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.