My Pile: April Fool

Every bloomin’ April First, the joke’s on me, as I’m reminded of the foolishness that remains my absolute low point as a compost-minded backyard gardener.

The chief reason I bought my small home on a corner lot in Westport a decade ago this spring was the tulip magnolia tree in the front yard. After noticing the real estate listing in the local paper, I arranged to meet a real estate agent at the house the first Sunday in April. I made up my mind to buy the place as soon as I pulled into the rutted driveway and saw the magnificent tulip magnolia in full bloom. Talk about curb appeal!

The house and rest of the property was a mess. But this specimen of a tree stood out, even though it besieged by tangly vines and surrounded by spiky barberry bushes and sucker saplings from its own spreading roots. About 30 feet tall and with a canopy almost as wide, it was covered by fist-sized cups of white flowers tinged with magenta.

Peering through the scrub bushes and stringy saplings that rose from its roots, I could see that the tree’s bones were very good. The tree’s lowest branches started about waist-high and spread in handy increments nearly horizontally; a perfect tree for my five-year-old son to climb. Underneath its canopy was a smattering of crocuses, poking up through the weeds that spread across what I could tell was once an oval island of tended garden surrounded by grass.

Placed as it was in the front corner of my yard, and that part of the property being on a slight bend in the road, it was the prettiest tree in the whole neighborhood. Approaching my house from either direction, rounding a slight bend, it was though you were driving straight toward the tree and its blossoming beauty. It was a head-turner, that magnificent magnolia, if only for that week or two each spring.

After moving in I pruned the tree of its sucker branches and cleared the ground around it of the wild wisteria and Chinese bitterroot vines that sought to overtake it. My son and the neighborhood kids he soon befriended loved to climb the tree’s smooth-bark trunk and perch on its low-spreading main branches.

For that spring and the next, the tulip magnolia made for great fun and wonderful photo ops, especially in the brief blooming moment, often just at Easter.

A playdate in the tulip magnolia, in its final years.

A playdate in the tulip magnolia, in its final years.

For a backyard composter, a tulip magnolia is no great shakes. I raked up the fallen petals each spring; the silky pieces melted into my pile like breath strips on your tongue. The seed pods that all those flowers produced were less welcome, as were the waxy coated leaves that rained down each fall. Some compost books consider them more of a nuisance, as they take too long to decompose, but into the mix they went as well.

To restore the garden island the tree grew on and also to give the kids a softer landing in case they were ever to fall from its limbs, I added a layer of wood-chip mulch around its base, spreading it out to the tree’s drip line. I proudly counted how many wheelbarrow loads the ground beneath the tree could absorb, mentally tallying both Safe Daddy points and the kudos for sustainable gardening methods.

The tree thrived, as did the kids.

An autumn or two on, a neighbor took down a towering spruce tree that posed a threat to his house. I drove by just as the tree crew was chipping up the last of the branches and blowing them into a plywood-sided box in the back of the two-ton dump truck. I told them they could deposit the load of chips in my driveway up the street.

It was like getting a hundred Christmas trees, all ground into a poultice of mulched needles, bark and sappy chips. The mound was already steaming when I spread load after load of minced spruce across the garden island on which my tulip magnolia ruled. My greatest fear was that I would bury the crocuses and daffodils too deeply and they wouldn’t be able to find their way up to the sun come the spring.

The following April the magnolia bloomed magnificently. The spring bulbs did well, too.

The third spring surprised me – less blooms crowned the tulip magnolia. I chalked it up to the vagaries of a tough winter.

By the fourth spring, the tree bloomed only sparsely, and produced small, wilted leaves. Neighbors walking by would stop to chat, commenting and offering advice. I watered deeply. That summer, I hammered a score of tree fertilizer spikes into the ground all around the tree.

Then one afternoon the fellow who had done all the tree work for me when first I moved in happened by. I’d been impressed by how he handled the massive hulk of the dead old willow tree in the backyard, saved my roof from the overhanging mulberry trees, showed no mercy for the swamp maples and other “junk” trees. Men who climb tall trees with ropes and snarling chain saws for a living command a certain level of respect from earthbound gardeners like me.

He stopped his truck in the street, rolled down his window and in the kindest way possible gave me the news that he clearly thought I should have known all along: Magnolias didn’t like their surface roots to be covered by mulch. The heat from the decomposition cooks them and could kill the tree.

I thought back to the previous fall, sticking my hand in the deep layer of mulch under the tree to feel its warmth. After so many years of neglect, however benign, I thought I was giving the tulip magnolia a warm blanket of freshly made compostible wood chips from which to draw nutrients.

As soon as he drove off, I grabbed my wheelbarrow and shovel and removed dozens of barrows fulls of old mulch from around the tree, spreading it elsewhere in the yard as best I could. I drove more fertilizer spikes into the ground, as penitence. But by then it was too late.

In its final spring, the tulip magnolia mustered just a few, misshapen blooms and a smattering of leaves, most of which shimmered to the ground during a hot spell in July.

I took the tree down that August, climbing up the bare branches myself with a borrowed chain saw. Its demise, played out over the better part of four years, was slow-motion, every-day proof of my foolishness and ignorance as a gardener. Simply put, I’d loved the tree to death, killing it with what I thought was the kindness of layer upon layer of a steaming hot wood chips.

All gardeners live with failure and most hope to learn from their mistakes, self-inflicted or otherwise. These days, I spread wood chips much more sparingly across my perennial beds, and steer clear of mulch from fir or pine trees.

I replaced the tulip tree with a weeping willow. A curiously old-fashioned choice, I admit, in a modern garden. But I didn’t have the heart to plant a new flowering tree in place of the tulip magnolia. And I knew from the towering willow that had died of old age in the backyard long before I bought the place that it would thrive despite me. Native to China, it’s considered an invasive, but I’ve read that it was first brought to American by a Connecticut trader in the 18th century. It’s a local import that has thrived.

I found the willow in the remnant section of the local nursery. Its roots had grown through the drainage holes of its black plastic container and spread deep into the gravel patch the bucket rested on. I needed help from a nursery laborer to wrest it from its spot and took it home at a bargain price of $20 or so, its wispy branches fluttering out of the back hatch of my SUV.

Five years on, the rescued willow is now already nearly as tall as the tulip magnolia it succeeded. I’ve loped off the upper branches to widen its canopy and to keep if from getting too close to the utility wires strung along the street. Its setting in the corner of my yard leaves it far from any drain pipes. Anyway, I’m pretty sure its thirsty roots have tapped into a long-buried spring that flows from the granite ledge across the street and under the road nearest the tree.

The willow, from two summers ago, fast-growing and just now starting to "weep."

The willow, from two summers ago, just then starting to “weep.” It’s now twice as big and full. Two years before that, I’d brought it home in the back of my SUV.

The willow may lack the tulip magnolia’s magnificent presence each spring, but its loping, dangling yellow branches are striking in their own way, early to bud in the spring and late to let go of its slender, oblong leaves in the fall. And like the massive old willow that once graced the backyard where my pile now sits, it is a hardy living thing that I know will survive whatever foolishness I will inflict upon it.

Rather like my pile.

My Pile: Chip, Chip, Hooray

With the yard cleanup complete and my pile put to bed for the fall, it’s time for another favorite backyard project: Dressing my beds of perennials and the forsythia hedges with a layer of fresh wood chips.

Over the years, I’ve spread truckload after truckload of the remains of all manner of local trees and bushes, sawed into chunks and run through an industrialized chipper by a local landscaping crew, flagged down to dump their results in my driveway. If it’s not grass or patio or pavement, the ground I tend is covered by a layer of what toney landscapers call arborist mulch, where it decomposes according to its own composition and timeline.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Wood chips aren’t quite as virtuous as compost, ecologically, but they do have their benefits to the backyard gardener. A four-inch layer of chips spread among my perennial beds prevents weeds from sprouting. It soaks up rainfall and slowly releases it, drastically reducing the need to water the flowers, bushes and shrubs that ring the perimeter of my property and surround the house.

A blanket of freshly minced trees gives the ground underneath the forsythia hedgerow and around the trees a uniform, manicured appearance, though for a few weeks my yard has the look of the kid with the bright new sneakers at school. And for a time, especially after it’s wetted by the first rain, a freshly spread layer of chips gives my yard a Christmasy, pine-scented smell or, when I happen upon a load made of black birch, a hint of Wrigley’s peppermint gum.

Some of my neighbors landscape their properties with store-bought mulch, made from coconut husks or nut shells or ground-up bark processed from who knows where – often dyed an unnatural shade of red or coffee brown. I prefer to get my wood chips unvarnished and for free, from nearby, and to spread them myself. I also like knowing where the chips come from, as an unsourced load of chopped-up tree or brush could introduce some blight or bug into my landscape. I’m pretty sure one year I got a nasty case of poison ivy after spreading a load of chips infused with ground-up ivy vines.

Still, the virtues of mulch are plainly evident.

“The greenness and fertility of my garden are due to vast quantities of mulch, everything from compost to salt hay to seaweed,” Eleanor Perenyi extolled in her garden classic, “Green Thoughts” (Modern Library, 1981).

“To non-organic gardeners, mulch’s primary function is to keep down weeds and conserve moisture in summer; in winter they may use [it] to keep the soil from freezing and heaving around favored perennials. But to gardeners of my persuasion, mulch is much more: It is an organic substance whose benefits extend to the soil itself, improving its structure and enriching its fertility to the point where it needs nothing else. An organically mulched vegetable garden never requires tilling, digging or hoeing, and is scarcely weeded. [Mulch] doesn’t burn or cause sudden spurts of unhealthy growth as artificial fertilizers may – it is long-term in its effects.”

Perenyi was not much in favor of wood chips, seeing them as too expensive when purchased commercially, a “staple of every corporate planting,” and low in nitrogen, requiring the addition of a fertilizer to compensate [more recent research seems to refute that, as you’ll see below]. Still, she was wholly committed to using mulches that were to her liking, “even newspapers and old carpets.”

My qualms about adding so much wood chip mulch to my grounds are assuaged by some online browsing. My search for “composting wood chips” brings me to a collection of web pages produced by Washington State University and composed by an expert I soon recognize as the modern maven of mulch, Linda Chalker-Scott.

In a 2007 newsletter produced by Master Gardener,  Chalker-Scott, who is a Ph.D. , Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, and MasterGardener WSU editor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University Puyallup, explains:

In areas where trees are a dominant feature of the landscape, arborist wood chips represent one of the best mulch choices for trees and shrubs. A 1990 study evaluated the landscape mulch potential of 15 organic materials, including grass clippings, leaves, composts, yard wastes, bark, and wood chips. Wood chips were one of the best performers in terms of moisture retention, temperature moderation, weed control, and sustainability.

“In many urban areas, arborist wood chips are available for free, representing one of the most economically practical choices. Unlike the uniform nature of sawdust and bark mulches, wood chips include bark, wood, and often leaves. The chemical and physical diversity of these materials resists the tendency towards compaction seen in sawdust and bark. Additionally, the materials vary in their size and decomposition rate, creating a more diverse environment that is subsequently colonized by a diverse soil biota. A biologically diverse soil biota is more resistant to environmental disturbance and will in turn support a diverse and healthy plant population.

“Wood chips are considered to be slow decomposers, as their tissues are rich in lignin, suberin, tannins, and other decomposition-resistant, natural compounds. Thus, wood chips supply nutrients slowly to the system; at the same time they absorb significant amounts of water that is slowly released to the soil. It is not surprising that wood chips have been cited as superior mulches for enhanced plant productivity. Wood chips have been especially effective in helping establish trees and native plants in urban and disturbed environments. Arborist wood chips provide incredible weed control in ornamental landscapes. The mechanism(s) by which wood chips prevent weed growth are not fully understood, but probably include light reduction (preventing germination of some seeds and reducing photosynthetic ability of buried leaves), allelopathy (inhibiting seed germination), and reduced nitrogen levels at the soil-mulch interface (reducing seedling survival).

“While there are imported wood mulches available for purchase at nurseries and home improvement centers, they are not as cost-effective as locally produced wood chips, which are often free. In a society where using locally produced materials is increasingly popular as a measure of sustainability, arborist wood chips are a natural choice. Finally, the reuse of plant materials as mulches keeps them out of the landfill—a benefit with both economic and environmental attributes.”

In any event, over a season or so, the wood chips spread across the bare ground are broken down by rot and mold and earthworms to become a deep new layer of biomass that is easily tillable. True, sometimes a layer of chips gets permeated by a web-like tangle of fungus, and I’ve read that decomposing wood chips can suck available nitrogen from the soil underneath and turn the ground more acidic than some plants favor. What’s more, all that wood decomposing does add a measure of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

But on balance, a blanket of local, fresh-made chips spread around the walkways and untended areas saves energy all around. It lays the groundwork for healthier plants, especially when combined with compost, which I tuck around the perennials and spread across my vegetable garden and atop the densest patches of my plantings. It all makes my yard that much more of a biomass factory, though I marvel at how all that minced wood reduces to so little. I realize what I’m shoveling is mostly water and air, bound only for a moment of time into bite-size pieces of carbon.

Earlier this week, I turned out the dog for his morning relief just as a cherry-picker and a truck hauling a chipper lumbered past my driveway and stopped two houses down the street. They were there to remove a big old white pine overhanging a neighbor’s house. After watching the driver expertly back the truck and chipper up the narrow drive, I asked if he wanted to dump the chips in my driveway.

Good for him, good for me, as it’s a no-brainer to drive a truck 30 yards down the street rather than 30 minutes to some rural landfill or refuse yard. And sure enough, when I came home at the end of my work day, my driveway was covered with a pile of fresh-cut wood chips wide and deep enough to hide a car.


A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

By now, I’ve got the process down, if not to a science, then a sport. Come Saturday, I am ready to dish. I use a wheelbarrow, a hay pitchfork with four curved tines and an old wide shovel I use to plow snow off my driveway.

I get started by leaning the wheelbarrow sideways into the pile and filling it with chips dragged from the top of the pile with the pitchfork. As the pile reduces, I use the wide-mouth shovel to scoop up from the edges. I know just how many fork-fulls or scoops it takes to fill the wheelbarrow and have a good idea of how best to wield the wheelbarrow around the garden beds to keep from burying an azalea or phlox.

Besides, wood chips – especially this load of light, bright-yellow pine, flecked with minced green – is easy to work with.

I can work my way into a dump-truck-size pile in less than a day, replenishing all of my garden beds along the way. Fill a wheelbarrow, walk it over to a garden bed, tip, then repeat. Every five loads or so I stop to rake the few piles flat across the garden beds and around the buses. It’s my exercise, a chore I relish. A moveable feast of a compost pile.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Dr. Chalker-Scott’s research findings about compost can be found on a wonderfully informative website produced by the Washington State University Extension called Horticultural Myths, at More of her findings may be found at The Garden Professors blog,