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Should You Use Sawdust In A “Back To Eden” Garden?

Should you use sawdust in a “Back To Eden” garden? If you’ve watched the documentary by that name or seen any of the videos of Paul Gautschi on YouTube, you know that the mulch of choice is wood chips. But what if wood chips aren’t easily available to you, and sawdust is? Sawdust is wood, too, right?

Those were my thoughts in early 2016, the thoughts that led us asking the guy who runs the sawmill two miles down the road if we could show up every once in a while and fill up buckets with his inches-deep blanket of sawdust. He ended up scooping it up with a machine for us, and dumping it in what was to become our orchard area.

So, how’s it working for us? Long story short, last year I ended up pulling away the sawdust from all the bushes and from the mulberry trees, and replacing it with wood chips.

Check out this strawberry plant:

It has more sawdust than wood chips mulching it. I took this picture when we hadn’t had much rain for a couple of weeks, and daytime temperatures had been consistently above ninety degrees. Notice the wilting leaves.

Another one. Notice the leaves turning red, a sign of stress in strawberries (if the plants are well-irrigated, this discoloration doesn’t happen until it freezes).

Next, check out these strawberry plants:

The top photo shows plants that are growing in the garden. When we first moved here, I amended the garden soil with spoiled hay, and after planting the strawberry plants, I mulched them with three to four inches of wood chips.

The second photo is a different area where strawberries are growing, a 100-foot-square area I created specifically for growing strawberries, and area which I mulched even more deeply than the garden area. Notice that in both photos, the plants look happy.

The plants that are  not sitting in sawdust.

That said, you might be able to make sawdust work if you mixed it fifty-fifty with grass clippings or cut-up weeds. Probably even a smaller portion of sawdust, since it is, unlike wood chips, so dense and void of any greenery.

In other words, when the chips are down, sawdust might work. But it will never be as good.

Maybe. But then there’s this:

I got THREE strawberry crops this year!

This year, thanks to most of the real winter weather ending sometime in January, a lot of my strawberry plants began flowering in late February and early March. That’s the earliest this has happened since we’ve been here (we’re into our fourth year). As a result, I was able to begin picking strawberries in April.

Yes, I’m talking about my June-bearing plants, not everbearing.

No sooner had that crop just about given out, than the plants began to grow more flowers again! Unfortunately, thanks to the spring rains and not keeping either the orchard or garden secure, this second crop was pretty much a bust. Either critters ate the berries, or they were too moldy to eat.

As I write these words, it’s the third week of June and I took the following photos last week:

Yep, finally June strawberries from my June-bearing plants! And the good news is, after taking this photo I harvested and ate a cup of sweet, delicious ripe berries because we recently secured the orchard to make sure no non-human mammals could get in. The even better news is that, as I write these words, there are still flowers growing, and dozens of little green berries waiting to be July berries!

Here’s the clincher: these berries are from the plants that have sawdust at their bases! Some of the plants in the garden are putting off a third crop, but not nearly in the proportion as the orchard plants. Almost none of the plants in the 100 square-foot area have shown any signs of producing a third crop.

So, what to conclude?

Is the sawdust providing an extra dose of fertilizer? Is it because the plants aren’t as crowded as those in the other two areas?

Or is it just a fluke?

I really can’t say. Maybe I’ll be more certain of the reason next year.

In the meantime, my conclusion is: be careful with sawdust in a Back To Eden garden. It does not have the same characteristics as wood chips.

Now if I could just figure out how to keep the berries from getting moldy…

UPDATE, June 2020: Three years later, between the wood chips and the sawdust, the soil in our orchard is rich. If you have some source of abundant sawdust, and want to use just sawdust to amend the soil, I recommend putting down several inches of it, then waiting a couple of years before planting anything into it. If you want to use the area for planting before then, mix sawdust with seed-free grass clippings and/or weeds so the growing medium will have an immediate source of nitrogen.

Happy gardening! 🙂

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