Gardening tip: Chop and drop for fall harvest and winter prep

It’s mid-September and if you’re like me, you have harvested or are planning to harvest your summer crops from the garden.

For the light planting we did I was fairly pleased with the results.  Our tomatoes lasted until mid-July and the Peppers did great all summer.  The few peanuts I grew did fantastic even with the competition from multiple weeds.  (An experiment on my part.)

What did disappoint me were the sweet potatoes.  Planted in late June, few grew and those that did were far deeper in the soil than my friends.  His potatoes grew near the surface and would “peek out” when ready to be harvested.  I suspect the heaviness of our soil had something to do with it.

Since I live in Florida where the sun hits frequently, I took all the plant debris, cut it up into eight inch pieces and threw it into the composter for the winter.  It does fairly well during the winter and I bet it would be more efficient if I painted the thing flat black to absorb even more heat.  (Or that could just bake the beneficial microbes and insects that break down the plant material into soil)

But if I was living further north where I had only the summer for a good planting season, I’d go way with my plant debris.  I’d use a variation of the Chop and Drop.

Chop and drop is exactly as it sounds.  You grow specific plants that can either draw up nutrients from deep in the soil or those that help fix the nutrients in the soil.  Comfry and Clover can be used for this, but so can a wide variety of plants.  Bean plants are a great choice.  Not only do they provide food for you, but the leaves absorb nitrogen from the air and store it in their root system.  By cutting the tops of them at the end of the season, you release the nitrogen back into the soil as the roots rot while the leaves and branches add to the soil as they break down on top.  The goal of Chop and Drop is to recreate what happens in the forest.  If you ever take a walk in the woods on a beautiful fall day, you will see all the leaves piling up upon the ground with the bottom layer soggy and composting back into the earth.  That is the exact same effect we are creating with the chop and Drop method.


You could also add in some of those pesky leaves you have to rake up every year.  A layer about six inches should do.  Just be careful when using oak leaves or pine needles as they are acidic and can change the ph of your soil.

Let the winter snow cover them in its white blanket and don’t worry about it.

So what happens when spring comes and the leaves and debris are still there?  You celebrate.  Maybe not all of the leaves and branches have decomposed into the gardens soil, but some of it has.  Leave the debris on to catch as much of the April showers as possible, then when you are ready to plant your summer crops, turn over the soil and mix the leaves and branches into the soil.  You’ve now aerated the soil and added organic slow release fertilizer and moisture “banks” that hold and release water slowly, allowing you to use less from the hose.

Don’t want the hassle of mixing in the leftover debris into the soil?  Then don’t.  Just push way the leaves in the spots where you want to plant the seeds and leave the rest alone.  You will have an established mulch system that will prevent most weed seeds while allowing water to enter the soil and help protect it from evaporation.

In my mind, this process has taken out my concern with proper composting.  No longer do I care if everything in the tumbler is breaking down completely.  If it doesn’t, I just dump in in my garden beds and till it in with my shovel.  There the nutrients and moisture control contents blend into the soil and help the next set of crops.  Last year’s plant debris are chock full of the fertilizer nutrients I put in last season, who says I can’t use them again.

If you’d like to learn more of the Chop and Drop method of soil enhancement, check out Geoff Lawton, Permaculture consultant, designer, and teacher.

Not from Geoff Lawton, but a great vid showing how to do it.


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