Over a year ago we did an experiment in the garden by covering half of it with wood chips. The results have been very eye-opening! Here's what we liked, disliked, and if we're mulching with wood chips again this year.
Well over a year ago I decided to do an experiment in our garden. My husband was a bit skeptical of my idea, so we only tested half the garden to have a comparison. What was the experiment? Covering the dirt in wood chips!
Thanks to a love of learning, and the resources that are available at my fingertips, I’ve watched and read and researched all about adding a layer of wood chips to the garden to help with weed control.
It’s now 18 months since I initially laid the wood chips in the garden and in today’s episode of the Pioneering Today Podcast (episode #279) I'm sharing all my thoughts on this experiment. Including what I liked about it, what I would do differently, if it helped with weed control and whether I’ll be doing it again.
In this episode:
- We had a very late first frost so I have just now finished wrapping up my garden and getting the garlic planted.
- For over two decades we have tilled our garden yearly. This has always been our method (as well as my parent's method) so it's all I ever knew.
- 18 months ago we tried spreading wood chips over our garden.
- Are we using this method again this year?
- Testing our soil BEFORE laying the wood chips (see this blog post for how to test the pH of your soil).
- Watch the process I used to lay the wood chips in this YouTube video.
- Tips on finding wood chips for FREE to use in your garden.
- Weed growth recap and how much weeding I did throughout the summer.
- Why won't I tell my husband, “I told you so”?
- The Family Garden Planner shipping update!
- Verse of the week – John 6:27
- Pioneering Today Membership
Links mentioned in this podcast:
- Testing the pH of Soil
- Mulching the Garden
- 1 Year Update – Mulching the Garden with Wood Chips
- The Family Garden Planner
- Become a Pioneering Today Member
Welcome to episode number 279. Well over a year ago now I decided to do an experiment with my garden and my husband was not quite so on board with this experiment as I was. So we ended up doing half of the garden in wood chips and then we waited an entire year. It's now been actually a year and almost a half because we did it in the spring of 2019 and it is now, at the time of this recording, well into the fall, almost November of 2020. We covered half the vegetable garden in wood chips and this is going to be about the results, what I would do differently, what I would do again, and the overall thoughts one full year later. But first let me officially welcome you to the podcast. I'm your host, Melissa K. Norris, a fifth generation homesteader who got back to my roots of using simple, modern homesteading for a healthier and more self-sufficient life after a cancer scare in my late twenties.
This is the place for you, my friend, if you've sometimes wondered if you were born a hundred years too late, if you've always thought that you and Laura Ingalls would be best friends. And if you think that every home and kitchen would be better if they were filled with Mason jars and cast iron, and those things were used daily with homegrown and homemade food. If that is you then welcome home and welcome to this amazing community of modern pioneers. At the time of this recording, we're really just beginning to wind down in the garden. We ended up having a very late first frost here in the fall. I am just now getting all of the warm weather crops pulled out and got my garlic planted yesterday, which means that I've officially came to the end of the warm weather crops in the garden.
Having half of it covered in wood chips, we're now going on our second round. So I feel like I'm really getting a good idea looking into this and seeing the effects of it long-term. We have had a vegetable garden ever since we've been married. I've never had a year where we didn't have a vegetable garden, both as a married adult and then living at home. And I got married at 18. So I went from living at home and having a garden with my parents every single year growing up, to getting married at 18 and my husband and I starting the... We got married in September and then that next spring we started with our first vegetable garden. We have now been married over 21 years, so we've had a vegetable garden for 21-plus years. But all of the vegetable gardens that we had have had have been using a tiller, every spring we would till the ground back up, put in the crops.
And that was just kind of how we would prep the soil, every single spring we would add in usually some compost and manure and just kind of till everything up. It was a way to chop the weeds down that had grown over the winter months and just get the soil nice and ready to go. And that has worked very well for us, as I said, for over two decades. And that's how my dad gardens and my mom gardens. So really I am almost 40. I am 39. So for 39 years, that method has produced a pretty good harvest for us year in and year out. But one of the beautiful things about listening to podcasts and seeing YouTube videos and having all of the actually great things about the internet, because there are some really great things about having the internet is you get introduced to a lot of new ideas and new ways that people are doing things, which is actually really fun.
I am a lifelong learner. I know this sounds kind of probably geeky and nerdy, but I love listening to podcasts. I love watching YouTube videos. I love learning new things. In fact, I've really discovered something about myself is I was a pharmacy tech and I have been doing now the podcast and the YouTube videos and my online courses, as well as the membership, the Pioneering Today Academy and writing books and all of that, I've been doing that full-time going on three years now. So it was three years ago that I quit my day job as a pharmacy tech, but I was a pharmacy technician for almost 18 years. And I discovered that I had really started to... I don't know if resent is quite the right word, but in a way I was resenting my day job because I'm so passionate about this homesteading way of living and sharing it with people.
And I knew that when I was at work at the pharmacy that I wasn't able to do as much as I wanted to. I didn't have a YouTube channel when I was working at the pharmacy. I did have the podcast and I did of course have books and the website, but there was so much that I knew I just wasn't able to do because I was working that day job in order to help and reach a lot more people. And I really didn't enjoy the pharmacy work any longer and there's just kind of multiple reasons that that happened. But as I really thought about it, especially after I wasn't doing the pharmacy work any longer is I had went as far as a could unless I wanted to become a pharmacist. So meaning there really wasn't anything left for me to learn and there wasn't any more opportunity for growth within my field.
I was bored. Honestly, I was just bored. It had become very rote and routine and day in and day out the same stuff over and over again for years. And I got so excited about this homesteading stuff, because there's always something to learn. And not only on the homesteading front with learning new skill sets of growing your own food and preserving it and ways to cook and natural medicine, livestock, like so many things like that. But also with on the part of creating a website and building up like the social media channels and the marketing, and actually getting to be able to share all of this with people on how to do that in better ways. That is also, it was also a learning curve. And I found I really enjoyed that learning aspect on both fronts, both of running a website and the podcast and everything on a business side, but also the skill sets on the homesteading side.
So why am I sharing all of that with you? Well, the reason I'm sharing that with you is because I began to see a lot of people talking about doing things like permaculture in the garden and doing no-till vegetable gardening and doing a Back to Eden method of vegetable gardening, where you're using wood chips and mulch.
In fact, one of the previous episodes on the podcast, which was episode number 232, No-till Gardening Benefits and Getting Started, And that was an episode where I interviewed Joe Started from the Joe Gardener Show. And I got to ask him all kinds of questions on doing the no-till gardening, because I hadn't really done that yet, but I really, really wanted to.
So after that episode and doing some more research, I told my husband, I'm like, "I really want to do the no-till method on the vegetable garden and using the wood chips, doing a Back to Eden style of gardening." And my husband was really not on board, to be honest, he was like, "We have been doing our garden this way for decades. We've gotten great results. We get a lot of food. We know how our soil is and everything. And I don't really know about covering up all of our soil with a bunch of wood chips and a bunch of these layers. And what if it begins to rob the nitrogen? What if it kind of breaks the soil? Or we have a harvest that's a lot less than we have in previous years. Like, I don't know, like we've got a really good thing. Like why mess with something that's working," was basically what it boiled down to.
But I happen to be quite a determined individual. So I just kept telling him like all of the benefits that I had found in my research and all of this stuff and that I really, really wanted to try it. So as I tend to think most relationships work the best, if you have a little bit of give and take or you know where to pick your battles is another way.
So we came up with a compromise where we would do half of the vegetable garden with this wood chip method and the other half we would do regularly. And we would do this for a couple of years to see what the long-term effect was to see if we really liked it before we committed to doing all of the vegetable garden this way. So that's what we did. So the first year I took half of the vegetable garden and I had had a soil test done so I knew what all of our base levels were. All of the levels were exactly as should be. So my pH level was spot on and nitrogen levels were good. And then all of the other macro and micronutrients that you get when you do a soil test from calcium, there's a whole bunch of them. And I will link in the blog post episode that accompanies this, which you can find it on melissaknorris.com/279, because this is episode number 279.
I have a written blog post for you along with the transcript, and you'll be able to go there. And if you want to look at any links or look at some of these other episodes, you can do so, but I have a podcast episode and a blog post on soil testing. So you can dive further into that if you're curious, but I wanted to do the soil testing first because I wanted to know exactly what our base level was and then introduce this method. So I took half of the vegetable garden and we did this, like I said, it was the end of May, beginning of June in 2019. And I first laid down a layer of cardboard and that was to act more as weed suppression than anything else. So I laid down my layer of cardboard and then covered that cardboard. And it was just plain cardboard with no ink on it or coloring or labels, just your plain brown cardboard, which there's some differences of opinions.
I posted this video on YouTube so if you actually want to see what everything looked like, you can absolutely go and do that and check this video out on YouTube. But I got a lot of comments, as you can imagine. And there was some people that were asking me about using the cardboard and because cardboard does have some glue in it and it breaking down into the soil. And if I was worried about contamination and you know, yeah, it probably does have a few undesirables and is it at 100% organic? Not really, but was I really worried about it? Honestly, not really. I've come to the realization that there's some things that I'm worried about and there's some things that I'm absolutely pretty dogmatic about. But putting down a layer of cardboard once in the vegetable garden, I don't use any other types of synthetic chemical pesticides.
I really rarely even use organic pesticides to be honest. And that type of thing, everything else is totally a hundred percent organic and everything like that. So if I have some slight residue from the glue in the cardboard, I'm not super worried about it. Plus the worms really go to town on the cardboard and it gets broken down within usually one season. It gets broken down pretty fast, but the reason that I use the cardboard is to act as weed suppression in the beginning. And cardboard has worked much better for me as a weed suppressant than any other type of weed fabric that I've used. And I didn't want to use plastic because the black plastic... One, I still have weeds come up through black plastic, like in different flowerbeds. I've tried different weed fabrics. I've all run the gamuts of them. The weeds still come up through them.
And then it's not something that's going to break down into my soil. So then I just have like these bits and pieces of it all throughout the soil and it doesn't do its job and it's a lot more expensive than sheets of cardboard. So that's why I went with the cardboard. You could probably do multiple layers of newspaper as well, but I needed something that was going to block the weeds because when I was doing it, the weeds were already growing. So I use that as my weed suppression layer. And then we got a bunch of wood chips. Now you can get wood chips from a variety of places. You can do the ChipDrop. You can contact local arborists and even power companies in your area because arborists will oftentimes have a lot of wood chips and they will bring them. ChipDrop is another thing, though sometimes the waitlist can be a little bit long... I've heard varying stories on how long people signed up on ChipDrop before they actually got the chips, et cetera.
But sometimes power companies, our power company around here goes through and ends up having to cut and chip a lot of the trees back in varying areas. So there can be different multiple resources you can use to try and get wood chips without purchasing them. So definitely look at those. We happen, my husband is a sawyer. So he works at a local guitar mill. Actually they cut tonewood and they do guitar tops and basewood. Actually, Taylor Guitars is one of their biggest customers, but they also do a little bit for Martin as well. So I have access to wood chips from my husband's work. It's a definite perk and benefit. So we ended up getting our wood chips, which are... were finer, definitely were finer wood chips coming from the guitar mill than they would be from an arborist or ChipDrop.
And mine did not have green material in them. So meaning the wood chips I was getting did not have leafs in there or a whole lot of bark, actually. It was just the wood and the majority of the wood that I get coming from my husband's mill is maple and spruce predominantly. But any type of wood chips other than black walnut is just fine. The reason you don't want to use black walnut is black walnut has a compound juglone, I believe it's the way that you pronounce it, in there that is toxic or inhibits the growth of other plants or a lot of other plants. So that's why you don't want to use bark from a black walnut tree, but pretty much any other tree you're going to be fine using and is not harmful or doesn't inhibit growth of other plants. So my layer of cardboard first, and then I put down a layer of the wood chips about... It was probably two to three inches in depth over top of these wood chips.
Now, when I put those down, I actually had already had some of the garden growing by that point, and so in that instance, I would just put the cardboard right next to the plant, right up next to it, and then would put the wood chips on top of it. But I can't smother on top of your plant the wood chips. And when I am direct sowing seed, then I'm pulling the wood chips back and also the cardboard back to plant. And then as the plant sprouts and begins to grow, then I'm kind of bringing that back around the base of the plant. And that's also how I know that the cardboard by fall planting time, when I originally put everything down in June, by the time we hit fall planting time and putting in the garlic last year in 2019, a lot of that cardboard I would just take the corner of the hoe because it's nice and sharp to create my rows.
And a lot of that cardboard had really already started to break down or move to side very easily and was almost decomposed. But by then the wood chips had been on there long enough and the cardboard had been on there long enough that it had stopped the light from getting through. It had smothered out any weeds that were going to pop up and it had smothered out. And so not only any weeds that had started to grow, I should say had germinated, but any that would have, so any seeds that were in there, they couldn't get any light. So it had really stopped the weed growing cycle. So by the time that cardboard had decomposed and I was just pulling back enough to plant my plants, I didn't have like a huge explosion of weed growth.
Now so we went through the whole winter and the next spring, this is where it got to me really interesting. So almost a full year later. So that first summer, the only place that I weeded was in the rows where I had my onions planted. So I had the onions planted when I first put this cardboard and wood chips down in 2019. And so around the onions where the soil had been pulled back to put these starts and sets in, I did weed just in that row, but it was very, very minimal. And that was it. I didn't weed in between the rows for this whole half of the garden and everything grew great. I had a great, great growth actually on everything. So then this next spring, so just this 2020, so less than six months ago, there was weed growth. There was weed growth in between the rows, on the top of the wood chips and I had not applied any more wood chips.
So that was one application. And there was weed growth in where I had planted things last year. But here was the interesting part. The weeds came out super easy because they were basically just on the top layer of those wood chips, they weren't all the way down into the soil. There was definitely less weeds. And so I was able, I think for that square footage of the garden, I want to say it took me about two hours to weed the entire area by hand. And that was one time for an entire year. I was pretty pleased as punch.
Now, this year, of course, was a pandemic weird COVID year. And I did not get around to getting my soil tested this year, but we planted in the same area, right, with the wood chips and the wood chips are on top of the soil. And that was the biggie is with the wood chips on top of the soil, even though they have been breaking down for over a year, I didn't notice really any type of growth issues or harvest issues with what was planted in that area of the garden. And of course I did some crop rotation, so actually ended up putting in some brassica plants there. Some peas went in there and my onions on a different section went in there. Cause it's quite a large section, which if you watch that YouTube video, you can see the whole scale of it. But it did really well.
Everything that I planted in there grew and harvested. And so I can't say that I notice, of course I don't have a soil test to tell you exactly if the nitrogen level on the other part of the garden that wasn't covered versus this part was a big difference or not. But as far as I could tell from my harvest deal, it was just fine.
Now the interesting part, this is where it gets even more interesting is as we go in. So just this past weekend, I had the section of the garden that were all of my winter squash and my summer squash were. I did all of the squash in just one area of the garden this year in kind of a plot. And all of it had been killed. We had our first killing frost. So I came in and needed to pull up all of the squash plants and then I was going to follow it following crop rotation, following those squash with a root crop, which is going to be my garlic. And as I was pulling that those plants out, that was in an area that did not have the wood chips. It was actually right next to the area that had wood chips. And I have not weeded the wood chip area since the initial weeding that was back in June. But we have been weeding numerous times the squash area.
So after we pulled up the last of the winter squash and then pulled all of the plants out, I had to take our tiller and do a rough chop through that area because so many weeds had grown up. There was just no way I was going to take the time to pull them out by hand, not when I have a tiller that will fit in between and take care of it. I just have to run it through it much faster, a BCS. And so I did that and so it was just fascinating to see the difference between the two sides of how much weeding I'm doing on the part that doesn't have the wood chips versus the wood chip side even this far into it within a year and a half.
So this year, though, there were some weeds I didn't get to weeding yet this fall that I'm going to have to pull out. There was actually one large thistle plant and some other smaller weeds. So I'm going to be pulling them out over this next couple of weeks and putting down my second application of the wood chips. So it definitely takes... There's a maintenance element, right? And with anything with gardening, it's never really a set and done thing. So I'm going to do a thicker layer of wood chips this year. I'm actually going to do a multiple layer. So I'm going to combine my sheet mulching with the wood chips. So I'm going put a large layer of... We have some composted manure that's not quite all the way composted down, but it's been composting for about three months. So it's not super hot. And I've pulled the majority of crops out of this wood chip area. The only thing that's left is some of my fall broccoli and cauliflower at... No, cauliflower and cabbage is in that section. So those will benefit from having some of this composted manure put down anyway.
So I'm going to put the composted manure down on top in the row sections, weed, and then put that down so that I am feeding the area especially where there's rows, getting some new nitrogen and some new micro and macro nutrients. And then I'm going to put a layer of wood chips back on top, and I'm going to go deeper. A lot of the comments that I was reading for people said, "Oh, if you just want a couple inches of deeper, you would have noticed even less weed growth and it works even better."
So that is my plan for this fall, which isn't bad. So if that every year and a half I have to put down a new layer, I'm fine with that. And I'm only weeding about once, max twice a year, very excited with that. So that's my plan as we move into fall is to get down that composted manure layer, and then add about a four to six inch layer of wood chips on top of the almost fully composted manure that's going down on that section. And then it will be to slowly be in saving my cardboard again. Or I may actually decide not to do the cardboard.
I need to look at some of the different reports on some of the glue and decide how harmful or not harmful or how I feel about it. Now, making a little bit more of an educated decision on that before I do the rest of the garden. I may decide to use newspaper, but then you're dealing with soy ink and soy is genetically modified crops. So it's kind of like there's always these different options, pros and cons in deciding which route you want to do. But that's what we did and that's kind of the results. And so it was really fun because my husband... Well, when you're in a relationship, you never really want to lead with, "I told you so," amen? It's not a wise idea.
So I was very pleased when we moved our high tunnel this year, which is where we plant all of our tomato plants. We actually ended up moving it because we had to do some repairs and we decided to put it on some new ground and use the old bed that had been where the high tunnel was and the tomatoes and peppers had been. We turned that into another area of the garden and expanded the gardens expanse. And we now have our high tunnel, which has all been repaired and is back in action. But when we planted the tomatoes and the high tunnel this year, he's like, "I've been saving up cardboard and I have some cardboard at work I'm bringing home so we can put the cardboard and the wood chips down in the high tunnel after we get the tomatoes in."
And I'm like, "Oh," and he's like, "I can't believe how much less work it is. You don't have to weed nearly as much." And I will have you know, I was quite proud of myself. I did not say I told you so. I might've thought it, like let's be honest. I might've thought it, but I didn't actually say it.
So we have been very happy with the method and I will try to do a soil test, actually this coming spring on the two separate areas to really see if we're noticing any big difference of what the soil test says as far as nutrient levels. But I have been very pleased with using this method and I'm excited to actually get the whole rest of the garden and some of the new beds done in this manner as well, and doing it deeper and seeing if that keeps the weeds down even more so than it already has been. Now today's episode, I have to tell you, if you are wanting a place to keep track of everything that you do in the garden over the different season in years, like I am like trying to remember back those dates. Like when actually did I do my last soil test?
What were the results? When was our first frost this year compared to last year? Because looking at all of that data always helps you to plan a better garden the following year, but having everything in one place when it comes to all of your gardening tasks, that can be a little bit difficult. And that is why I created The Family Garden Planner. So this is a companion planner that is a companion planner to my book, The Family Garden Plan. And if you don't have that one, it's totally fine. You will just use it as a gardening planner regardless.
So it has your glance at a year, your monthly and then your weekly planning sheets. So you actually get down into the nitty-gritty. But the fabulous thing is when you flip to the back of your planner, it has your gardening zones and you look at your gardening zone and then it tells you every single month of the year, the tasks that you need to be doing if you're planning on growing those specific things in your garden. From your fruit trees and your orchards to pruning, to your regular vegetable garden, to when your fall planting needs to happen, when you need to start your seeds starting, all of that based upon your gardening zone.
And then you can just flip to your day planner section and write that in. It's a way to know exactly what to do and when to do it to grow more food. So you can go and snag that and get my vegetable curing guard and charts at melissaknorris.com/planner. And it starts shipping on November 3rd. So for those of you who already pre-ordered, it should be making it to you if it hasn't arrived all ready. Now for our verse of the week, we are in John chapter six, verse 27, and this is the amplified translation of the Bible. "Stop toiling and doing and producing for the food that perishes and decomposes in the using, but strive and work and produce rather for the lasting food, which endures continually unto life eternal. The son of man will give furnish you that for God, the father has authorized and certified him and put his seal of endorsement upon him."
Then they said, "What are we to do that we may habitually be working the works of God. What are we to do to carry out what God requires?" And Jesus replied, "This is the work service that God asks of you. That you believe in the one whom he has sent that you cleave to trust, rely on ,and have faith in his messenger." That actually was 27 through 29 from chapter six. Now you might think that that was kind of a funny verse for me to read and share with you because it says to stop toiling and doing and producing for food that perishes and decomposes. And here we are talking about gardening and being able to grow more of your own food and to increase your produce while decreasing the weeds. It might feel a little bit contradictory, but the gist of that is not that we would stop gardening, right?
That's not what that means, but instead of focusing so heavily up on our works is that we keep the things that are important and the first things first. And from a biblical Christian perspective that is keeping Jesus and God and our relationship and seeking and pursuing him and the things that he would have us do as the very first things in our lives. That we believe in him, cleaving to, trusting on, relying on, and having full faith in him. And oftentimes even though we can be doing something that is a good thing.
So for example, I'll just go ahead and use myself as an example, sharing all of the homesteading and the gardening and all of the stuff that I share, it is a good thing. There are so many of you. In fact, I get... In a good way, I get emotional and I get teary-eyed and I will cry when you guys send me messages and emails telling me that this is the first year that you have grown a garden. And it's because you listened to the podcast, or you watched my YouTube videos, or some of you it's from joining the Academy and going through the membership or some of my courses, but it's the first year that you have grown some of your own food, or it's the first time that you have preserved, it's the first time that you have canned, or it's the first time that you have done sourdough and you've been baking your own bread.
And how much it has meant to your family, how much it's provided for you guys, how it's changed some of your relationships. And for a lot of you, it has been the story of much like it was for me that in doing these things, you have improved your health. Some of you have been able to get off medications, or some of you are now able to function where you couldn't function before, because whatever it was you were dealing with health wise was so bad. And that making these changes has completely transformed you and you're able to do so much and your life has been that much improved. And it's just an awesome thing. I'm trying not to get choked up right now, actually, as I think of some of you in your names and the stories that you have shared with me, and those are wonderful and good things.
And I really do feel that I have a calling. I know that sounds weird, especially for some of you if you're not a Christian or you may be like, "A calling? Like homesteading as a calling and teaching this stuff is a calling?" But I really do feel that that's the case. But when I start to get too focused on creating all of these things and how to do more of it, or how to get the podcast higher ranked, or all the... There's just all these different elements with everything and when I get too focused on that, then I start to slip in my relationship with serving God, because we can only really focus on one thing at a time, right? And we can divide our focus up throughout a day and up throughout seasons and whatnot. But when my focus gets too heavy on that part of it, instead of focused on serving God first, then things really get out of balance.
And then I start cleaving to and relying on what I think to be in my own abilities and my own things that I've learned and that I'm implementing and doing. And I tend to think that it's me, right? Like, "Oh, I figured this out." And some of it is... this is going to sound weird. Some of it is me figuring things out, but really what it comes down to is the Lord has blessed me with the platform and the skill sets that I was lucky enough to grow up with. And then as my foundation, and then having to figure out ways to do it more so as a working mom and as a wife with having that day job and everything like that. But he has blessed me and put me on this path and he has opened the doors and he has done all of this in order for me to be at the spot that I am today.
And when I forget that and think, "Oh, no, it's just the work that I put in." That's what I really feel like this verse is. And so it was a reminder that I needed to stop toiling and to stop doing the doing. And to really remember that I am to rely and have faith on him, especially when things feel out of control. And there's a lot that we can't control. I think if this pandemic has shown us anything, that there's a lot outside of our control, but just to have trust in him and remember that He is, I am. So this part of the podcast got a little bit long, but I wanted to share all of that with you today. So I will be back here with you next week, blessings and Mason jars for now.
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