Friday Free For All: Wood Chips vs. Hardwood Mulch


What a great Friday at Mid-Atlantic Gardening! I was able to give seeds to one of our readers, Elizabeth, from New Jersey. The seeds are Tomatoes Mortgage Lifter, Amish Paste and Golden Sunrise, Eggplant Casper, Cilantro Slo-Bolting and Cucumber Mandurian Round. It feels so great to give back to the readers that inspire me to keep writing posts. I have to admit that there are days when I say to myself “I’ll skip writing today’s post” but then I’ll receive feedback from you all and that keeps me moving. To all of my readers, I feel compelled to say “Thank you. You all are awesome!” OK, on to the post for today…

wood chipsA co-worker approached me Monday and asked a question that I feel is very important to answer. He wanted to know if applying wood chips instead of conventional hardwood mulch was OK for plants. My answer was a resounding yes. While double shredded hardwood mulch may be more pleasing to the eye, the soil and its organisms don’t care what you put down, so long as you put down something. Remember, as a gardener, you want to grow beautiful healthy soil that will feed your plants with much less effort than it takes to feed the plants and not the soil. Does that make sense? If your focus is on feeding the plants with synthetic fertilizers, you are not feeding the soil. If you instead feed the soil, you are rewarded with plants that derive their nutrition from what the soil provides for them.

Some people fear that mulching with fresh wood chips will rob the soil of nitrogen and that is a legitimate concern. What those same people fail to realize (and I was one of those people for a long time by the way) is that the nitrogen the microorganisms consume to break down the organic matter is still there, it’s just tied up. At a later time, the nitrogen will be available to the plants and it will be in a form that is naturally occurring. And it’s free too. No more applying fertilizer every spring…instead you can apply organic matter and grow your soil. If your plants become too chlorotic for your liking in the time that it takes your nitrogen to become available to the plant again, you can apply blood meal which is around 12% nitrogen. It will be a quick shot of nitrogen that will green up your plants.

Like I said earlier, it doesn’t matter what you have to mulch with…just mulch. If all you have available are leaves from the woods, use them. It would be nice if you could shred them up before using them…they’ll stay in place better and won’t pack down and form a matted layer. If it’s good enough for millions of acres of forests, it’s good enough for me. If you live near a farmer and he has straw that has spoiled, offer him a few dollars and he’ll probably accept your offer. Just make sure that it’s straw and not hay as hay is full of weed seeds. If you have trees removed from your garden, take the wood chips and use them…your tree guy will thank you too since he now doesn’t have to dispose of them. Just about any type of organic matter that you can think of will benefit your garden. I tend to be a little thrifty so I’m always on the lookout for cheap or free sources of organic matter…whether it be wood chips, leaves, manure or straw, I’ll take it! I love hearing how resourceful other gardeners are…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!


Reader Question: Staking Tomatoes


Here is a reader question that I received this week:

I’ve been taking your advice about planning my vegetable garden. I have always grown tomatoes but they seem to fall over and lay on the ground once the fruit starts to form. I have used the little cheap cages from Home Depot in the past but my tomatoes always grow twice as big as the cage. I want to be organized this year and hope that you can give me some suggestions before the tomatoes are on the plants.

Frank (Fredericksburg, VA)

Hi Frank. I feel your pain regarding staking tomatoes. There is nothing more frustrating than starting your maters from seed, growing them in the house, hardening them off, watching them get 4′ tall and just when you’re ready to harvest that first one, they fall over. That is like the plot line from a tragic movie in my opinion.

My husband, gardening buddies (Sean and Anna) and I were determined to not let that happen again last year. We invested in a large roll of concrete wire mesh and used them for our cages with great success. In case you don’t know, concrete wire mesh is used to reinforce concrete of all things and has beautiful 6″ square holes in it…the perfect size for pulling those prized tomatoes out. It is made from a heavy weight wire that will last many many years in the garden. The only problem with them is figuring out where to store them in the off season. The garden itself is working well this winter. We had some cages that were made out of typical wire fencing and we used them as well…waste not, want not. We had to cut holes in the wire so that we could get our tomato-stained hands in there to harvest, but they worked well nonetheless.

There is another method of staking tomatoes that fascinates me. It’s known as the Florida Weave and is often used by commercial growers. While I’m not a fan of growing plants in perfect rows, I’m tempted to do just that so I can try this method. I will fully admit that I’ve never tried it but it seems so easy and simple. Here is a video that I found of it in action by a market grower named Jay Sleichter of High Farming in Kansas.

Now ain’t that nifty? Look how much space you can save and how many plants you can fit in a small space. I highly recommend that you read all of High Farming’s blog posts if you have any interest in veggies at all. They have so much practical advice that you can use. Frank, I hope that one of these two methods can help you in your garden…or better yet, try both and see which one works best for you. For the rest of my readers out there, let me know how you stake your tomatoes by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at Happy gardening!

January 5, 2012Permalink 1 Comment

Gardening Calendar: December


So it’s finally December in the garden…the time of the year when you can reflect on what you really enjoyed about the garden this past year, look at what needs improving for the upcoming year and ponder any new gardening projects. But there are tasks that are perfect for accomplishing in December and that’s what we’ll look at today.


  • By now, most of your deciduous plants should have been taken down by the freezing temperatures. If your perennials have turned into brown clumps of mush, go ahead and remove the foliage and add it to your compost pile. If some of your deciduous perennials still have green leaves, it is best to leave them so that the plant can continue to photosynthesize and add to its stores for next year.
  • Depending on how meticulous you want your garden to be, you can remove any fallen leaves from the bases of shrubs to allow for good air circulation around the stems. If you have had fungal problems on your shrubs, it’s a pretty good bet that the spores are on the fallen leaves so removing them now can save you a ton of headaches in the spring. Unless your compost gets really hot, it’s wiser to bag the diseased leaves to avoid risking spreading the disease around.
  • If you’re like me, I tend to wait until the majority of the tree leaves have fallen before cleaning them up so now is the time to work on this project. I have woods behind me so I am able to blow them into the woods…it also serves as a sort of stockpile where I can go to obtain leaves when I need them for the compost pile or for mulching the veggie garden. If you have a bagging mower, chop them up and then use them as mulch…see my Healthy Soil article for more information.
  • The biggest chore for December is probably pruning. Now that the stems are bare, it is the perfect time to remove crossing branches on trees and shrubs. You can also remove wayward branches on evergreen shrubs such as hollies and osmanthus. If you are looking to shape your hedges, you’re best to wait until we get closer to spring. Severe pruning will often force new vegetative growth that is easily killed by freezes and late spring frosts.
  • The most exciting gardening chore for me in December is poring over seed catalogs that inundate my mailbox beginning in mid-November. My mind races as I read the descriptions of ‘Amish Paste’ tomatoes and ‘Mandurian Round’ cucumbers. While the sheer number of cultivars are overwhelming, I still make list after list of those I’d like to try. I try to pare it down to a reasonable number, but I am usually met with failure…last year I grew 13 different types of tomatoes.


The gardening calendar for December is relatively short but this is just the beginning of an ever-growing list of garden chores that need to be accomplished. By no means is it exhaustive…I’d love to hear what your plans are for your garden in December. Please share them in the comments section so that other gardeners can benefit. If you have any thoughts or concerns, please e-mail me at Happy gardening!