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Grow Your Own Mulch


Clockwise from above left: Plants such as acacia are best kept to a manageable height that is easily reached and cut back to that length each time it’s harvested. Here, half the growth is cut back; Cut material is then placed underneath the avocado tree. Acacia branches can be cut into smaller pieces which assists in breaking them down more quickly; Comfrey leaves are simply all removed down to ground level; Mulching complete with a 10–15 cm layer under the avocado tree. Pay particular attention to spreading it out just past the drip line. Photos by John Champagne


A key objective for the organic farmer is to create a closed-loop system that recycles all of the nutrients and organic matter back into the property from where it came.

Directed by principles such as ‘Catch and Store Energy’ and ‘Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services’, our permaculture properties should also follow this important objective. Growing your own plants to provide mulch becomes a critical design feature to consider if a closed-loop system is the desired outcome.

The focus of this article is on fruiting orchards and food forest systems; to identify the support plants we can grow to achieve the ‘chop and drop’ technique of mulching. Chop and drop refers to those plants we grow which can be cut periodically with the branches and leaves thrown underneath and around our fruiting species as mulch.

Forest systems do this naturally by shedding their bark, twigs and leaves to the forest floor, creating a mulch layer that is broken down over time, providing organic matter for the plants in the forest.


  • Builds up the organic layer so that when it breaks down it increases the nutrient and carbon cycling in the soil
  • Increases the fungal microorganisms in the soil that break down the organic matter, which is preferable when growing tree crops
  • Protects the surface of the soil under the fruit trees from drying out from sunlight and assists in water retention
  • Pruning chop and drop species can allow more sunlight to fruiting plants if required
  • Prevents weeds from growing


The selection of species to plant is totally dependent on your site conditions and the limiting factors that affect it. Through trial and error, we’re looking for what works with some broad characteristics such as:

  • Needs to be drought tolerant and adapted to your climate. Preference is given to species that are easily managed, are not too thorny and won’t propagate easily by seed and create weed issues
  • Ability to reshoot quickly and often after being harvested or pruned
  • Preferable if species selected are high in biomass material (which is the total volume or weight of the plant being harvested)
  • Legume species which have the added function of releasing nitrogen to nearby fruiting plants
  • Deep tap-rooted species
  • Dynamic accumulators that bring nutrients to the surface and
  • Bee forage plants

Clockwise from above left: Albizzia Julibrissin; Sesbania aegyptiaca; Drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera). Photos by John Champagne





  • Acacia species: Fast-growing legumes that are nitrogen fixing. Excellent pioneer plants for a food forest and orchard. Keep pruned to two to three metres in height for easy management.
  • Tagasaste: Also called Tree Lucerne. Nitrogen fixing evergreen small tree, best pruned back to a two to three metre shrub. Excellent bee attractor in early spring and great animal fodder.
  • Herbaceous perennials: Such as sages, salvias and bush basil. Pruned back at the end of autumn each year. Attracts bees and nectar-feeding birds. Adds colour to your garden.
  • Comfrey: Leaves harvested several times a year. Root system mines nutrients to the surface from deep in the soil. Excellent edge plant that acts as a barrier to creeping grasses such as kikuyu.
  • Bana grass: Perennial grass species with large biomass that can reach four to five metres in height. Cut back in winter. Good windbreak species and also animal fodder.


  • Moringa: Fast growing tree that can be kept to a shrub if coppiced and then pruned as mulch. Drought tolerant, so suitable for both the dry and wet tropics. Edible leaves.
  • Ice cream bean: Tall legume nitrogen-fixing tree with edible pods. Used as a pioneer species in a food forest and excellent shelterbelt plant.
  • Pigeon pea: Short-lived perennial shrub that is nitrogen fixing. Edible pods can be eaten fresh or dried. Good bee attractor and animal fodder as well as an excellent mulch plant.
  • Sesbania: Useful wood and timber. Large shrub. Animal forage crop that is nitrogen fixing. Tolerates poor soil conditions and is an effective windbreak plant.


  • Honey locust: Edible seedpods for livestock. Nitrogen-fixing tree that can be coppiced then used as mulch. Drought tolerant and excellent pioneer species to reclaim poor landscapes.
  • Albizia species: Fast growing small tree that is nitrogen fixing. Useful as a shelterbelt species and is fire retardant. Edible foliage and seedpods for livestock.
  • Cassia: Clump forming small shrub that is nitrogen fixing. Attracts bees and often used as a hedge plant.


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