Finally, there’s a quick and easy way to fertilize your soil … not to mention free. “Chop-and-drop” is a method of mulching in permaculture, which is a system of farming that aims to do things in an ecologically sound and sustainable way.
Chop-and-drop is exactly that – chopping leaves and thin branches off shrubs and trees, and dropping them directly on the ground to serve as mulch. But though it may seem so simple, there are sound underlying principles behind it that any gardener would be wise to consider.
We already know the benefits of mulching: It provides ground cover so our soil remains rich, damp and protected from the sun; it minimizes erosion from water and wind; and it prevents weeds from growing and taking over our gardens. Mulch also provides a habitat for beneficial organisms to thrive in our soil – be they earthworms, nematodes and fungi underneath, or friendly insects and arthropods amongst the decaying leaves above the ground.
But what sets chop-and-drop apart from traditional mulches like straw, hay, woodchips, cardboard or sheet mulch is its all-time availability on-site. If you select and plant fast-growing, nutrient-rich plants across your garden, prune them regularly and leave the clippings to decompose on the ground, you’re actually composting and fertilizing on-the-spot. They’re called “living” mulches, and they’re ready for use anytime.
This is what permaculture tries to do – mimic what’s actually happening in nature. In temperate climates, leaves drop from trees during the fall, decay over the winter and enrich the soil in time for spring. Permaculturists copy this principle by planting ground covers, herbaceous plants, leguminous shrubs and small trees in strategic locations, and then chopping and dropping them frequently to speed up the process of soil-building.
The Goal of Chop-And-Drop
As in any permaculture principle, the goal of chop-and-drop is to save time and energy. “When you grow your mulch in place, you reduce the need to bring in outside resources that require energy of all forms — from fossil fuels to personal time and overall energy output,” says permaculturist Brendon McKeon, who designs and develops several eco-farms in Costa Rica, including his own. “By growing your mulch right where you need it, you save a huge amount of time.”
Imagine if you had a huge orchard to tend, and mulching it would mean hauling in and distributing straw or woodchips over several acres of land? First, you’d have to spend money on procuring the materials, and then spend more time and effort spreading them across the property. But if you had beneficial shrubs strewn across the garden, you’d have ready mulch right where you need it – and at no cost, either.
“In permaculture we are trying to create a closed loop system, and ideally creating a regenerative system with net energy gain. This means we are producing more than we are using,” McKeon adds.
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What to Plant
While all plants die and ultimately become soil, there are certain kinds that make excellent mulch. They grow fast, coppice well and can be pruned often. In temperate regions, herbaceous plants work best. Woody ones take longer to decompose and are best avoided, unless you’re planning on using the soft parts only or chip the thick, hardy parts first. But two things you should generally prioritize are:
1. Dynamic Accumulators. These are plants that have taproots that can mine nutrients and minerals from deep in the soil and store them in their leaves. They are commonly called companion plants. When their leaves fall or are pruned, they break down and release the nutrients into the soil which surrounding plants can feed on. A common example is comfrey, which is high in calcium, phosphorous and manganese. It’s an excellent mulch since it can be trimmed up to five times a year.
2. Nitrogen-fixers. These are plants high in nitrogen, able to capture that important element even from the air and store or “fix” it in their roots, releasing it into the soil when they die. They’re usually called cover crops. Conventional “dead” mulches like straw and wood chips are carbonaceous, and actually require nitrogen to decompose — further sapping existing nitrogen in the soil. So rather than using carbonaceous dead mulch, go for nitrogen-rich “living” ones instead.
One good example is leguminous plants like pigeon pea, which grows fast and can be pruned frequently. Furthermore, it’s edible for both humans and animals.
For a list of nitrogen-fixers in temperate climates, click here and here. They include ground covers (from alfalfa to wintergreen), herbaceous layers (asparagus to yarrow), small shrubs (bamboo to white clover), and small trees (alder to willow).
When to Chop-And-Drop
Timing does matter. Do your chopping during the wet season, when fungi are more active and decomposition happens faster. The moisture will also keep your mulch in place, whereas dry, windy weather could just cause your clippings to be blown away or, worse, pose a threat to fire.
If you have a lot of weeds in your area – which are nitrogen-fixers and biodynamic accumulators, by the way – cut them when they start to flower but before they go to seed. Do the same with any unwanted shrubs and grasses. That way you’d be limiting the growth of the “undesirables” while boosting the “favored ones” in your property.
Here’s a short list of the advantages of chop-and-drop:
1. Efficiency. By having your mulch in place, you save time and energy.
2. Longevity. Leguminous plants are thicker, heavier and decompose longer than straw or cardboard, so your mulch stays in place longer.
3. Support System. Unlike dead mulch, “living” chop-and-drop mulch gives your soil a root structure that will keep the dirt intact, less prone to erosion.
4. Simplicity. For small and medium-sized gardens, you can make do with simple hand tools like pruners, loppers, sickles and machetes. No need for hi-tech equipment.
5. Versatility. There are even types of plants that you can grow for practical purposes other than mulching. Cultivate them for human consumption (again, pigeon peas), fodder for animals, fuel for fire, medicinal use, material for building or making products like hunting and trapping tools, baskets, etc.
While the chop-and-drop method may leave your garden looking like a chaotic mess, its benefits far outweigh its looks. If you can go beyond that chaos, ignoring piles of rotting leaves in your garden, chances are you’ll get to have more free time in your hands and less stress tending your property.
Have you tried chop n’ drop mulching? Do you have any advice? Share your tips in the section below: