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Have you ever wondered what happens to nutrients when plants break down?

 
gardener
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So many gardeners spend all this time cultivating abundance in the spring, only to remove soil fertility in the fall by getting rid of their dead garden plants.

Those dead plants are solid gold on a wild homestead. When you work with nature, you can take advantage of nature’s capacity for regeneration by letting plants break down in place.

This post – What Happens When Plants Break Down (and Why it Matters) – covers the breakdown process and shows how you can use it to your advantage on your wild homestead. This one is brought to you by my wife and business partner, Michaela! I'm very excited to have Michaela adding her voice to Wild Homesteading!

Her post runs through the breakdown process in 3 sections:

    - Different kinds of life that decompose dead plant matter (fungi, detritavores, and bacteria)

    - A look at what happens to the nutrients in the plants

    - Ways to work with nature and use the breakdown process to improve your garden come spring.

How do you take advantage of plant breakdown on your homestead?

Nature’s Clean-up Crew – Fungi, Decomposers, and Bacteria



Be sure to check out the blog post for the other two sections to learn how to put this information to work on your wild homestead, but here’s a rundown of the different kinds of life involved in breaking down dead plants.

Each of these life forms plays a different role in the breakdown process, but ultimately they are each working in concert together throughout the entire process, transforming dead plant matter into plant food.

Fungi:

Fungi are often called “primary decomposers” because they’re pretty much the only game in town when it comes to breaking down a tough compound in woody material called lignin.

Fungi are incredible decomposers—not only because they can break down the really tough stuff, but they can also get deep into plants while other decomposers are stuck breaking things down from the outside.

If you look on the underside of some dead leaves or woody debris, you’ll probably find tiny white strands running across it like thread. This is the hyphae of the fungus—basically the “body.”

Those thin strands can work their way deep into plant matter, dissolving cell walls and softening the plant matter in a way that ultimately makes it easier for other critters to get in and help break it down.

Detritovores:

Some of those “other critters” are detritavores—the animal life that feeds on dead or decaying matter. Detritavores include slugs and snails, termites and pill bugs, millipedes and earthworms.

These critters make their contribution to the process by chewing up the dead material and digesting it out.

They’re really good at helping to increase the surface area of decaying plant matter, which speeds up the breakdown process. They do this by chewing holes and tunnels into plants that are breaking down, and leaving “crumbs” in the process.

Some detritavores, like termites, go after plant matter that’s pretty fresh and tough. Others, like the earthworm, won’t touch the stuff till it’s pretty well broken down.

Detritavores get a little help from the bacteria living in their gut to help with the breakdown process as well, since their digestion is a big part of how they help with the process of decomposing dead plants.

Bacteria:

Bacteria are active all throughout the decomposing process, but they really shine with the fine-tuning—breaking down compounds into forms that plants can use.

Carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus… those are the fruits of bacteria’s labor.

They help complete the cycle of transforming dead plant matter back into the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive.

It won’t smell bad as long as there’s plenty of air in the mix, so that oxygen-loving aerobic bacteria can do the work. That’s just one more reason to have earthworms around.

Taken together, these three types of decomposers are the reason that a forest or other healthy eco-system can go on regenerating year after year.

How are you using plant breakdown on your wild homestead?



Putting the garden to bed in the fall is always bittersweet, but I feel better about it knowing that all that dead plant matter is going to become part of next year’s abundance.

Don't forget to check out the blog post to learn more about how you can make the most of this process on your own wild homestead!

While you are over on the blog most make sure to leave a comment! If you are the first to do so you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.

So how are you putting plant breakdown to work on your wild homestead? Are you doing things we don’t cover in the post?

Please leave a comment with your answer. I’d love to hear from you!

Thank you!
 
pollinator
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First of all, I haven't checked out your blog post yet, but I intend to. But you asked, "How do you take advantage of plant breakdown on your homestead? " That's easy to answer. Plant breakdown is my primary source of soil building material and plant fertilizer. I make lots of compost. I use lots of mulch. I want this material to decompose in such a fashion as to provide nutrients for my growing plants.
 
master pollinator
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Interesting thought Daron in your main blog post about using nextdoor.com to find people looking to get rid of leaves.  (I left a comment about this on your site under my name.)  I recently joined nextdoor.com for my area but not too much is happening on it.  My hope was that it could help stimulate the growth of real community in my region.  It's too late around here to get leaves, but to utilize that platform in this way seems like an opportunity to quietly spread the ideas of permaculture, as neighbors wonder, "Why do they want my leaves?"
Staff note (Daron Williams) :

Thank you for leaving a comment on the blog post! You were the first so pie for you!

 
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On my land I do 3 different ways of "taking advantage of plant breakdown on your homestead"

In my forest land I let mother nature do its thing and only do minimal things like cutting down invasive trees (popcorn trees and sweet gum). Other than that I let it do its own thing its been doing longer than I've been alive (50+ years) as its been in the family for over 100 years.

My yard (what hasn't been converted to gardens LOL) and is in grass, clover mix, I only cut it and leave the grass mulch on it and its been doing well for past 38 years. I also on occasion add some lime as soil here is naturally acidic so to keep weeds out I'll add some dolomitic lime to keep the broomsage and goldenrod weeds at bay.

My crop lands and gardens I take only the diseased plants out to be added to my hot compost pile, the rest is turned under top 2-3 inches to degrade where they are along with the soil amendments. I also add 1-2 inches of composted manure to them to replace nutrients lost by taking the fruits of my harvest out of them and when soil tests show I have a pH lower than 6.0 I also add some lime and/ or ash. My ash is from my wood stove and a by product of my making biochar, which is also added to the crop land and gardens. I also have a gray water system that goes to my flower garden and adds some nutrients that way too. A new form of ash I'll be trying out now is a byproduct from my neighbors chicken houses. He has to incinerate any dead chickens from his houses and he was  basically throwing it out so instead I'm now using the bonechar/ ash to add some Ca and K to the mix. As a bonus this should help keep my soil from going acidic and lower my overhead as I shouldn't need to buy as much lime as before.
 
Daron Williams
gardener
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Su Ba – Thanks for the comment and sharing how you take advantage of plant breakdown on your homestead! Compost and mulch are awesome ways to do so!

David Huang – Yeah, I keep wondering if people will start doing that. This was my third year asking for fall leaves and I got a lot but it did seem like there were less to go around this year. Plus, it seemed like there were other people asking for leaves too. I like to think that my posts each fall over there helped to inspire some people to start using their leaves!

C Rogers – Thanks for sharing all that you’re doing! That is really great! Sounds like you have good systems setup across your land to build your soil’s fertility. Thanks again for sharing!
 
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Another nice chapter in your homestead series Daron. Good info as always. Back when I first started gardening a much more experienced gardener told me to never let even a single leaf escape the property. Words of wisdom! One doesn't necessarily need to know all the scientific names & processes involved. That's a fascinating subject but ultimately I think just get the organic materials back into the soil & it will work itself out. The soil will improve & the plants will grow better.
 
pollinator
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David Huang wrote:Interesting thought Daron in your main blog post about using nextdoor.com to find people looking to get rid of leaves.  (I left a comment about this on your site under my name.)  I recently joined nextdoor.com for my area but not too much is happening on it.  My hope was that it could help stimulate the growth of real community in my region.  It's too late around here to get leaves, but to utilize that platform in this way seems like an opportunity to quietly spread the ideas of permaculture, as neighbors wonder, "Why do they want my leaves?"



David, I joined nextdoor.com several years ago when we first moved here. At first, I didn't see a lot happening, but then when I started myself contributing to it, being friendly and showing interest in what my neighbors were posting about, I started seeing a lot more activity. A lot of people in our suburban area have dogs running loose, which they are not supposed to do, so there are always the posts about the missing dogs and loose dogs. Then there are the posts from people warning others to watch out for the teens breaking into cars in this neighborhood or the old guy wandering around who might be a lost person with Alzheimers. Posts about yard sales (helpful!) and civic events, leaf and limb pickups, etc. So I posted asking people in my own and close-by neighborhoods if they had leaves, and could I have their permission to come by and pick them up, and the response was great. I met new people and also, without being pushy about it, disseminated some information and got some people thinking about how they, too, can do things that will be helpful, permaculture-wise and community-wise.



 
David Huang
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Diane Kistner wrote:

David, I joined nextdoor.com several years ago when we first moved here. At first, I didn't see a lot happening, but then when I started myself contributing to it, being friendly and showing interest in what my neighbors were posting about, I started seeing a lot more activity. A lot of people in our suburban area have dogs running loose, which they are not supposed to do, so there are always the posts about the missing dogs and loose dogs. Then there are the posts from people warning others to watch out for the teens breaking into cars in this neighborhood or the old guy wandering around who might be a lost person with Alzheimers. Posts about yard sales (helpful!) and civic events, leaf and limb pickups, etc. So I posted asking people in my own and close-by neighborhoods if they had leaves, and could I have their permission to come by and pick them up, and the response was great. I met new people and also, without being pushy about it, disseminated some information and got some people thinking about how they, too, can do things that will be helpful, permaculture-wise and community-wise.





Fabulous Diane!  Nice to hear more confirmation that using Nextdoor in this sort of way can help build community, spread permaculture, and enrich our properties with organic matter neighbors are silly enough to want to get rid of.  I really do need to start using it to see if I can spark such things in my neighborhood.
 
master pollinator
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David Huang wrote:Interesting thought Daron in your main blog post about using nextdoor.com to find people looking to get rid of leaves.  (I left a comment about this on your site under my name.)  I recently joined nextdoor.com for my area but not too much is happening on it.  My hope was that it could help stimulate the growth of real community in my region.  It's too late around here to get leaves, but to utilize that platform in this way seems like an opportunity to quietly spread the ideas of permaculture, as neighbors wonder, "Why do they want my leaves?"


Hi. I never thought of that. We don't have nextdoor.com, but we do have a local Facebook 'give away' group. I never thought of asking there for plant material, but that's a good idea!
What I do now is: 1. in fall I take a broom and sweep all fallen leaves from the footpaths around the block into my garden (front and back yard), to cover the soil and decompose.
2. whenever a plant grows too large or there's another reason to cut it short or take leaves off of it, I put that plant material directly on the ground ('chop & drop').
But of course these methods do nothing to spread ideas to neighbours.
 
pollinator
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My nextdoor site sounds almost identical to yours filled with exactly the same sort of typical posts :)   I gave away some free plants on mine this past year,  and I'm hoping to use it in the spring to invite neighbors to an open garden/ plant share afternoon.  
 
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Mike Barkley wrote:Another nice chapter in your homestead series Daron. Good info as always. Back when I first started gardening a much more experienced gardener told me to never let even a single leaf escape the property. Words of wisdom! One doesn't necessarily need to know all the scientific names & processes involved. That's a fascinating subject but ultimately I think just get the organic materials back into the soil & it will work itself out. The soil will improve & the plants will grow better.



My neighbor calls me the leaf thief. All those leaves, nicely bagged in the fall, end up in my truck, turned into leaf mold. (but not in the truck)
 
gardener
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Your description leaves one thing from my method lacking. I use a chicken tractor. It is 4 feet wide and 12 feet long. The chickens roost in the last 4 foot section. so I move it forward 8 feet each evening when I give them soaked grain. They fill their crop and then fertilize that last 4 feet then dig through the mulch in the 8 feet the next day planting some of the grain. Then I get my scythe and cut fresh mulch for the worked area.
 
Heather Staas
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This was my 2nd year on this small urban property.   I always mulch ALL of my fall leaves right into my lawn areas in the front yard.    Only house on the street that doesn't put out bags and bags of leaves for pick up in the fall.   I noticed THIS year my neighbor to one side did the same thing :)  I think the first year they were thinking "what is she doing, she's going to kill her lawn...."    and then this summer my lawn looked GORGEOUS long past when others were starting to brown  (I also leave it pretty long and overseeded clover).   Maybe I'm starting a revolution.   The city composts the leaf and yard waste and gives out mountains of it to residents in the spring.   I feel a little guilty taking some because I don't contribute to the materials.   Same with my grass clippings.   The only thing I ever put out on yard waste collections is rose bush trimmings.  
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