Storm-downed branches and limbs can be great for your yard

Tree clean up

It was after a surprise snowfall that I bought our first and only wood chipper. The leaves were still on the trees and the weight of the wet snow caused quite a bit of damage. In addition to trees that bent, we had a tremendous amount of limbs and branch debris strewn all over the property. When the snow melted after a day, the place looked like it had been hit by a tornado. What to do?

The purchase of the chipper was before I had fully developed my yardening tenets, one of which is “what falls from a tree is supposed to remain to feed the tree.” No one ever fertilizes the redwoods or the trees in the Chugach. It is the organic debris, most from the trees themselves, that keeps them growing so well. This tenet is manifested in my directives to let the autumns leaves collect on the ground instead of raking them up. Lots of wood, however, is a different story. I wanted it, for sure, but just in another form. Hence, the chipper.

I will skip most of the details, but I am here to tell you that serious chipping is best left to those professionals who have truck-pulled chipping machines and lots of practice under their belts. Chippers are dangerous machines, which can pull in gloves, an arm or a scarf with disastrous consequences. I would urge you to take that into consideration as you try to figure out what to do with the downed trees, limbs and branches from the early snow of a few weeks back.

Why would you want to chip up storm tree debris? Well, to clean up, yes, but because the stuff really is supposed to decay and return nutrients to the soil, not get hauled off to the dump. The best additions come from hardwood — birch, in our case — and the diameter of the limbs used to make the chips is best under 2.8 inches. These contain the maximum mix of nutrients and minimum mix of lignin. These chips are known as ramial wood. They decay best when chipped without leaves. This has something to do bacteria decaying the leaves at the expense of the right fungi you want.

The point is that when you put the right-size limbs through a chipper and place them under trees and shrubs, they will appreciate it. So will your garden beds. But what if you can’t? There is firewood, of course, or you can pile the stuff up according to size, let it decay a bit and then break it up by running over it with a mower, jumping on the pile and the like. At the very worse, gather the light stuff and place it around the base of your trees and shrubs.

Or, you can run over the light stuff with a mower. You don’t want to turn things into sawdust, as this causes temporary nitrogen deficiencies for a while when placed on soils. However, the smaller pieces will decay and feed your lawns — though they will support mushrooms.

There isn’t much you can do about tree limbs hanging down, because the weight of wet snow pulled them into their bended shape. Next spring they will start the process of correction, but we may see signs of the storm for years to come. There is also the possibility of another such storm, as the leaves remain. Now would be the time to prop up shrubs and young trees so they can hold the weight of snow until the leaves finally drop.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Bootanical Garden: Experience seasonal art throughout the garden from 10 am.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays now through Sunday, Oct. 24. Costumes encouraged! Free for members and children 6 and under. $6 for non-members ages 7 and up. Tickets can be purchased upon arrival at the garden.

Indoor plants: The heat is on inside and the indoor pests multiply. Check your plants and adjust your watering to accommodate the change. Neem products work on most pests and is safe to use indoors.

Winter moose damage: Now is the time to apply Plantskydd to keep moose at bay. It stinks and it is sticky. Apply it during non-freezing temperatures for easiest application.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2020 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Reach him at