Composting Wood Chips: A Comprehensive Guide to Quick and Efficient Decomposition

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: June 11, 2023
  • Time to read: 11 min.

As someone who appreciates the circle of life in nature, I’ve learned to see value in what many consider to be waste. One example of this is wood chips from tree services. While it’s not ideal to use them in the garden or nursery immediately after the collection due to their coarseness and potential to draw nitrogen during decomposition, they have a variety of other uses.

Fresh wood chips are excellent material for creating walkways, keeping muddy footprints at bay. Over time, these wood chips, coupled with leaves and twigs, transform through decomposition into rich, fertile compost. This compost becomes a gardener’s best friend, nourishing plants and boosting soil health.

To enhance this natural compost, I discovered that mixing it with pine bark fines created a well-balanced potting mix. This combo provided essential nutrients while ensuring adequate moisture retention, as the pine bark has quick-drain properties.

To expedite the composting process, I found that creating organized piles and turning them regularly did wonders. A front-end loader or a small tiller greatly simplified this task, saving time and energy.

Once fully composted, the transformation of wood chips was astounding. They could be used as a growth medium in grow beds, or as an additive in potting mixes, enhancing both drainage and nutrient supply. This cost-effective method not only improved my gardening but also promoted a circular economy. After all, tree services often give away these wood chips for free. With a little patience and work, this so-called “waste” could foster an explosion of growth in your garden.

Understanding Wood Chips

Before diving into the process of composting, it’s crucial to understand what exactly wood chips are and how they function within the composting process.

A. What are wood chips?

Wood chips are small pieces of wood that have been chipped or shredded. They are often a byproduct of various landscaping tasks like tree pruning and removal.

Different types of wood chips

Wood chips can come from various types of trees, such as pine, cedar, oak, and many more. The type of tree the wood chips come from can influence the rate of decomposition and the nutrients they provide to the compost.

Ideal types for composting

When it comes to composting, I’ve found that raw, untreated wood chips from healthy trees are the best. These wood chips haven’t been exposed to any harmful chemicals that might disrupt the composting process or harm my garden soil.

Potential issues with certain types of wood chips

Just like how certain types of wood chips can benefit your compost pile, some can potentially harm it. Wood chips from diseased trees can introduce harmful pathogens into your compost, while those from trees treated with chemicals can add unwanted substances. It’s always best to know the source of your wood chips.

Benefits of Composting Wood Chips

My journey into composting wood chips has been incredibly rewarding, and here’s why:

Adding nutrients to the soil

Composting wood chips significantly enriched my garden soil. Wood is a rich source of carbon, a critical nutrient for soil health. As the scraps decompose, this carbon slowly releases into the soil, feeding beneficial microorganisms and promoting soil fertility.

Improving soil structure

One of the most noticeable benefits I found was the improvement in soil structure. The addition of wood chips to compost added bulk and helped create a more porous soil structure. This porosity increased aeration, essential for root health, and promoted better water infiltration, preventing water logging in my garden.

Enhancing water retention

Despite their coarse texture, wood chips are surprisingly good at retaining moisture. Their sponge-like structure can absorb and hold onto water, slowly releasing it over time. This property is especially beneficial during dry periods, ensuring that the compost and soil remain moist, facilitating ongoing microbial activity.

Reducing Waste and Supporting a circular economy

Using wood chips in composting is an excellent way of reducing waste. Instead of sending tree trimmings and wood chips to the landfill, composting them turns what would have been waste into a valuable resource. It’s a practice that truly embodies the principles of a circular economy, turning waste into wealth, and feeding back into the cycle of growth.

Natural pest control

Composting wood chips can also contribute to natural pest control. Certain types of wood, like cedar, are naturally resistant to pests. As the wood chips decompose, they can pass these pest-resistant qualities onto the compost and, subsequently, the soil.

Providing habitat for beneficial organisms

Finally, a well-maintained compost pile with wood chips can provide a habitat for various beneficial organisms like earthworms, beetles, and numerous microbes. These organisms play a vital role in breaking down the compost materials into a form that plant roots can readily absorb.

Through composting wood chips, I have not only been able to improve the health and productivity of my garden but also contribute to a larger cycle of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

How to Compost Wood Chips Fast

In the world of composting, wood chips are known to be a slow-decomposing material. But over the years, I’ve found several strategies that can significantly speed up the process.

Using smaller wood chips

The size of the wood chips matters when it comes to decomposition speed. Smaller wood chips have a larger surface area relative to their volume, allowing for more contact with microbes and hence faster decomposition. If possible, I try to use or make smaller wood chips for my compost pile.

Let the chips rot first

Letting the wood chips sit out in the elements for a while before adding them to the compost pile can jump-start the decomposition process. The weathering process helps to break down the tough fibers of the wood, making it easier for the microbes in the compost pile to do their job.

Correcting the green-to-brown ratio

A compost pile needs a balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Wood chips are considered brown material. To speed up the composting process, I ensure to add enough green material, such as vegetable scraps, grass clippings, or coffee grounds, to balance out the wood chips.

Adding nitrogen to wood chips

Wood chips are high in carbon but low in nitrogen, which can slow down their decomposition. To speed things up, I add a nitrogen source directly to the wood chips. This could be in the form of a commercial nitrogen fertilizer or organic sources such as chicken manure, fresh grass clippings, or alfalfa meal.

Maintaining moisture

A compost pile needs the right amount of moisture to facilitate the decomposition process. The pile should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge. I regularly water my compost pile to maintain moisture levels, especially during dry weather.

Turning the compost pile

Regularly turning the compost pile is one of the most effective ways to speed up the composting process. It introduces oxygen, which is vital for the microbes doing the composting work, and also ensures even decomposition.

Hot composting

The hot composting method, which involves building a large pile all at once and turning it regularly, is an excellent way to compost wood chips fast. It generates a lot of heat, which speeds up the decomposition process.

Special Composting Methods with Wood Chips

Beyond the conventional methods, I experimented with a few special techniques that leverage the unique characteristics of wood chips for efficient composting.

Composting Wood Chips with Urea or Urine

Urea, or urine, is rich in nitrogen, and adding it to the compost pile helps speed up the decomposition of wood chips. While it may not be the most conventional method, it’s highly effective. I found that a ratio of about 50 parts carbon (wood chips) to one part nitrogen (urea) was a good starting point.

Composting Wood Chips with Cow Manure or Other Manures

Manures are also high in nitrogen and can help speed up the composting process. I added a layer of manure every time I added a layer of wood chips to the pile. Cow manure, in particular, worked well for me because it’s readily available and has a lower risk of containing pathogens compared to some other types of manure.

Hot Composting Wood Chips

Hot composting is a method where you create a large compost pile all at once, ideally reaching at least 1 cubic yard in size. The pile heats up to high temperatures, which accelerates the composting process and kills off any weed seeds or pathogens. For the best results, I turned the pile every few days to maintain aeration and mixed the wood chips with green materials for a balanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

These special composting methods have been game-changers for me, making the process of composting wood chips faster and more efficient. I’d recommend anyone trying to compost wood chips to give these methods a go.

Tips for Using Composted Wood Chips

After working hard to compost wood chips, using the end product correctly is just as crucial for success in your garden. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way:

Testing compost readiness

Before using composted wood chips, it’s essential to ensure that the compost is fully mature. If the compost is still hot or if you can identify the original wood chips, it’s not ready yet. The compost should be cool to the touch and have a rich, earthy smell.

Using as a mulch

One of the primary ways I’ve used composted wood chips is as a mulch around plants. It helps suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, and slowly release nutrients into the soil. However, I ensure to keep the mulch a few inches away from plant stems to avoid any potential issues with rot.

Adding to potting mixes

Composted wood chips can be an excellent addition to potting mixes. They improve the structure of the mix, enhancing aeration and drainage while providing slow-release nutrients. I usually replace about one-third of the regular soil in the mix with composted wood chips.

Improving garden soil

I’ve also found that composted wood chips are a great way to improve garden soil. By incorporating them into the soil, I’ve been able to improve soil structure, increase organic matter, and enhance soil fertility. It’s especially useful for heavy clay soils, where it can significantly improve soil structure and drainage.

Starting new garden beds

When starting a new garden bed, adding a layer of composted wood chips can help get things off to a good start. It provides a boost of nutrients and helps improve the soil right from the get-go.

How Long Does It Take To Compost Wood Chips?

The time it takes for wood chips to decompose into compost can vary widely, depending on various factors. Here’s what I’ve found from my experience:

Type of wood

The type of wood used can greatly influence the decomposition time. Hardwoods, like oak or maple, are denser and take longer to break down than softer woods, like pine.

Chip size

The size of the wood chips also plays a significant role. Smaller chips have a larger surface area for microbes to work on, so they decompose faster. On the other hand, larger chips take longer.

Composting methods

The composting method used can also significantly affect the time frame. Traditional composting methods, where you simply add the wood chips to the compost pile and wait, can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for the wood chips to fully decompose.

However, using special composting methods that I’ve experimented with, like adding nitrogen sources or hot composting, can speed up the process significantly, potentially reducing the composting time to just a few months.

Environmental factors

Finally, environmental factors can also play a role. Warmer temperatures speed up the composting process, so wood chips will compost faster in the summer than in the winter. Likewise, the composting process is quicker in humid climates than in dry ones, as moisture is necessary for microbial activity.

In my personal experience, using smaller wood chips, adding a nitrogen source, and turning the compost pile regularly, I’ve been able to compost wood chips in as little as 3 months. However, it’s important to remember that composting is more of an art than a science, and the time it takes can vary. The key is patience and regular attention to your compost pile.

Case Studies

Through trial and error, I began a series of experiments to find the most effective ways to speed up the composting of hardwood wood chips.

The Speed-Over-Quality Experiment

The primary objective of this experiment was to accelerate the decomposition process, focusing more on speed than the quality of the compost.

Incorporating Community Techniques

For this experiment, I incorporated various methods suggested by the composting community, such as increasing nitrogen, introducing easier digest forms of carbon, turning the pile, and inoculating with fungi.

Experiment Setup

Two barrels filled with fresh wood chips served as my experimental stations.

The Nitrogen-Boost Barrel

In one barrel, I layered blood meal and baking sugar to provide additional nitrogen and an easily digestible form of carbon to the microbes.

The Control Barrel

The other barrel, acting as a control, was filled only with wood chips.

Watering and Aeration

Both barrels were watered identically and left to sit without turning. Aeration was achieved with an open-top barrel design and a stick inserted in the center to aid air circulation. The stick was later removed to leave an air hole.

Inoculation with Fungi

Both barrels were inoculated with locally adapted, decomposer fungi harvested from pre-decomposed wood chips on my property.

Additional Hydration

Extra hydration was added during the construction of the piles to assist the microbes in working more efficiently.

Decreasing Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio

By adding a pure nitrogen source and a lower form of carbon, I sought to decrease the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in the wood chips from 600:1 to closer to 30:1.

Experiment Location

The barrels were placed in their final resting spot, where they would remain throughout the composting process.

Preventing Evaporation

A piece of plastic was placed on top of the contents of the barrels to minimize evaporation.


Embarking on a journey to compost wood chips has been an enriching experience. While the coarse, nitrogen-demanding nature of fresh wood chips might make them unsuitable for immediate use in the garden or nursery, their potential becomes evident once they are correctly composted.

Over time, the raw wood chips, together with leaves and twigs, transform into a nutrient-rich compost that provides countless benefits to the garden. From enriching the soil with valuable nutrients to improving its structure, enhancing moisture retention, providing natural pest control, and even offering a habitat for beneficial organisms – the benefits are indeed vast.

Moreover, the composting process itself is cost-effective and environmentally friendly, repurposing what would otherwise be discarded, promoting a circular economy, and supporting sustainability.

Composting wood chips can be a time-consuming process. However, employing strategies such as using smaller chips, allowing the chips to pre-rot, maintaining a balanced green-to-brown ratio, adding nitrogen, and turning the compost pile frequently, can speed up the process. Special composting methods such as adding urea or manure, or adopting hot composting can also expedite the transformation.

When the compost is ready, it becomes a valuable resource, whether used as mulch, mixed into potting soils, added to garden soil, or used to kickstart new garden beds.

From my experiments, I’ve learned that the type of wood, the size of the chips, the composting methods used, and environmental factors all play a role in the composting timeline. It’s indeed more of an art than a science. But with patience and attention, composting wood chips can be done effectively and quickly, sometimes in as little as three months.

Composting wood chips has proven to be a worthy endeavor, beneficial not only for my garden but also for the environment. It’s a testament to the incredible cycles of nature, where nothing goes to waste, and even the toughest materials can be transformed into a source of life.

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