Discover BRF or RCW, Ramial Chipped Wood, the next mulch revolution!

BRF is a common term in forestry and is derived from the French “Bois RamĂ©al FragmentĂ©â€, or Ramial Chipped Wood. It is mulch prepared from crushed and shredded green wood branches, which enriches and protects the garden soil.

While still under the radar of the public at large, BRF/RCW is a technique that is being pioneered by organic gardeners the world over. It was developed by Canadian scientists in the 1990s.

The basic concept is to cover the soil with a mulch of shredded and crushed young branches and sprigs freshly cut from trees. These branches, usually under 3 inches (7 cm) across, act to fertilize the soil, retain water to reduce watering, and eliminate the need for fertilizer and chemical treatments.

BRF, RCW, an organic solution

Indeed, like any other mulch, BRF (or RCW in English) protects soil from erosion, evaporation and inhibits weed growth. On top of that, it retains water very well. Young branches tend to contain a great many nutrients since buds are where leaves and flowers are produced. These nutrients are transformed by underground fauna and flora (worms, fungus…) and are made available as organic building blocks that enrich, aerate the soil and balance its pH. Result: beautiful, healthy plants and more productive fruits and vegetables.

BRF / RCW is thus particularly well suited to poor soil, especially if clayish or chalky. Note that fungus is what breaks the wood bits down into healthy nutrients, and these fungus require nitrogen to set up shop. Over the first few months, nitrogen-needing plants might have a tough time, but this is more than offset after a season has passed.

Ramial Chipped Wood, a practical solution

Best spread your BRF or RCW out at the end of winter or at the beginning of spring. Collect branches and shoots whenever you prune shrubs and trees in your garden, or, if you don’t have enough, check with your local municipality whether you can avail of pruning waste from the various landscape and gardening companies in your area. Crush and shred this material in a chipper shredder. If possible, reduce the portion of conifer branches that tend to make the soil more acidic. Keep conifers to under 20% of the content (one part conifers for at least four parts deciduous).

Spread the mulch in a layer 1 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) thick atop your flower beds, future vegetable beds and fruit beds. BRF or RCW has been proven to be effective to increase harvests for tomatoes, zucchinis and strawberries. Lather it at the foot of your trees and shrubs. Run the cultivator along the ground to stir in some of the ground bacteria. That’s all! After that, simply sow and plant whatever you wish, as usual. Apply a new layer of BRF or RCW atop the previous layer in the following year. The wood chips from the first layer will already have been broken down and mingled with the soil.

Laure Hamann edited by Gaspard Lorthiois

Ramial chipped wood mulch

Ramial Chipped wood, a new tool for forestry management

Considering the tree as a whole

Overall, deciduous trees make for the best Ramial Chipped Wood material. Their tips are loaded with nutrients all year long:

  • in spring, new growth is bursting with rich sap
  • in summer, tree crowns are where most of the photosynthesis occurs
  • in fall and winter, buds form for the next season and contains many nutrients.

Ramial chipped wood is a great way to maximize forestry revenue. Just as a wheat farmer sets stalks aside as straw fodder for animals, tips of trees needn’t be discarded either.

When thinning rows of cultivated trees to maximize growth of the most promising specimens, a lot of extra material is left over. Wood is either sold or kept for firewood, but until recently, leafy fronds were simply left behind.

With ramial chipped wood mulching, this rich material can benefit fields in a completely organic and environment-friendly way.

  • Note that a portion of the materials should still be left behind. This is important for the forest soil to keep improving.

Adapting soil to new species of wood and lumber

Ramial chipped wood has the capacity to enhance and increase the quality of forest soil, too.

Plots of land that have long been planted with conifers tend to turn acidic. Applying RCW over a couple seasons will significantly lower the pH. Soil that was too acidic for higher-value wood can then be planted without fear.

Best tree varieties for Ramial Chipped Wood

Deciduous varieties that make for the richest RCW mulch

Deciduous trees such as birch, poplar, maple and hophornbeam are often used for RCW. They are fast-growing. When harvested at mature size, these trees can earn an extra amount from the very rich branch tips they leave behind.

Upon harvest, noble woods such as oak, beech and in recent times locust and walnut are also a great source.

Conifers, eucalyptus and pine trees are acceptable but only in a small proportion, under 1/5th. Indeed, they would tend to acidify soil or render it less suitable for growing than deciduous trees.


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Ramial Chipped wood production by USDA Forest Service Research Operations, USDA Forest Service via Bugwood.org
RCW / BRF mulch lain down by Howard F. Schwartz, University of Colorado via Bugwood.org