Winter Garden: Mind, Body and a Pile of Wood Chips

By Bill Primavera

The Home Guru

My wife loves to tell people that all I need to be happy is a big pile of wood chips.  It’s true.  And what makes me really happy, besides all the benefits wood chips bring to the garden before it takes its long winter nap, is the built-in physical fitness program it guarantees doing something useful, rather than 30 minutes of monotony on the NordicTrack.

As I tackle a truckload of chips, I am practicing both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. While the activity is not calculated on my diet/exercise iPhone app, I figure that it’s at least as demanding as carrying wood or shoveling snow, which would burn about 350 calories for 30 minutes activity. But, I frequently last for a full hour of steady work until I’m sweating and feeling the burn. 

And, it’s a total body workout. There’s stretching when spearing my pitchfork into the pile, bending my knees to take the pressure of the weight off my back, lifting with my arms to transfer the chips to my wheelbarrow, heavy duty weight pushing when I wend my way to the spot where the chips are deposited, and more stretching and pulling as I adjust the surface of the chips with a rake at their final destination.

What’s great about this exercise plan is that there are no club fees involved.  The chips are free, either from your municipality’s environmental or re-cycling department or from a tree service provider with whom you’re friendly. 

Chips should be dumped where it won’t be an eyesore to your neighbors. For many years I have had them dropped between the side of my garage and a tall stockade fence at my property line, but I still try to spread them as quickly as I can.

Once delivered, some people get alarmed when the chips start to smoke a bit from the heat generated by decomposition, but they will never get hot enough for combustion.  Another fear is that a layer of chips depletes the soil below of nitrogen, but that applies only to the uppermost layer which actually helps retard weed growth, and it’s not enough to harm plantings it surrounds. 

Through the years, I have found a number of uses for chips, but primarily they are for creating an insulating layer of natural material from three to six inches deep around ornamental trees and, with less thickness, where I do my summer annual plantings and over my perennials. I should note that one year, I was too generous with the chips and my perennials such as black-eyed Susans couldn’t make it through the thick layer to bloom for a full summer, but then came back the next summer when I moderated the thickness. 

My hosta and daylilies can leave rather ugly remains when they die down.  I cut those to the ground, cover the clipped leaves and stems with chips, and smooth out the surface with a metal rake, which I always use rather than plastic, because of its greater flexibility.     

Besides the joy that a good pile of wood chips can provide for mind and body, there are so many aesthetic and practical benefits to the garden in that mulching with the material:

  • Ultimately saves labor in terms of far less weeding and less time watering;
  • Is safer in that there is less need for chemical weed killers or herbicides;
  • Stimulates growth in that mulched trees grow faster;
  • Reduces soil compaction;
  • Nourishes the soil by adding nutrients through decomposition;  and
  • Increases earthworm population which allows for better aeration.

And simply in terms of aesthetics, the annual use of chips has helped me to sculpt my planting gardens at a higher level, and the color of the chips blends more naturally into the informal garden.

My mind and body feel in full harmony with my garden’s good looks by the time frost sets in. Then, I return to my NordicTrack until spring beckons me to my spring planting schedule, which really is my outside workout.

 Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (, affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a marketing practitioner ( For questions or comments about the housing market, or selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.