June 5, 2019

Stewardship, Sustainability, and Woodchips

One of our homestead goals is stewardship. I know that word is tossed about in various ways, so to clarify, when I speak of stewardship this is what I mean.

"Stewardship evokes a sense of responsibility ... It implies the supervision or management of something entrusted to one's care. It implies not only responsibility but also accountability. We believe that one day, we will be accountable for how we lived our lives and for what we did with the things in our possession."
5 Acres & A Dream The Book, Chapter 2 "Defining Our Goals,"
pages 23 to 24

One of the things we feel responsible for is the renewable resources on our property; in this case trees. I recently blogged about how we manage our trees ("Spring Chores: Trees"). In that post I mentioned that twigs and small branches from downed trees are chipped. Thanks to having our own source of chips, we've been able to address several problems we've had with a "work smarter not harder" solution.

Initially, I used our wood chips as mulch in the garden but found that they work better as long-term mulch for perennials. For annuals, they must be raked away when it's time to plant again, because they are slow to decompose. That's not necessarily a problem, but it made me wonder if there wasn't a work-smarter way to mulch. This past year we've worked out a routine that is that and more.

That routine starts with a chipping day. I started to use fresh wood chips in the goat corral, because when it rains a lot, the corral gets very muddy. Add manure and urine and it becomes a mucky mess. The chips really help with that, plus keep the dust down during a dry spell.

The goats' hang-out area.

Eventually, the chips accumulate manure and absorb urine, so they must be removed. When that happens, it's time to make fresh wood chips. Chipping day begins with shoveling out the old urine soaked chips and manure, and then dumping them into the compost bins.

The chickens love chipping day. 

I've found that woodchips make a very nice compost. They supply carbon for the compost, and the manure and urine supply nitrogen. We regularly add kitchen, canning, and garden scraps too. What the chickens don't eat adds to the compost.

While I'm doing that, Dan fires up the chipper.

WoodMaxx WM8M PTO-powered wood chipper.

Our chipper was a good investment because we have so many trees. Definitely not cheap but indispensably worth it. Our first year here we bought one of those little YardMachine chippers-shredders off Craigslist. It proved to be worthless for our need: slow, limited to twigs and leaves, and sprayed the chips all over the place. (Dan later converted it to a wheat thresher.) So every year we would rent a large industrial chipper for several hundreds of dollars per day to deal with our numerous brush piles. Obviously, that wasn't cheap either!

The fresh chips are spread out in the cleaned-out goat corral.

New wood chips

For garden mulch, I now use composted wood chips. After the chickens have done their magic on the old chips in the compost bin, it's gorgeous.

Wood chip compost

The chips aren't completely decomposed, but I like it that way because I've observed that mycorrhizal fungi love wood chips on or in the soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi growing on wood chips.

Mycorrhizae are the subterranean nutrient delivery system of the plant world. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, exchanging liquid carbon from the plants for nutrients harvested from other areas. The nutrients are transported to the plant because the mycorrhizae extend the root system with filaments known as hyphae. Through the hyphae, the fungi network with one another to extend their resource harvesting to areas covering acres and miles.

Composted wood chips mulching pumpkin seedlings.

Partially composted wood chips not only work better than uncomposted wood chips, they also work better than compost made from dirty straw and wasted hay from the goat barn. That's because the old straw and hay are loaded with seeds (even though technically they shouldn't be.) Too many of those seeds survive the heat of composting and invariably start growing in my garden - as more weeds. (Ditto using old straw or hay as mulch). Counterproductive! This wood chip composting and mulching system is definitely work-smarter-not-harder gardening.

What do I do with the old straw and wasted hay I clean out of the barn? Now, I put all that directly out on the pasture where it can build pasture soil there. (Read about my modified Fukuoka method of soil building here.) Let the straw and hay seeds sprout where the goats can benefit!

Obviously, our system isn't feasible for everyone, because everyone's practical specifics aren't the same as ours. But my takeaway point isn't so much what we're doing and how, but that we've worked out a system that works for us. We analyzed our problems in the light of our goals and available resources, and then experimented until we worked out satisfactory solutions.

  • alternately muddy or dusty goat yard
  • compost loaded with weed seeds
  • poor soil needing improvement
  • never enough mulch 

  • stewardship
  • sustainability

  • tree "waste" (overabundant twigs and branches) turned into
  • wood chips
  • chickens (for composting)
  • goats (for manure)
  • humans (for the work of making and moving the woodchips)

No waste, just multiple uses of a renewable resource in a sustainable cycle. What could be better than that?


Michelle said...

You've worked out an admirable system!

Henny Penny said...

Enjoyed this very much. Two years ago the power company trimmed the trees down our dirt path. We asked about the wood chips and they were glad to have a place to dump them. I hated to see the last of that huge pile of chips. The chips did make good mulch and decomposed surprisingly quick. Especially love your last sentence.

Leigh said...

Michelle, I think one of the hardest lessons to learn was that we had to figure things out for ourselves. Not because others didn't have workable solutions, but because there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anybody! It takes some trial and error, but it's rewarding to finally figure something out. :)

Henny, yes, gotta love those woodchips. We were able to get several loads the same way you did, but other than that the tree trimmers seem reluctant to use us as a regular chip dumping ground. I think it's because our driveway is such a tight turn off a narrow road.

Retired Knitter said...

To this non-farmer - sounds like a great system.

Rain said...

Great post Leigh, I loved reading about that. I have a wood chipper in my future dream list too. And interesting...you wrote about something I've been digging for...the last time I was at the nursery, there was a french guy there talking about "nee-coh-reeze"...about how it makes all of his veggies grow like gangbusters...mentioning mushroom, fungi etc...(I admit I was eavesdropping lol!!)...I tried so hard to find that word because I never heard of it before, nor did I figure out the spelling (I heard an "n" instead of an "m") - and poof! There we go, Leigh to the rescue! Now I can do all of the research I've been wanting too!! :) Thanks for the definition of Stewardship too, that's a value of mine I guess I couldn't put into one word. :)

Sam I Am...... said...

I tried to do something similar on my little farm when I had it. I bought a too small chipper. Your system is ideal!

Leigh said...

Thanks, RT!

Rain, interesting that you should have just come across someone talking about mycorrhizal fungi. A really, really excellent book on the subject is Soil Biology Primer by Elaine Ingham. That's a free PDF download and a must for every grower of plants.

Sam, we discovered the same thing about chippers. I was so excited to get our first one, but very disappointed with the results. We have so many trees, which means tons of twigs and branches. It was definitely worth it.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, it is not completely the same, but I do use the wood pellets from my rabbits' litter box for the same purpose. It makes for good planting material over time, has the rabbit urine in it and rabbit pellets on it (and hay for cover). I only end up paying once for the pellets and hay.

Mama Pea said...

Yes, yes, yes, trial and error! ("Why do we all have to go through this," I whine!) Thanks for this post. We went in with good friends (nearest neighbors on the east side of us) on the cost of a (hardly) used, heavy duty wood chipper. So far, some experimentation has cause me to ask Papa Pea, "Why did we invest in this?" But some processes have worked out and now with your informative post, I have some further ideas. Thanks again!

Leigh said...

TB, that's a great idea. Dan's been talking about rabbits, so I'll pass that tip on to him!

Mama Pea, it always helps to remember why we get things! LOL. Wood chips are great to toss down in the poultry yard too.

Ed said...

Sounds like a good system. I've had the same experience when using straw as garden mulch.

Chris said...

It's fun designing systems, to close all those gaps between waste and useful resources. It's effectively value adding money spent on consumables and equipment, but also makes for a more efficient system for the users - poultry, ruminants and primates, alike. Great investment in the bigger chipper. We'd like one, but a tractor isn't an option here. So do a lot of chop and dropping, instead. It doubles as a deterrent for herbivores, eating our edibles, with a range of different branch sizes.

Each system is going to be designed differently, depending on a range of different factors. Which is why I always enjoy reading how you guys are doing things. :)

Leigh said...

Ed, apparently there's no such thing as seedless straw! That's probably why my goats rather have it as feed than as bedding. :)

Chris, I wish I could claim some conscious participation in the designing process! Mostly it was a gradual fitting of the pieces together. But your right that it's fun to have figured it out. Very rewarding.

It's especially true that each system has to be designed differently, as you say. We humans have to be involved in the process; holistic homesteading isn't something that can be short-cutted or conveniently automated. But we definitely find really good ideas around the internet. :)

Tanza Erlambang said...

good idea, excellent system

I love to eat fresh chicken eggs...cage free..

Leigh said...

Tanza, thanks!

Cockeyed Jo said...

We were lucky to be gifted 8 tons of chipped trees, but honestly need a chipper shredder. I just can't afford it.

Leigh said...

Jo, they are not cheap. And if it's PTO driven, then one has to have the tractor too. Both of those items were a long time coming and I'm sometimes still amazed (and very thankful) that we have them. 8 tons of wood chips is a fantastic gift! Maybe there will be more where that came from.