Free Biomass is All Around

The next couple months is my favorite time of year to get free biomass to bring into the garden and food forest system. This makes sense from the perspective of my temperate forest biome: we’re coming into leaf drop and die-back season. For people in urban and suburban spaces, or even adjacent to them, you’re likely to have a lot of neighbors who rake up all their leaves and send them away. If you’re so inclined, you can go and grab them up if you’ve got a car or truck. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes get people to drop them off for you. Shredded leaves in particular make a great mulch and supply the soil with a lot of nutrients that tend to get overlooked and are lacking in a lot of garden soils.

Later in the autumn, even sometimes a bit into winter, you can find people looking to get rid of hay and straw bales they bought for decoration purposes. They’ll have been sitting out and are likely moldy, but generally still make okay mulch. The first year I cultivated the garden I’m now growing in, I overwintered it by piling large amounts of spoiled hay on top a la the Ruth Stout Method.

Not specific to autumn, wood chips and grass clippings are also readily available sometimes. Arborists in a lot of locations will let you take what you want for free, or sign up for services like Chip Drop that connect arborists who have too much wood chip with gardeners who want it. If you have use of a wood chipper and some fat growing perennials, especially trees that take well to coppicing, you can have a continual supply of your own; that’s what we’re building capacity for.

Grass clippings are ubiquitous wherever the American obsession with lawns is present, but they’re not as ideal for one reason: a lot of people spray herbicides on their lawn that kill broad leaf plants, i.e. anything that isn’t grass. That’ll kill your vegetables, and the other pesticides are likely not good for soil microbes and animals. If you can be sure any particular clippings don’t contain pesticides, you can take advantage of the large amount of nitrogen they’ll add to your garden.

The concern about pesticides is also true to some extent with hay and straw, which is why I mostly let those go through the chicken run for a bit first to help break down any residues. In particular, an insecticide and antiparasitic has been sprayed on hay in a lot of places lately to keep cows from getting parasites; makes perfect sense if you don’t think about how that effects things downstream where people will want to use the hay or cow manure in the garden. Depending on the source of the straw, it may have been doused with a large amount of glyphosate just before harvest.

Considering all this, and my well established admiration for perennial centered systems that utilize woody plants, I have a heavy preference for using leaves and wood chips. Start keeping an eye out for these sources of fertility for your garden.

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