The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Chop 'n drop

Chop 'n drop is a catchy permaculture term for cutting plants and letting them lie on the soil surface around fruit trees as a homegrown, fungus-promoting mulch.  When choosing mulch-producing plants, you want to be sure to select species that can regrow multiple times in a year (among woody plants, look for trees that can be coppiced), and you'll also want to look at the quality of the biomass produced.

Any organic matter is good, but if you want to replace compost with chop 'n drop plants, head for the nitrogen-fixing legumes.  On the other hand, if you want to build soil as fast as possible, look instead for less succulent plants like grains and trees.  Another factor to consider is dynamic accumulation --- if your soil is deficient in a particular nutrient, these plants can often pull lost nutrients up from below the root zone and make it available again.

Finally, don't forget that your chop 'n drop plants will be competing with any useful plants they intermingle roots with.  In poor soil like ours, it's best to keep the mulch producers outside the dripline of fruit trees, which means your chop 'n drop technique will probably look more like chop 'n toss-a-few-feet-to-the-side.  Some plants (like comfrey) are notorious for being impossible to eradicate once they're in place, so if you don't want them to compete with your adult trees, plant them beyond th eventual dripline.

Chop and dropI'm thinking of adding some chop 'n drop shrubs in the gaps between the eventual canopy spread of my fruit trees in the forest garden, with comfrey lining the paths.  Elderberry, mulberry, hazel, and willow are all trees that coppice well (and which I can propagate from existing plants in my garden or surrounding areas).  Pampas grass might be worth a try too --- the plants look like they produce masses of quality organic matter every year, although I'm not sure whether you can cut them in such a way that you don't end up with seeds in your mulch.  Finally, I haven't decided if I want to mess with nitrogen-fixers yet since soil rebuilding is currently my top priority, but if I do branch out, top choices there include Siberian pea shrub and alder.

I'd love to hear which chop 'n drop plants you've used and why they were successful (or problematic) in your garden.  Don't forget to mention your general location in your comment so that folks will know whether your recommendations are likely to suit their garden.

Our chicken waterer keeps permaculture hens hydrated while scavenging for bugs in the forest garden.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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While pampas grass does create a lot of biomass, you are also aware the the edges of the leaves are kind of "micro-serrated" in a way that if you brush past them carelessly they will slice you like a knife. I would think carefully about where I placed a plant like that.

The former owners of my little home in the city planted a pampas grass in the backyard. From photographic records that one plant had been there about four or five years, and took up a space about 12ft by 12ft. It took two work parties to remove it, and a winch to pull out most of the root ball. I then put the chicken yard over the top of where it had been, to make sure it did not come back...

Comment by alison Tue Oct 30 12:58:55 2012
I used false indigo as a nitrogen fixer - it's native to Michigan prairies. Does it seem like there aren't a whole lot of native nitrogen fixers?
Comment by Emily Tue Oct 30 14:39:29 2012

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