The debate over wood chips

Published 6:00 am Sunday, March 10, 2019

Terry Rector

tree trimming contractor company has been in the area for weeks cutting limbs back from electric power lines.

Count me among the numerous folks who have been out there greeting the workers with offers of a nearby spot to dump wood chips at no charge.

A free dump spot for free mulch is how we rationalize gratis loads of chips. Mine will go around about rose plants and a few fruit trees. Other gardeners will use chips to mulch shrubs and young landscape trees. Still others like the chips for pathways or to hold moisture between vegetable garden rows.

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Wood chips not only have numerous home horticulture uses, but their use has brought quite a few opinions and friendly garden debates over the years.      

One concern with wood chip mulch has been whether it pulls nitrogen from the soil and away from plants. It is true any decomposing plant matter, including wood chips, uses nitrogen to “feed” the fungi and bacteria doing the work. 

However, don’t think of mulch on the soil surface as the same as rotted stuff tilled into the soil. Mulch is not compost. 

Wood chips will eventually become compost if left in a pile long enough.  But with fresh chips only touching the soil surface when used properly as mulch, the amount of nitrogen very slowly used is minute. Just don’t plow chips into the soil.

Another thing we often hear about wood chip mulch is it will attract termites. Wood chips do not “attract” termites per se. Termites randomly search for new potential food sources and wood chips could be found as could other wood, cardboard or other cellulose. To be safe, keep a foot wide dry, bare ground barrier around the house foundation. 

Then there’s the one about wood chips releasing natural chemicals that harm plants. This refers to trees and other plants that are allelopathic, meaning they do produce such chemicals. 

In this area, the best known allelopathic tree is the black walnut. First of all, what are the odds of a load of chips having very much black walnut in it? Secondly, it is the roots of tender annual plants like tomatoes and the germinating seeds of such plants that can be killed by enough walnut tree chemical. And we are not going to be tilling the chips into the soil, remember?

Shrubs, roses, trees and vines are not subject to walnut allelopathy.

Also, cedar tree chips are not toxic to plants. Their odd chemicals merely repel bugs.

One situation whereby wood chips can damage shrubs and trees is strictly the gardener’s fault. And that is the mulch volcano. It doesn’t erupt, but a heaping cone of chips piled on the trunk is a no-no. 

It keeps the bark wet and denies sunlight to bark that is used to sunlight, both asking for trouble. Put chips up to five inches deep out over the roots for soil moisture conservation, cooler soil and fewer weeds. But pull it back from the trunk. Call it a mulch donut if you want. 

Terry Rector is spokesman for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.