Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Is mulch made from conifer wood chip or bark acidic?

I have seen it often suggested that organic mulches such as wood chip and bark from conifers is acidic.  The pH is a measure of the amount (the negative log of the concentration)of hydrogen ions and this measurement must be done in a liquid.  You cannot measure the pH of a solid unless you dissolve it in water.  As most of the solid from wood chip and bark  is insoluble in water, it is virtually impossible to measure the pH of these materials.

The woody chippings or bark could be giving off substances that acidify the soil solution as they decompose.  However, neither pine bark nor pine chippings have been found to have any effect on soil pH.  (Tahboub, Lendemann and Murray 2008) There is no significant change in soil pH for wood chip incorporated into soil measured over a three year period.   Bare soil is more likely to have a low pH (be acidic) than organic mulches.  Shredded bark and woodchip have been found to be the least acidifying of the organic mulches.

Regardless, wood chip could be shaken up in water and the resultant solution tested.  This should be done with distilled water or deionised water to make sure that you are testing the pH of the dissolved substance not the pH of the water.  Tap water contains a lot of substances although it usually has a neutral pH of around 7. 

Now, I haven't tested the pH of  woodchip solution, however I would conjecture that it would be fairly neutral or possibly slightly alkaline.  There are some that suggest that the phenolic substances secreted by the above ground structures of a plant may be acidic. I don't know. 

What I am going to do is test the soil beneath an estimated 2000 year old yew tree.  The tree is in my local nature reserve.  There is nothing growing under the tree within about a 50 food diameter. 

I would suggest that the pH of the soil is no different from the rest of the wood so I will take samples from outside the yew trees influence as well as under its canopy.  After 2000 years of falling litter surely it would have affected the soil underneath it. 

My suggestion is that there will be no difference between the soil pH from beneath the canopy of the yew tree and the soil from outside the canopy.   

The fact that there is no build up of litter under the tree would suggest to me that some invertebrates, such as worms, are feeding on the organic matter from the tree.  Worm's preferred habitat is one with a neutral or alkaline pH.

Usually scientific consensus is pretty solid, however sometimes explanations that purport to be scientific are merely based on hearsay and anecdote and need to be challenged by experiment. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Too much mulch?

It is self evident that if you cover a plant completely with mulch you will kill it through lack of light.  This is one of the benefits of mulching - weed control.  However, what is the correct amount of mulch to apply to crop plants? 

There is a lot of advice to suggest that heaping relatively large amounts of compost around fruit tree trunks could cause the trees to die.
There is a reduction of oxygen diffusing through to lenticels and reaching respiring cells below bark in the trunk.

Now I went along with this until I though, hang on a minute.  When I put woody cuttings into soil or compost, there is a similar reduction of the free flow of oxygen to growing cells in the woody stem of the cutting.  Lenticels are covered in the same way.  So how do cuttings survive this treatment? 

My rooted willow cuttings from stems just pushed into the soil. I put quite a bit of woody
mulch on these too.
I have just been turning the composts today and found some woody stems I threw in  from the willow.  They were right in the middle of the compost and merrily throwing out new growth. 
Layering woody shrubs would not work if this were correct and we would never get Irishmen's cuttings. 
For an explanation to have credibility it must be consistent with all the data collected. Inconsistencies must lead you to question sloppy explanations. 

So here is another piece of data that does not really fit in to the " not too much mulch" hypothesis.  I tend to heap compost, manure and woody chippings around my soft fruit bushes.  They do not die throwing out lots of adventitious roots into the compost.  A little irritating because this means that the roots need to be covered again when the mulch decomposes and they are exposed. 

Blackcurrants and rhubarb with a thick woody shredding mulch.

Blackcurrants with a thick horse manure mulch.

I think that much more tree and shrub death occurs from poor planting practices than the addition of too much mulch. 

Brussel sprouts with a thick woody mulch to stop them from falling over.
Mulching brassicas with compost or hoeing them up does not kill them.  I do this to stop them from flopping over.  The Brussel sprouts produce adventitious roots that root into the mulch or soil. 

Having said all that, I have found that it is unnecessary to add more than a couple of centimeters of woody shreddings to get all the benefits associated with mulching.  Adding more does risk substantial nitrogen drawdown.  This immobilisation of nutrient does have an affect if excessive woody shredding material is used for mulching.