When you get started with Back to Eden gardening, the first step is usually obtaining some wood chips. However, most gardeners get their wood chips from a tree service or utility crew who delivers a huge load all at once (or multiple loads if you are fortunate enough to get them to keep coming back). Since unloading wood chips isn’t usually part of their business, you really can’t flag down an arborist crew and say “Can I have 3 cubic yards of the chips in the back of your truck?”. Well, I guess you could but it would probably only get you a foreman who thanks you for “…needing a good laugh today”.
No, you get what is in the back of the truck.
But how do you know if the amount of chips that you just received will be enough to cover your existing garden (or start a new garden)? To help you plan your new garden or see how much of your existing garden can be covered, I have provided a quick analysis, with just a little math (don’t worry not too much) to calculate it out.
The official Back to Eden Film website recommends 3-4 inches of compost and 2-4 inches of wood chips on top of that. I was never able to find that much compost from a source I trusted at a reasonable cost, so I typically put down as much compost as I could get (it was always less than 1 inch) and then 4-6 inches of wood chips. From my experience in covering an existing garden, I found that 4-6 inches of wood chips like Paul Gautschi originally placed on his garden many years ago was sufficient for me when starting out. I tended to put more wood chips in the areas where I knew “tough” weeds were an existing problem or grass was likely to re-invade (like the area near the edges of the garden).
The Math-y Part
The amount of wood chips that you will need in that range is roughly:
4-6 inches deep x 12 inches/foot long x 12 inches/foot wide = 576-864 inches3/sq. ft. = ⅓ – ½ cubic feet/square foot
So, to say that in words: to adequately cover my garden with 4-6 inches of wood chip mulch, I needed one-third to one-half of a cubic foot of wood chip mulch to cover one square foot of garden space.
If you have a vehicle, trailer, or container and know its capacity, here is the calculation to convert garden size (in square feet) to # of loads needed based on the volume of your container (in cubic feet) if you put down 6 inches of wood chips:
Garden Area / ( 2 * capacity of container ) = # of loads
If you have compost available and are going to use fewer wood chips (like 2-4 inches that are recommended) the calculation is:
(inches of wood chips) * Garden Area / ( 12 * capacity of container ) = # of loads
A Handy Lookup Table
Below is a handy table to help you estimate how many wood chips you will need for your garden size. I have added how many loads of chips you will need from the standard sizes of a wheelbarrow, the bed of a pickup truck, and of a dump truck commonly used by tree services.
We’ll assume that you are going to cover the garden with 6 inches of wood chips just to be conservative:
Wood Chips Needed @ 6” deep
|# of Wheelbarrows @ 6 cubic feet/load||Pickup Trucks loads @ 2.5 cubic yards/load||Tree Service Truck loads @ 10 cubic yards/load|
|25||12.5||2||1/5th of truck bed||—|
|50||25||4||1/3rd of truck bed||—|
|100||50||8||3/4ths of truck bed||—|
(Note that 1 cubic yard = 27 cubic feet = 46,565 cubic inches)
You’ll notice that I skipped putting in a value for how many tree service truck loads it will take to build a 100 square foot garden or less. That is a huge amount of wood chips to obtain for such a small area. If you are going to just try out Back to Eden gardening on a 100 square foot section of your existing garden, it may be worthwhile to get a whole load if you have other uses for it. If the wood chips are more woody and less green (fewer branches and leaves), this is a great material to put down on walkways, trails, and landscape plantings. The less green there is, the slower the wood chips will break down, and the longer it will be before you have to re-apply more.
For my first Back to Eden garden, I converted about 600 square feet and used my little 4’ x 8’ landscaping trailer to haul wood chips to my house. When I couldn’t even get a tree service to deliver if I paid them, I took matters into my own hands and found a free pile of wood chips advertised on Craigslist. That little trailer holds about 20 cubic feet if I piled the chips high and put a tarp over it. I had to do that since I was hauling it all 10 or 15 miles of 3-lane freeway during the evening rush hour. That means that I took roughly 15 trips to the tree service yard that wouldn’t deliver to me. Good thing it was on my way back home from work!
What About An Orchard?
If you are starting an orchard or covering an existing orchard, Paul recommends a 12-16 inches of wood chips as a covering. To calculate this, simply double the number of loads needed from the table above per square foot of orchard space for a 12 inch covering.
Seems Like A Lot
Some people get a little discouraged when they see how many wood chips it would take to cover their garden. I wouldn’t let that phase you at all. The best way to get started is to just get whatever you can, and cover what you can with it. Even if you can only cover a small portion of your garden, a little Back to Eden is better than none. This is what I did. The results were so positive from the section of garden that I covered first, that I was HIGHLY motivated to find more wood chips to keep covering more soil for better gardens.
Also, you can totally have a Back to Eden garden if you don’t have a single wood chip. Ruth Stout and many other have proven that any organic mulch covering can do wonders. They all suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Use whatever material you can get your hands on and start there!
(Photo Credit: Fellow Back to Eden gardener Janice from Alvarado, TX. A freshly-delivered wood chip pile with accompanying compost. Got a picture you are proud of from your garden? Contact me and it might get into my book!)