One of the critical aspects of growing a fruit tree guild is that you grow your compost and fertilizer alongside of your fruiting trees and edible plants. These types of plants are often called mulch plants, and the process of pruning them back is often called “chop and drop.”
While you can still make traditional compost, it can be much more effective to simply chop back plants and let them compost in place. It also requires less work on your part. Not only do you save on making and hauling compost, but it also reduces weeding!
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Mulcher Plants to Chop and Drop
Alfalfa is a popular mulch plant, so why not grow your own! It is a nitrogen fixer and drought tolerant. It’s roots can reach up to 20 feet to break up hard soil. When you cut it back those roots will decompose, leaving your soil more aerated.
It’s also great for bees, and nutritious for humans as well. You can also dry it and turn it into a powder to use as a fertilizer.
Artichokes are fun to eat and delicious. Plus they’re easy to grow in your food forest. They are related to sunflowers and dandelions and make great mulch plants. Let your plants grow all spring, and after the last harvest, cut the plants back. Mulch them well for winter, and they will come back in the spring.
Barberry can be invasive in some areas, so check before you plant it. The fruit is technically edible but not sweet. There are some medicinal uses. Barberry makes a good privacy hedge, especially with it’s long thorns. You can chop it all the way back to the base and it will regrow. so chop and drop to your hearts content!
Borage is a wonderful option for chop and drop mulches. It has edible an attractive flowers and attracts bees. It repels cabbage worms and makes a great companion plant in the vegetable garden.
It is an annual but it should self seed itself. You can also cut back the stems when they get leggy to encourage regrowth. Plus, once it’s established it can handle hot, dry weather.
You can make a poultice or tea with the leaves, which have high levels of calcium and potassium. You can plant it as a companion plant, cover crop, or chicken feed, and when it’s over for the season, simply leave it in place as a mulch.
Buckwheat makes a good good cover crop as it grows quickly. It can be ready to chop into mulch in as little as 30 days. It’s good for people and chickens love it. Or if you don’t need it as a mulch, just let some go to seed to attract beneficial insects.
Comfrey tends grows big, so all you need to do is cut back leaves and leave them in place. In just a couple weeks it will start to grow back! Just be sure about where you want to plant it, because once it’s established it is really hard to kill. This tenacity means that you can chop and drop your comfrey multiple times a year.
Comfrey is also called knitbone and can be used in poultices. Bees love it’s pretty flowers and it is very easy to propagate from root cuttings. A good idea is to can plant one at the base of each fruit tree for easy mulching. Plus, in hot summers it will appreciate a touch of shade, while getting full sun during the colder times of the year.
Jerusalem Artichoke is an edible tuber will return year after year even after you harvest it. The pretty yellow flowers resemble wild sunflowers, and it will grow just about anywhere. Chickens will eat the shoots, but if left alone it can grow to as tall as ten feet. If you want to harvest the tubers you can cut it down to four feet tall and mulch with the cuttings. Or if you aren’t planning to eat the tubers, use the plant as mulch over the winter.
If you do want to eat the tubers, start harvesting after frost. They won’t last long once they’re harvested but the tubers will wait in the ground to be harvested. If you want even larger tubers the next year, dig up as many as you can and replant the biggest and smoothest ones.
Laburnum (Or Golden Chain)
This poisonous tree has beautiful flowers and is often grown as an ornamental. It is a member of the pea family (but don’t eat it!), which makes it a good choice for encouraging soil fertility when used as a mulch.
Traditionally it’s been used for fence posts, and occasionally will re-sprout and grow. It can be coppiced, makes good firewood, and the wood is also used for instruments and furniture.
Licorice is also a member of the pea family, and unlike Labernum, has a long history of being used in the kitchen! It also has a long history of medicinal uses.
Licorice is an not a quick acting plant so pick something else for short term mulches. It will take 3-4 years until the roots are harvestable. It will grow to about 3-4 feet tall and is drought tolerant after first year. Dig up the roots after third year to harvest. Just make sure to keep some aside for replanting, then use the plant material as a mulch.
Nasturtium is a versatile plant. The entire plant is edible and high in mineral and nutrients. It also has a history of medicinal uses. Nasturtiums make a great living mulch and weed barrier, plus the bees love it. It is beautiful and easy to grow. It can be used to fill holes in the landscape, as a companion plant to deter pests, as a ground cover or vine, and will tolerate being chop and dropped well.
Rhubarb stalks are fun to cook with, but the leaves are poisonous. When you are harvesting the stalks make sure to pull off the leaves. You can then put them back under the plant or used in a different area of the garden. Rhubarb can also grow enthusiastically and will handle being harvested and cut back.
You may not want to intentionally plant stinging nettles in a small yard, but they are highly useful if they are growing on your property. Stinging nettles are good to eat once they are cooked. Here is some advice on how to prepare them.
Nettles are incredible nutritious both for people and soils. You can chop them and let them break down in place, make fertilizer with them, or even just add them into your compost bins.
By growing your own mulch plants you will save money, time and effort! You can chop and drop just about any plant, but these will really benefit your soil and help keep the weeds down.
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