13 Benefits Of Wood Mulch In Your Garden {Wood Chips Vs Mulch}

Explore the numerous benefits of wood mulch in gardening, (including vegetable gardens!), as we delve into the topic of wood chips versus traditional mulch. Discover how wood mulch can help with weed suppression, moisture retention, temperature regulation, and soil enrichment, promoting healthy and thriving plants. By understanding the unique attributes of wood chips as mulch, you can make informed decisions to enhance the productivity and sustainability of your vegetable garden and other planting areas and gardens.

A close up of a pile of wood chips being used as mulch.

Wood Chips Versus Mulch

Wood chips are mulch. One of the best mulches actually.

Wood chips are a natural product, a byproduct of arborist activities and are easy to get for free or cheap.

And they make a fantastic mulch — in your flower beds, around fruit trees, and in a perennial food forest and other permaculture projects.

Wood chips can be a fantastic mulch in your annual vegetable garden too.

You likely have heard the myth that wood chip tie up or “steal” nitrogen from soil.

This is simply not true and the science backs it up.

So does decades of experimentation done by people practicing “back to Eden” and other variations of no-dig/no-till gardening.

Wood Chip Mulch Does NOT Steal Nitrogen

There is a common misconception that wood chip mulch ties up or steals nitrogen from the soil and should never be used as a mulch in your vegetable garden, but this belief is not grounded in scientific evidence.

Wood chip mulch, when properly applied, does not significantly deplete nitrogen levels in the soil.

In fact, only the very top surface of soil is affected, and this does not impact your plants and their roots.

Wood chips actually contribute to soil fertility over time as they decompose.

This myth stems from a misunderstanding of the nitrogen cycle and the natural process of decomposition.

Research and scientific studies have consistently debunked the notion that wood chip mulch depletes nitrogen. When wood chips break down, they undergo a process called nitrogen immobilization, where soil microorganisms utilize nitrogen for decomposing the carbon-rich material.

However, this temporary nitrogen tie-up is not detrimental to plants or soil fertility.

The nitrogen that becomes temporarily tied up in the decomposition process eventually gets released back into the soil as the wood chips break down further.

Additionally, the microbial activity stimulated by wood chip mulch actually enhances soil health and nutrient cycling, promoting long-term fertility.

And again, this is happening only at the surface levels of the soil!

So obviously, you do not want to till wood chips into your soil — but why would you ever do that to begin with?

It is important to note that the potential nitrogen immobilization effect of wood chip mulch can be minimized by applying nitrogen-rich fertilizers or incorporating compost into the soil before mulching.

This helps maintain a balanced nutrient supply for plants and supports their growth while the wood chips decompose.

Ultimately, the idea that wood chip mulch steals or ties up nitrogen is a misconception that lacks scientific support. When used properly, wood chip mulch provides numerous benefits to asparagus beds, such as weed suppression, moisture conservation, and improved soil structure, without causing significant nitrogen depletion.

In a no-dig no-till garden, like what we do in our raised beds, a top-dressing of compost is applied annually — and for many gardeners who utilize this incredible method of growing abundant food easier, they may be growing in 100% compost!

Our beds are at 60% compost!

We choose to utilize other mulches on top of the compost layer too — although compost, in and of itself, is a compost when applied to the surface too — and add chopped straw, grass clippings, and other organic materials.

Close up of a green metal raised bed. It is empty but underneath it is hardware cloth and it is sitting on top of a thick bed of wood chips. The hardware cloth juts out a few inches around the outside of the raised bed.
My Vegega metal raised bed on top of wood chips. This is from our garden build spring of 2023.

13 Benefits of Wood Chips

  1. Weed suppression: Wood chip mulch forms a barrier that inhibits weed growth, reducing competition for nutrients and water.
  2. Moisture conservation: The mulch helps retain soil moisture by reducing evaporation, minimizing the need for frequent watering.
  3. Temperature moderation: Wood chips act as insulation, regulating soil temperature and protecting plant roots from extreme heat or cold.
  4. Erosion prevention: Mulching with wood chips helps prevent soil erosion by reducing the impact of rainwater and wind on bare soil.
  5. Nutrient cycling: As wood chips decompose, they gradually release essential nutrients into the soil, enriching it and supporting plant growth.
  6. Soil structure improvement: Wood chip mulch enhances soil structure by promoting the development of beneficial soil organisms and improving aeration.
  7. Disease prevention: The mulch acts as a physical barrier, reducing the likelihood of soil-borne diseases splashing onto plant leaves during rainfall.
  8. Soil moisture regulation: Wood chips regulate soil moisture levels by preventing excessive evaporation and reducing fluctuations.
  9. Root protection: Mulching with wood chips creates a protective layer that shields plant roots from mechanical damage and temperature extremes.
  10. Organic matter addition: As the wood chips break down, they contribute organic matter to the soil, improving its fertility and overall health.
  11. Aesthetic appeal: Wood chip mulch gives a neat and tidy appearance to the garden while creating a visually appealing contrast with the green foliage.
  12. Weed seed reduction: Wood chip mulch inhibits the germination and growth of weed seeds, reducing the need for manual weed removal.
  13. Cost-effective: Wood chips are often readily available and can be obtained at low or no cost, making them an affordable mulching option for various garden applications.

My raised metal beds: 9 in 1 Metal Raised Garden Bed Large From Vegega

How To Add Wood Chip Mulch In Your Vegetable Garden

  • Prepare the soil: Before mulching with wood chips, ensure that your vegetable garden soil is free from weeds and debris. It’s best to cultivate the soil and remove any existing vegetation or large rocks.
  • Add a top-dressing of compost: Add a layer of compost (mixed sources are best) that is about 1-inch thick. See my article on the best compost for raised beds for more information. You will be adding this top-dressing of compost annually, or even twice annually, and potentially into the planting holes you make before you add your plants.
  • Choose the right wood chips: Select wood chips that are untreated. Avoid using chips from diseased or pest-infested trees. Opt for smaller-sized wood chips that will break down more easily over time.
  • Apply a layer of mulch: Spread a layer of wood chip mulch evenly around your vegetable plants. Aim for a depth of 1-2 inches of mulch. Be careful not to pile the mulch against the plant stems as it may promote rot or disease.
  • Leave space around plant stems: Create a small gap around the stems of your vegetable plants. This allows for proper air circulation and prevents moisture buildup, which can lead to stem rot or other plant diseases.
  • Extend the mulch beyond the planting area: Extend the wood chip mulch beyond the immediate planting area to cover the surrounding soil. This helps prevent weed growth and improves overall moisture retention.
  • Reapply as needed: Over time, the wood chip mulch will break down and decompose. Monitor the mulch depth and replenish it as necessary to maintain a consistent layer throughout the growing season.
  • Water properly: Ensure that your vegetable garden receives adequate watering, especially when using wood chip mulch. While the mulch helps conserve moisture, it’s important to water deeply and adjust irrigation as needed to reach the plant roots. But don’t water blindly either — check your soil!
  • Monitor for pests and diseases: Regularly inspect your vegetable plants for any signs of pests or diseases. Wood chip mulch can provide habitat for certain insects, so be vigilant and take appropriate measures if necessary.
  • To plant started seedlings: move mulch aside, dig your hole (add compost into hole if that is your practice) and then water the plant before you move the mulch back into place.
  • To start seeds directly: you cannot plant seeds directly under wood chip mulch, the mulch must be moved aside and kept aside until the seeds germinate and are of sufficient size.
  • Move aside annually: in the spring as you are getting ready for planting, the wood chip mulch must be moved aside and another layer of compost added to your bed. In a no-dig no-till bed, the compost is not mixed into the soil. However, if you do till, you must incorporate the compost without accidentally tilling in wood chips.

Wood Chips & Fungal Dominance

Wood chips as a mulching material have the remarkable ability to shift the soil ecosystem towards a fungal-dominant environment.

This is part of the reason why they are so crucial in permaculture and used less in vegetable gardens where you want bacterial dominance.

Unlike other mulches (and compost) that promote bacterial activity, wood chips slowly break down and create an environment conducive to fungal growth. This shift is beneficial because fungi play a crucial role in soil health and nutrient cycling.

This is also why it is crucial to add a top-dressing of compost in your vegetable beds if you want to mulch them with wood chips.

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Wood Chip Mulch Around Fruit Trees & Food Forests

When applying wood chip mulch around fruit trees and berry bushes, start by clearing the area around the base of the plants, ensuring it is free from weeds and debris.

Then, spread a layer of wood chips approximately 2 to 4 inches thick, making sure to leave a small gap around the base of the plants to prevent excessive moisture accumulation. Extend the mulch in a circular donut shape, covering the area within the drip line of the plants.

It is important to avoid “volcano mulching” when applying wood chip mulch around trees. Volcano mulching refers to piling mulch up against the base of the tree trunk in a cone shape, resembling a volcano.

See more in my article on the best mulch for fruit trees.

Wood Chip Mulch In Flower Beds

When applying wood chip mulch in a flower bed, it’s important to follow a few simple steps for effective coverage and plant protection.

First, prepare the flower bed by removing any weeds or existing vegetation. Next, ensure the soil is adequately watered before applying the mulch. This helps to create a moist environment for the plants and promotes water retention. Spread a layer of wood chip mulch around the base of the flowers, aiming for a depth of 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm).

Be careful not to pile the mulch directly against the stems or trunks of the plants, as this can lead to moisture-related issues and potential rot.

Maintain a gap of a few inches between the mulch and the plants’ base to allow air circulation and prevent excessive moisture buildup.

It’s also beneficial to periodically inspect the flower bed for any signs of weeds and remove them promptly to maintain a clean and weed-free environment.

Lastly, monitor the moisture levels in the soil and adjust watering as necessary, as wood chip mulch can help retain moisture but may also require supplemental irrigation during dry periods.

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Sheet Mulching & Wood Chips

Before we built our raised bed garden this spring, we sheet mulched the entire area with a couple layers of cardboard, you can see that in action in my articles on how to lay mulch over grass and what to put in bottom of raised beds.

This begs the question of whether this is necessary before applying wood chip mulch?

Obviously in a vegetable garden the answer will be no as that would not make any sense.

But in a permaculture project, perennial beds, asparagus beds (before planting ideally) or in flower beds, sheet mulching with cardboard or leaves is pretty standard and recommended.

And considering how much weeding I’ve had to do in my flower beds, I’ll never lay down wood chips or other mulches in areas like that without a good, natural weed suppression layer first.

Wood chips alone are not enough, especially for tough perennial weeds.

Disadvantages Of Wood Chip Mulch

While there are many benefits of wood chip mulch, it’s good to consider some potential disadvantages as well.

One disadvantage is that wood chips take time to break down and decompose, which means they may not contribute as quickly to the soil’s nutrient content compared to other organic mulches.

Another disadvantage is the potential for wood chip mulch to create a favorable habitat for pests, such as termites or slugs, especially if the mulch layer is thick and consistently moist.

To prevent pest-related issues, it’s important to regularly monitor the mulched area and take appropriate pest control measures when necessary.

Lastly, in a vegetable garden, it can be annoying to constantly move wood chips around to add compost and plant things.

Other mulches break down faster and are lighter (something I explore in my article on the best mulches for an organic vegetable garden) and I would not recommend wood chis in a strawberry bed for the winter (check out my best mulch for strawberries article) either.

Related Articles

For all the information you need on mulching in your garden, check out my guide Benefits Of Mulch In Your Garden {Ultimate Guide To Mulching} for all the best resources and knowledge.

Final Thoughts

The benefits of wood mulch, are undeniable, even when compared to other traditional mulching options. Wood chip mulch provides excellent weed suppression, moisture retention, soil temperature moderation, and erosion control. It enhances soil health by promoting microbial activity and organic matter decomposition. Moreover, wood chip mulch is versatile and can be effectively used in various settings, including vegetable gardens, flower beds, and other landscaping projects. Whether you choose wood chips over other types of mulch, it’s clear that wood mulch offers a host of advantages that can greatly benefit your garden or landscape.

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