Biomass: Using Chop and Drop to mulch your garden

grass

One of the cheapest, healthiest and rewarding ways to improve your garden and soil is to grow your own mulch. The more leaves, twigs, and organic material you can gather, the better. I refer to all this extra compost as ‘biomass’.

why do I need biomass?

Healthy plants need mulch to hold in moisture, nutrients for fertilizer and microorganisms to keep the system going. You can easily obtain this by constantly building up your soil with sticks and leaves that can be accumulated from fast-growing plants.

There are many plants that can be grown just for biomass, anything deemed as “invasive”, “fast-growing” and “nitrogen-fixing” are great plants for biomass. Read on to learn more about biomass, why you want it and plants I use to accumulate it.

Biomass is anything that will decompose into nutrient-rich, fertile soil.

Examples of Biomass and Organic Matter to use to improve your soil:
Sticks/Twigs
Leaves
Grass Clippings
Cover Crops
Dead Plants
Manure
Food Scraps
Cardboard/Paper
Coffee Grounds

Pile all your leaves, twigs and leaves into planters. It will help maintain soil moisture, choke out weeds and serve as a protective layer for the ground.

As the debris rots, it will attract beneficial insects who will chew it up, break it down and turn it into amazing soil.

This concept is already used in nature – trees drop their leaves as a way to improve the soil they grow in.

Healthy soil is the foundation for healthy plants, and healthy plants are less prone to attacks from insects, fungus and disease. So, by improving your soil, you improve your garden.

chop and drop

There is a term called “chop and drop” in the Permaculture world, and it is exactly as it sounds. Chop the plants back and simply drop them in the dirt.
I do this with many of the plants I have on the property. Just trim them up and throw the branches right back in the soil to decompose.

Some of my favorite chop and drop plants we have here in zone 9 include rosemary, Mexican petunia, Okinawa Spinach and Passion Vine.

how to acquire biomass

Once you start building your food forest, you will see how quickly you can generate biomass. At first, when I didn’t have many plants, I used weeds and grass clippings as biomass. I piled everything up in a spot I intended on filling in with plants in the future. Over time, it would turn brown and slowly decompose.

Green material adds nitrogen to the soil while brown matter adds carbon.

I chose fast-growing plants and began spreading them all over the property. As they grew, I spread them by seed or cuttings, and then use their abundance of leaves and branches as biomass.

Some of my favorite biomass plants include Gandules which are nitrogen-fixing trees that produce pounds of edible beans (I sell my own seeds here on eBay) and Candlestick Cassia which is a flowering nitrogen-fixing plant which is great for attracting pollinators.

plants with lots of biomass

When first starting your food forest, chose fast-growing and fast-spreading plants. It is best to go with native plants, but if you chose to go with non-native invasive plants, just make sure to be responsible about it as they can grow out of control and take over and kill our native plants.

Certain plants contain special qualities that will add additional nutrients to your soil. For example, most plants in the legume family are nitrogen-rich and will release nitrogen into the soil as they decompose. Plants like comfrey are high in carbon and will do the same.

Vines
Beans: Gandules, Cow Peas
Canna Lilies
Sweet Potatoes
Little Ruby

biomass in our food forest

When we bought our property, the landscape was made up of 11 huge 3o-year-old oak trees and a bunch of grass. I am grateful for all the leaves when I rake them up each fall to mulch my planters. But, I needed more. So, I started looking for fast-growing plants that would provide a lot of leaves.

They provide a lot of shade from the hot Florida sun as well as a lot of biomass when they drop leaves each fall.

I invested in this Troy Bilt wood chipper from Amazon to chip up all the branches and limbs I accumulate from all the trees I cut back. It has been pretty handy to have around for small jobs.

Hay!

Our field was underwater for a month and we couldn’t mow it. The grass was over 3 feet tall when it finally dried enough to get the mower out there. After several passes with the riding mower, the field was carpeted with huge piles of grass.

We raked up the grass and threw it in the planters to suppress the weeds and hold in moisture.

This year, I have decided to turn my one-acre field into a butterfly garden. It is a huge project, and I am tackling it one section at a time, but in the end, it will be so nice to not have to use up all the resources it took to mow it. Follow my progress by joining my Facebook group HERE or check out our Say No To Mow project HERE.

Woodchips

Every 2 years or so the power company sends tree crews out to cut trees away from the power lines. They mulch the branches as they cut them down and this year, I wanted the mulch!

I have read warnings that free wood chips have a lot of trash mixed in as well as bugs and diseases that you don’t want in your yard, but I knew these guys were just cutting back healthy trees to get them off the power lines so I figured I would give it a try.

The tree trimmers were happy to save a trip to the dump and I was thrilled with my huge pile of leaves, twigs and wood chips.

Why is Biomass important in the food forest?

Dry and Compacted soil is not healthy.

When soil is compacted, there is very little space for air and water. Without the presence of oxygen, soil is dead, aka dirt. Beneficial microorganisms, worms, nematodes, and all the other important microbes and life in the soil can not survive without oxygen, water, or minerals to feed on.

How do I fix compacted, dead soil?
No matter where you live, it is important to keep the soil covered in your garden or it will dry out and erode.

To fix compacted soil, just cover the top of the soil with protective layers of biomass. Do not till it in, just keep adding layers on top of the soil and allow it to decompose over time.

Mulch creates humidity which encourages and supports beneficial bacteria to grow in the soil.

You can either allow weeds to grow until you are ready to plant there, or cover it up with whatever leaves, weeds, and sticks you can find. This protective layer holds in moisture and creates a habitat for the small forms of life (single-cell organisms) that enrich the soil

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