Odds are pretty high that you are walking around your garden each spring, removing spent stems and frost damaged twigs and leaves, shaping shrubs, deadheading spent blossoms, and curbing rampant growth. All of those snips, trims, and cuts are then taken to the compost pile, where they are watered and flipped repeatedly, until the mixture is ready to be spread out as plant food and soil amendment. That’s fine, but, in many cases, you can simply chop and drop, right where you found the plant in the first place.
Stop fighting natural cycles
Moving materials around is often unnecessary. Instead, copy the natural cycles that have evolved over millions of years. Simply chop plant material where you find it and drop it on the ground. This saves a lot of time and energy, while still putting all that organic matter to work for you in the garden. Insects, animals, microbes, rain, and foot traffic will move that chopped plant matter into the soil, improving soil structure and adding important nutrients, just as it has since plants arrived on the planet’s surface. No wheelbarrow required.
Benefits of mulch
Mulch, of practically any sort, creates a buffer against erosion and temperature extremes. It also makes weeding a lot easier. While I am a huge proponent of coarse wood chip mulch, you can use the same idea to simplify your spring garden work: trim off bits of plant, chop it where you stand, and let it fall. Using a plant’s own material to create instant mulch puts the nutrients that plant needs to grow and thrive within easy reach. Of course, you should still get your soil tested every 3 to 5 years, to make sure there are no deficiencies or toxicities.
Levels of effort
In one school of thought, the chopped material is simply dropped to the ground after the first snip. This green manure will, over time, break down. Obviously, woody stems will take far longer than green leaves and new growth, but they will break down eventually. Personally, I take a slightly more active role and chop the removed plant parts into smaller pieces, just as I do at the compost pile.
Recycling plant material
Chopping plant material speeds the decomposition process. Dropping it where you found it puts nutrients back where the plant can reuse them. This is the same idea behind grasscycling, which is when you mow the lawn without the bag attachment, allowing the clippings to fall right back on the lawn. Yes, you will be more likely to track snipped blades of grass around on your shoes for a day or two, but the nutrients and soil structure improvements are worth it.
Come autumn, when leaves start falling, leave them where they fall, unless they fall on your lawn. In that case, mow them where they fall, or blown them into flower beds and around shrubs and trees, where they will create a winter blanket of protection that is transformed into food in spring.
Some claims are made about plants containing especially high levels of nutrients, making them excellent green manure crops, perfect for chop and drop mulching. These ‘dynamic accumulators’ are mostly hype. The truth is, plants contain a wide variety of elements used to help them grow. Some produce more volume, or biomass, than others. That’s all.
A word of warning
While chopping and dropping is an excellent way to save time while improving soil health, you don’t want to drop heavily diseased or infested plant material where reinfection or re-infestation can occur. By throwing diseased plant material in the trash, you are breaking the disease triangle for that pathogen on your property. In most cases, infestations by insects can be added to your compost pile. In both cases, you can also go ahead and drop everything, allowing natural predators to kill off most of the pests. Most disease pathogens do not last long in green manure, with the exception of fungal diseases, such as peach leaf curl and rust. When those diseases are present, I toss leaves in the trash.
Chop and drop weeding
Unless they have gone to seed or are spread by runners, weeds can be pulled, chopped, and dropped where they are. Weed plants with seeds and those that spread using runners are fed to my chickens, or you can add them to your compost pile. [Compost piles are still great to have for kitchen waste and to process chicken or other animal bedding.
As you move through your garden, pruners at the ready, snip off unwanted stems, spent blooms, and the like, chop them where you stand and let them fall to the ground. If you think it looks messy, you can chop while standing behind the plant instead of in front. In a surprisingly short period of time, you will forget they were even there as natural cycles take hold and transform yard waste into valuable plant food and soil amendments. For free.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!