Building Better Soil with Woodchips


When I came to Florida 4 months ago to start Laulima Farm, I did not realize just how little soil there was. I started my garden and planted some seeds and they sprouted, did nothing, and died a few days later. All there was here was beach sand. Pure white and full of shells. It was truly the worst soil I could possibly have to grow plants in.

Fast forward 4 months and we have dark black crumbly rich soil over most of the 5 acre farm, if you dig down it is 4”-5” deep with some places over a foot thick. We now have some of the best soil I have ever had in any of my gardens.  Exactly HOW did we do this? Well it’s really simple. MULCH.

We got over 100 truckloads of mulch from a local tree service, just raw trimmings. You want whole trees and branches, leaves, everything. Spread this 4”-6” thick and leave it alone. Here in Florida everything breaks down and composts VERY fast. In 4 months the first beds we mulched are almost all composted down now and need another layer. In colder regions I recommend doing this in the fall, so that it can break down over the winter and early spring, and by the time you are ready to plant in late spring you have good soil in place.

DO NOT EVER TILL IN WOODCHIPS into your garden soil, if you do this it will take years to compost and will lock up all the nitrogen in your soil and you will have a hard time growing anything at all.  I’ll even go one step further…. Do not ever till your garden soil. I know this sounds crazy but let’s stop and look at nature for a minute. Nature NEVER tills, the soil always remains stationary. Nature only ever layers and composts on top of the existing soil. When we repeat this in our garden some amazing things start to happen. Since the soil is covered by that layer of mulch it retains water, I never water my garden and the soil that is covered is always moist and the plants love it. Another thing you start to see is a large fungal network starts to form, this mycorrhizae network helps support plant growth and transport nutrients through your garden. Only by preserving the soil structure does this happen.

The best food for trees are trees and a forest grows on a fallen forest. Those are the two biggest points that my teacher always repeated, If you put down a layer of wood chips (4”-6” thick) and let it break down for a few months, you will be able to grow almost ANYTHING climate appropriate.

David Atlas
David is the Director of the South Florida Permaculture Resource Center, a permaculture and sustainability education network based out of west palm beach, fl. He also sits on the board of 47 Million Reasons Healthcare Movement, a health and wellness non-profit.