Growth of the Soil
Tilling in Ramial Chipped Wood

As a gardener, growth of the soil is very important to me. Poor soil causes so many unnecessary problems for the gardener, such as:

  • Disease ravaged plants
  • Root eating Nematodes
  • Insect damage
  • A surplus of weeds
  • Water that runs off instead of soaking in
  • Plants that scavenge their bottom leaves to grow upper leaves and produce fruit
  • Plants that die early because of nutrient deficiency

Adding organic matter
to a new gardening area

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The answer to these problems is simple. We must facilitate the growth of the soil.  To achieve this, I use compost, animal manure, compost tea, manure tea, mulches, green manures, and organic fertilizers.

Increasing organic matter to a minimum of 3% and preferably 5% is one of the keys to growing healthy soil, because beneficial microorganisms that bring the soil alive depend on organic matter for food. Click here for a revolutionary way to quickly build top soil.

For growth of the soil in a new garden plot, I first till the ground, then till organic matter, like leaves and grass, into the top 6” of soil. Or, I add wood chips, but only till them into the top 2 inches of soil.

Unless it is green manure, it is best to till organic matter into the soil in the fall. The main reason is to prevent tying up nitrogen in the soil while it breaks down the organic matter.

Having used numerous methods to grow my garden soil, to me the most effective is to use ramial wood chips.  Working these into the soil in the fall can start to produce fertile soil by the next spring!

Ramial Chipped Wood, or RCW, has a distinct advantage over every other method I have used to grow the soil.  As RCW decomposes in the soil, it produces stable humus, which releases humic acids.  Humic acid works like a glue to bind soil particles together, making the soil soft and crumbly instead of clumped and hard.

Other sources of humic acids

Of course, RCW isn't the only way to get the benefit of humic acids.  Compost, and the breakdown of manure, green manure and mulches also produces a short-lived humus that can stay in the soil 1 to 3 years.  It is also possible to apply liquid humic acids on the soil.  For years I have used these on my garden and lawn with the following amazing results.  

When we first moved into our house there were only weeds.  Every fall I applied humic acids to my lawn. The spring after the first application a 6 foot by 12 foot patch of Bermuda grass appeared. The next year the Bermuda filled much of the yard in front of the house, and by the 3rd year it had taken over.  Humic acids seemed to work miracles!

Even where I have spread RCW on my garden I have applied humic acids to help speed up the process of building rich soil.  Another important ingredient I have discovered for growth of the soil is ocean trace minerals. The humic acids jump start the soil building process while the ocean trace minerals supply an incredible buffet of micronutrients, many of which have leached out of most soils.

Incorporate RCW, for growth of the soil

As I mentioned above, the very best way I know to achieve growth of the soil is by using Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW). Now I would like to talk about the method of applying one inch of RCW, then working it in to the top two inches of soil. For smaller gardens it can be incorporated into the soil with a garden rake. Three cubic yards of RCW will provide a 1” covering for 1,000 square feet.

Why must it be wood chips, I wanted to know. Couldn't I just lay down small branches and cover them with soil? Wouldn't it do the same thing? I found out that it won’t. Bark acts as a barrier to microorganisms so that they can’t penetrate into the wood. Therefore it’s necessary to chip branches and twigs preferably from ½ to 1 ½ inches in length, or to crush them.

RCW temporarily ties up nitrogen

Fungi and bacteria need nitrogen to fuel their work of breaking down ramial chipped wood. During the first few months after disking in RCW, available nitrogen in the soil is temporarily locked up in the bodies of the fungi and bacteria. Therefore, for proper growth of the soil, it is best to apply RCW in the fall, when crops don’t need a lot of nitrogen.

By spring, the initial fungi and bacteria have died and are decomposing, releasing their nitrogen for plants to use. When I apply RCW in the spring or summer, I always apply it as a mulch - I don't work it into the soil. As a mulch that sits on top of the soil, it doesn't tie up any nitrogen.

Many times in the fall there is actually a surplus of nitrogen in the soil – nitrogen that may be in danger of leaching into ground water. If this is the case, an application of RCW can help to tie this nitrogen up till spring. A word of caution: Tilling in a two inch layer of RCW can tie up nitrogen in soil for a full year. If crops will be planted in the spring and you want to disk in your RCW, it is best to use no more than a one inch application.

Planting a legume cover crop

It’s a very good idea to plant a legume cover crop (like vetch, clover or peas) a couple weeks or so after disking in the ramial chipped wood. Since legumes are able to pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, they can help to supplement the need for nitrogen. In the spring, this cover crop can be turned into “green manure”, enriching the soil.

I don't "plow in" green manure

In the spring, I don't roto-till my cover crop deep into the soil, since that would take the wood chips in with it. I either cut my cover crop and leave it on top of the soil, or I work it in to the top two inches. This keeps my RCW within the top 2 inches, insuring that microbes have plenty of oxygen to break it down. It's best not to till the soil for at least 2 years after applying RCW.

Personally, after initially tilling a new plot of soil, I never till it again. Every time soil is tilled it releases carbon (think organic matter), harms the life cycles of the soil, and hurts the structure of the soil. In fact, those who till the soil every year find it difficult to get their percentage of organic matter over 3%. Tilling each year is counterproductive for the growth of the soil.

Benefits of green manure

Green manures are plants that are grown specifically for enriching the soil. While RCW takes years to break down, when green manures are incorporated into the soil they can break down in just weeks, adding valuable organic matter and releasing a ton of nutrients for the next crop.

Though they only create about 0.1 percent humus each year, their roots help to break up and aerate the soil, and they feed a whole different set of fauna and flora than RCW.  Ramial chipped wood and green manures are perfect partners, working together for the growth of the soil.

Soil apps. of RCW vs. composting it

For growth of the soil, applying RCW directly on the soil is superior to composting ramial chipped wood and then applying the compost.  Why? Because, when RCW is incorporated, fungi in the soil break it down quite efficiently, creating stable humus, long-term fertility and soil stability. Also,

  • Composting results in a rise in temperature and a loss of nutrients.  This doesn't happen when RCW is applied directly to the soil.  
  • When RCW is composted, bacteria are the composting agent, and they don’t create stable humus.
  • The Basidiomycete fungi that break down RCW are still active when temperatures drop below freezing.  When temperatures turn cold, bacteria die or go dormant.

This is why for growth of the soil I prefer direct application of RCW to my garden soil.

We must make new soil

Sooner or later farmers and gardeners must come back to the central fact that we must make new soil.  

  • Chemical gardening destroys the soil.  
  • Organic gardening supplies nutrients, but doesn't do well at long-term growth of the soil.  
  • The young lignin found in RCW contain a considerable amount of energy, some of which is used for constructing stable humus, which in turn builds new soil.

RCW is especially good for amending sandy soils poor in organic matter, and clay soils that need to increase their porosity.

RCW does lack one very important item: trace minerals.  These are important both to the soil and to nutritional content of food.  The best balanced source of trace minerals I have found is concentrated sea minerals. They supply a full spectrum of trace minerals, plus they are super concentrated, so a little goes a long way.

Mushrooms are great soil builders

In his book “Mycelium Running”, Paul Stamets shares how helpful the Basidiomycete group of fungi are for building the soil.  The mushroom family is included in this group.  Mushrooms also gobble up toxins and pollutants.  I used to react negatively any time I saw mushrooms growing in my yard, but not anymore.  I am especially happy when I find them in the ramial chipped wood in my garden.  They create such wonderful soil, plus provide a tasty treat!

Ramial chipped wood not only builds new soil, but supplies all of the main elements needed for fertility:

  • nitrogen
  • phosphorus
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • sulfur
  • magnesium
  • boron
  • iron
  • manganese
  • copper
  • zinc

Inoculating with fungi

Good news! Inoculating wood chips with fungi is generally not necessary.  The bark of chipped wood usually contains fungi starter colonies.  Once the wood is chipped and worked into moist soil, these fungi permeate the soil and quickly begin to develop threadlike white hyphae. Within a short time they weave together into a mat of white mycelium (also called white rot). This is the “root” portion of mushrooms and other fruiting fungi.  

This mycelium mat acts like a blanket to hold in moisture and nutrients. As long as the soil stays moist, fungi will continue to release enzymes to digest the lignin in the wood chips.  As these fungi die, bacteria digest them. In time, a whole community of beneficial organisms are attracted to the feast provided by my wood chips, including fat, happy earth worms.

Too wet or too dry

Water logged soil is not conducive to growing fungi, since the water fills in all the air spaces, and literally drowns any fungi that may be growing there.  

A water logged area just isn't a good place to grow a garden, unless you pull the soil up into raised beds (constructing raised beds) so they can properly drain.  On the other hand, dry soil is also a problem for fungi, since they require moisture to survive and do their work.

Crops that favor 1" of RCW

In most of my garden I have a 4” covering of ramial chipped wood.  This works well for growing larger plants and for transplants, since I just pull back the wood chips and plant down in the soil.  

However, for crops like carrots and radishes that are planted more closely together, tilling 1” of RCW into the top 2 inches of soil works better than applying 4 inches of mulch, since I can scatter my seed directly on the soil, and then cover it lightly with dirt.

Once these crops grow up a bit, I then put some ramial chipped wood mulch around them to keep the soil from drying out and to help protect from weeds.  Then in the fall I work this mulch into the soil to prepare for the next year, and for growth of the soil.

Of course, in my areas that have four inches of RCW mulch I can still plant my radishes and carrots in rows, pulling the wood chips aside and planting in the soil, but this isn't a very efficient use of my garden space.

Frequency of application

Once I have applied the initial application of one inch of RCW, each succeeding fall I put out another application of a half to one inch, and work it into the top two inches of soil.  

Each year my top soil grows richer, giving me ever increasing yields of delicious vegetables.

The Best of Both Worlds

Most organic gardeners utilize the following good biodynamic practices:

  • Feed soil bacteria with organic matter
  • Plants draw nutrients from decomposted organic matter
  • Decomposting organic matter produces short-lived humus

Adding Pedogensis

What if we were to add PEDOGENESIS (using wood chips to form new soil) to the equation?  It would give us perhaps the BEST way in the world to grow food while preserving soil fertility and ecosystem diversity.  

Yes, simply by using traditional organic matter to feed soil bacteria and then adding ramial chipped wood to feed fungi, we have really helped the growth of the soil.

The best or both worlds in my garden

To enhance my garden, I use compost piles, where bacteria break down leaves, garden residue, grass, landscape trimmings, and kitchen scraps.  Each spring I spread this compost over my ramial chipped wood.  

The rains then carry the nutrients down to the soil.  My RCW grows fungi for long-term growth of the soil, and my compost supplies beneficial short-life humus.

Adding cover crops: the best of both worlds

Another way to get the best of both worlds is to disk in your RCW, and then to grow a legume cover crop, which supplies nitrogen needed to break down the RCW, plus organic matter to feed bacteria.  RCW and green manure are great together, like a marriage made in heaven!

What if you don't have access to RCW for building humus - is there an alternative?  Yes. Liquid humic acid products are available, which add humus to the soil and help with growth of the soil. I have applied these for years to my lawn, and each year the soil improves.

Making up for missing trace minerals 

With all of the great fertility that RCW and compost provides, the most important thing that is lacking is a good source of trace minerals.

Many of the trace minerals in our soils have been washed down to the ocean.  Because of this, both compost and ramial chipped wood lack in trace minerals.  

What I do is to recycle these minerals back from the ocean to my soil.  The best product I have found for this is concentrated liquid sea minerals.

Next page, Where to get Free RCW

(Return from Growth of the Soil to Fertility Soil)

I appreciate your input.

Please share your insights in the box below.

RCW Index

 1. Ramial Chipped Wood

 2. RCW solves gardening
 3. RCW helps create
     the perfect soil
 4. RCW for bushes, trees
 5. RCW creates a perfect
     growing environment
 6. Growing soil with RCW
     by incorporating in soil
 7. Getting free RCW, and
     which trees work best
 8. Applying RCW


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