Summer Interns: Earth Shelter Limestone Patio

By SKY PISARSKI

Mulching is a common technique among gardeners and is often seen as best practice. Mulching has a variety of positive effects: it stifles weeds, slows water evaporation, protects the soil from harsh temperatures and weather, and improves soil texture. The Chop and Drop mulching method is a way to mulch your garden plants, and in CSC’s case the linear food forest and plant guilds, that doesn’t require buying, hauling, or spreading mulch!

Chop and Drop is exactly what it sounds like. You simply chop down plants exactly where they are, letting them drop to the ground and just leave them be! It might sound too good to be true, but this method of mulching has more even more natural benefits than traditional mulching.

Plants, a lot like humans, require minerals and nutrients to be healthy— nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, and calcium. Plants acquire these substances from their environment, which is called phytoaccumulation, as their root systems are able to pull these vital nutrients from the soil. If we expect our plants to be healthy, then our soil must be healthy and nutrient rich. Chop and Drop promotes plant and soil health as it builds diverse organic matter and feeds plant nutrients back into the soil.

Here at CSC in Stelle, we have intentionally planted Comfrey in our food forest because it is a dynamic accumulator, utilizing its deep roots to gather nutrients within its biomass from the soil. It’s a two fold system: the roots draw the nutrients up to the topsoil for more shallow rooted plants to gain access to and the decomposing leaves release the nutrients into the soil. 

If we want to build healthy soil, we want to feed its  bacteria (soil life) diversity. Recently, we implemented the Chop and Drop method in our linear food forest. A variety of plants aside from the Comfrey had taken root, including Chicory, Milkweed, Thistle, GoldenRod, and HoneySuckle. We simply chopped these plants down and left them near the intentional plantings of Currents and Elderberry, renewing the soil nutrients while completing the valuable task of ensuring the intentional plants are not competing with opportunistic species.

As the team worked in the forest, Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture, advised us to leave about 8 inches of the Comfrey as we chopped as to promote photosynthesis and regrowth to continue its positive relationship with the soil and nearby plants. However, he also pointed out the HoneySuckles specifically, asking us to chop it down to the root because of its overly opportunistic nature. But letting its roots be can contribute to the organic material in the soil as it decomposes, while also creating space for other plants to root more deeply into the ground.

The ideal time for Chop and Drop mulching is during the rainier part of the season, as to retain as much moisture of the plants and soil as possible. Also in hopes that the rain and moisture will keep your chopped plants in place instead of drying and potentially blowing away. Another factor to consider is the seeding of the plants you plan to chop and drop. If you drop the plants before they’ve gone to seed, you reduce the likelihood that these plants will grow back in your garden. Your intentional plants will thank you, as they will have more space to grow above ground and below!

Obviously, you can chop and drop just about anything that has snuck its way into your garden, but you can also be intentional about planting species that will be beneficial to the soil, while also discouraging other opportunistic species from coming in. Some recommended plants for the chopping and dropping Comfrey, Siberean Pea, and Red Clover. Comfrey has large leaves that are perfect for storing nutrients until they are dropped to the ground. Siberean Pea is a hearty plant that will grow in zones 2 – 7 and also tolerates nutrient deficient soil. Red Clover is a commonly used nitrogen fixer, meaning it produces nitrogen that is beneficial to the soil and usable by other plants.

Creating healthy soil is key to maintaining garden and plant health. We can prevent problems before they happen— poor nutrition, damage from insects, and plant instability can all be prevented with rich, biodiverse soil. Try out Chop and Drop and let CSC know what your results are.