Gardening Tip – February ‘18

Long before 1992, when Janet Jackson made a hit of “The best things in life are free”, Jack Hylton was singing it into his gramophone in 1928. His lyrics included the sun, moon and stars, all of them are there for all of us to enjoy, without having to pay for them – but for the gardener the best freebee is definitely “wood chips”. Next time you pass a  tree surgeon cutting down a tree and chipping the wood, ask him for the wood chippings – he will most probably be only to pleased to deliver them to your garden or allotment, (usually it will save them the bother of  having to tip them illegally!) It is more common  to find these tree chippers during the winter as commercial gardeners have less ‘gardening’ work to do so they go  tree cutting, the trees are also easier to cut when they are desolate of their leaf canopy. Now let me explain, why tree chippings are such an important commodity on the allotment. Firstly it is well known as an excellent mulch along paths and around trees – your wood chip mulch will need renewing every few years – but since it’s free –  who cares?

This year I have decided to solve another problem with wood chippings; I  (and so do many other allotmenteers) have a small area on my allotment that always gets waterlogged, common telltales signs are puddles after a downpour on barren ground or moss growing rapidly. Although most vegetables enjoy a good drink, very few of them can bare having their toes constantly soaked in soggy ground, in a garden one can place an underlying layer of gravel to act as a soakaway but that would be unacceptable on a vegetable patch in the allotment which might be dug over at a later date, and the stones would then be unfavorable on the surface and even dangerous if a power cultivator will ever be used.

waterlogged mossy ground

Speaking to my friend Phil on the allotment, he decided that the best way to get round the problem is to get a large plastic drum and bore many holes in its base. Then, after digging a deep hole he would place the drum downside up in the hole in the ground and cover it with at least 40cm. of soil – he claims the water will collect in the drum and improve the drainage problem. He might be right but I don’t fancy the idea of burying plastic in the ground- especially as I find that slugs love clinging to the smooth plastic surface and laying eggs close to it! Furthermore, I only possess a humble manual spade and fork and do not own a JBC excavator to dig the hole that would be needed to place the drum inside!

My answer to the drainage problem is wood chippings! I first made a trench a few inches deeper than the height of a spade head, the spade went into the wet ground like slicing through butter, but with its heavy water content lifting it out was definitely a back breaker especially after my winter hibernation! I found myself gradually shovelling smaller and smaller spadefulls of saturated earth! I then filled the trench with around 12 cm. of wood chippings and back filled the trench with the original soil. I believe the water will collect between the chippings and leave the top workable soil much drier, and a pleasure to work with. Another advantage is that over the next few years  the woodchips will decompose – whilst doing so they will attract beneficial worms and enzymes to the sub soil, and during future double digging we will have a better layer of soil underneath instead of compacted pan soil.

Another idea I intend experimenting with wood chips is to grow my potatoes in them. Potatoes need airy soil to make large tubers, when planted in compacted soil they have to push too hard against the soil to enlarge their tubers. I once left some potato seed on the greenhouse bench over the summer and they produced small potatoes just from the damp atmosphere – just because they had plenty of room to grow. I intend laying a large amount of wood chips around the seed potato and then covering and earthing up with a 50/50 mix of wood chips and soil.

Now in the winter is the time to get the best wood chippings as during the summer it will usually be mixed with cut leaves which often get slimy. Try to avoid conifer chippings as they include leaf cuttings even in the winter and are very acidic. Smaller size chippings are easier to work with, but as a mulch larger sized ones will take longer to break down.

In our allotment tree cutters bring truck loads of wood chippings and we have two designated areas for this golden freebee, if you don’t notice anyone actually cutting any trees in the street try calling a few local gardeners or tree cutters and I am sure they will oblige, as you are doing them a favour as well.

Gardeners always make others happy whether they are giving or taking!

Join me in looking forward to larger crops!