Using sawdust as mulch

Trees are beautiful, beneficial for the environment and increase property value, but sometimes it is necessary to chop them down. Other times, they fall down on their own. In both instances, an unsightly stump remains. But, you’re not stuck with a stump in your yard. Instead, you can create mulch from stump grindings.

If you chose to remove the stump yourself, you can easily rent a stump grinder in Portland for about $125 per day. However, if you are considering professional tree chopping assistance, ask about free stump grinding as this service is often complementary.

Stump removal might seem like an easy process. However, it is expensive to rent the required equipment, may be a challenge to operate and leaves a mess of wood pieces to clean up. When you work with a professional tree service, the process will be fast, your land will be flush (companies grind 10-12 inches below the soil grade) and will be free from debris. And, when a professional grinds your stump down, you can request to keep the grindings to use as mulch.

Keep in mind that while stump grinding inhibits most plant growth, some trees are excellent at regenerating. Specifically, willow, poplar and some varieties of flowering cherry trees have known to regrow up to five years later. It is recommended to use herbicide in the area of stump removal to ensure regeneration does not occur.

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Usually, people just toss their stump grindings, but rather than just discarding the wood chippings in the dumpster or compost pile, you can create mulch. This alternative will benefit your garden and your wallet. Like shredded bark, the chippings will insulate your soil keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, reduce evaporation, retain moisture and reduce germination of some weed seeds and make weed removal easier.

Ready to make your own mulch? This is what you’ll need:

  • Leaf rake
  • Shovel
  • Garden cart or wheelbarrow
  • High-nitrogen fertilizer

Follow these steps for the perfect mulch:

  1. Rake up the wood chippings into a pile. Ideally your leaf rake has flexible, close-spaced teeth to easily gather large and small pieces.
  1. Scoop the material into a garden cart or wheelbarrow with a flat shovel. If you grind the stump yourself, rake up the grindings before grinding below soil grade to avoid mixing soil with the wood material.
  1. Pick out any grass that may have entered the mix. Leaves and evergreen needles are acceptable.
  1. If the soil in your garden is not fertile, spread a one-inch thick layer of nutrient-rich compost around your plants. While wood chips will provide some nutrients, compost contains decomposed plants, which is best in most situations.
  1. Evenly spread a three to six-inch layer of wood chippings around the base of your plants, using three inches around smaller plants like annuals and up to six inches for larger plants like trees. Do not place the mulch directly against the plants as this can lead to decay or infestation of the live plant. Leave at least six inches between the mulch and the base of a tree. Mix the chippings with mulch or shredded bark if you do not have enough chippings.

  1. Apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer if you notice plant growth or foliage diminish. These signs often indicate a nitrogen deficiency as the wood chips use nitrogen in the decaying process. This is more often an issue with plants that have superficial root systems. According to the College of Agriculture at New Mexico State University, the wood chips will be food for fungi and bacteria. The wood chips and nitrogen are needed in the composting process. “Wood chips are low in nitrogen, so the fungi and bacteria will take the nitrogen from the soil . . . Smaller wood particles with a larger surface area-to-volume ratio will decompose more rapidly. This will cause nitrogen deficiency problems in the soil.”
  1. Replenish mulch as the stump grindings decompose.

If you are concerned that the chopped or fallen tree was diseased before the stump grinding process, this is not a concern when the mulch is applied above the soil surface. However, if you are still anxious about the health of your plants, just discard the wood chippings.

Termites are also a concern for many when creating mulch from old stumps. It is a myth to say that termites are attracted to wood chips. However, it is not uncommon to find termites in a stump, as their job is to decompose wood. For this reason, it is commonly recommended that any mulch created by wood chippings from stump grindings be used at least two feet away from your home’s foundation.

If you have excess wood chippings or find that your plants do not positively benefit from your mulch, here are other ways to use your wood chippings after stump grinding.

Install a Path – If you already have established paths of bark or tree mulch in your yard, just spread four inches of wood chippings over your existing paths. Make a new path by using a lawn mower to cut grass and weeds as close to the soil as possible. Then spread four to six inches of wood chippings in the desired area.

Compost the Material – If the tree that fell or was chopped down was diseased before stump grinding, the wood chippings can still be composted and used as topical mulch. However, it is best to let it sit for up to a year before use. Keep the pile evenly moist and rotate weekly for appropriate aeration.

Burn the Debris – If the tree stump was chemically treated to encourage quicker decomposition, it is best to burn the grindings. If you plan a burn, first check with your local fire department and permitting office to ensure safety and proper permission.

Tagged as: Compost, Fertilizer, Gardening, Mulch, Oregon, Portland, Wood Chips

What should I do after a tree removal and stump grinding to prepare for grass?

This is one job that I get to do quite often each year. Grass doesn’t grow as well in wood chips as it does in topsoil, so be prepared for some digging. I find that a pitchfork is often easier to use than a spade shovel. Tree stumps often have a surprisingly high quantity of chips once ground out. Be prepared to take more than an hours work on just this part. The chips can be used as mulch or composted.

Once the chips are out, it’s time to add topsoil. If you have a clay based soil, don’t fill with sandy soil, and vice versa. The closer the soil you use the better, in terms of lawn uniformity and the soil’s moisture holding capabilities.

If the hole is large, which I’m assuming is the case, fill about 12″ and pack it down. You can use a tamper, tamping iron, sledge hammer (use the top of the head, not the actual hammer), or do some kind of maniac dance. Once it’s pretty solid, fill another 12 inches, or to the surface level if you get there first. Tamp again. You want the surface to be slightly higher (1/2 inch or so) than the surrounding area, to allow for some natural settling, and be careful not to leave it lower in the middle, or it will cause lawn appearance issues and collect water.

Now it’s time to rake the surface smooth. I use a garden/dirt rake. You want it to look natural, to blend in with the surroundings. Look at it while imagining how it would look as lawn.

The next step is the grass. Sow grass seed onto the smooth loose surface. I usually get best results using quite a bit more seed than is recommended, sometimes like 200%. Once the seed is down, lightly rake it in to the surface. I use the back of a plastic lawn rake. You don’t want the seed to be buried too deeply. Just covered is ideal.

(Optional) It is best to put down moisture retaining erosion control. Put down a straw mat on a large area, or use loose straw in a thin covering. I often use the product Seed Aide with excellent results.

Keep the area watered well until the seedlings become established like the rest of the lawn.

Ask a Question forum: sawdust after tree chopped down

robertduval14 said: In all honesty, it sounds to me like a crew that did not want to clean up the mess and came up with a blanket reason as to why. They just did not want to say ‘We just ground up this stump with a machine and can’t be bothered to pick up the mess with nothing more than a rake, shovel and our hands’.
Just my 2 cents.

Put me down for a buck and a quarter, I had guys try to tell me that once, and when I didn’t seem to be buying it, they kind of got that “lady, you don’t understand these things” tone of voice, and then…well, I won’t use the name of the company, but look for a guy who walks really funny, oh, and, by the way, you like my earrings?????
It’s awful when people who are assumed to have superior knowledge in any given area play fast and loose with their customers/clients who trust in that assumption of knowledge, and just because they want to do a sloppy or half-hearted job.
“Every now and then I leave the book on the seat and go and have a refreshing potter among my flower beds from which I return greatly benefited, and with a more just conception of what is worth bothering about, and what is not.” The Solitary Summer — Elizabeth von Arnim | Quote | Post #1428138 (3)

What can you do with SAWDUST?

Dear Mike: I generally listen to your sage advice as I perform the weekly cleaning duties in my furniture shop. As you can imagine, the shop generates a LOT of sawdust. Can it be used for anything useful in a garden way? I mostly work with Cherry, Walnut and Ash and currently dump the sawdust in randomly located piles in the woods behind my shop. It would be great to find some better use for the stuff. Thanks for your input,

    —Laron (rhymes with Aaron) in New Carlisle, OH

Mike: I have accumulated a couple cubic yards of sawdust from my shop and was wondering what the best use of it would be on the garden or lawn. I’m putting in an area of new lawn; can I use some of it there?

    —Brent in Gaithersburg, MD

Well Brent, I hope you’re going to wait until the Fall to do that lawn work. The cool-season grasses that predominate in your Washington DC area (Kentucky blue, perennial rye and the fescues) would just burn up in the summer heat. I’d suggest you start preparing the surface mid-August (make it nice and level!) with an eye towards a seed-sowing date of September 1st or so.

And don’t use any sawdust! If you mix sawdust into your soil, nothing will grow there for a year or more. Pure wood materials like sawdust and wood shavings are super-high in carbon, and their carbon will absorb all of the plant-feeding nitrogen in your soil in its quest to decompose. After it DOES decompose, the soil WILL be richer, but for that first year or two it’ll be a plant graveyard.

It’s even tricky to compost the stuff. As I often explain, the best compost is made by combining carbon-rich “dry brown” material, like shredded Fall leaves, with “wet green” sources of nitrogen, like grass clippings and kitchen waste. Sawdust is a ‘dry brown’ material, but it’s a much more highly concentrated form of carbon than leaves.

When you combine the recommended four parts of shredded leaves and one part green waste, it’s fairly easy for most of the dry brown material to come into contact with most of the green waste. But when you’re talking sawdust, you’d have to limit yourself to VERY small amounts to avoid going way out of whack on approximating the correct 30 to 1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

I’d guess that if you were using kitchen waste for your green material, the correct ratio would be a cup or two of sawdust to about five gallons of garbage. It just wouldn’t work; there isn’t enough carbonaceous material to ‘touch’ most of the garbage and start the composting reaction going.

Theoretically, you could mix up equal amounts of sawdust and a very hot nitrogen material like blood meal and get it to cook. But it doesn’t make much sense financially, and you wouldn’t get much compost for your trouble. And I can’t imagine trying it with kitchen waste or other low-nitrogen materials. Many listeners have told me they tried mixing saw dust or wood shavings with green waste in one of those tumbling drum systems that allows for easy turning and it just sat there, despite their giving it a good tumble several times a day.

BUT this does NOT mean that you can’t compost your wood waste! Wood IS a natural substance and it will become a soil-like material; just not in the average home compost pile or drum system. The easiest answer is to just pile it up and allow it to break down naturally, which will take several years. As with all compost piles, the stuff on the bottom will be ready first, so I’d check things out close to the ground after a year or two.

You should be able to reduce the time involved by mixing in some nitrogen-rich material and turning the pile on a regular basis. Coffee grounds are a great choice; they’re nitrogen (and calcium) rich and should be investment-free. Any café you frequent should be happy to slip you some, and Starbucks stores have a “Grounds for Gardeners” program where they give away their used coffee grounds in five-pound sacks.

Other high-nitro items you could use include blood meal (available bagged at garden centers), crab and shrimp shells (free for the taking but difficult to work with and very attractive to varmints) and bat and sea bird guanos (also available bagged; or you can offer to shovel out the Bat Cave while Alfred is on vacation).

If you have lots of sawdust, you should definitely give it a try. Experiment and be patient; and remember that no matter what you do, it will take a while to break down, and only very rich sources of nitrogen will help it do so faster. This is no place for kitchen scraps.

Oh, and I would hope that this is obvious, but don’t use pressure treated wood, old railroad ties or other toxic wood in any form. Any sawdust from treated wood should be disposed of safely and legally—not in your landscape or even in the woods.

And finally, I think it would be a real good idea to separate out the sawdust from that walnut wood. As you probably already know, black walnut—the type most often used in woodworking—contains juglone, a naturally occurring compound that stunts the growth of (or just plain kills) many other plants, especially tomatoes and other popular backyard crops. Although the concentrations are highest in the roots, there is some juglone in every part of the tree, and compost made from black walnut sawdust might send some of your most prized plants to sing in the Choir Invisible.

Keep a bucket labeled for walnut handy, and use that sawdust as a killing mulch on plants you want to eliminate.

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Sawdust For Garden Use – Tips For Using Sawdust As A Garden Mulch

Mulching with sawdust is a common practice. Sawdust is acidic, making it a good mulch choice for acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons and blueberries. Using sawdust for mulch can be an easy and economical choice, as long as you take a couple simple precautions. Keep reading for more information on mulching with sawdust.

How Can You Use Sawdust as Mulch?

Some people who put sawdust down as mulch in their garden shave noticed a decline in their plants’ health, leading them to believe that sawdust is toxic to plants. This is not the case. Sawdust is woody material that needs nitrogen to decompose. This means that as it biodegrades, the process may draw nitrogen out of the soil and away from your plants’ roots, making them weaker. This is much more of a problem if you incorporate the sawdust directly into the soil than if you use it as a mulch, but even with mulch, it’s still worthwhile to take precautions.

Precautions When Using Sawdust for Garden Use

The best way to prevent nitrogen loss when you use sawdust as a garden mulch is simply to add extra nitrogen with its application. Before laying the sawdust down, mix 1 pound of actual nitrogen with every 50 pounds of dry sawdust. (This amount should cover a 10 x 10 foot area in your garden.) One pound of actual nitrogen is the same thing as 3 pounds of ammonium nitrate or 5 pounds of ammonium sulfate.

Lay the sawdust out to a depth of 1 to 1 ½ inches, taking care not to pile it up around the trunks of trees and shrubs, as this can encourage rot.

Sawdust can decompose at a fast rate and compact upon itself, so if you use sawdust as a garden mulch, you will probably have to replenish it and refluff it every year.

By Joseph Farley

All avid woodworkers and weekend carpenters know one thing is inevitable when working with wood, like death and taxes—sawdust. All that drilling, sawing, and sanding create piles and piles of the stuff. Even if you hire an outside hand or a professional contractor for home construction, you’ll still be dealing with sawdust.

Oftentimes, cleaning the pesky stuff up can be as much work as the project itself that created it in the first place. If you’re going through all that trouble and have such an excess of leftover material, then you might as well go green and get something out of it.

Check out the 10 surprising uses for sawdust, and when you’re through reading this article, hopefully, you’ll be convinced that you’re sitting on a pile of treasure rather than trash.

1: Tough on Nasty Spills

The garage and driveway can often be a magnet for hard-to-clean spills like oil and gasoline – we’ve all had that car that hemorrhages oil all over the driveway at some point, haven’t we? Sawdust can be quite effective at cleaning those spills up at virtually no cost to you.

Sprinkle sawdust directly onto the stain, wait a few minutes, and then sweep the sawdust and the stain should come away with it- repeat as often as needed. There’s a reason the janitor at your school would throw some sawdust down after that kid who always vomited stuck again – it’s cheap and highly effective at soaking up nasty spills.

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2: Make Mulch

Instead of buying multiple bags of high-priced mulch for your garden, you can just as easily spread sawdust around the base of your flower garden. Often sawdust will do the job just as good as store-bought mulch at preventing weeds and retaining moisture – sometimes even better!

If you decide to use sawdust in place of mulch, just be sure to add a nitrogen component to your soil first. This is as easy as mixing it in shortly before you lay the mulch, and it’s recommended that you use 1 pound of nitrogen for every 50 pounds of sawdust.

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3: Perfect for Pets

Sawdust is great at soaking up moisture and odors, so it can be effectively used in place of kitty litter, which quite frankly, can be costly and smell awful. You can also use it for cleanup when your kitten inevitably misses the litter box or your brand new puppy doesn’t quite make it all the way outside.

Simply sprinkle sawdust over pet accidents for a quick and economical cleanup. Or, use it for caged pets like mice, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs. They’ll love having fresh, clean sawdust to make a comfortable living area for themselves.

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4: Starting Fires

Ditch the newspaper and all that potentially harmful ink next time you’re trying to get a fire going, sawdust is safer and far more effective. It doesn’t matter if you have a fireplace, a backyard fire pit, or are planning on a beach bonfire, sawdust can help get the fire going for you.

Sprinkle a generous amount of sawdust along the bottom to create a base, and then place your twigs and logs over it. You’ll find that you need way less (if any) newspaper to get the fire going anymore, and, it will burn faster.

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5: Great for Gardening

One of the most surprising uses for sawdust is how great it goes in the garden. If you pride yourself on your green thumb and you aren’t taking advantage of saw dust, are you truly getting the most from your garden? It can really work wonders for your soil.

Also, it can be great for growing delicious mushrooms. In nature, mushrooms grow on fallen trees and logs, or, in simpler terms, wood. So, it makes tons of sense that you can use sawdust to start your own mushroom bed. Just mix the sawdust with a little organic compost, add mushroom spawn, and keep the mixture moist.

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6: Fill Wood Holes

Here’s a great tip that the pros use to fill holes, cracks, and pesky gouges in wood: use sawdust. Mix the sawdust from the same wood you’d like to repair with wood glue until you get a putty-like consistency. Then, use it to fill in the damaged areas.

Bonus—the color of your filler will exactly match the wood you’re repairing, so no need to worry about aesthetically unappealing inconsistencies.

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7: Weed Killer

Sawdust from wood, especially walnut, is a natural weed killer. Weeds can be a serious pest in any garden, lawn, or driveway, so take advantage of some of the amazing properties of sawdust. You can simply sprinkle some in your garden or law, or sweep some of it into the cracks and crevices of your driveway. Sawdust contains Juglone, a chemical toxic to many plants that tend to pop up in undesirable areas.

Nobody likes the look of weeds on their property, as they often make it look run-down and abandoned. Never worry about that again as long as you remember to save your leftover sawdust.

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8: Great for Traction

When workers are logging in harsh conditions – like an ice-cold winter – they will often throw down a base of sawdust to give their trucks traction. It helps compact the snow, giving them safe passage and protection the ground beneath.

This can easily be extrapolated and used in your driveway and neighborhood during a snowstorm, and it makes for a great addition to any roadside safety kit, as you never know when you might need additional traction.

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9: Clean Floors

Sawdust isn’t just highly effective at soaking up nasty spills – it is also a subtle yet powerful cleaning agent. Take your excess sawdust, moisten it with a bit of water, and use it to sweep up your garage or patio floor.

Your wet sawdust will absorb and collect all that unwanted dirt and grime, leaving your floors looking spotless. This works especially well on concrete, which we will dive further into below.

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10: Protect Concrete

Extend the life of your concrete floors by using a wet sawdust cleaning solution every now and again. The sawdust will subtly bond with your concrete, giving it a softer surface that will make it more resistant to outside damage.

Sawdust works so well with all kinds of materials, and it has long been used to lighten up cement. The versatility of sawdust is truly incredible, and the fact that it can protect tougher materials is one of the most surprising uses of sawdust.

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When you’re working with wood, sawdust is unavoidable. You’d be shocked by the number of people who toss this versatile material into the trash without as much as a second thought.

But, if you start using some of the tips and tricks above, you’ll find that sawdust is more valuable then you ever imagined, and the 10 surprising uses for sawdust prove this in spades.

Images used with permission, courtesy of www..com

Sawdust is my Slave

My father, Rupert Stephens (1896-1976) originally wrote this article entitled “Sawdust is My Slave.” It was first published in The B.C. Farmer in the Spring of 1951 and created such a wide interest, resulting in a sell-out of that issue. The B.C. Farmer included the article again in a later issue; it was also reprinted in a leading Ukrainian journal in Winnipeg.

Sawdust Is My Slave
Goldstream Berry Paradise roadside stand, Vancouver Island, 1952.

On my Vancouver Island Berry Farm sawdust is the Slave, which used as a mulch, emancipates me from hundreds of arduous hours of work every year. Also, protected by the golden carpet of sawdust that covers most of my fields, are many millions of wriggling earthworms that work for me the year round, enjoying an earthworm paradise, shielded from extremes of burning heat, drought and frost. More about the earthworm’s work later.

Every year I see my fellow fruit and vegetable farmers leaning more and more heavily on bigger and better machines in order to combat the cost and scarcity of dependable farm labour. From my sawdust viewpoint, these farmers are using expensive machines, gas and oil to rip up and destroy fiber and humus, the very life blood of their soil. Faulkner in Plowman’s Folly urged farmers to throw away their plows. After 13 years with sawdust I would say throw away all your implements especially Faulkner’s pet, the Disc harrow. Please bear in mind I am only referring to one type of farming and gardening – fruit, vegetables and flower culture, on a large or small scale. Home gardeners on the Coast are having wonderful results with Sawdust Mulch, and there are plenty of piles of sawdust scattered all through Canada and the U.S. crying out to be used.

Modern super-cultivation causes casualties in astronomical figures to the unseen inhabitants of the soil. I am referring to the numerous beneficial types of soil bacteria and fungus that are absolutely necessary for healthy plant growth, and for the health of the people or animals that eat it. It is true that as a novelty or emergency measure, plants can be grown in pure sterile sand or water to which has been added a chemical solution. Let the other fellow eat the produce grown in this matter – not my family, or the customers that buy my produce – but, back to sawdust.

In order to explain how I gradually got to the point when my only machines are a couple of stream-lined wheelbarrows and an old truck, I shall have to give you a short history of my farming operation for the last two decades or so. From 1926 I operated an 89 acre berry, vegetable farm in a beautiful valley near Duncan on Vancouver Island, “Mountain Valley Farm”. I had rather indifferent success, to put it mildly. Prices were desperately low and I followed the conventional methods, plowing every spring and fall. When in my teens I received a swift kick in the right place, and was told the dust mulch must be preserved, come what might! So I ripped through my berry rows faithfully all summer long and the Dust Mulch was maintained! In self defense, I will say that seeing my cultivator breaking off and pulling out the best of the fibrous feeding roots as I traveled the straight and narrow path between my berries, did worry me a bit, but still – that kick had been swift and sure! Here we come to the beginning of the path that eventually led me to the use of sawdust. The start of the sawdust trail was rocky! I inherited the family farm, my heritage was beautiful but stony. How stony? Well, if I had a dollar bill for every rock I picked off those fields since childhood, I would be on the right side of the dawn line…

Along about ‘36 I got rather tired of looking at the rocks that the cultivator kept throwing up on top of the ground, accompanied by berry roots, earthworms, etc., so I decided to try covering some of them up with a mulch. I started with my raspberry patch. The first mulch I used was marsh hay, and straw. Oh how nice those berry rows looked, down for the winter. No rocks, no dust, no mud. They looked fine until the spring when the grass seeds in the hay and the grain that had escaped the thresher started to germinate. By May the rows were waist-high with a luxurious growth of grass and grain (weeds to a berry farmer). I was forced to hire a small army of girls to pull these weeds by hand, for I was determined not to disturb the mulch, but even counting the money I had spent in weed pulling, I was ahead of the game: The raspberry crop was terrific, ten tons to the acre were harvested, even after some had been lost through wet weather. From then on I was a confirmed mulcher, but no more straw or hay went on my berry patches.

Next fall for my mulch I hit on bracken fern which could be had for the cutting. We spent most of our winter, in open spells of weather, harvesting bracken. It was an arduous job, but it paid off. By ‘39 every crop on the farm was under a permanent mulch. These crops included Raspberries, Boysenberries, and an acre or so of Orchard. How the strawberry pickers loved to kneel on soft, springy fern – that is until they happened to kneel on an extra large or sharp rock buried under the mulch!

By this time I was using sawdust on a small scale and in very timid manner. Even these small experiments were looked on with horror by neighbors and friends. The unanimous opinion was that sawdust was poison to the soil; also it brought cutworm, wireworm, earwigs, etc. By now I had reached the age when I took a little advice now and then, so I proceeded cautiously. There was a real reason for the universal distrust of sawdust, for plants grown in soil that has sawdust mixed into it, usually look as though they are poisoned, leaves turned yellow and mangy-looking. They are not poisoned really, but starved. Science has discovered by research and experiments, that if sawdust, straw or other woody plant substance comes into intimate contact with the soil, the beneficial bacteria feed on it, increase mightily, finally break the sawdust or other material down to a point where plants can feed on it. Unfortunately this woody diet does not entirely satisfy our little friends, so they consume the more tasty (I hope) and nutritious nitrogen, until there is none of this vital leaf-growing element left in the soil for the crop’s use. This is only a temporary situation, for after the bacteria die, the plants can feed on their nitrogen-packed remains; but all this takes time, and with crop ruined, and the fall payment on the mortgage due, it is better to live in the present.

When sawdust is laid on top of the ground as a mulch, the bacteria are greatly stimulated, with subsequent nitrogen depletion. This can be overcome by an extra dose of nitrogen (as in chicken manure). When sawdust is mixed with the soil, such enormous quantities of nitrogen are needed that the process would be absolutely impractical on a field scale. It also upsets the structure of light soils and lets too much air into them. For an example of nitrogen depletion, I had two beautiful rows of raspberries 6 feet high after being severely topped. These rows were mulched with sawdust and fed lavishly with poultry manure (which is especially high in nitrogen). I had allowed a forest of young canes to grow up between the rows, to sell for nursery stock. When it came to digging time in March I instructed the man who was to harvest them to pull them out instead of digging, which was the usual, method as I did not want to mix too much earth with the sawdust surfaces. I made the fatal mistake of not telling him the reason I wanted them pulled instead of dug. He started pulling them, broke a few off at ground level and being an intelligent Canadian with initiative picked up his shovel and dug the plants out. I discovered my mistake before he had started in the second row. By June, the row that been dug and in which the soil and sawdust were beautifully mixed in intimate contact was actually dying from starvation. The crop was lost, while on the adjoining rows, the berries were almost as large as loganberries.

As I mentioned before, the gathering of bracken was a very large undertaking. We had also branched out into other mulches, pine needles, leaf mold form the woods, maple leaves, even shredded paper. We used many tons of old cardboard to smother out bad weed patches. All these materials gave good results, but with the war coming on, labor was getting too expensive and scarce. Threat of fire was a constant worry, we used to lie awake at night wondering what would happen to Mountain Valley Farm if some careless smoker tossed a smoldering butt into our tinder-dry mulch. Barrels of water and buckets were set up in every field, but if a fire had developed at night we would have been wiped out completely. Sawdust, of course, will burn, but at a very slow rate when laid flat on soil surface, and a sudden flash fire would be almost impossible.

Just as the sight of my stony fields and the wear and tear on hoes and implements needled me into starting to mulch, so did the harassing worry over the hazard of fire in the bracken and other mulches start us off using sawdust in a big way. Costs also influenced me. It was costing up to $200.00 per year, per acre to gather and spread the fern; leaves and pine needles cost even more. Although our crops realized one to two thousand dollars per acre, the price of mulch came too high, as there were plenty of other costs to tack on.

Sawdust was the answer. From then on SAWDUST WAS MY SLAVE, it saved me from plowing, harrowing, cultivating, weeding. It kept all my berries clean and free from dust and grit. The soil beneath it was always damp and cool, never packed down by wheels, plow soles, etc., or baked by the sun. My earthworms in the Utopia I had created for them, worked day and night to improve my soil by burrowing through it, digesting and spreading humus. I couldn’t lose, for when they died, I still had their remains to provide my plants with rich plant food. The sawdust beautified my fields, fall, winter and early spring. Instead of the usual depressing gray winter landscapes, I now had a rich patchwork of color, varying from golden orange to rich brown. It gave me quite a lift. I had never had a slave before, except my wife, but this didn’t put me far ahead for I was her devoted slave also, so this was a new experience.

…By 1947 all the berry and vegetable crops had a permanent carpet of sawdust.

About this time we felt we would like to make a new start, from scratch in a new undeveloped area, and use the experience we had gained the hard way, to develop the perfect Dream Berry Farm with a large drive-in roadside market.

Mountain Valley Farm was put on the market, and not without a few tears, for it was a beautiful farm, and a lot of us had gone into the making of it. We than began our search for our Dream Location. This was found on the Island Highway at Goldstream, 10 miles from Victoria. Motor traffic was heavy, but the scenery was wild and unspoiled. All the land was covered with dense forest. After many financial and physical struggles, we sold Mountain Valley and moved to a hastily-built log cabin, near our Highway property. We were determined to use our new method from the start, so having found that plowing was unnecessary we did not plow. The ground was cleared, leveled off with a bulldozer, then heavily manured to provide the necessary soil bacteria, usually lacking in cleared land. This completed, the land was planted. To save time, the strawberry plants were pressed into the soil with our boot-heels, and then covered with two or tree inches of sawdust. No leaves were showing after planting was completed, just a clear expanse of sawdust, but we felt it would work – and it did; but oh! Those anxious weeks of waiting for the new leaves to push their way through. This first planting was the Ever-bearing type of strawberry. Planted in March, they started bearing in July of the same year, and we were still picking large luscious berries, when a hard frost cut us off in early November.

Although we only started operations in spring of ‘49, during that summer and fall our roadside stand was packed with sawdust-grown produce. Even the raspberries bore a good crop the first year planted. During ‘50, results were so good that we felt our dreams were really coming true.

It had never occurred to us when we located the Goldstream Berry Paradise, but the place is a natural showcase to demonstrate sawdust culture. It rises from the Highway in three natural plateaus, each of which is in clear view to passers-by. Every summer day brings streams of seeking visitors, some impressed by Sawdust Culture, some just curious at seeing sawdust piled and scattered everywhere. Many of these visitors forget we have berries for sale, much to my wife’s amusement, as they march past her display of berries, intent on sawdust, and nothing else! Some are earthworm enthusiasts, who burrow into the sawdust to seek for worms. There is always a sprinkling of Simon-pure organi-culturalists seeking for signs of horrid chemical fertilizers! A great many want information, which is hard to hand out, during the 14-hour daily rush of the berry season, but we do the best we can, and revel in it.

From the selling end, our present location is everything we could wish for, but the soil is much poorer than at Mountain Valley, and there is an even larger quantity of rock and gravel to veil in sawdust…I just simply would not have tackled this dry, gravely soil, if it had not been for sawdust.

During ‘49 the first year we operated at Goldstream many of the visitors came in for a very different purpose. Well-meaning, but serious and foreboding in manner, they came to warn of the horrible things that sawdust would do to my soil. They mostly went away reassured, when I told the of my past experiences, but a few went away muttering.

All our vegetables for home consumption are grown with sawdust. Carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, etc., are sown thinly on bare ground (broadcast to avoid thinning) in beds 30 inches wide and one half to one inch of sawdust is scattered over them. Peas, beans, etc. can stand more sawdust on top of seeds.

At the rate that people are starting to use sawdust, the mountains of sawdust that litter B.C. may soon disappear. Incidentally, I have used the following variations of sawdust with good results: fir, cedar, hemlock, balsam, alder and maple. I prefer coarse Douglas fir, but any of the others will do.
A Summary of the Pros and Cons of Sawdust Follows:

Disadvantages

  • As a practical farmer, who has wrung a living for 25 years from the soil, I can’t see much place for Sawdust Culture in large-scale farming operations. It might not even be practical for potato growing, because it is hard to avoid mixing soil with sawdust when harvesting the crop. We overcome this on our small scale operations by just pulling them out of the sawdust by hand, or with a wooden paddle. If planted in top of bare ground and covered with 6 inches of sawdust, the potato crop will form on the soil surface. And what lovely clean potatoes we get!
  • There is no place for Sawdust Culture on cold, poorly drained soil, as the mulch would intensify those unfavorable conditions.
  • Sawdust has a tendency to make crops later than when grown with cultivation, so we use this tendency to our advantage to prolong the harvesting season.
  • Sawdust is not a plant food or fertilizer, although it does contain traces of elements needed by plants, and in few years it will make valuable humus and give the earthworms something to work on and thus improve texture and tone of soil. More nitrogen must be used with sawdust; we prefer organic, such as manure, seaweed, etc… Don’t expect sawdust to smother couch grass, thistles, etc. Clean your soil of perennial weeds before you start. Don’t use it for heat-loving plants such as corn, peppers, etc., unless a late harvest is desired.

Advantages

  • Work can be spread out over the year. Sawdust can be applied in slack seasons. With conventional methods, there a hectic period of hoeing and cultivating in May and June, with the permanent mulch this is avoided.
  • No Hoeing. Good hoe-ers are apparently not born any more, but it is easy to go through the patches with baskets, and pull out weeds before they seed.
  • All berries and produce are clean, no grit or dirt is splashed on them, and pickers can kneel in comfort.
  • If irrigation is practiced, water costs are cut by 50% at least, evaporation from the soil is almost nil. When watering with sprinklers, the water is absorbed at once, without puddles forming. No more cement-like soil surface as caused when sun comes out after heavy rain. No more compacting of soil with heavy implements.
  • Freedom from pests and disease. Many authorities claim that stirring the soil upsets nature’s balance and encourages pests and disease. I don’t claim that this is so, but my sprayer is rusting unused, and no disease is discernible. Many other growers have had the same experience in this respect. In my present location the soil is very warm and gravely, an ideal spot for the June bug, which devastates many such spots on our Island. The fields all around me are swarming with these horrible pests, which actually kill standing plants. I have only lost two plants in two years. The June bug likes heat and dry soil, and my soil under the sawdust is too cool and damp to suit them.
  • All growth is healthy, because it is continuous, unchecked by periods of drought, and then in turn stimulated by wet periods. I think this is a very important point in plant health, as continuous, steady growth means proper ripening in the fall, thus avoiding winter damage.

Ordinary weed seeds in the soil are absolutely kept from germination by 3 or 4 inches of sawdust. The soil improves in texture year by year. A plot at Mountain Valley that had been continuously mulched for 3 years, was, to a gardener’s eye, a beautiful spongy mass of black humus and fibre, honeycombed by earthworm’s tunnels, and almost moving with worms. The larger the worm population in your soil, the nearer you are to healthy plants and to healthy people who will eat the produce from those plants. The earthworms gradually bury and digest the decomposed sawdust, and their deep shafts and tunnels enable plant roots to penetrate into the subsoil where many minor minerals are obtainable. These minor elements very often hold the balance of plant and human health.

Many leading growers are switching to sawdust. The famous Palmer Bulb Gardens at Cherry point are making full use of it. Herb Warren, alert Superintendent of Victoria’s beautiful Parks, uses it among shrubbery and perennials. George Townsend of Somenos Lake, lifelong and expert horticulturist, has conducted experiments with sawdust and no digging for ten years or so. This enthusiast, now in his 70’s, has gleefully thrown away his spade and digging fork. Newman, in his home garden at Duncan, has had visitors beating a path to his door this summer to see his flourishing garden, etc.

On my ten-mile drive to Victoria, I see dozens of gardeners using sawdust for the first time. Some of their methods make me shudder, but then I have caused many people to shudder in my time too, so who am I to talk? Anyway, my cultivator can rust in the shed, and my hoe can hang on the wall, as long as I have Sawdust for My Slave.

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