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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?


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