What is Chop and Drop Gardening (Sheet Composting)?


Permaculture is all about working efficiently and in harmony with Nature. We can garden far more efficiently, with far less effort, and improve the soil at the same time by emulating Nature’s soil building processes through practising Chop and Drop gardening.

How do most sustainable gardeners garden? At the end of each season, many gardeners pull up all their annual vegetables which have finished up and thoughtfully put them into the compost, then prepare the soil for the next season. As part of that soil preparation, finished compost from many seasons ago is usually retrieved from compost bins and dug into the garden beds along with some manure. Mulch is usually purchased and laid over garden beds in late spring to conserve soil moisture during the peak of summer heat. The cycle repeats each year, season after season…

Is there an easier and possibly better way to manage a vegetable garden full of annuals? Perhaps Nature has some answers!

WWND (What Would Nature Do)?

When I do talks about Permaculture, which in essence is ecological garden design, for the sake of perspective I always like to begin by reminding people that Nature has been growing plants for 460 million years and trees for 370 million years, whilst modern humans (Homo sapiens) first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago, and agriculture was invented relatively recently around 10,000 years ago. It’s safe to say that Nature has been managing plant life for quite a while, and we’re quite new to the game.

If we look at how annual plants grow naturally, seeds land in the soil, plants emerge and grow, and if they’re not eaten, they flower and possibly fruit, produce seed and then die down, eventually decomposing and releasing their nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. The roots rot down below the soil, opening up air and water channels which loosen the soil and help water penetrate deeper down. The dead plant matter on the soil surface creates a mulch, which further gets covered with fallen leaves, and breaks down into the soil. Earthworms feeding on the rotting plant matter dig it deeper into the soil and by digesting it transform it into highly fertile worm castings, possible the best possible plant fertilizer ever created.

As each layer of plant matter gets deposited on the soil surface, the bottom-most layer rots down first, then the one above it. New layers are always added to the top each season, creating a continuous soil building process without any digging or human intervention. It’s quite impressive! Over decades and centuries, the soil level increases, as does the fertility of the soil. That is what Nature does.

How to do Chop and Drop Gardening (Sheet Composting)

We can emulate what Nature does through the technique known in the Permaculture world as the Chop & Drop system, which is essentially sheet composting. How does it work? It’s quite simple.

Chop and Drop Gardening in 4 Easy Steps:

  1. At the end of the gardening season, don’t uproot any vegetables that have finished, but chop them off at the soil level, leaving the roots in the ground.
  2. Drop the plant tops on the soil surface – lay them down whole, or cut them up into smaller pieces first, by either using secateurs, placing then on a concrete floor and chopping them with a spade, placing them in a clear area and going over them with a lawn mower, or feeding them through a garden mulcher.
  3. Add a layer of manure.
  4. Cover with mulch, such as lucerne, pea straw, sugar can mulch, etc.

That’s all there is to it, I did promise it was easy! There’s no carting plant waste or compost back and forth, the nutrients go directly back into the soil, it’s very efficient.

Because the plant material, manure and mulch are all laid down in this layers or sheets, this is referred to as a sheet composting system. It’s a great way to save space as you don’t need dedicated composting areas in a garden, because the whole garden becomes a huge sheet composting system.

In case you hadn’t realised it already, this is also a no-dig gardening system. The digging is taken care of by earthworms feeding on the decomposing plant material, and soil aeration is further assisted by the cut plant roots rotting down below the soil, opening up new air and water channels, allowing water to penetrate deeper into the soil.

The Chop & Drop system is very versatile, it works with much more than just annual vegetables though, it’s excellent for trees too, but it works differently, you don’t chop the tree down thankfully!

Tree Chop & Drop


If you have fruit trees, an orchard or a whole food forest, you will need to prune trees. What to do with all the tree prunings? Mulch them and place them under the tree that was pruned, then throw some manure over the top to help it all break down. It works well, I’ve been doing it for over ten years now!

If you want to dress it up, place a layer of straw mulch around 5cm (2”) thick over the mulched prunings and it will look nice and tidy, good enough for a show garden. I did this with my urban food forest garden for the Australian Open Garden Scheme which presents the top tier gardens nationally, and of the many hundreds of people who visited over a single weekend, nobody had an clue what was under the neat and tidy looking mulch!

By placing mulched prunings below trees, nutrients are recycled in situ, enriching the soil, and saving on soil amendment materials. The woody material breaks down to create a very stable humus, and encourages mycorrhizal soil fungi which associate with tree roots and assist trees in accessing minerals and water beyond the range of their roots.

If prunings are way too big to mulch, large branches and even logs can be composted using a system know as a Hugelkultur bed. There’s always a sustainable and energy efficient way to processing any garden waste.

Chop and Drop or Rip Up and Compost?

Are there plants that shouldn’t be chopped and dropped? Actually, yes there are!

During some research on companion planting, I discovered that brassica cover crops grown as green manures suppress weeds during autumn by virtue of their vigorous growth, and after they’ve been chopped down and dug into the soil, their residues inhibit small seeded annual weeds. I also found that traditionally, turnips were planted heavily and left to rot down to clear areas of weeds. That’s because the brassica/mustard family (cabbages, cauliflowers, turnips, radishes, mustards, etc) are allelopathic, they release compounds which suppress seed germination and plant growth (including weeds) when they rot down. So, it may be a good idea to rip up these allelopathic plant and compost them before preparing the garden beds for warm season vegetables, or they can be left to suppress weeds if nothing else will be planted for a while.

17 thoughts on “What is Chop and Drop Gardening (Sheet Composting)?

  1. So using daikon radish to break up soil and add organic matter to the soil is actually poor for existing trees due to allelopathy, at least in the short term?

    1. It wouldn’t affect trees , more seeds and seedlings, and the effects dissipate after a few weeks, so it’s okay!

  2. Angelo, can you use chop and drop if you’re running crop rotation throughout the year? So the question then becomes – if you “drop” a previous crop, how long should you wait before you put in the next crop?

    1. Hi Martin, once the dropped material is laid down, you’re ready to plant the next round. It works great with crop rotation systems, especially when you use the Heavy Feeders, Heavy Givers and Light Feeders system – https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/articles-and-reference-material/crop-rotation-systems-for-annual-vegetables/

      The heavy givers legume crop can either be harvested or chopped and dropped at the flowering stage for use as a cool season green manure. I did exactly this to improve my soil when I first began, and also planted with fenugreek, using the deep taproot to break up the soil as well as add nitrogen.

      1. Thanks Angelo, that’s a great article (I’ve put in on my blog’s reading list). The heavy feeders – heavy givers lists made me think – can’t one plant peas between the dormant asparagus over winter? Or even broad beans? The peas can even climb up the dormant asparagus stalks. I haven’t seen those two together on any companions list yet – I’m quite keen to try it as it make sense for the peas to re-nitrogenise the soil – maybe I’ll try it on one half of the asparagus bed?

      2. I’ve found from experience that asparagus really needs its own space, when it gets shaded it doesn’t fare well. I’d put the climbing peas or broad beans behind the asparagus patch, with the sun coming in from the front of the asparagus patch so it’s not shaded out in spring and the sun warms up the soil easily.

  3. Hi Angelo, I read your reply to a previous comment I am planning to drop and chop my corn plants and then to plant broad beans. My question is should I add some blood and bone (I dont have enough compost ready at this time) before the chop and drop and then just scoop out a hole to plant the bean. I am planning on harvesting the beans to eat We are located in Silvan VIC

    1. Yes, I would definitely add a source of nitrogen such as blood and bone. Before planting warm season vegetables in spring, or the cool season vegetables in autumn, the usual practice is to prepare the soil by adding a slow release fertiliser such as manure or blood and bone to feed the garden for the next six months.

  4. No need to add blood and bone to your growing beds. I have been growing vegan-ically for ten years on the same plot now and I am seeing increased yields through sheet composting each year.

    1. If you prefer a totally vegan approach to gardening, you can use warm and cool season green manure crops to add nitrogen to the soil, as discussed in the article Crop Rotation Systems for Annual Vegetables

      This can be done with the chop $ drop technique by sowing a garden bed with broad beans in the cooler season, then chopping the plants to the ground and leaving the roots in the soil. The Rhizobium bacteria that live symbiotically within the nodules of legume plants capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that plants can use. When the plants are chopped down, the roots release the nitrogen into the soil. The plants can either be dug into the soil, left on top of the soil, or chopped up and laid over the soil surface beofre they’re covered in mulch.

  5. I like your ideas. I have 2 boxed vege patches and dig-in the kitchen scraps straight into the vege patch. The worms (red wrigglers) soon devour all quite quickly. It has made the soil quite rich and friable. I still add manures etc when I plant seedlings. I get good results and don’t have to manage a compost bin.

  6. What to do when plants have been infested with aphids or cutworms or cucumber beetles? I cannot seem to get rid of these despite crop relocation every summer.

  7. Hi Angelo,
    Not sure if permaculture and lawns should be mentioned in the same sentence but we’re building a new home and I’d like to get the soil in it’s best condition to have a lawn and some vegetable beds. I’m thinking of using a Spring green manure mix over the whole area and then chop and drop and then laying turf etc. Would this be beneficial and any thoughts how long I’d have to wait before laying the lawn( could it be laid directly onto the dropped green manure for instance). Because our area attracts brown snakes could the green manure be mowed to keep its height down but still be of beneficial value?We’re building in Cowra, central NSW.
    All the best. Graham

    1. Hi Graham, my rule in permaculture design is to allocate garden beds for the plants and trees, and appropriate areas for animals to inhabit, including humans. Since humans don’t belong in garden beds, and should never tread in the garden to compact the soil, they also need spaces of their own, that’s why paths are important in gardens,, as are areas where people can sit outside and enjoying the garden! Appropriate sized lawns are okay as long as they’re managed sustainably, vast expanses of lawn are a waste of time and space!

      I would use a green manure and then chop and drop in the vegie garden beds only, but not on the lawn. Green manures are only cut down once, and don’t lend themselves to mowing.

      There’s an easier way to prepare the lawn. The way I prepared my small rear lawn area before planting it with Bufallo grass plugs was to first remove all the old lawn and weeds, and loosen the soil surface lightly with a 3 prong cultivator. Any garden tool that can do the job will work. I then poured a few bags of compost and some lawn fertiliser over the soil surfaced and raked these through to mix them evenly with the soil and to ensure that the lawn was even. I left it for a week for any weeds to emerge, cleared them out when they did, then planted the lawn. If it gets really dry there, or the soils don’t retain moisture well, throw down some zeolite, it’s a natural mineral that turf professionals use, it retains moisture and nutrients.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

Leave a Reply