Amateur gardeners and landscaping pros alike know that mulching is an essential part of a thriving and sustainable garden. A fact less widely known is that wood chips, the finely shredded woody material produced when arborists grind up trees, are sometimes given away for free to homeowners and businesses in need of the organic matter.
A new service called Chip Drop is bringing wood chips created by arborists directly to homeowners' driveways. Using the Chip Drop website, tree service companies can locate interested homeowners, landscapers and others in their area and make local drops, with no fee for either party. Chip Drop allows patrons to source their mulch sustainably by reducing transportation costs for chip disposal and recycling chips within the community.
The service is the brainchild of Bryan Kappa, a Portland, Oregon-based engineer and part-time arborist who sought to simplify a somewhat complicated relationship in the tree care world: While working for a tree trimming company, he realized that managing a list of people who needed wood chips and locating them week by week was cumbersome.
"That's what prompted me to start (Chip Drop) and make it available to others," he explained. "It centralizes this list and makes it easy (for homeowners) to access all tree companies in the area."
Once a company chooses a drop site, homeowners are notified and their request is removed so a second delivery isn't made. Homeowners are only responsible for moving the chips from their driveways to their garden beds.
Paul Sousa, owner of San Jose-based California Tree Solutions, started using Chip Drop a year ago while servicing areas in the Peninsula and South Bay. The website helped him unload truckloads of wood chips to local homeowners when completing jobs in a streamlined and effective manner, he said.
Sousa pointed to a Chip Drop feature that allows both tree care companies and homeowners to give feedback based on their experience with a drop, similar to how ride-booking apps like Uber or Lyft allow users and drivers to rate one another.
"Chip Drop hosts a community of (arborists) ... and we use their feedback from past drops to help us decide if a delivery is worth making," Sousa said.
Homeowners are also allowed to specify types of wood they don't want in a drop and whether or not they want tree stumps and logs, which are too large for arborists to shred, included in their delivery.
Normally Sousa manages a list of people in need of chips, but manually contacting and coordinating drop off times with homeowners can be time consuming, he said.
"When you commit to a drop on Chip Drop, we know for sure to make that delivery. ... It saves money and time, and it's convenient if the drop is close to a job site," Sousa said.
In addition to its convenience and economical benefits, Chip Drop gives environmentally minded people a more sustainable and locally sourced alternative for maintaining their gardens.
Both Sousa and Kappa agree that wood chip disposal is normally an inefficient process for arborists, as they often need to stop in the middle of a job to dispose of the woody material. Most companies have to drive long distances to recycling facilities to dispose of the chips, where they are often converted to finely processed pulp or burned for fuel.
Michael Hawkins is program director at Palo Alto nonprofit Canopy, an environmental organization that promotes tree planting, tree stewardship and education programs in the community. He said that mulching locally is a win-win situation for the planet and plants alike.
Hawkins explained that many homeowners aren't aware of the varied uses and benefits of wood chips, especially during extreme weather. With winter storms well on their way, mulching is an essential way to provide warmth and insulation for plant roots.
"(Wood chips) improve general soil health by promoting the growth of beneficial microorganisms and retaining moisture," he said, adding, "If you mulch your garden right, it helps retain water locally and prevents erosion."
Chip Drop is currently making around 30 drops a month in the Bay Area and growing as more people learn about the service. Founder Kappa said that Chip Drop brings a mutually beneficial link out into the open -- one that existed before, just informally.
"It's a bit of an unspoken thing that you can ask arborists for wood chips," Kappa said. "But it's a bit of a hassle. ... (Chip Drop) centralizes things."
Chip Drop is not being run as a for-profit and doesn't have a consistent source of revenue, Kappa said. But he recently enabled a feature on the website that allows people to give a donation of between $20-$80 for a drop. This donation is split between the tree care company and Kappa, which provides some incentive for a company to make a drop to the donor.
Kappa said he puts his share back into the company to make promotional stickers, decals and hats.