Nothing beats the smell of freshly cut grass. You just finish mowing your lawn, you wipe the sweat off your face, and turn to look back and admire your hard work — but now your lawn is covered in grass clippings.
Should you clean them up or let them be?
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did a study to see how homeowners were dealing with yard trimmings — including grass, leaves, and other plant-generated debris. They estimated that more than 35.4 million tons of trimmings were disposed of, making up about 12 percent of the nation’s total municipal solid waste.
Be a friend to Mother Nature: Instead of throwing away your grass clippings, put them to good use.
1. Let it be
If you mow regularly, you can cut down on time spent doing yard chores by leaving the grass clippings where they lay. This is known as “grasscycling.”
If your grass clippings are less than an inch in length, leave them. As they decompose, they will act as a natural fertilizer — returning nutrients and organic matter back to the soil and increasing the health and resilience of your growing lawn. Your lawn will be getting free fertilizer, and you will be saving time and energy from collecting and bagging the clippings.
Benefits of leaving grass clippings:
- Reduces fertilizer consumption by up to 25%
- Improves aeration
- Increases water retention
- Regulates soil temperature
- Creates a habitat for beneficial microbes, insects, and earthworms
- Reduces mowing time by 30%-38%
Grasscycling works best when you mow frequently, and mow when the grass blades are dry. You can even invest in a mulching mower to chop grass up into even finer pieces.
While there are many benefits to leaving grass clippings on the ground after mowing, there are a few exceptions. Don’t leave them if:
- Your clippings are longer than 1 inch. Lengthy grass clippings are unsightly and they can smother living grass and cause damage.
- Your lawn is infested with diseases. Remove the clippings to help diagnose disease severity and prevent it from spreading.
- Your clippings pile up near the curb or a gutter. Grass clippings can negatively impact local water sources if they get washed down the storm drain.
- Your lawnmower is unsafe to operate without the bagging attachment. Refer to your owner’s manual or manufacturer guidelines to determine whether it would be safe to operate your mower with the bagging attachment removed.
Myth: Thatch is caused or increased by leftover grass clippings.
Thatch is a layer of organic matter that builds up between grass and the soil. It becomes an issue over time if the organic matter is building up faster than it can decompose. Grass clippings do not contribute to thatch buildup because they decompose quickly. Even if they’re longer than 1 inch, they will not contribute significantly to thatch buildup.
What environmental factors cause thatch?
- Quick-growing turfgrass stems and roots
- Heavy, wet soil
- Excessive levels of nitrogen
- Low levels of oxygen (due to compacted soil)
- Infrequent mowing
2. Feed your compost
Composting is a great environmentally friendly practice that has increased in popularity nationwide while decreasing levels of unnecessary waste ending up in landfills. Grass clippings have high levels of nitrogen, making them a great addition to your compost pile or bin. Thankfully, a substantial amount of yard trimmings are already being composted – 22.3 million tons in 2018 (not including at-home composting).
How to start a compost pile or bin:
- Locate a shaded area in your yard, away from where compost smell might irritate you or your neighbors.
- If using a container, make sure it allows air to flow through the sides, such as a slatted wooden box or a wire container wrapped in perforated plastic.
- If creating a compost pile, make sure you leave plenty of space. At a minimum, it should be 25 square feet and 3 feet high.
- As you add layers of compost, add light amounts of water to help the decomposition process.
How to compost your grass clippings:
- Add grass clippings to the compost bin or pile.
- Add in an equal amount of dry compostable materials such as leaves, cardboard, or shredded paper.
- Mix using a pitchfork.
- Turn every few days to ensure it’s decomposing evenly.
Warning: Do not compost grass clippings if you recently applied herbicide to your lawn or if your lawn is diseased.
3. Turn it into mulch
Mulch is an important component of garden beds, container gardens, and landscaping in general. Did you know that when you mow, you’re basically getting piles of free mulch? Mulching with grass clippings is an environmentally and economically beneficial option.
There are plenty of benefits of mulch:
- Reduces weed growth
- Increases moisture conservation
- Regulates soil temperature
- Reduces soil erosion
How to use grass clippings as mulch:
- Let the clippings dry, if wet.
- Wet grass clippings will mat down the soil and block oxygen and nutrients from seeping down to the plant roots.
- Apply 1 to 2 inches of grass clippings around the plants in your garden bed.
- Wait for them to decompose, then add more as needed.
Avoid using grass clippings as mulch if your lawn has been recently treated for broadleaf weeds (such as dandelions) with an herbicide.
4. Make tea for your plants
If you don’t like the look of grass clipping mulch, you can still reap the nutritional benefits by brewing it into tea for your lawn and garden.
How to make grass clipping tea:
- Fill ⅓ of a bucket with grass clippings.
- Fill the rest of the bucket with water.
- Put the bucket indoors or cover it with a screen to keep mosquitos away.
- If placing it indoors, put it in a shed or garage because it will have a pungent smell.
After about two weeks, your grass clipping tea will be ready for your lawn and plants to enjoy. Mix a bit of it in your watering can and water your plants as usual.
Again, beware of using grass that has been treated with pesticides or herbicides.
5. Give back to nature
If you live on or near a farm, you can put your grass clippings to good use by feeding them to cows, sheep, goats, chickens, geese, and other poultry.
- Use freshly cut grass clippings.
- Do not use wet grass clippings. They will go bad quickly and can make wildlife sick.
- Do not feed animals grass clippings if your lawn has been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
If you have a pet rabbit, guinea pig, or tortoise, you can turn your grass clippings into a hay snack for them to munch on.
- Dry grass clippings in a thin layer on top of a window screen.
- Turn the grass daily until dry.
- Give to your pet — bon appetit!
You also can attempt to keep deer at bay from destroying your vegetable garden by leaving piles of grass clippings at the edge of the woods for them to eat.
6. Cook up a lasagna garden
Want to start a garden without getting a sore back? Try cooking up a lasagna garden. This is a low-effort method of gardening that doesn’t require digging and helps make use of leftover grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and newspapers.
How to make a lasagna garden:
- Find a sunny spot in your yard.
- The first layer should be woody materials such as twigs and broken branches.
- Start the second “brown” layer with a layer of corrugated cardboard.
- Drench the cardboard in water to jumpstart the decomposition process.
- Add 2-6 inches of “brown” materials: dry leaves, wood chips, newspaper clippings, or hay. This is food for the worms that will help decompose the materials into the soil.
- The next layer is the “green” layer. This is where you’ll add 1 to 2 inches of grass clippings, in addition to food scraps, plant cuttings, and manure.
- Continue layering brown and green materials at a 2:1 ratio, ending with a brown layer on top to deter wildlife.
After four to five months, these layers will decompose and form a healthy soil perfect for gardening. It’s recommended to start your lasagna garden in the fall so it’s ready for the spring growing season, but you can start it at any point in the year.
7. Reduce, reuse, and recycle
If none of the above options are viable to you, you can still cut down on yard waste by recycling your grass clippings.
- Ask around to see if any neighbors can put your grass clippings to good use.
- Put them in your curbside recycling bin*.
- Call your local recycling center to check their policy on recycling grass.
(*Many cities will allow grass clippings to be recycled through green waste collection. Check your local guidelines for more information.)
Reduce your environmental footprint by grasscycling
Disposing of grass clippings in landfills is a waste of nutrients and contributes to groundwater contamination and landfill leachate. They can make up to 20% of a community’s annual solid waste when they would be better off returning nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus back to the soil.
Many states have regulations preventing homeowners from disposing of lawn clippings in landfills, including:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- New York
Refer to your state, county, and neighborhood guidelines for more information about disposal regulations.
Grasscycling is a wonderful alternative to landfill waste that also helps you by cutting down on yard work by feeding nutrients back into your soil. Whether you mow the lawn yourself or hire a landscaping professional to do it for you, these tips will help cut down on yard maintenance and make your lawn look even more beautiful.
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