Wood chips are seldom thought of as a great ingredient to a compost pile, and there are some good reasons for that. But with one little change to your normal composting routine, you can compost wood chips just like anything else, and reap some benefits that only wood chip compost can give you.
Wood Chips Should Be Composted Separately
It is best to compost them separately from you regular compost heap, due to their special need. If adding them to your regular pile, make them no more than one fourth of the dry (i.e. non-nitrogen) material.
Wood Chips Need Higher Nitrogen
According to HGTV, as wood chips decay, the ‘good bugs’ eating them use vast amounts of nitrogen to do it. They take this nitrogen from the soil and as a result, leave little or no nitrogen left for the surrounding plants. One writer at www.doityourself.com estimated that, if you do not age the wood chips before applying them as mulch, it could take up to two years for them to decompose enough to not rob growing plants of needed nitrogen.
The simple way around this “nitrogen robbing” effect is, of course, to compost wood chips with enough nitrogen to meet the needs of the composting process. To meet this nitrogen need, look for very high nitrogen natural materials. These would include fresh manure from rabbits, chickens, bat ‘guano’ in particular. One recommendation is for a half and half mixture of wood chips and ‘hot’ manure like poultry manure.
If horse or cow manure is all that is available, it will work but will take more of it, again due to the nitrogen needs of the wood chips .Note that the manure that comes in bags at the Big Box garden store has already been composted and is not a high nitrogen source. Also, cat and dog droppings are essentially useless for this process. Same for cage birds and small rodents kept as pets.
The Key Is Balance
If it has not become apparent, the key to composting wood chips-as with any other kind of composting-is balance. The extra carbon in the wood chips (translate that as humus or organic material) requires extra nitrogen to balance it out. Technically, the composting process is about bacteria (made of protein which is made of nitrogen) eating the plant materials (carbohydrates mostly made of cellulose) and then dying.
When they die, their protein/nitrogen goes back into the compost pile to be used again by other bacteria who then eat more of the plant material, etc. The nitrogen need is therefore temporary, but absolutely necessary for the composting cycle to take place. And the better the nitrogen/carbohydrate balance, the faster the compost ‘makes’. So much for the technical side!
Wood Chips Compost Has Special Benefits
Because of all the special handling needed for wood chips, the question might come up, “Why bother?” There are several very good reasons, but let me give you just one. Because the tree roots go so much deeper into the earth than other plants-usually as far down into the earth as the tree top goes up into the sky!-they bring up minerals that have passed far out of reach of most plants roots. This makes the compost from wood chips much more valuable than that of, say, grass clippings. Grass roots seldom go more than a foot into the earth.
So the benefits are there, but to get those benefit, we have to deal with wood chips “according to knowledge”. That is, we have to give them what they need to turn into compost, not just give them the regular stuff.
How to Compost Fresh Wood Chips
Wood Chips Mulch: Compost First?
Wood Chip Backyard Biology
Composting with Wood Chips