Composting – The Cut and Drop Method

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Robert Pavlis

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.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

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.

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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.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. 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!

40 thoughts on “Composting – The Cut and Drop Method”

  1. We do the cut and drop method, too. For unsightly items, we cover them with dead leaves or freshly cut branches, and let nature take its course.

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  2. Does this method work in dry climates, too? It seems to take years for anything to break down here. And I don’t get leaves, I get ponderosa pine needles—more than I could ever use. I’ve got a forest filled with needles/cones a foot deep (it’s been neglected for decades) that I’ve been removing because of wildfire danger. I keep about an inch-deep layer of needles down as mulch. But if I should be doing something differently, I’m all ears,

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    • The cut and drop method is what nature uses. Does nature work in a dry climate? Yes.

      Fire risk is another issue. In nature fire is a good thing. For homes, not so much.

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  3. Hi Robert,

    I just found this site and I like your posts and the discussions. I have a question- can you cut and drop any vegetable plants when they are done for the season? Or are there plants that you shouldn’t leave on site? For example, I am growing potatoes on a couple of raised beds, and wondering if I can leave the vegetation on the bed after harvesting the potatoes?

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    • Yes and No. You can certainly leave all veg plant material on the bed to decompose. The potential problem is that you may make it easier for diseases to overwinter. The recommendation is to remove plant material that is diseased.

      To be honest – I usually leave mine in the garden.

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  4. I’m thinking of my granpdarents. While reading your article I realized they didn’t have a garbage bin. Once a year they would put in the carriage a few buckets of stuff, like plastic and rubber, and would throw them away at the communal deposit.
    Still they had many acres of land, huge vegetable garden, big vineyard and a large variety of animals. They were only two very old people, no other help, so the work had to be kept to a minimum. They fed the weeds and vegetable waste to the animals, eggs were crushed and fed back to the chickens or pigs, bones were given to the dogs, the animal waste was spread on the land in the fall. Paper napkins, newspapers and such were used to start the fire.
    With their neighbours they would take turns caring a day every month for the herd of cows.
    They had wheat they would give to the local bakery and got back bread tickets or grandma would make bread herself. They traded crops or alcohol for oil, sugar, fish, mussels, watermelons, etc. They didn’t buy much, their pension was spent on bills and gifts for the grandchildren.
    A well organized community can be self sufficient and crop rotation, companion planting, your cut and drop, all are as old as time. People just need to be taught back what the ages have lost and you are doing a great job of it. I have seen these implemented by people with 4 years of school, enough to do basic math and read. Imagine what people with studies, high income and access to information could achieve.

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  5. What I’ve read read about nitrogen robbing was in the context of adding a bunch of compost to the hole when planting a tree. As I recall, the theory was that compost touching the roots of the tree might rob the soil of nitrogen because of all the carbon in unfinished compost. The recommendation was to add compost on top of soil, not under roots.

    This would seem to support the idea that compost only affects the soil immediately touching it.

    Not sure how this works with the theory that compost is a slow release fertilizer. I guess it depends on the make-up of each batch of compost. Mine is mostly coffee grounds, egg shells and banana peels. 🙂

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    • Compost has already been partially decomposed, so it will have less of an effect on needing nitrogen. But this all depends on the C:N ratio.

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  6. Cut and drop is our main method. There is one enormous difficulty to be aware of. If you hire outside help, you MUST put your foot down and insist cuttings are just fine where they fall.

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  7. Hi.
    I am an amateur gardener (started a few months ago after purchasing a house) based in South Africa. I like your natural low maintenance style of gardening. My question is, If un-chopped fallen leaves are just left on the garden soil, will the wind not blow this away?

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    • Maybe in really high wind – but not normal wind. And if it is blown away, where does it go? Into another garden. Once the ground has a lot of plants in it, stuff does not go far from where it is dropped.

      Reply
  8. 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.

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  9. 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 !!!

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  10. 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!

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