Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
August, 2006
Regional Report

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Once a weedy mess, this backyard topped with wood chips is in a holding pattern until the garden's planted.

Wood Chips for Weed Control

It was a distress call. Two-foot-tall weeds had taken over the backyard, which made looking out the kitchen window very depressing. Not to mention who knows what kinds of insects hopping from plant to plant, all but rising in clouds with each footfall in the dry, sun-baked, weedy jungle. The homeowner was near tears.

An easy-maintenance redesign, including a new path, was in the planning stage; plant purchase, bed prep, and installation was weeks down the road. "What can we do NOW?" pleaded the owner.

Taming an overgrown area choked with weeds isn't so overwhelming if planned and coordinated in small steps. The first decision: What do we want in this spot? Not sure? That's okay. Let's start by getting the weeds under control. That means pulling them out and IMMEDIATELY filling that vacuum with a dense cover -- a very thick layer of wood chips or mulch to suppress future weed sprouts.

Don't dally! Time flies! Weeds will run amok again in a couple weeks if the loose, cleared soil is left uncovered.

Wood Chips or Mulch
Freshly cut wood chips are fine for temporary fixes, informal backyards, less prominent areas, woodlands, and tree groves. Attractive mulch is the better option for the front yard, poolside, and entrances where aesthetics are important. Though bark mulch gets a bad rap these days for carrying artillery fungus, my oak bark mulch supplier has excellent material so I use that.

Free wood chips to the rescue! Our local arborists often have truckloads of wood chips to dispose of after tree removal. I bet yours do too. Call the companies whose trucks you see in the neighborhood. Explain that you want to use chips to mulch a weedy spot. Ask when they can drop off a load of free, "clean" (more wood, less debris) chips. Plan your weed removal accordingly.

For basic weed control, I remove the weeds. Then I spread out newspaper four to five sheets thick and generously shovel on wood chips or bark mulch -- at least 4 inches deep to keep out light and smother sprouting insurgents. Pull or spray the few persistent weeds that poke through. The thicker the chips, the longer they'll keep weeds at bay for a year or two.

For a potential garden, we first shovel on fresh manure to kill roots and weed seeds. We top that with alfalfa meal for nitrogen. Then we spread newspaper and wood chips. Come spring, the soil is usually easy to till so we dig the bed, turning in the decomposing chips. We add more alfalfa meal, dolomite lime, and a mineral-based, slow-release organic fertilizer.

Voila! A clean slate. A blank canvas for your ideal garden!

In my garden, I just plucked two huge 'Brandywine' tomatoes from the container plant demanding water every other day. 'Fourth of July' continues producing sweet mouthfuls; delicious, orange-mottled 'Zebra' tomatoes ripen daily. I clipped a generous handful of French tarragon to use in chicken marinade and found a purple eggplant ready for the grill. Yum.

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