Wood chips can be very useful in your garden – and there are many ways to use them.
Wood chips have many uses, but before you think about how to use them it is important to understand the specific characteristic of the wood chips you are looking to use.
One important thing to note is that wood chips from different trees, and wood chips of different sizes, can have very different characteristics and those characteristics will determine how best they are used.
The first thing to think about is whether you are purchasing wood chip to use in your garden, or are shredding material from your own garden.
The latter option is generally the more sustainable choice.
Investing in a garden shredder or wood chipper is a great idea, because it will allow you to avoid wood chips that are wrapped in plastic, or which have been processed in less green or environmentally friendly ways.
If you have a shredder, you can avoid using dried woodchips, and can have more control over what is in the material.
The best uses for wood chips in your garden include:
- Mulching around your plants
- Adding them to your compost pile
- Creating new growing areas with layered organic materials
- Making biochar
- Growing mushrooms in your garden
- Creating natural pathways
- Recreational groundcover for kids activities
- Creating new wildlife habitats
See more detail on each of these uses below.
1) Using Wood Chips As Mulch
One of the most common ways to use wood chips in a garden is as a mulch around your plants.
However, while wood chips can sometimes be a wonderful mulch material, it helps to be careful about exactly where, how, and around which plants they are used.
It is also important to choose the right wood chips for a particular project.
One important thing to understand about wood chips is that when woody material breaks down, nitrogen is absorbed by the micro-organisms involved in the process. [source]
This nitrogen is taken from the surrounding soil, and stored within the bodies of the micro-organisms, before being released when those micro-organisms die.
This sequestration of nitrogen is one of the main reasons why you have to be careful about where wood chips (with only wood, carbon-rich material) are used as mulch.
Shredded branches which include some green vegetation along with the woody material will not lead to as significant a reduction in available soil nitrogen, since the leafy green material will provide extra nitrogen during the decomposition process. [source]
But where just woody material is used, as this material breaks down, there will be less nitrogen available in the soil for a period of time.
This can sometimes have a detrimental effect on plants growing close by.
Placing non-composted wood chips around annual plants in a vegetable garden is sometimes a common practice.
But it might not be the best idea, for the reason outlined above. The reduction in available nitrogen might compromise the growth – particularly of leafy annual plants.
When wood chip is used in such a setting, it is best, therefore, to use it in combination with other organic materials, which are rich in nitrogen.
Trees and shrubs will not typically be as affected by the temporary reduction in soil nitrogen as the woody material breaks down. [source]
And so using wood chips as mulch beneath trees, in a woodland or forest garden setting, or in a shrubbery or border, can be a good idea.
The wood chip mulch can suppress grass and weed growth, protect the soil, conserve soil moisture, and create an environment that supports a fungal dominant rather than a bacteria dominant environment (which you want in a woodland or forest environment). [source]
2) Composting Wood Chips
If you want to use wood chips in a vegetable plot, or another area of your garden which has herbaceous plants, then composting it first is the best idea.
When you compost wood chips before you use them, you avoid the issues with nitrogen sequestration, but can still take advantage of their properties and the nutrients they contain to maintain soil fertility.
Remember, smaller chips will break down much more quickly than larger ones, and so will usually be better for adding to a composting system.
Within a composting system, wood chips are treated as a ‘brown’ or carbon-rich material. They should be layered with plenty of ‘green’ nitrogen-rich materials for best results.
Once the wood chips have been composted, along with other organic matter, the compost you create can be used as a valuable soil amendment throughout your garden.
It can also be useful in making material to fill your pots and containers.
3) Using Them To Make New Growing Areas
As well as composting wood chips in a separate composting system, another interesting use to consider is that you can compost them in place.
In other words, you can create new growing areas where the organic materials are layered up to compost just as they would in a compost heap or bin.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to make new growing areas in your garden is to use a no dig approach. This involves layering materials like the ingredients in a lasagna to build new raised beds.
You can use many materials from your own garden in these new no dig raised ‘lasagna’ beds. And wood chips are one of those materials.
Layer carbon-rich materials like wood chips with nitrogen-rich materials like grass clipping, vegetable scraps and manures, then top these with compost, loam or topsoil into which you can plant.
You can also use wood chips in the formation of hugelkultur mounds. These are basically lasagna beds which are mounded rather than flat on top.
They contain a skeleton of rotting wood within which provides extra nutrients and stores water to prevent the growing area from drying out. The wood chips and other organic materials are layered around this skeleton of rotting wood.
4) Using Chips To Make Biochar
In all of the options mentioned above, the wood chips help to improve the soil and add fertility.
One final way to add organic matter and improve fertility in your garden is by making biochar – and wood chips can be used for this too.
Biochar is charcoal, which has been enriched through steeping it in a nutrient-rich compost tea.
Making biochar is something that can be beneficial, especially for gardeners with free-draining and nutrient-poor soils. [source]
The biochar can be buried in such soils to improve them, and can also increase soil carbon to help combat our climate crisis. [source]
5) Growing Mushrooms
If you are focused on food production in your garden, then you may be interested to note that wood chips will not only be useful in growing plants.
Wood chips can also be a useful substrate for growing mushrooms in your garden.
Wood chips in a shed, or in the shade beneath trees or shrubs can be inoculated with mushroom mycelium and kept moist to allow mushrooms to fruit.
There are a number of different types of mushroom that you might be able to grow in wood chips in your garden.
6) Using Wood Chips for Pathways
Of course, wood chips can also be very useful in other areas of your garden, outwith your growing areas.
One obvious way that wood chips can be used is for pathways through your space.
Wood chips which are larger will last longer, and won’t break down as quickly, but even smaller chips can be used for pathways.
Though they will break down in place, and will need to be replenished over time, this can be useful, for example, around vegetable beds.
The broken-down wood chip from paths through a vegetable garden can then be scooped onto the beds and used as a mulch.
You can then replenish the paths and start the composting in place process over again.
7) For Ground Cover in Recreational Areas
You can also use wood chips as ground cover in play areas for kids, or in other recreational areas in your garden.
Again, these will break down over time and will need to be refreshed, but they can be a more eco-friendly and natural option than hard paved areas.
8) Creating Habitats For Wildlife With Wood Chips
Finally, wood chips can also simply be piled in wilder corners, or placed into bug hotels or other wildlife-friendly features.
A range of creatures will benefit if you use wood chips and other organic materials to make a range of habitats for the wildlife in your garden.
These are just some of the main ways that you should think about using wood chips (ideally those you chip yourself from trees and shrubs in your garden) on your property.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.