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They Planted a Tree Just to Chop It Down. All In the Name of Biomass!


black locust nitrogen fixerSounds pretty pointless, doesn’t it?

Planting a tree for the sole purpose of chopping it down. It seems even more ridiculous when I tell you that the tree–called a black locust–grows incredibly fast, too.

Why would anybody chop down a perfectly good tree?

To create biomass and fix nitrogen in the soil–that’s why.

Biomass is stuff like leaves, branches, flowers, fruit–everything that eventually turns into mulch when it decomposes. This plant matter is essential in building a nice, thick layer of healthy soil.

Biomass helps to retain moisture so that it can slowly percolate down into the earth, instead of running off and contributing to erosion. When biomass starts to decompose, microbial action gets started, and mycelium can start building connections in the soil as well.

Any plant can create biomass, but some plants, like the black locust tree, grow really fast (up to 20 feet a year!). These fast-growing types of trees are unrivaled for their ability to create a lot of biomass in a very short time.

In permaculture, this practice is called “chop and drop”, and it’s a fantastic way to improve the soil on your land over time.

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Black locust trees are especially great to use for “chop and drop” practices, because their roots naturally fix nitrogen in the soil.

This means they pull nitrogen from the atmosphere, and store it in nodules on their roots for later use.

All members of the legume family, like peas and beans, have this ability to fix nitrogen. Here’s a list of nitrogen-fixing plants–from annuals to shrubs and trees.

When a nitrogen-fixing tree is heavily cut back, the branches and leaves decompose on top of the soil. Even better, a portion of the roots decompose underneath the soil.

As those roots die off, the nitrogen they’ve fixed becomes readily available for the surrounding plants.

Black Locust trees grow incredibly fast, and their wood is very strong and rot-resistant. They also bloom in white sprays of flowers that pollinators love.

The main reason they’re not frequently seen in landscapes is because they are famous for growing long, sharp, and dangerous thorns!

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However, if you’re wanting to create biomass and fix nitrogen, there’s nothing more useful than a black locust!

Our black locust tree grew taller than 6 feet from a bare-rooted twig we ordered last Spring.

Last November, we chopped the entire canopy off, leaving just a bare trunk.

It seemed drastic to lop off almost 15 feet of canopy! I admit, I worried the tree had died over the winter.

evil black locust thornsIt’s now Spring, and our black locust is taller than me again

The many shrubs and plants growing around it are thriving and growing quickly, despite receiving little water or special attention and being grown in rocky soil.

We’re not concerned about the thorns, personally. However, you’ll want to use caution if you’re planting a black locust anywhere that’s shared with pets and/or small children.

What do you think about chop-and-drop? Are you ready to try chop-and-drop practices in your own yard?

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Erin Carr
6 years ago

I really enjoyed reading this article, Krystal! This was actually very informative, seeing as how I, too, prefer the natural things in life. I do plan on sharing your article, as I do know many plant growers out there. 🌱🌲🌿🌳 I look forward to reading more of your articles!!
Erin Elizabeth