Bag it or leave it
Some homeowners want no part of clippings, but experts say they're good nutrition for lawn
Grass clippings are worth nothing inside a tall paper bag.
They’re worth a lot more staying right where they fall, so they can feed Kentucky bluegrass, perennial rye grass, red fescue and other types of grass.
That’s Janet Chen’s assessment. She would rather see small pieces of cut green fertilize yards than end up in a dump.
“The clippings contain nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and those are usually what you fertilize your lawn with,” said Chen, a master gardener volunteer at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Schenectady.
“It’s like we’re giving the stuff away,” she said. “And then we go to the store and buy it all over again.”
According to Cornell research, one ton of fresh clippings contains about 15 pounds of nitrogen, 2 pounds of phosphorous and 10 pounds of potassium.
But bags full of grass are common sights on many Capital Region streets during the summer months. Yard waste crews toss them into collection trucks and deposit loads of grass, leaves and twigs into landfills.
Others say leaving grass clippings alone is good policy for the environment. According to a study conducted by the University of Connecticut, clippings left on the lawn can increase the organic content of the soil and lead to increased activity by earthworms.
Earthworms are smart investments for any lawn, gardeners say, because they improve soil aeration and water movement through the soil — providing a better environment for plant growth.
Chen said some people might worry that grass clippings could lead to “thatch” on a lawn. She said there’s nothing to worry about.
“Thatch is like partially decomposed organic matter that accumulates around the grass plants and the soil surface,” she said. “But as long as your grass clippings are very fine, if you’re properly managing your lawn, the grass clippings decompose pretty rapidly. So they don’t really contribute to thatch accumulation.”
If people do not want clippings on their lawns, Chen said, there are other uses for the green cuttings.
“You can add them to your compost pile,” she said. “You don’t want too much in there because if you have too much grass, it kind of mats up. You need your compost pile to be well-balanced.”
Judi Golombiski, a vice president in the Guilderland Garden Club, said when her husband, Kenneth, mows the lawn, the grass stays in the front and back lawns. She knows about nutrients that come with every blade.
Golombiski recycles other natural products that come free with her yard. Autumn leaves are used as mulch in her gardens, to help protect plants from the cold during winter months. She hasn’t tried a similar move with grass clippings.
“I know a lot of people who have vegetable gardens will do that to keep the weeds down,” she said. “I haven’t personally used them as mulch, it’s probably not a bad idea. I prefer the look of the [store] mulch.”
Cornell Cooperative Extension says successful recycling of grass clippings requires some observation and tools. The group offered the following tips:
u Mow when grass is dry and 3 to 31⁄2 inches tall, and never cut blades shorter than 2 to 21⁄2 inches.
u Use a sharp mower blade or a mulching mower if possible — the tools will create finer clippings that will decompose quickly.
u Avoid overfertilizing — at most during May, September and late November. The more fertilizer used, the more mowing must be done.
u Some clippings can go to the curb without guilt. A schedule can be used, such as bagging grass every third mowing, or just during the spring and fall.
Jack Felthousen cuts about 85 lawns a week as owner of Schenectady-based Green Wave Lawn and Landscaping. Most customers on his Niskayuna and Schenectady routes want their grass bagged. Some will ask him to leave the clippings in the grass.
If grass is cut when it’s relatively short, Felthousen said, people will not notice that clippings are still on and in lawns.
“That’s not always possible,” he added. “We take so much grass off lawns, I’ve tried to think of some use for it. The amount we throw out and goes to the compost pile is just tremendous.”
Felthousen knows about the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium boosts that come with clippings. He’s sure the extras help grass — but wonders how much they help. The bonus may not be impressing some people, he said, “because everybody kind of wants the stuff bagged.”