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.


Gardening Tip: Amending the soil

While congress might be on vacation from a rigorous session of doing nothing, you can follow in the footsteps of our nation’s founding fathers by creating your own amendments… to the soil that is.

After finding your soil’s composition and PH, you want to decide if it needs any supplemental ingredients in the form of amendments.

Amendments can help one or multiple jobs of the soil.

They can help hold in moisture.

Help soil aeration

Provide a better hold for young roots.

Provide long term, slow release nutrient availability.

So how do you know if you need any amendments?  By sight and feel.

Look at the soil in your planting area.  How does it look?  Is it nice and dark or does it seem dusty and ashy like campfire residue?

Grab a handful.  How does it feel?  Does it feel moist and crumbly like a crumbly cupcake, or is it dusty like flour?

If you think your soil leans to ashy flour, then it’s a good idea to amend the soil.

Amending the soil is a very simple process.  The hardest part is deciding what to amend it with.

Here are some basic choices:

I’ll also add in salad fixings and egg shells.

Perlite and Vermiculite will resemble either clean or dirty Styrofoam shavings.  Both are made from rock and hold moisture very well.  Their multiple “pockets” slowly release the moisture into the soil and provide oxygen to the plants.  Bought in bags, it is quickly spread and easily tilled into the soil.

Tree bark, Pine needles, and Sphagnum moss will give young roots a better hold into the soil while providing wither better moisture or aeration to the soil as well.  Be careful though as they are all acidic to some degree and can change the PH of your soil.  Being plant material all three offer a very slow release of nutrients.






Wood ash adds nitrogen to your soil and will help break up clay intensive soil mixes.

Egg shells add calcium and salad fixings add organic matter as well as nutrients into the soil as they rot.  It may sound silly to say this, but make sure when burying the salad fixings that you don’t bury any seeds.  If it’s in a flower area, you just planted weed seeds and if in the vegetable garden, you’ve most likely planted a competing plant that doesn’t produce as well.  (unless your salad is created from heirloom vegetables)

Egg shells should be crushed up as small as possible to help release the calcium into the soil.

I like to amend the soil after the harvest.  I’m already disturbing the soil and it gives the amendments time to “settle” before the next planting season.

Also, don’t be afraid to chop up the rest of the plants and till them into the soil as well.  They create great compost to the soil and recycle some of the nutrients they took out while growing.

Gardening tip: Getting down and dirty with soil

Next to weather and climate, the biggest influence on your plants is the soil they are planted in.  How your plant lives and thrives is pretty much determined by the soil.

Does it hold enough water?

Does it hold too much?

Is it the right PH for the plant?

Will hit hold it up right?

Are there enough nutrients in it?

These questions are really easy to answer and will help boost your plants potential.

When it comes to moisture control and the ability to hold the plant, a single test can determine both for you.

It’s called the ribbon test.

All you do is take a handful of soil from the area you want to put the plant and get it wet.  Not sloshy wet, but moist wet. You want that handful of soil to be like cookie dough or play dough.

Roll it up into your palm like you would with clay, so that it’s tubular, reminding you of a large Tootsie roll.

Then hold it in your hand and use your thumb to squeeze it against the middle of your first finger.

If the soil falls apart immediately upon squeezing, you have sandy or silty soil.  This soil will not retain water well and is less able to hold the plant correctly.  You want to add clay to it.

If it makes a ribbon about three inches long or longer, then you have clay soil.  This soil will hold water very well, but won’t let enough oxygen in, nor will it let roots grow.  Also, when dry, it will actually wick away moisture from the plant and act like a mini oven in the heat.  You’ll want to mix in some sand.

If the ribbon reaches an inch or two, then the soil is a good mix and considered a loam.  It will hold moisture well, hold the plant up right, and provide enough room for roots and oxygen.

What about PH?  What is PH?

PH is the acid or alkaline amount in the soil.

Why is it important?

Remember those Secret deodorant commercials?  “Strong enough for a man, PH balanced for a woman”?

Your plants are the same way.  They all want the strength of the soil to hold them against the wind, but they also want the PH to be personally adjusted for them.

So how do find this mysterious ingredient in your soil?

Well, you could go dig up soil from different areas and drive down to an agricultural extension agent and have them test it.


You can buy a test kit at your local garden/hardware/home improvement store.

After you buy the test, just follow the instructions and it will tell you the PH of your soil by color spectrum or number.

PH of 1 through 7 is acidic, 7 through 14 is alkaline.   6.5 to 7.5 are considered neutral.

“Great!”  You say, “I now know the PH of my soil, but it won’t work for the plant I want.  Now what?”

That’s easy.  Change it.

If the soil is too acidic, add lime.  If it’s too alkaline, add sulfur.  The instructions on the bag will tell you how much to use and the plant itself will tell you if it needs a little more and when.

These basic tests will help you know your soil and give your plants the best chance for a good start and great life.  Given the amount of money and time you’ll spend on plants alone, this little bit will  help make sure it’s spent well.

Luke’s Journal: Clarification on plantings

As I read through my entry yesterday, I felt it wasn’t as clear as it should be.  Let me correct that.

The first part is about planting Okra up here in Alaska. It might sound strange to try to grow such a southern plant here in the great white, but it is grown as a winter crop down there and can handle colder temperatures than expected.

The other part is that I cheat.  I augment and amplify the natural heat of the sun to promote better growth of plants that are suited to this climate.

One way to do this is through cold frames.  Basically a mini greenhouse created by using a discarded window and building a box around it with timber.  I’ll throw a couple of these out before I start any planting to pre-heat the soil.  As this is going on, I’ll have a few seed germinating in an old egg container inside the house.  They do start out leggier than they normally would, but they seem to do ok.

The second part is to incorporate a heat wall.  Using the southern side of the house, I just painted the wall flat black and plant the Okra next to it.  The radiant heat from the sun not only helps heat the soil via the wall, it also heats the house better.

The last part is mulch.  Lots of it.  By having a good mulch pile you create a version of a heating blanket.  If you’ve ever stuck you hand in a large pile of leaves that has sat for a few days, you’ll feel the heat in the base of the pile.   The same theory works for the mulch at a greatly reduced capacity.  While keeping the soil and roots warmer, it doesn’t produce so much heat as to damage the root system.  A solid “peppering” of caribou manure also adds to the heat.  You must be careful though, too much manure will “cook” the young plants.

As for my unicorn, the peanut plants, it is my personal challenge that is akin to the fable of the lemon tree in the mountain.  I heard it once that a man over in Pakistan decided to try to grow a lemon tree in the mountains where he lived.  Knowing that the general area would kill the average lemon tree, he first looked for cultivars that could handle the coldest temperature for its species, he looked for a micro climate to support it.  He found a small spot that got full southern exposure, yet was protected by the wind.  The singular spot also directed the winds in a manner that blew away any snowfall or possible frost.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but its something to strive for.

Peanuts take 184 days to mature and the average growing season varies from 85 to 115 days tops.  That means I need to find a spot conducive to growing for an extra 100 days just to be safe.  That’s going to be hard to say the least.  But it makes for a great experiment.

One of our greatest gifts is to change the environment around us to make it more hospitable for things that are strangers to the land.  We mix, divert, move, and work until we can find that balance that is beneficial for all.

And that’s the real point of the challenge.  To work to make a place more welcome to outsiders.

Luke’s Journal: Planting Season

May is a wonderful time of year.  The ice has broken and the water is free.  But most of all, the soil is soft enough for planting.

I dug down into the earth and found four inches of good planting soil before hitting the permafrost.  That’s a good amount.  Not enough for carrots or beets or potatoes, but there’s a way to fix that.  All it takes is a double dip of dirt.

What I mean by that is I take the soil from one area and mound it up in another.  I also take the dust from the winter fires and mix it in.  There’s still some nitrogen in that dust and it helps to aerate the soil giving the root an easier chore of spreading out.

This year I have lettuce, carrots, beans, beets, cabbage, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and peppers.  One year I’m going to take a mighty risk and try some peanuts.  I wager that if I build up soil enough with river sand and firewood dust, I might have a decent shot at it.  Obviously, with the long growing season, I’m going to need a few cold frames, but I think it’ll be worth it if I get to make my own peanut butter.  That would be nice.