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Articles on Holistic Orcharding

Ramial Wood Chip Primer

by Michael Phillips

Coarse is glorious! Ramial wood chips are for the fungi, not for a uniform look. photo by Michael Phillips
Coarse is glorious! Ramial wood
chips are for the fungi, not
for a uniform look.

There are white rots and there are brown rots related to decomposition. The first support a deciduous environment; the latter deal with high tannin content and thereby define the evergreen forest. Let's talk about ramial wood chips as the main course for feeding mycorrhizal and saprophytic fungi in an orchard food web that in turn supports our trees.

Defining Ramial Wood

  • Consists of twig wood less than 7 centimeters in diameter -- being not much more than 2 1/2 inches around at the large end of the branch
  • Species for chipping should mostly be deciduous, as here lays the soluble lignin advantage used by white rots to produce humic substances.
  • Coarse pieces are preferable, including the prunings from fruit trees.

Understanding Ramial Nuance

The proportion of essential twig nutrients in wood chips increases as average branch diameter decreases. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are found in the green cambium where leaf photosynthesis and root nutrition come together to make a tree . . . which we in turn can redirect to build ideal soil in our own orchards to make fruit trees.

Orchard prunings are from deciduous trees and mostly small in diameter. A ramial resource, indeed. photo by Michael Phillips
Orchard prunings are from deciduous trees and
mostly small in diameter. A ramial resource, indeed.

Size of the branches being chipped matters yet again when we consider the immediate impact on soil life. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratios in ramial-diameter wood averages 30:1, going no higher than 170:1 as we consider the larger end of the recommended branch. These ratios rise dramatically in stem wood, running 400:1 to as much as 750:1, thereby creating that soil dynamic where nitrogen becomes unavailable to the plant until such "log mulch" has significantly been broken down.

Soil fungi are adept at creating humus from a lignin source. Soil that has been built from the top down through fungal action undergoes humic stabilization -- such soil has staying power and maximized nutrient recycling. Fruit trees belong in such soil. Ongoing soil health results from soil structure being managed by soil organisms. Fungal hyphae physically bind soil particles together, creating stable aggregates that help increase water infiltration and the soil's waterholding capacity. This accumulation of acid-rich organic matter as humus results from the decomposition of ramial wood chips.

Decomposing fungi can be classified into two subgroups. The white rots use enzymatic chemistry on lignin-rich hardwood to produce humic and fulvic acids. The brown rots transform softwood cellulose to produce polyphenols and allelopathic compounds specifically relied upon by evergreen species to suppress deciduous species.

The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way -- click for book summary
The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips

DVD: Holistic Orcharding with Michael Phillips
Michael's Holistic Orcharding DVD guides you through the orchard year.

Practical Applications of Ramial Wood Chips

Understory shrubs like red alder can be "chopped and dropped" beneath fruit trees as ramial mulch. Nitrogen fixation and an ongoing source of soluble lignins results from such permaculture interplanting. photo by Michael Phillips
Understory shrubs like red alder
can be "chopped and dropped"
beneath fruit trees as ramial mulch.
Nitrogen fixation and an ongoing
source of soluble lignins results from
such permaculture interplanting.
  • A mixed chipping containing no more than 20 percent softwood will favor white rots and thus can be spread freshly chipped.
  • Steer away from solely softwood wood chips for orchard purpose. That said, aging a homogenous pile for a year overturns the allelopathic impact of brown rots. Mix with mature compost to create rich woodsy mulch for berry plantings.
  • Diversity is always good. Dump ramial wood chips thickly in piles on different sides of bearing trees over the years. Young trees can be ring mulched.
  • Leaves in full green make for higher nitrogen content. "Summer chips" heat up beyond the desired fungal influence. This is fine for the initial phase of composting but not something to apply directly as orchard mulch.
  • Cut tree prunings into small enough pieces to lie flat to the ground and thus in the decomposition zone. You don't need a gas-powered chipper to get this job done!
  • Permaculture "chop and drop" plantings in the vicinity of fruit trees (like Siberian pea shrub and red alder) are a neighborly source of lignin-rich organic matter.

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