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Composting – The Cut and Drop Method

Last week in, Composting – Which Method is Best, I discussed various methods of composting. In my experience each of these methods works to some degree, but it takes too much effort to make them work. Today I will introduce you to my Cut and Drop Composting Method.It is by far the easiest and best composting method of any that I have tried.

Composting - cut and drop method

The cut and drop composting bin

Nature Knows Best

I have a small wood lot of mostly sugar maples. Each fall the ground is covered with brown leaves. Over winter they just sit there, and by spring they are still there. By August they are all gone. A combination of animal, insect and microbe activity has incorporated them into the ground.

No one raked the leaves, or hauled them to a pile. No additives were added, and I certainly did not turn them. All I needed to do was leave them on the ground and wait for Mother Nature to do her thing.

I asked myself, if Mother Nature can do this in the woods, why would she not do this in my garden? I couldn’t think of a good reason so I started following her lead in the garden and developed my cut and drop composting method.

Cut and Drop Spring Clean Up

During spring cleanup, I only worry about stems that are still sticking out of the ground. In the case of something like a hosta, the leaves are already lying on the ground – I just leave them there. The old flower stock is sticking up, so I cut it off, and drop it. If it is really long I might cut it in half so that it is not quite as visible.

I simply go through the garden, using hedge clippers to cut off any bits of perennials that are still sticking up. As they are cut, they fall to the ground, and stay there. Almost nothing gets carried to the compost bin. The exceptions are some very tall ornamental grasses that make very thick stems. It is easier to haul them to the bin than to cut them into smaller pieces.

Cut and Drop Deadheading

During summer, if I am deadheading or cleaning up plants, I just cut and drop. If the plant is near the front of the bed, I fling the cut piece behind a larger plant to make things look neater.

In fall, all leaves are left where they drop, provided it is in a flower/shrub bed. On the grass I either mow them into small bits and leave them, or rack them into a nearby flower bed that needs some extra organic matter.I don’t rake them very far.

Pull and Drop Weeds

Most weeds are either annuals, or perennials that don’t spread by runners. All of these are just pulled and dropped into the garden bed. If I have concerns about them rooting, I will leave them on the garden path for a couple of days to dry out and then I throw them into the flower bed.

There are exceptions. Invasive weeds like bind weed, quack grass and Canadian thistle are not returned to the garden – they are just too nasty! They go out with the garbage.

What about lawn grass in the flower beds? I pull it and toss it onto the lawn. It either dies or roots – either is OK with me.

Pull and Drop Diseased Leaves

What do I do about diseased leaves? …………..Nothing!

By fall all leaves have some type of disease on them. Those diseases came from my garden and the gardens in a 50 mile radius. Removing leaves will not eliminate the disease. I do know that removing green leaves that are partially infected reduces the plants ability to make food – I don’t do that. If a plant can’t survive with disease spores in the air – it is replaced with something that grows without diseases. Good bye mildewed monarda.

In fall when leaves drop, the diseases drop along with the leaves, and Mother Nature takes care of composting them for me.

Kitchen Scraps

What about kitchen scraps? I have a small plastic composter outside my back door, and kitchen scraps go into it. It includes egg shells and paper napkins which do not compost quickly. Once a year this is taken and buried somewhere in the garden. I tried putting it on top of the soil but the un-composted eggs and paper where just too unsightly.

What About Mulching?

I mulch everything with wood chips. If I drop some plant material it will sit on top of the wood chips until it decomposes. If I add more wood chips to the bed, they just get placed on top of whatever is already there. It is all organic. It all acts like a mulch. And it all decomposes over time.

Thank You Mother Nature

Thank you for showing me the way to cut and drop composting.

Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

28 Responses to 'Composting – The Cut and Drop Method'

  1. jack burton says:

    We have two large “islands” filled with flowers in the front yard. Each fall we just rake the surrounding leaves into the islands and leave them there. Comes to about 8 to 12 inches of leaves on the ground. Somehow they are never there when spring rolls around. And we have great flowers each year.

  2. Joseph rudwick says:

    Left salad to go to seed chopped and dropped it right there then added leaves that I collected in autumn ( now is June ) hoping to
    MAke that area a woodlan type area I. E shady let’s see what happens !!!

  3. Valerie says:

    Hi!.. I’ve been using Permaculture design for quite some time now.. Thanks for your article. Chop n Drop is used a lot as a method in Permaculture- but I’m sure it’s been around since the beginning of agriculture… I use it frequently. Especially to speed up reforestation. I also mulch with woodchips a lot.. I did have one experience in Kehei, Maui- a very dry part of the island by the coast.. My friends left me to care take their house while away, and I thought Id do something nice and mulch their small fruit tree “orchard” behind their house… It was painful for me to look at, hard compacted soil… So I got a load delivered by a tree company… And hauled it to the back… They were very fresh chips and the soil as I said was bare and compacted… Well it must have immobilized N.. Either by off heading something or through the soil, because the leaves of the trees turned a bit yellow and were obviously not as happy as they were before!… Over time they bounced back and may be better off (with water retention, microbial food etc… Just saying in certain situations the myth isnt a myth… I use a lot of mulch in my projects today but the soil is different, and I also wait at least a week (or until I see some mycellium) to use the woodchips.
    If comfrey isnt an accumulator it is magic in other ways (bone-knit) and those healing properties are transferred to the plants it is used on. Saying this from experience.. And planting them around fruit trees has only improved yield.. Trees grow with other plants around them.. I think people think to much in a “competitive” mindset… Yes you dont want to crowd your trees- but they do grow better with some “cooperation” from some plant friends. Cheers!

  4. Thomas Broohy says:

    What would e the effect of adding urine to compost piles?

    • Urine is a source of nitrogen so adding it would be like adding more greens to the pile. If the pile is short of greens, it would speed up the composting process. If the pile already has too much green it might make it smell because of the excess nitrogen.

  5. Mark Zajac says:

    I have a friend that does permaculture style gardening and she loves the chop and drop method. I too have taken on this method. It’s great! It makes a lot of sense since it is not labour intensive and adds organic matter and nutrients back to the soil. My only question with this method is, are you losing most of the nitrogen in the biomass by not composting the conventional way? I am thinking that the nitrogen will easily vaporize and be released back to the atmosphere rather than having it bind with other compounds in a compost pile. What’s your take on it?

    • The nitrogen does not easily vaporize. Most of it is tied up in large molecules and required microbes to decompose them to release the nitrogen. However some nitrogen can be lost as microbe do their decomposing job.

      A compost pile also looses nitrogen. As nitrogen containing molecules are decomposed by microbes the nitrogen is slowly converted to ammonia and nitrate molecules – ammonia can vaporize. They don’t “bind with other compounds” in a compost pile.

      When compost is finished, it still need another 5 years or so to fully decompose. so for most of its life, it is actually sitting on the ground, not in a pile.

      In a compost pile, excess nitrate is usually washed away into the soil under the pile. At least in the cut and drop method, any nitrate being washed away is washed into the garden. This post might provide more information: http://www.gardenmyths.com/compost-fertilizer-numbers/#more-2208

    • Gary newton says:

      I have two prosthetic legs.
      I don’t do anything in the garden that I think is unnecessary.
      I use the “dog bed” method.
      When I want to drop in a transplant I push the cover crop down in a circle with a bamboo pole.
      Diverse cover crops, no till, no kill, no pesticide, no fertilizer, no herbicide, no added inputs other than rock dust.
      My garden produces the most nutritious food I can find.
      If I can’t do it with my hands and a bamboo pole it doesn’t need to be done to reach my goal of the garden as a functioning ecosystem.
      I’m a science teacher and am amazed everyday at how much work gets put in to “fix” things. A seed has a million times the information of the computers that sent a spaceship to the moon. Most of the time you need to stand back and let it do its thing. There is a clay bathtub under our gardens, my neighbor is still trying to “improve” the hard clay soil while I pick peppers and lay in the hammock. But some people love myths and it’s fine by me, they’re the ones doing the work and it makes them stronger

  6. cantheocon says:

    My neighbour invented cut and drop— I was just out C&D’ing my hyssop bushes.

    But seriously, thank you Robert for your blog—means I dont have to do one.Thanks for all the debunking of pseudo-science.

  7. Collin says:

    Hi Robert. Are you familiar with the ‘chop and drop’ method used by permaculturists? In that technique plants are purposely grown to provide in situ compost for a desirable/useful plant. An example might be comfrey grown around a fruiting tree – several times a year the comfrey is cut and left to decompose in place. In theory this cutting of the top also causes a partial dieback of the roots, adding further organic matter within the soil. I guess one would be concerned about possible allelopathic interactions but you could always grow the ‘compost’ plants out of the ‘useful’ plant root zone.
    Thanks so much for all your information and work.

    • I was not familiar with ‘chop and drop’ – did they steel my idea? 🙂

      I did look it up. I don’t really understand the benefit of the process. Planting comfrey at the base of the tree, means that the tree now has to compete with the comfrey for water and nutrients. Why is that good for the tree? Ok, over time the comfrey decomposes and returns nutrients back to the soil. This takes about 5 years to be complete. In the mean time the tree can’t use the nutrients.

      Collecting plant material that is growing somewhere else and putting in under the tree makes more sense. But that is what we do by mulching the tree with organic material, or adding compost to the tree, or adding commercial fertilizer.

  8. Becky says:

    I just “invented” the cut-and-drop method this year. Thought I was the only one and felt a little guilty until I read your post. My thought was that the new plants will hide the old stems once they get tall enough and in the mean time, they can provide nice places for critters to live. I wanted to be an entomologist when I was a kid, so bugs are welcome in my yard.

    I have been increasingly interested in creating a more nature-friendly environment in my yard. I found your blog via the natural pond posting and will definitely be returning to read more. Thank you for a great blog!

  9. Roy says:

    Thank you Robert. This clears a lot of misconceptions I’ve had. I’ll pass these tips along to my daughter, who is the family gardener now.

  10. roger Brook says:

    Thank goodness I am not the only one Robert.
    Your most sensible post yet! Let nature do the work. Unfortunately most gardeners are far too tidy minded. There is also a misplaced sense of hygiene – feeding slugs, spreading disease. All wrong and if any slugs are helping to decay organic debris so much the better, they far prefer feeding on decaying organic matter to your plants.
    Its interesting how the soil surface under the decaying vegetation becomes really crumbly. The washings from decaying soft vegetation have very positive and rapid effects on soil surface structure

    • The combination of wood chips, extra decaying vegetation, lots of hiding spots for toads – all seem to be working for me. I have almost no slugs or snails. The fact that I don’t water much probably also helps.

  11. johnoot says:

    Hello Robert. This is a good write-up and it’s a method I also use in my garden. I’ve often read that it’s not good to mulch a garden with certain things (like wood chips) because the C-N ratio is too high, and the microbes will “deplete” the soil of N, resulting in less N being available for the plants. This myth strikes me as odd given the forest analogy you state. If high C-N mulch robs the soil of N then a forest would be depleted .. !! In trying to validate or disprove this myth, I’ve found very little actual evidence (studies) on this topic. have you any sources?

    • Got to write about the ‘robbing nitrogen ‘ myth some time. The bacteria on high carbon material like wood and leaves does rob the soil of nitrogen – but…. only in the vicinity of the bacteria. Bacteria do not have long arms to go out and find nitrogen. They can only use what is basically touching them. So wood on the surface of the soil does rob nitrogen from the top mm or so. Roots are deeper. This has been discussed and confirmed on the Garden Professors – but I don’t have any references right now.

      • johnoot says:

        The bacterial process makes sense. I’ve also read that fungal activity is capable to transporting nitrogen up to a meter. If true, then this would suggest that “nitrogen robbing” could be a factor in the short term. And yet I’ve also read that the high level of microbial life in of itself will ensure higher levels of nutrient availability simply due to all of the activity. So it there really any situation where “nitrogen robbing” can be of a concern?

        • You make a very interesting point that I have not considered or seen discussed. I presented the idea to the garden professors Facebook page, but did not get a direct answer. I did get some references that indicate this is not a problem – see below.

          Fungi may very well move nitrogen to the site of the decaying wood. I can only guess that the amount moved is relatively small and does not affect plant growth.

          http://blogs.extension.org/gardenprofessors/2013/11/04/for-mulch/
          Bert Cregg, commented: We looked at foliar nitrogen of landscape shrubs that were mulched with various materials including pine bark, hardwood bark, cypress mulch and recycled pallets. Overall, the plants that were mulched had similar (or higher) foliar N levels as plants that were not mulched. Cregg and Schutzki 2009. HortScience 44:1419-1424.https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153338229779304&set=p.10153338229779304&type=1&theater

          • Anonymous says:

            First off lets use proper terminology here. When you are saying “nitrogen robbing myth” I think you actually mean nitrogen immobilization. Nitrogen immobilization is a very real thing, not a myth. Excessive high carbon mulch that has not been partially decomposed can be used to immobilize nitrogen in soil.

            This study measured the efficacy of the use of wood chip mulch from slash as a means to improve stream water quality in areas that naturally have high N and have had their nitrogen cycles disrupted by deforestation. The devices they used to measure NO3- were 5–10 cm in the soil, not just 1-2 mm as you suggest.

            http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112708000698

            Based on the study above its not out of the question to postulate that excessive mulching of fresh high carbon materials may pose problems in low nitrogen soils for annuals.

            This is from Bert Cregg on the link you provided above in the comments.

            “We can see reduced nutrient uptake in annual bedding plants when they are mulched – this likely due to their restricted rooting depth.”

            This is pertinent information for a lot of gardeners!

            It’s good to tell people not to worry about things because sure a lot of people, myself included, often over complicate gardening but it is dangerous to make recommendations based on blanket generalizations about soil types and their compositions or the types of plants being planted.

          • I don’t think I say “nitrogen robbing myth” in this post? Nitrogen immobilization might be a more correct term, but that is not what most gardeners say when they talk about the myth. They are more likely to say ‘nitrogen robbing’.

            I don’t know where you are getting your quote about Bert and annuals. In the two references I gave in the comments – annuals were never discussed. Bert’s referenced work dealt with shrubs.

            I am not sure why you used your reference – it does not seem to discuss nitrogen amounts at different soil levels?

            It is fairly well accepted that wood chips only affect the nitrogen levels at the interface between the soil and chips. If you have a reference that clearly shows an effect at 10 cm, I would like to see that reference.

        • Gary Newton says:

          Try putting wood chips into a jar, inoculate with a small amount of garden soil, it decomposes. Where is it robbing nitrogen from?

          • Why did you add the soil? It adds nitrogen to the mix. Microbes need nitrogen to grow and digest the wood. They need to get it from somewhere. When wood chips are used as mulch they get it from the top few mm of soil.

  12. Inger says:

    I love the fling method, very useful and good exercise too

  13. Julie says:

    I’ve also been leaving the leaves etc. for years, and topping it with a few wood chips to improve the appearance.

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