A couple of years ago we watched a documentary called Back to Eden. It is an excellent permaculture documentary, that pioneers the use of woodchips in the garden. If you can get over the Christian, Bible quoting dsitractions, the natural farming methods of Paul Gautschi are truly Goethean, based as they are on observation and contemplation of nature.
Our land is clay, and most people around here are dairy farmers. They grow potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage and corn and not much else. The permculture sites always reference talking to your neighbours as a good source of information, but that’s only useful if you want to do as they do. We do not want to plough up our land and cover it in cow shit. Cow shit is full of seeds and you have to leave it for years before you can use it and ploughing destroys the mycelium network, through which the plants communicate. The Gautschi approach immediately appealed because this area is naturally temperate woodland – blink and an oak tree grows. So do, brambles and weeds on any bare patch of land – the Planetary Animal Mother does not like to parade around naked!
We started the vegetable garden in January 2014, by cutting down about an acre of straggly pines that had been planted too close together on a gentle south facing slope. (See: First Six years in the Garden.) It took most of 2014 to clear the area and lay out some chestnut beams that came from the old house. We covered the whole area with straw for the winter of 2014/15 as we didn’t have enough chips the and we needed to keep some of the weeds away. We have made raised beds that form terraces down the slope. We put in swales and planted trees for the canopy layer in 2015. The earth got terribly compressed by the wood cutter’s truck and the tractor for clearing the branches away. We left most of the stumps in place as they will gradually break down and they keep some of the moisture in the ground. As the land is south facing and there are no longer any trees there, it’s really muddy in winter and rock hard in the summer.
The biggest challenge was getting enough woodchips. We bought a Titan chipper from the UK, which works well, but we still have to drag in the wood to chip. (It does not work well on soft wet weeds or vines.) We have oak woods all around, but these are wild woods, full of brambles and it takes a couple of days to get enough wood to chip for a day. Most of the permaculture sites that talk about woodchips are based in the US, where there seem to be an endless supply of tree surgeons wanting to offload their chips on anyone who wants them. Not so here. Finally, after having bought thousands of euros worth of chestnut beams from the local wood mill for our house, Alberto happily agreed to let us have as many woodchips as we want for free. Although Dean still has to drive over there, load up the truck and bring them back here. It’s still more efficient than chipping our own. (UPDATE: the chestnut hardwood chips didn’t work that well over time. they took too long to break down and dried out the soil in hot summers. Our own oak and pine worked better.)
Straw v woodchips? Straw makes a good layer to suppress weeds and to keep in the moisture, but it’s not good for growing in. I don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, so everything has to be grown in place from seed and the straw makes an impermeable mat that is too tough for the seedlings to get through. (UPDATE: salvage greenhouse.) moved the straw away on some of the beds as they grew, but it’s more work than woodchips and not as successful. With the woodchips I just move the woodchips aside to expose the bare earth, sow the seeds and push the wood chips back and the seedlings germinate and grow. I keep straw for the paths.
So, we are still building our wood chip beds and have many. many weeds. I leave most of the weeds, many of which are wild herbs and medicinal plants, as well as food for pollinaters and predators that would otherwise eat all my plants. We haven’t used any fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides and everything that survived the drought of 2015 grew just fine. The thistles, gorse and brambles are the only weeding that we do – sometimes plantain, which is plentiful around here. My aim is to keep the garden work to a couple of hours a day; of course it doesn’t work out that way because of the weather and the fact that we are still setting things up. Still, in the first year we’ve had: carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, peas, chard, peppers, onions, radishes, beetroot, beans, broad beans, courgettes, squash and we would have had sweetcorn, but the wild boar got it all!