Discover the quick way to put the garden to bed: the permaculture practice of ‘chop and drop’. Words & Photos Diana Noonan
Growing organically is a gardening practice that many embrace from day one. Others build up to it, adopting aspects of organics in some areas while, in others, clinging to the inorganic methods they’ve trusted for years. My own introduction to organic growing was unplanned. As a penniless 20-yearold intent upon a life of self-sufficiency, I turned to the only garden ingredients that were free (pine needles, autumn leaves, lawn clippings, animal manure, kelp and compost). Over the decades, these ingredients have not changed, but as we learn more about what the natural world, left to its own devices, is capable of achieving, my style of organic gardening has developed in response. Recently, I have been learning to take greater care of my soil in the coldest months of the year. And in doing so, I’ve reduced the amount of labour required to grow an even more productive garden.
Change is hard – that’s not a hunch, it’s a fact. So, although I have been reading, for at least five years, about the beneficial microbes and mycorrhizal fungi beneath our soil, and how to encourage them, I hadn’t, until recently, been doing anything to promote their presence in my garden. Instead, each autumn, as part of my pre-winter clean-up, I would religiously pull up all the spent vegetables (roots and all) from the beds, and lug them (quite some distance away) to the compost. I would weed out any ‘bits of green’ that remained on the soil, then pile on kelp and sheep manure, leaving it all to rot down in the winter weather.
It felt good to have the garden looking so neat and tidy, but then, in spring, the work would begin again, and this time, it was heavier. Mature compost had to be wheelbarrowed back onto the garden, and everything, including the bits of kelp that hadn’t finished rotting down, had to be dug in. It was exhausting work. I was also becoming increasingly uneasy that I was disturbing those hard-working fungi and microbial creatures that I now knew lived beneath the soil. What I didn’t know was that, because of the way I prepared my winter beds, there were probably only a handful of them present. And then, one day, everything changed. Not because I had ‘seen the light’, but because I wanted a winter holiday in warmer climes.
It can be tempting to ‘make a meal’ (if you’ll excuse the pun) out of how to garden organically. But the more I use organics, the more I realise that nature really does hold some pretty simple answers. Our job, as gardeners, is to let it.
Chop-and-drop tips I’ve learnt on the way:
A friend from the north phoned, one April, to ask if I would be available to housesit for a few months. The thought of escaping the deep south’s icy winter was appealing, but the only catch was I would have to leave home within a couple of weeks. Given that I hadn’t even begun to winter-ready my garden beds, getting away in time seemed impossible. Unless, of course, I adopted the much swifter winter-prep, the permaculture practice of chop and drop as a way of ‘putting the garden to bed’.
‘Chop and drop’ imitates what nature has been successfully doing for several hundred million years – growing, flowering, fruiting, seeding and, in the process, dropping an awful lot of leaves, twigs and decaying fruit onto the ground. Coupled with the occasional browsing animal depositing a little manure here and there, entire ecosystems thrive.
Part of the reason for nature’s success is that, beneath the soil, roots are decaying, creating channels for water and air to penetrate, and providing food for the tiny organisms that nibble on them. Roots also provide a home for fungi, which, as it turns out, are hugely beneficial for plant growth.
Fungi gather the nutrients that sustain them by sending out thread-like structures (called mycelium) through the soil to hunt for ‘food’. These mycelium networks are vast (one estimate suggests that there can be up to 200km of mycelium in a kilo of soil), and they extend beyond the roots of the plants the fungi are established in. As the mycelium invade the soil and use their nutrients to their own advantage, they also change the nutrients that feed the plants they live among into more usable forms. They also provide organic ‘highways’ through the soil that enable plants to exchange nutrients with each other.
I was at first hesitant about preparing my edible beds for winter using the chopand- drop method. Although it seemed so much easier than what I usually did, surely there would be problems. If I chopped off the likes of brassica at the roots, wouldn’t the stumps grow again? If I didn’t pull out weeds, they would surely seed and come up again in spring. I was sure that tough broad bean stalks needed to sit under a heavy layer of compost if they were to decay by September, and what if all the chopped vegetable matter lying on the soil became a rotting sludge, filled with springtails, come spring? I was filled with trepidation, but if I wanted that housesit, I had to try something different – so chop and drop it was.
Against all my natural instincts, I chopped up every spent vegetable I could find, and left it where it lay. I also chopped down, at the base, weeds such as stinging nettle and fat hen. I turned a blind eye to smaller weeds, simply letting other vegetable matter lie on top of them. There was no time to cart lawn clippings to the compost bin so they went on top, too, along with some autumn leaves I would normally have confined to a separate bin, and layered with lime. And then I literally packed my bags, and left. As I drove away from three decades of doing completely the opposite with my winter beds, I was a very worried gardener.
When I returned home at the end of August, I was gobsmacked. The vegetable matter on the garden beds had decayed, not into rotting piles, but a light, crumbly humus. Beneath it, roots had almost disintegrated, and the worms were plentiful. A few self-sown broad beans promised an earlier than usual harvest.
As sowing time rolled around, I skipped the addition of compost, added a sprinkle of animal manure, and instead of digging the garden over, used my fork to penetrate deep into the soil, pulling it back and forth to loosen the ground, but not to dig (something that would have disturbed the mycelium beneath). The tool I really wish I’d had for the job is a broad fork.
I fully expected weed seeds to germinate en masse as the days warmed up, but there were fewer than usual. If anything, the garden looked like it needed a boost, so I watered it with a liquid feed of kelp water.
Summer rolled on, and it was an exceptionally dry one in the deep south. My beds, however, required less watering than usual thanks to the presence in the soil of the fibrous chop-and-drop material that had decayed into it over winter. Without being weighed down by a heavy layer of compost, small pieces of stalk and stem have remained intact. They soak in moisture, release it over time, and they are filled with the white thread of mycelium.