I was reading the latest issue of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener and enjoyed the article on ramial wood chips. Celine Caron discussed the differences between traditional bagged wood chips used by many people as landscape mulch and ramial wood chips (derived from the branches of deciduous hardwood trees). While ramial wood chips are considered “wood chips”, these might be called “ramial wood prunings”, since they are commonly the byproduct of landscape or forest maintenance.
Celine’s article references her other writings on the benefits of using ramial wood, and briefly mentions their many advantages over traditional wood chips. These benefits include a better C:N ratio, higher nutrient levels, and preferential breakdown by Basidiomycetes. Basidiomycetes support soil organisms that lead to humic and fulvic acids (you need these in your soil fauna for healthy plants).
If you have concerns about these products robbing nitrogen during breakdown from your soil & therefore your plants, you can add nitrogen periodically (some advocate for dilute urine) to balance this or put down a nice thick layer of compost under your wood chips.
The other unmentioned benefit of using ramial wood for you is that this product can be obtained for free. So rather than paying a few hundred dollars (or more if you are buying bagged) for 4 cubic yards of chips, you can get these for free. The only downsides are timing and the potential for invasive or noxious weeds.
I will address weeds first. Like your farmer and compost providers, you should get to know your local arborist. This is more than networking with service providers who are important to your life and lifestyle. Arborists often pay to dump (or pay to haul) waste wood prunings. If they are working in your area they may be happy to give you what they have with a phone call. However, you should speak to the arborist to discuss what you’re doing and why. Part of this conversation should include a discussion that you do not want chips if they are from a yard with invasive species (bittersweet) and noxious weeds (poison ivy). A conversation is all that is needed.
That brings me to the issue of timing. Your arborist may not be in your area when you need or want wood chips. I tell my arborist that I will take whatever he has and set extra wood chips aside in a pile near the compost pile to be used as needed in the future. Also, even if he is in your area, he won’t know until he is onsite whether there are invasive or noxious weeds. For this reason, you may have to wait a few weeks (or months) before chips are available.
I don’t mind waiting a few weeks or months for a great product that is free. In fact, like most good things, I think it is worth the wait.