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Chop and drop - with willow, alder, birch trees to create vegetable beds

 
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Hi all

I have been considering how to create vegetable growing area on some soil that is not too rich, that currently is grasslands, with a bit of heather and broom.  The top soil ilayer s rather shallow and udnerneath is a layer of clay.  The soil is very wet in the winter.  I am in the South of France, on 700m altitude.

I realised these fields are surrounded by groves of alder, different species of willow and birch trees, which made me wonder if I could use these naturally present plants for 'chop and drop' and thus end up creating nice fertile areas, with good soil structure for growing vegetables without having to compost, import any other materials, and without ever running out of mulching material.

So - my questions: what to pay particular attention to?

I want to first cut the grass to ground level, and then start chopping and dropping green twigs with leaves on them.  Can anybody tell me what thckness of branches and twigs to use and why?  Is there any one thing that I should not do under any circumstances?  Can I also use ferns (bracken)? What tools are best?  Any other thoughts? Will these twigs be enough to build up the soil or do I need to introduce something else as well? If so, what?

Thank you and I wish you all happy growing.

Yves



 
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The biggest concern is whether you can work around the twigs or will they be a hindrance. This would depend on the plants. Putting them around perrenials and trees is not a problem because you are not replanting next season. Twigs in a carrot bed, maybe not so good.

I am asuming by chop and drop you are setting the twigs on top, thus the concern. They may not decompose by next growing season. Burying them (hybrid hugelculture) would get the benefits without the concerns of being in the way. If they are small enough in diameter to just cut them into 1" pieces would help to increase where you can use them on the surface.

Using what you got is a great idea. You're on a good strategy.  I know nothing about ferns, but from my standpoint, in my grography, there is nothing i won't use. I havent ran into a problem yet. I think willow sticks can root easily so be careful with it.

I would probably take some leaf mulch from under the trees as an amendment also. The stuff just under the leaves. Not so much that you cause harm. Like fill a bucket then walk a few paces for the next one.

 
Yves Ball
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Hey, thanks very much for your nice reply.  
We also have a woodchipper - so maybe the thing to do for annuals would be to chip the wood, leave it for a year to disintegrate a bit, and then sow some seeds.  But then, do I sow the seeds into the partially disintegrated woodchip, or do I need to remove the woodchip and sow into the soil underneath and then mulch around seedlings?

Otherwise, in the twigs, I was thinking of things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and some perennial vegetables that are robust enough to grow above it all.  

Very good idea to get some fertile composted dead leaves from under the willows or alders - thank you... I also have access to the lake mud... That way I woldn't need to bring anything at all from outside... I've been looking at it all for awhile, but now finally, a picture is beginning to emerge....

Thanks again.

Happy spring to all
 
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If you have a small wood chipper then chipping/shredding the small leafy twigs would make a great mulch that should compost down pretty quickly. Willow twigs, even shredded, can root pretty easily but you just pull them out as they pop up and they aren't that terrible. I agree with Wayne that any organic matter around your area is fair game and importing (a couple of meters) some forest duff is a great way to introduce biology.
 
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Plenty of information on “Back to Eden” gardening. Just using wood chips as mulch.
 
Yves Ball
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Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your reply.  We do have a small-ish woodchipper, but it is very diesel thirsty and the sharpenning of the blades needs to be done often and doesn't come cheap either (and it involves driving to town to drop them off, then driving to picku them up, waiting a few days for them to be ready etc).  It is a chipper that has blades as opposed to hammers.  Chipping stuff with leaves on does not work well, because leaves are too wet and sticky when chopped and they jam the blow pipe, which in turn jams the chipper.  Then it needs to be opened up, cleanep up, reassembled... (It is one of the cheaper models, so engineering is not top class).  We will do some chipping, but I would like to try the twigs trick, because it is much cheaper as I plan to do it by hand - well machette, or some such tool.  The distance between the forest material and the field is like you say - a few meters, so that should be OK.  I might also try some rushes (Juncus sp)... not sure how they would work, but will find out.   They arenot much further away. There is broom too.  But my main thing is alder, willow and birch because we have tons and tons of the stuff and it is like a jungle.  Alder regrows really fast.  Willow does too, not sure about birch trees, but will find out.
Thanks for all the observations and ideas.
Yves
 
stephen lowe
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Another thing to consider is doing some heavier clearing to make hugel beds. It is more work up front but it could also jump start your soil building. In any case, I'm excited for your project and hope to hear how it develops, whichever methods you employ
 
Yves Ball
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That's crossed my mind too as we have some bigger pieces of wood, and some rotten stuff... But  a question: how to deal with a big pile of tree roots?  Actually tree stumps that were pulled out of another piece of land?  Would you include them into the hugel,  And - what would you do to avoid having great cavities undreground where the roots criss cross each other and cannot settle as they branch out all over each other? There are some huge stumps, which we could maybe saw up to some extent, but sawing the roots is not good for chainsaws... And there are a lot of smaller ones.  I mean a lot.  A pile of maybe 3x2x8 meters or so.  Any ideas?  Experiences?  Thoughts?
Thank you.
 
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yeah i agree with the other posters here, the best best use of the bigger chunkier stuff like branches and old logs is in putting it UNDER your soil, as in a type of hugleculture beds....

you can make some quick new gardens that are raised up higher by putting down thick layers of cardboard on the bottom (or not as you see fit but i like it for starting off a new bed right over lawn and keeping grass and weeds down), then piling up all your logs and branches and leaves...then putting a foot or 3 of "soil" on top- whether for bags of stuff you can purchase or soil dug from your own land...and burying all that wood underneath your soil....

but no matter how you use it its...all good..if you can work around the bigger stuff placed around your garden then putting it on top will be good too.

the cool thing about having trees right inside your gardens it that they natural mulch your garden...every year as they shed leaves and branches naturally...the soil underneath is enriched by the mulching...and you dont have to do the work of moving the wheelbarrow all around..
 
stephen lowe
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Yves Ball wrote:That's crossed my mind too as we have some bigger pieces of wood, and some rotten stuff... But  a question: how to deal with a big pile of tree roots?  Actually tree stumps that were pulled out of another piece of land?  Would you include them into the hugel,  And - what would you do to avoid having great cavities undreground where the roots criss cross each other and cannot settle as they branch out all over each other? There are some huge stumps, which we could maybe saw up to some extent, but sawing the roots is not good for chainsaws... And there are a lot of smaller ones.  I mean a lot.  A pile of maybe 3x2x8 meters or so.  Any ideas?  Experiences?  Thoughts?
Thank you.



I would bury those stumps as best you can and pack the twig and bracken and other odds and ends around them as best you can. Things will break down and there will be setting but you can always fill in any depressions that form
 
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