Mulching is one of the best things you can do for a garden. Here’s why you should embrace mulch in your garden, and how to make it right on site by growing plants that are — essentially — instant chop and drop mulch.
Originally published in February, 2018; this post has been updated.
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Mulching around growing plants and trees helps to retain soil moisture and hold down weeds, and as the mulch breaks down, it adds nutrients to the soil. Grass clippings, leaves, and straw are all excellent options for mulching in a garden.
What about wood chips? I tend to use wood chips as mulch around trees and aim for “softer” mulch that will break down more quickly in the vegetable garden.
Mulching is particularly useful in regions that are facing drought or water shortages. Read more about drought tolerant gardening here to save on water!
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Getting Started with Chop and Drop Mulch
One of the kind of “aha” ideas I’ve learned from delving into the idea of permaculture is that of starting with non-productive crops.
In other words, instead of planting fruiting trees and plants right off the bat, it makes sense to plant fast-growing plants and trees that can be used as “chop and drop” mulch to help build the soil first.
The idea of composting and mulching is not new to me, but I tend to be a bit impatient. I want to grow food now. As the video below shows, there are just some situations that require patience.
How to make mulch – grow it!
The most important feature of crops used for chop and drop mulch is that they grow quickly. They generate a lot of potential green waste that can be clipped or pruned regularly to add mulch to the soil surface. In using this method, you’re essentially replicating what Mother Nature does in a lush forest. As leaves and branches drop in a forest, they break down and create a thick, spongy layer of compost.
By mimicking this system in your space, you are essentially producing your own mulch and compost right on site, rather than needing to bring it in from elsewhere.
Some people will balk at the untidy nature of gardening like this, but it’s worth it. A thick layer of mulch helps to retain moisture while it breaks down, adding nutrients to the soil. A heavy layer of mulch keeps weeds down, too.
So, what plant material makes good green waste for mulching? It will depend on where you live, of course. My go-to mulch plants here are comfrey (above), ginger, yacon, vetiver, and banana stumps simply because they’re plentiful. But there are other options to consider.
12+ Plants to Grow for Chopping and Dropping
The options listed below are fast growing. Most will grow back very quickly after pruning, allowing you to harvest green leaves across an entire season and drop plant material in your yard or food garden.
- Rhubarb (plus it makes a great rhubarb coffee cake)
- Pigeon pea
- Fava bean plants (above) are great mulch and the roots improve soil quality by adding nitrogen to it.
- Sorghum (more on growing sorghum here)
- Sun hemp
- Lemongrass (more on growing lemongrass here)
- Swiss chard (more on growing Swiss chard here)
- Elderberry (the berries are good for you, too)
- Buckwheat (more on growing buckwheat here)
- Nasturtiums (their leaves and seeds are edible)
While I mention these as fast growing mulch crops, just about any plant you prune will be beneficial. Just let the waste drop in place rather than hauling it off.
Permaculture and greening the desert
Using permaculture methods, including the idea of a chop and drop mulch, Geoff Lawton and his team created a green oasis in the middle of a Jordan desert. The video below is just two minutes long, but it shows the possibilities of creating permaculture food forests even in severe drought conditions. [Be sure to read my post about gardening in drought conditions, too.]
Before & After Scans after 5 years.
Here he is talking about the details of the project. And be sure to check out Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture for more detailed information.
Permaculture Behind Greening the Desert with Geoff Lawton