So you have watched the Back to Eden documentary. Maybe you have parked yourself in front of YouTube to soak in a four-hour video tour of Paul Gautschi’s garden too. Either way you are convinced: you have to try this Back to Eden, deep mulch, no-till gardening method. All you have to do is get your hands on some free wood chips, right?
One of the most common posts I see on Facebook forums devoted to Back to Eden gardening is people asking how to get wood chips, because it can be difficult and they have been striking out in their search. On the other hand, there are also plenty of celebratory posts in the forums showing huge piles of freshly delivered wood chips. Authors rejoice in delight after finally obtaining their first load of chips (there are usually a bunch of happy emojis and exclamation points too!).
From my experience and observing what others have gone through, getting wood chips varies from either being drop dead simple because you know someone who works for a tree service to being almost impossible if none of them are located in your immediate area.
Based on my experience and collecting the insights from 35,000+ gardeners in the Back to Eden Facebook forums, I have found 8 ways that these folks (including me) have used to find FREE wood chips. Below I have listed them in order from most agonizing (requires the most time/energy from you) to most likely to get you a huge pile of garden covering that you desire for a healthy happy garden (and gardener).
Here they are:
#1 Chip Your Own
It takes a lot of branches, leaves, and tree limbs to get any appreciable amount of wood chips for covering a garden. But if you have access to a chipper and need wood chips, this will get you there…slowly.
I don’t recommend chipping your own as it is very tedious work for not a lot of return. A friend and I had what we thought was a fairly large pile of brush from pruning some trees on his property. We used a homeowner-sized chipper to make wood chips out of the pile for his garden. Unfortunately, after about 20 or 30 minutes we had maybe a cubic foot of chipped tree waste, which is only enough to cover 2-3 square feet of garden.
Even residential-sized wood chippers that can handle branches up to 3 inches (8 cm) are fairly costly (upwards of $500 new). If you can get a deal on a used one, it may be more economical, but it certainly isn’t all that efficient. Don’t forget that your “free” wood chips are now costing you a lot.
If you have access to one of the larger chippers that professional tree services use, by all means, go to town on your tree waste. It may be possible for you to “chip in” with like-minded friends and neighbors to purchase a large chipper if that works out for all of you. But please be careful if you choose to use one of them. I have used one of these before when I was helping a friend who owns a landscaping company and they can injure you in an instant if you do not use them properly and follow safety procedures.
#2 – Search Google for Tree Services and CALL All of Them
Search Google for “tree services near me” and a map will show up with local results. Call all of them (you will have a much better response rate than email) and ask if they are willing to deliver a load of wood chips. If they take down your information, usually that means you will never hear back, but you never know when they could be in your area and you could get a call out of the blue.
Cold calling usually is pretty uncomfortable for most people, but what is the worst that could happen? They could just say no. No harm, no foul.
In general, cold calling every tree service I could find and asking for a delivery was not very fruitful, even if I offered to pay. Your mileage my vary, however. It usually depends on how convenient it is for a tree service crew to get to you. Tree services are businesses that need to make a profit and driving their huge gas-guzzling dump trucks out of their way is not going to happen. Also, after big storms come through, they are busy and don’t usually have extra time to be finding places to drop chips that are far from where they are working.
Even though I was not successful in getting wood chips delivered when I called every one I could find, I did happen to find a tree service that gave me permission to come and load up my own. I had to drive to a field behind the lot where they parked their trucks and equipment. This is where they dumped wood chips after jobs. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but it was a start!
#3 Call Your Local Municipality or Utility Company
Ask them what they do with landscape waste from their crews. Some cities and towns have their own crews and dump wood chips at the city maintenance facility where they will sit for eternity never to be used again. The town I lived in was the headquarters for the local electric co-op, when I called they already had a list of homeowners who wanted mulch going. You have to get yourself on that list and be prepared for a call someday.
#4 Keep Your Eyes Open for Tree Service Crews Working
I have been the most successful by simply being on the lookout when I are out and talking to every tree service that I saw and asking if they can get me a load of chips. I am guilty of following a crew in their truck for a few miles to see if they were going to stop.
When you see a crew filling up at a gas station or working on the side of the road, strike up a conversation and build some rapport. Always be respectful and polite. They are usually pretty happy to take a short break. Some of the larger crews will have a foreman who can get away from paperwork and working up estimates for the next job to talk to you.
I once was on my way to work and saw a crew taking a break and stopped and asked for a delivery, and they packed up and followed me to my house and dropped off a full truckload. I thought I was in luck, but it turns out their next call was in my neighborhood. It was worth being a little late to work that morning.
The closer they are to where you want the wood chips dumped to the better chance you have of getting them to come at the end of the day or between jobs.
#5 Be A Storm Chaser
Whenever a major storm comes through my area, the tree services follow close behind. It is pretty common for tree services from rural areas to move into more urban and suburban areas where there is more than enough work to go around. If you see some downed trees from a recent storm, stop by and talk with the property owner. Ask them if they are hiring a tree service and if they will pass your contact information along when come to do the job.
Similarly, tree service companies will drop flyers off in neighborhoods (with mature trees) to drum up more business. I will always call them and tell them that if any of the neighbors hire them, they can leave all of the wood chips with me.
#6 Chip Drop
Check out the website https://getchipdrop.com. This website connects arborists and tree services to users who would like to obtain mulch. You simply sign up with your address and phone number and leave a description of where you want your chips dumped. You can optionally enter credit card information and specify an amount you are willing to pay to receive a load from a tree service. The website says that half of the deliveries made through their website are for free, so paying isn’t necessary, but probably will get the attention of the tree service (money gets your attention, doesn’t it?).
You may have success with getchipdrop.com, but I have not had any to date. I have attempted to tell tree service companies about this website when I talked with them and have them sign up, but as far as I know none have done so in my area. However, several members of the Back to Eden Facebook groups have had success and I still believe it is worth a try. If you do sign up, I would recommend emailing the address on the website and asking them to get local arborists and tree services in your area to sign up as well. There is no reason that such a useful material like wood chip mulch should just sit in a landfill.
Use https://getchipdrop.com no matter what you do. It can’t hurt, but it could help. If cold calling tree services is just not your style, this can be a great alternative. (Note: I do not have any affiliation with getchipdrop.com.)
#7 Ask Around Whenever You See Tree Mulch
Every time I visited a garden, business, homeowner, farm, you name it and saw what looked like a mulch that I could use in my garden, I asked where they got it from. You never know when you will find someone who “knows a guy” that can hook you up. If anything you have now found a tree service that is familiar with and willing to deliver wood chips.
#8 Have Some Tree Work Done
Okay, this may not be totally free since you have to pay for the tree service company to do the work. But if you need some tree work done on your property, there is no better way to get wood chips than to hire a tree company and require that they leave the wood chips as part of the contract. They are already coming to your property anyway. Usually this is a no-brainer since it will be less work for them anyway. Better yet, you know exactly where the wood chips came from. Talk about local and sustainable!
Before I started gardening with a mulch covering, I had a tree service come and remove a honeylocust that was right next to my garden. It shaded a large portion of it and the roots were all over the place. If only I had known then the power of covering the soil with a deep mulch. Oh well, live and learn.
If you are in this same situation or are starting a new garden and there is a tree in the way, this may be just the thing to help get you started. You get the double bonus of removing shade and unwanted roots and obtaining a large amount of mulch happening at the same time.
If you need a lot of wood chips (like when you are getting started covering your garden), you can even ask that they bring the chipper truck loaded up with chips and dump them first, then dump the chips from the job at your property.
Finally, ask around your neighborhood and find some neighbors that need tree work done before you call the tree service. Tell them you have a few folks in the neighborhood who need tree work. You’ll end up with even more chips, and might even get yourself a discount on the tree work in the process for drumming up some business.
Be Persistent and Develop a Relationship
As with many things in life, it pays to be persistent. Always be on the look out for opportunities to find and use what others consider to be waste. Using wood chips to mulch your garden is a perfect solution to that “problem”.
Once you get a tree service to make a delivery, build a relationship with them so they will come back or even call you next time they are in the area. A few years ago a utility crew was working in my neighborhood taking down hazard trees and they agreed to drop off wood chips at my house. When they came I wasn’t home, but I had drawn arrows on my driveway with sidewalk chalk exactly where I wanted the chips to be dropped, and left a 12-pack of cold soda and a $20 bill with a note that said “lunch is on me”.
They came back and dropped chips again a few days later and I was set for two years. Hey, it never hurts to grease the skids a little.
(Photo Credit: Adam Kauffmann, Burns, TN. Check out Adam’s Peacock Hollow Farm on Facebook.)