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Should I chop and drop edible cover crops?

 
Pennie Schwartz
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Location: Southold, United States
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Planted edible cover crop of chinese cow pea, black eyed peas, and bush bean. Finished harvesting. Do I now pull plant and compost or chop and drop Thanks
 
Casie Becker
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I think it would depend on what your next plans for the space are. I just finished clearing the corn stalks from a garden bed and had intended to chop and drop. I then decided to plant seeds there that require light for germination.  I cut the stalks at ground level and will probably replace them on the bed as a mulch after I have some height from the carrot seedlings. If I were planting beans or squash (something that could push up through light mulch without a problem) I'd have simply cut them up and dropped back on the bed today.

Even if you need to clear the soil on top, you might want to take the effort to cut the plants at ground level. One of the reasons that legumes make good nitrogen fixing cover crops is they host nitrogen fixing bacteria in special nodules on their roots. Even with non-legumous plants, leaving the roots to decay in place is like perfectly incorporating that quantity of compost into your soil without the work of digging.
 
Pennie Schwartz
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Location: Southold, United States
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Thanks, I was thinking the same. Until I read in Martin Crawfords work that if the plant fruited already, that there is probably not alot of nitrogen left!!
 
Hans Quistorff
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if the plant fruited already, that there is probably not a lot of nitrogen left

Possibly confusing two different objectives.  If chopping plants for nitrogen compounds to incorporate in soil or compost then the peak is when flowering. Already fruited annuals are mostly a source of carbon compounds which is good for mulch. My rule is if the plant will not regrow from the roots and I don't need to reshape the planting bed then cut the tops and leave the roots in the soil for food and structure. Whether to leave the tops on the surface or compost depends on your plans and goals.
Where I am located I do not get severe enough winter to kill most cover crops.  Therefore I have developed an artificial snow cover. I am cutting dry grasses from the field and pile it on top of the green growing plants then cover it with carpet. During the cold rainy weather all my soil buildin critters work away on the combination in comfort. This method has resulted in an explosion of garter snakes and a decimation of the slug population. As I am preparing some new ground now the snaakes are moving from the rolls of carpet to the layer of hay under the rolled out carpet.
 
chip sanft
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I do like Casie does pretty much. Like she says, there are big advantages to leaving the roots in place. I would add two points:
1) When I chop and drop stuff that is still green and not woody (say, squash plants), that stuff is usually gone very quickly -- a couple of weeks, at most. Woody stuff (okra stem or corn stalks, for instance) lasts a long time, as do twigs and things, but they work in eventually.
2) I pretty much always chop and drop, or pull and drop, if I can. If I need to expose the soil for some reason, I just push the chopped and dropped stuff out of the way and let it compost more or less in place. Most will be gone soon, anyway.
 
Hans Quistorff
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Hay at least I swept mine under the carpet. And sometimes I want a nice soft landing for my fruit.
plums-lay-golden-eggs.JPG
[Thumbnail for plums-lay-golden-eggs.JPG]
Also resulted in a neatly mowed field.
 
Julia Winter
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The longer I garden with a permacuture outlook, the more chopping and dropping I do!  It does give you slightly less manicured look, but what I love is how it changes my attitude towards weeds unwanted plants.  I can now think "Thanks for harvesting that CO2 from the atmosphere and creating mulch!"  If it's a taprooted plant I can think "Thanks for bringing up nutrients from deeper underground, now I can share them with my favored plants!"

I've been growing comfrey for years, but this summer I've chopped them down (not the main plants, the tall flowering stalks) at least three times, and I think I'll do it at least one more time before they disappear with winter.  I planted a mix of cover crops on a huge berm last fall, and just chopped and dropped them mercilessly through spring and early summer.  The soil is now well covered.  I'm growing transplants rather than seeds on that berm (tomatoes, winter squash and pumpkin, now some kale and cole crops) and it's working really well.

I would say if you need material for your compost, then you can move it to the compost pile.  But if you don't need it, just chop and drop and move on.  The best thing about chop'n'drop is how fast you can move with it.  Yes, that plant is going to come back.  You'll just cut it down again and again.  Obviously, this strategy works best in relatively small areas.  If you are managing over an acre, you will need some different strategies for some of the space.

I love my Hori hori knife for this work, it's got a serrated edge so I can even mow tufts of heavy grass right at the ground with it (those went into the chicken nest boxes).  My worst invasives are blackberries and perennial morning glory.  I still put blackberries into the municipal compost, because I hate getting pricked, but the morning glory vines I rip out and toss into the chicken pen.  During the summer heat the vines wilt and then go brown lying on the ground.  When they are crispy I add them to the compost as "brown" material.  Once it starts raining I'll still throw them in the pen, they are unlikely to do very well in there and at least will be easy to pull if they take root (after all the wood chips and dry leaves that have gone into the chicken pen, the soil is amazing - I'm beginning to harvest it for my gardens, but I still want to build a compost trommel.)
 
wareon ganes drehar
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Location: Renton, WA
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I just recently noticed mosaic virus in my tomatoes and have been struggling with powdery mildew on my squashes. I was planning on just chop n dropping all of my veggies too this year, but in light of my blight, I don't think it will be a good idea. If you have any diseased plants in your garden, I would throw them in the burn pile. I have heard that even powdery mildew spores can't be trusted to die in the heat of a compost pile that isn't hot enough. I don't turn my pile so I don't even put the mildewy stuff in there.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I run a lawnmower over the rows after something is harvested. It's a specially modified mower set to cut extra-high, and the exit chute is about 4 times bigger than stock-size. And it has powered wheels to help push through tall plants easier. I love it. Sometimes, I even weed between rows with the mower.

Weeding the corn: (No that's not fog in my garden, just the camera.)
 
Julia Winter
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Thanks for the example of a larger-scale strategy for chop'n'drop, Joseph!  It looks like maybe you set up the distance between corn rows to match the width of your souped up mower.  I'm on a very small scale, less than 1/4 of one acre, so my hand tools are plenty.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Julia Winter wrote:It looks like maybe you set up the distance between corn rows to match the width of your souped up mower.  I'm on a very small scale, less than 1/4 of one acre, so my hand tools are plenty.


1/4 acre is a very respectable garden! Yes. I space my plants to fit my equipment. So within the row things are spaced to be just wider than my hoe. And the rows are spaced to be just wider than the mower/cultivator. I love mowing the annual weeds, cause it allows them to cover the soil, and produce biomass, but it mostly interferes with their ability to make seeds.

Spacing plants to match the tools:
 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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Ray Archuleta said something in a workshop I was listening to that was relevant for this discussion.  In context of cover crops, he was speaking about the substantial amount of nitrogen put into the ground with a rye cover crop.  While it does not fix nitrogen, it turns out that the biological breakdown of the rye's biomass puts a significant shot of nitrogen into the soil as higher level predators consume the bacteria and fungi that ate the rye. 

My take away was that even without nitrogen fixing nodules, putting green mulch on the surface can put nitrogen into the soil if the biology is healthy.  Whether or not to chop and drop in a specific situation is always a decision making process, and this is just one more element for the calculation.
 
Julia Winter
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wareon ganes drehar wrote:I just recently noticed mosaic virus in my tomatoes and have been struggling with powdery mildew on my squashes.


I could be wrong, but in my experience powdery mildew seldom inhibits production of my squash plants.  At least, not in 16 years of gardening in Wisconsin and now 3 years of gardening in Oregon.  The powdery mildew shows up as the leaves are losing vigor, at the end of summer.  The pumpkins or squash still mature and taste delicious.  So, I've never worried much about composting those (powdery) mildewed leaves. I figure the spores are everywhere and the leaves only succumb when they are fading anyway.  I remember an experienced gardener warning me not to compost cole crops with clubroot, but I've never really had problems with clubroot and I've always composted just about everything.

If you've got powdery mildew taking out young squash vines in June, then that's different.
 
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