Ramial Wood Chips in Food Gardens


In the book, The Holistic Orchard, Michael Phillips is a commercial organic fruit grower that has gone sustainable in recent years. He also uses ramial wood chips. Hear me out! I know this is controversial. Read the description of ramial wood chips at the link below, because they are not just any wood chip that can potentially rob soil of nitrogen.

Ramial wood chips, from Wikipedia: “[They are a] relatively high ratio of cambium to cellulose compared to other chipped wood products. Thus, it is higher in nutrients and is an effective promoter of the growth of soil fungi and of soil-building in general. The goal is to develop an airy and spongy soil that holds an ideal amount of water and resists evaporation and compaction, while containing a long-term source of fertility. It can effectively serve as a panacea for depleted and eroded soils.”

So, the idea being, building a spongy soil. We all know that compacted soil is the death of plants. Roots need to breathe every bit as much as leaves.

This video, from one of my favorite Youtube producers (good ol’ John), shows wood chips used in gardening (not necessarily ramial wood chips either).

We have to walk under and around fruit trees. Their roots extend beyond the drip line. Think of it this way: when we’re in an ancient forest, there is all manner of broken limbs, twigs, leaves, and needles that we walk across, without compacting the soil. Over time, these decay and cause this spongy soil that never compacts. It provides fertile ground and aerated soil for new seeds to germinate and grow. No one ever cleans away this decaying debris.

Now think of urban trees. All leaves and debris are cleaned away. Generally, one type of tree is planted in entire neighborhoods sidewalk strips, which is like a neon sign to the one particular pest that invades them.

Chips also retain large amounts of water, rather than letting it roll away and cause flooding. They also keep water from evaporating. Bare soil equals rapid evaporation, requiring more watering. Chips keeping soil moist means less watering. No one is in a forest to water the trees, yet they grow and thrive without human intervention.

Wood chips are typically used only on top of the soil, not mixed in the soil, when one wants to promote a fungal environment in the soil. But having said that, an experiment I did with my marigolds was to clear away the wood chips, expose the soil, put the roots on top of the soil and surround the root ball with wood chips. It worked like a charm! They grew beautifully.

Back to fungal soil. Fungi serve important functions. They take up the sugars that plants produce, and in turn supply nutrients, especially phosphorus that is so important to ward off pests, the plants need. This becomes a symbiotic relationship.

The phosphorus that fungi produce causes plant growth 10 times over the growth without phosphorus, and improves seedling survival. Fungi produce a large underground network that connects plants. In turn, this encourages good soil structure, making it easier for nutrients, water and air exchange within the plant root zones. Fungi breaks down compounds in soil that prevent nutrient uptake in plants. In fact, there are so many benefits to fungi, it’s a vast subject that one could write a book. For more on this subject, refer to MYCORRHIZAL ASSOCIATIONS.

Over 80% of fungi are associated with trees. Due to this, ramial wood chips are especially suited to being placed around the root zone of trees. It need not be consistently, or solidly, placed. It should be spaced relatively sporadic, to mimic a forest floor. Personally, I use wood chips in our garden for weed suppression. We use it on our paths and beds.


  1. “good ol’ john” love his videos!…that dinsour kale amazing! I have always believed we can learn by watching nature…she does it best…how a forest feeds itself…it falls and rebuilds bottom up:-)..I even use our branches from tree trimming as raised bed edgers and they break down into the soil over time…amazing how we all could just use our yard debris ( not infected/diseased ones) to build our soil, but we pay to have them take it away..never made much sense to me:-)
    p.s. he is right about maybe being careful how you approach “this” in the city since some people may complain! I think it is beautiful, but some may not-lol


    • John is a funny guy. His videos are usually too long and he repeats himself too many times. But I still like his videos and he makes me laugh. He’s also way too much of an extremist with a raw food 80-10-10 diet and selling juicers, but he does give tips even for people who cook their veggies.

      We have to get our wood chips from the city, they are free and not ramial, but they work just fine. We did notice a bit of nitrogen robbing but the benefits outweighed the drawbacks; weed suppression and water retention, especially during a month-long drought. If we had our own trees, we’d be using leaves and wood too! We have to scavenge where we can. It is rewarding to be recyclers! I also think the look is beautiful. These finely manicured green lawns are for the birds. Well actually not. They’re not for anything except to look at! If anything grows in them, they’re promptly killed – and animals can’t really forage for bugs in them because of chemicals. I think some people also use the diseased branches (the orchard guy I mentioned does), but only if it’s doused with beneficial microbes and covered with other things to decay fast. Otherwise it probably is a good idea to leave those out. Thanks for the input. =)


  2. There has been some very useful work done by Unitec in Auckland NZ with various mulches in orchards. The most successful one was wood chip. Although regular soil tests showed that there was in fact some robbing of nitrogen in the topsoil during the first 18 months after application, by the third year soil nutrients had risen above all other mulches and stayed that way for several years.

    Like you, I use wood chips only on the surface to limit the contact between soils and the chips but I am also experimenting with a root feeder based on biochar which also scavenges nutrients in its first phase.

    My approach has been to mix the biochar with rock dust and lime (we have very acid soils) and to add in a generous portion of cow manure slurry to try and overdose the nutrients that are likely to be absorbed by the char. Perhaps something like that would work with uncharred chips as well.

    I have also experimented with Hugel beds but found that, unless you have a ready supply of already rotted wood, they don’t work as well as we could wish. The next step will be to use the char/manure/chip mix instead as the basis for the beds to see if the greater surface area and higher nutrient levels create a more active substrate for the beds.


    • Hey Earl, thanks for the heads up! I took a class on biochar just before Thanksgiving. We learned how to make our own biochar burners and talked about the need to inoculant the char prior to use in the garden. Awesome stuff!

      I get a little annoyed by the number of people quoting the Back to Eden movie (as the gal mentioned in the video interview from John Kohler above) made about using wood chips solely. I mean, we are doing this ourselves, to some degree, due to watching that movie, but mostly because we can get wood chips free. The movie was pretty good except being deluged with Biblical quotes (a little is fine, but it was over the top for me). You don’t need to be a Bible thumper to use wood chips or have a great garden.

      I posted this information about ramial wood chips because they can make a difference compared to standard wood chips because of the balance of cellulose to cambian, which reduces the impact of nitrogen robbing in the soil. And because I’ve been heavily researching orcharding (a future article is in development on this topic). Since it’s not my orchard, I’m just contributing a bit of time and research, it’s hard to take more steps, such as biochar, without being there to do all the work and watch the progress. We’ll only be in this area another 2 years, so we know a 3 year window to actually see changes in soil is out of our reach.

      I have many photographs from my biochar making class, and a future article on that topic is planned as well.

      As for hugelkultur, it’s my understanding that the beds should be made at least a year or more in advance, so it makes sense that they don’t do well the first year. They need time for the wood to rot down. They are much more intensive in building than I have the strength or materials, and since we are a community garden plot that we’ll be leaving in the hands of a future gardener, I am conservative in how we care for our plots. Otherwise, I probably would start small, as an experiment. I’d also like to use large stone slabs for heat retention, but that takes real planning, a permanent spot too. =)

      Thanks for contributing, I really appreciate hearing from others and their experiments with these materials! Once I draw up my orchard article, I’d appreciate input. Do you have resource materials for a sustainable orchard? The book I read (that I mentioned in this article) was very good, extremely detailed and thorough. He also has a DVD showing his orchard and techniques. He’s a bit more interventionist in the orchard than I’d like to see. It’s not too self-sustaining with the amount of meddling he has to do, but maybe orchards are just that way.

      He gives a formula of spray that includes aerated compost tea, but includes fish, kelp, compost and molasses. My thought is, they didn’t need to spray dead fish on orchards for centuries, and what if you don’t live by a source to get that much fish and kelp especially? I read another source that says to inoculate your compost with a diluted molasses, then make a compost tea just from the compost and it works like a charm. I even question molasses and aerating compost tea. They didn’t aerate these things with electrical devices for centuries, why should we now? It’s a bit frustrating, to say the least. All for the perfect apple. It’s more in the realm of making large volumes of heavy fruit to make more money. Well, who can blame them considering it’s hard to make a profit on farming? But still, it’s gone beyond sustainable.


      • Happy to share what I have. We have 10 acres so we certainly have the space to generate the materials but since it was mostly in pasture, there is a huge job to shift the process to sustainable and permaculture designs. One of the reasons I’m interested in biochar is its ability to raise the pH of the soil. We have very acid soil here.

        Agree about the interventionist conundrum. I suspect that the reality is that, as my wife observed when we first started gardening, “sustainability is a lot of work”. If we hope to extract enough from the land to feed ourselves without massive energy and resource inputs without depleting the land, we have to spend the time and personal energy.

        I’m a bit of a fan of Noboru Fukuoka and his one straw revolution; but the point he made was that, although he did not put a lot of labour into his food production, the day started at dawn and went until dark and the work was continuous and hard except for the 3 months a year that he took off.

        I have bought in some compost because I still can’t make nearly enough while cleaning up the mess of overgrown shelter belts 100 foot pines and endless fences that we inherited with the place. I have also bought in half a tonne of rock dust to compensate for NZ’s lack of selenium, boron and a couple of other trace elements needed for human food production.

        However, bringing materials in is pointless if we don’t do the best we can to retain and recycle them on the property. We have added 3 dams to hold water and slow nutrient runoff and the next phase is multiple ponds and swales to hold the water higher on the slope, retain nutrients and improve the soils.

        We don’t ever just apply nutrients to the surface; everything is dug in or, as in the case of our olive trees (15 years old and also out of control) I have shallow-trenched in the root zone above the tree and then filled with char/compost/lime/rock dust and manure slurry mix. We shall see.

        I am building what I call a soil; factory where we can bring together all the materials such as wood chip, slurry, compost, char and any imported amendments that will give us an area of about 50 square metres dedicated to the task of making our own support materials, again, we shall see.

        I am also a growing fan of tall meadow as a tool. The cows love the seed heads and flowers, the grass catches and slows the flow of rain and gives it a chance to soak in and at all stages it shades the soil in summer, reducing the evaporation (even when it is dead and no longer pulling water for itself) and preventing cracking even in last summer’s 70 year drought. I also use it to protect new tree plantings; clearing only a small patch for the seedling to get a root hold and keeping the competion down while it grows big enough to fend for itseklf. I have a theory that the grass creates a more moist microclimate around the tree and its height provides shelter from the wind. It looks like crap, but it seems to be working. I have also used what I call mini swales in our new fruit orchard, mostly because it is on a clay slope and they seem to be working pretty well too, although its hard to see sometimes given the tall meadow.

        The process also means that the grass has deep roots (avreage 20cm at last check) which gives it resilience in drought and will become topsoil as the trees take over.
        I’m also planting wormwood, feverfew and lavender around each tree to support it.

        BTW, I’m loving using the Austrian scythe to keep pathways clear so we can get to the trees.

        OK, sun is shining and work is calling.


  3. That’s a fair bit of land! Our orchard is probably around an acre, part of the community garden. Our own garden plots total only 1600 square feet. That’s a huge garden for some folks, it was overwhelming when we started with 800 square feet. haha

    It’s awesomely ambitious that you’re doing these things. I can’t even imagine making one dam, let alone 3. I have watched several videos on permaculture, read some books, but most of it is for larger scale farms (like yours). Even designing all the ponds and swales must take quite some planning, not to mention intensive labor. Do you have a consultant, or have you taken courses? Geoff Lawton is the biggy, especially in your hemisphere, though I know NZ doesn’t necessarily mingle with Oz.

    It is a lot of work to create a permaculture environment in the beginning, but it surprises me about Fukuoka’s statement. I haven’t read his book but only seen snippets or edited videos. It was my understanding he starts the day in meditation, probably a good practice when foresight is needed to accomplish many tasks in a garden. It clears the thinking.

    In our own garden, it took a lot of work to haul the wood chips and place them on the paths and beds, preceded by hauling loads of manure to minimize nitrogen loss. If we’d had a dump truck dump it all, it would’ve gone faster. In any case, the whole rest of the summer we had fairly free because we pretty much only needed to water and only pick a random weed here and there, while others were constantly fighting weeds, or letting them overtake their gardens. This, from folks who think rototilling makes the soil look better and reduce weeds. In fact, it produces an overcoming number of weeds!

    I was fascinated about the Moringa tree (I have a previous post about this), because it grows so fast, it produces a lot of wood. I have no idea how many moringa one would have to grow to produce their own wood chips, but I was impressed enough that I want to try. Otherwise, how does one get enough wood chips on their own? You have to plant a food forest is the only solution.

    Did you see the compost making operation that Geoff Lawton showed recently?
    It was more focused on raising chickens without feeding them grain, but also the compost making operation. There’s no way I could do this, we don’t own property to support this large of a process. But I still enjoy learning about these techniques.

    I can see how using compost teas would be a very labor-intensive procedure, but you say you dig in the nutrients rather than spray or water with them. The orchard guy I posted does primarily teas and sprays. I would think lime and rock dust would be more long term.

    It makes sense that tall grasses would hold moisture. Where we live in the US was formerly swampland, turned into agricultural land. It is a very rich clay, but it needs softening with lime and gypsum so roots can breathe. It’s also been tilled for who knows how many decades, prior to our taking over a garden plot. So nutrients need to be built back in. I imagine that takes quite a number of years, so growing grasses is probably a great place to start. This swath of land was once prime bison territory, where buffalo grass grew, the massive and miles-wide herds would graze, till the land with their feet, and move on after leaving behind their fertilizer and ammonia.

    I have not researched wormwood, feverfew and lavender to see why those would be good support systems for fruit trees. Wormwood makes sense, from the standpoint it’s a type of vermicide. I can research these plants, but is there anything you can tell me as to why you selected them?

    My husband has been wanting a scythe. We’ll most likely buy one once we finally settle somewhere. He has not secured a permanent position, which is typical for scientists. We lived in Austria for a year, I should’ve looked into them and hugelkultur (if I’d known about these things then!).


    • Awesomely ambitious perhaps, somewhat crazy – certainly. I am nearly 63.

      As for the dams, we had some long discussions with some locals, especially the guy with the 20 tonne digger who has done a lot of building for the people at the local Tree Crops Association branch. We had a gully with a bit of swamp that had started to dry out with the summer and then winter droughts this year so it was not hard to say to him, “build the most storage you can”. So we got 3 with about 30% of the original wetland still preserved between the dams and, hopefully, now kept wetter. They will also act as pathways across the property for vehicles, wheelbarrows and people.

      Thanks for the link to Geoff’s material, I hadn’t seen it and it comes at a useful time because I need to put some mulch/compost into the chicken orchard so I’ll be following it up. I am also very interested in his 5 acre plan with its 8 ponds and many swales. Our development plan calls for about 8 smaller ponds up slope from the main dams all connected by swales; when the budget allows.

      Yes, the lime and rock dust is longer term, but its also a case of doing things up front that will last as long as possible to put the hardest work when I am more likely to be able to do it and while we still have access top diesel for the little tractor.

      The idea with the wormwood and feverfew is that, in the orchard, they don’t interfere with the mature trees because their feeder roots are well out from the trunk. The plan is to grow strong plants that can stand a hard cutback in spring so that they don’t deter the bees during blossom time but can grow back strongly to deter insect predators like leaf rollers and sucking insects etc and by autumn will envelop the tree in a thick coat of herb to repel wasps, possums and rats and possibly some birds from hitting the fruit when its ripe.

      The lavender we will just let grow, harvesting the flowers as possible but otherwise there to attract the bees in spring and provide a source, eventually, for essential oils.

      Don’t hesitate to get the scythe, its a great thing to use. Good luck and keep the great postings up. I sent your piece on daffodils to a friend in France who is having huge problems with moles etc attacking his garden from below so the word is getting around.


      • Thanks for filling me in! Fascinating stuff. We just took up this big garden (well, big for us) this last Spring, and I’m no spring chicken either, closer to your age. It’s almost as if the earth takes over and gives me the energy and ambition to take up gardening. As soon as we got into it, I’ve been fairly consumed by it. We’re trying to put in as much as possible while I’m able to be ambitious!

        Interesting strategy about the herbs and flowers, thanks for sharing. Every person has a different intuition what to use, and experiment with, so we learn from each other. Wow, I’m honored you passed on one of my articles. Here I am, a small time and new gardener and those of you who have large acreage read what I say. I guess I never thought that would happen, so I’m humbled. I’d be interested to hear how the daffodils do in your friend’s garden.

        To be honest, I always scoffed at having friends that were farmers. I was always a city girl. That’s rapidly changing, and I don’t think it’s due to my age. I think it’s because of the times we’re now living. We’ve gotten so far away from anything natural and don’t even feed ourselves, that something has to give. Especially here in the US, the way BigAg has caused huge problems on various levels, we have to start literally from the ground up, to grab back what we gave away all too easily.

        Yes, Geoff’s stuff is really excellent. Even though all his videos are dealing with much larger pieces of property, I enjoy learning from them and applying what I can on a small scale. Once you sign up, which he requires to watch the videos, you’ll get notifications to all his stuff.


        • Can’t reply to your latest, there’s no reply option.

          On farmers, the saddest thing is that modern farmers are no more able to feed themselves than the rest of us. Monoculture and machinery have taken away their skills and their land; literally taken away their land. We live on the edge of the market gardening area of the city and it is among the most depleted soils in the world. Even they are now starting to panic about the soil that they have destroyed. The city even has a person working on a biochar project to try and restore the land.

          On Fukuoka again. His daily meditation thing is interesting because, although I’m an atheist through and through, I often find myself just standing in the landscape, not thinking, just looking around, sometimes not even that. I call it listening to the garden and its necessary to be aware of where everything is and what its doing and, eventually, what needs doing there next.


  4. You have shared so much research on this blog, thank you so much! We didn’t see the chicken video on Geoff’s website yesterday evening. (We sometimes watch permaculture videos for entertainment.) So thanks for listing it. We have a pile of wood chips going and I have been somewhat leary of leaching nitrogen, but now I will plan to use them. A lot of forestry in this area, so I should be able to find a source… Do you know yet where you will be moving? … Earl, I suggest that that experience you have in nature is your experience of god, and is just as valid as any religions viewpoint. I sent you a Facebook friend request, because you don’t seem to have a blog.


    • Thanks again, I enjoy sharing what I learn. I also watch permaculture videos for entertainment, rather than movies or TV! My husband always finds me watching them and laughs at me because of how fascinated I am by the topic. I tell him what I learn, and sometimes he watches with me.

      As long as the wood chips are aged 6 mo. to 1 year or longer, they shouldn’t deprive the soil of nitrogen. You can even add some form of nitrogen boost to the soil before putting down wood chips, or soak them with a fish emulsion spray first.

      We don’t yet know where we’ll move. We have 2 years left here on my husband’s contract. As soon as we find out (it may be more than a year before we know), I’ll be announcing it. =)

      Yes I also believe that gardening and experiencing the power of nature really is a religious experience. I think that’s what got me hooked right at the very start. I was not expecting to have such an experience! I never knew why people loved gardening so much. I know it’s many things, but the feeling of being connected to a Great Being is the best of all.

      I didn’t receive the Facebook friend request. I’m not sure where you sent it. I have a My Watering Can Facebook page, a Corerelease Bodywork page, and my own personal page, Julianna Holden Mohler – let me know. It’s so great to make new friends!


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