulty emerging from beneath a cover of wood chips.
Using Wood Chip Mulch
All you need to do is use the wood chips or the bark of a cedar, pine, spruce, or hemlock tree. These trees will all perform well in your garden. You can even let your mulch age and let it sit out for a season if you’re unsure if pesticides or herbicides were used on it. If you don’t have the time to let it age, simply spread the mulch on the top soil only, and don’t incorporate it into the rooting system.
Best practices say to mulch your garden twice a year. You can follow the pattern of the seasons and mulch when it warms up and then again when temps cool down. An even deeper money-saver would be to use old, spoiled hay from farmers in your region, if available. Here in the Midwest, that is a definite possibility. Hay offers many of the same benefits that wood chip mulch does.
Photos by Bryce Graham
NaQuela Pack is a volunteer manager, TEFL teacher, mindfulness facilitator, reiki practitioner, community advocate, and nonprofit board member in Wichita, Kansas. Following a year living in Thailand, where NaQuela researched the science of mindfulness in adults and in youth in the public education system, she created the virtual space Insight 2 Heal, a platform to connect and expand mindfulness, movement, and self care practices. Connect with NaQuela on Facebook and with Insight 2 Heal on Facebook and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.