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Friday, February 15, 2013

Wood Chips, Good for Gardens?

Wood chips are in abundant supply across the Ozarks. From road crews and electric companies grinding up trees and limbs, it’s easy and tempting to use chipped wood in the garden. But if you choose to use wood chips, there are some cautions about how you do it.

Wood chips do an excellent job of blocking out sunlight, preventing weeds and holding in moisture. However, as the chips decompose and break down, they rob large amounts of nitrogen from the soil and can weaken or damage your plants. Additionally, some kinds of wood chips can damage the plants in other ways. You can’t always tell what kind of wood has been chipped, and if there’s walnut or cedar mixed in the chip pile, both of those contain natural growth retarding chemicals. (That’s why you don’t see weeds growing under cedar trees, for example).

The bigger issue, though, is the nitrogen robbing that fresh wood chips cause. It’s part of the decomposition process for the wood breaking down, but as a mulch, fresh wood chips are not good for garden plants.

A safer method for using wood chips is to let them compost for at least a year before applying them to the garden. Two years is even better as that allows for any cedar oils or walnut oil (known as juglone) to leach out of the wood. Then you can apply the rotted wood chips as a mulch or soil additive and not be in danger of robbing the nitrogen the plants need.

Much of the soil in my garden has been created from, or with, wood chips. My method 30 years ago was to haul in piles of fresh wood chips and spread them in pathways in my garden. The chips would remain there for 2 years, then I would till up the rotted chips, mix them with well-composted manure and build new raised beds. (In the photo above, I am now using gravel in my pathways as I no longer need to create new soil).

If you do choose to use wood chips around your shrubs, berries or vegetables, use chips that are at least a year or two old. Mix them, half and half, with composted horse, chicken or cow manure, as long as the manure has been composted at least a year, also. That will add some nitrogen but in levels safe enough for your garden plants.

Wood chips are an excellent source for building new soil for beds. If mixed with manure and left to rot for 18 - 24 months, then tilled into existing soil, it can help the soil hold moisture and add fertility. Just be aware that if you use freshly chopped wood chips on the garden, you are likely to have weakened plants, slow growth, lots of fungal problems in the mulch and possibly even dead plants. Always use caution when using fresh wood chips around plants.

Copyright 2013 Jim Long

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Planting Potatoes, Onions and Peas

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My orders of seed potatoes and onion plants should arrive this week. Since I always plant both crops before Valentine’s Day, I order from companies that will ship to me when I’m ready. Most seed companies selling potatoes and onion plants have the caption, “Will ship at the correct planting time for your region.”

I’ve learned over the years that seed companies rely on their wholesale growers to ship to them first, before the catalog folks can ship to me. Years ago I decided to go right to the source and skip the seed catalog completely. Since the wholesale growers already have their onion plants and seed potatoes in stock, they’ll ship anytime the customer wants them shipped.

For the last several seasons I’ve order from Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine (; 800-829-9765). They sell to gardeners as well as wholesale to other companies. I want my seed potatoes shipped the first of February, and it’s not a problem for them, and they don’t give me the runaround about “planting time in my area.” By ordering from these folks, I have a considerably larger selection of potato varieties than will be available in garden centers in a month or so. I like Rose Gold and Yukon Gem, both yellow-fleshed, good producing potatoes. I also grow the red-fleshed Adirondack Red, all of which produce well in the Ozarks.

Super Star onions

I order onion plants from Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, Texas (877-367-1015; They are a commercial grower for the seed catalogs as well as shipping to garden centers, hardware stores and nurseries. They are also happy to sell to the home gardener and offer a good variety of onion plants. You can order by what grows best for your region (based on day-length). The Intermediate-Day varieties do best in the Ozarks and I order both a mixed selection or super sweets and red varieties, along with Super Star, the only onion to win the All-American Selections award. I’ve had great results with those in the past.

I’ve done comparisons in previous years, planting onion sets and onion plants side by side on the same date. Plants are always ready about 10 days earlier than sets in my garden, but lots of people still prefer sets.

If we have a repeat of last year’s heat and drought in mid-summer, as predicted, the best bet for good crops is early planting. By planting both in mid-February, potatoes and onions will be mature and ready for harvest well before the drought begins.

According to Ozarks tradition, peas should be planted on Valentine’s Day and I have mine ready to go. I’m planting 4 varieties this year, some for early harvest and others for later. Even if we have frigid weather, all three of these crops will survive just fine. Happy spring!

To see more garden stories, visit my gardening adventures blog

Ozarks Gardening, Copyright Jim Long, 2013