Amanda McNulty

Let the clippings fall where they will

amcnult July 14, 2011 

There is something essentially Southern about details that show you are nice.

Tiny biscuits are the most obvious manifestation of this reverence for symbols of gentility, followed by only white meat in the chicken salad. Lawns picked clean of sticks, pine cones, and leaves also signal that you should not be assigned to the NOKP category.

Some of these obsessions signal that you have lots of labor to expend, be it from people hired or just a major case of can’t sit stillness. If there were push mowers to use, cows to milk, or even flowers to cut and arrange, maybe we wouldn’t be so obsessed with blowing our yards clean.

Mow and blow companies race across town, cutting grass, bagging the clippings for the dump and running that infernal blasting machine that cleans walkways and property edges. All that organic matter is casually deposited in the street. It’s the street after all and grass clippings and leaves are natural. Natural maybe; but a crushed cigarette pack would be less damaging.

What isn’t natural is the urban landscape with impervious paved streets engineered so rain water runoff and anything it carries is diverted to the storm drainage system. Grass clippings aren’t very different from slow- release fertilizer, returning 4 percent nitrogen, 1 percent phosphorus, and 2 percent potassium to the environment as they decay. This is a wonderful recycling process if the clippings are left on the lawn to complete their cycle of renewal. When blown on the street or dumped at curbside from the mower’s catcher, they end up in our streams and lakes.

Although not as beautiful as magnolias and azaleas, the algae living in those water sources operate just like plants growing in our yard. When given extra nutrients, the algae multiply. Their numbers can become massive, using up all the surplus food provided by that decaying organic matter that came from your yard. When the nutrients are used up, the colony of algae collapses. Oxygen-dependent bacteria decompose those dead algal cells, the level of water dissolved oxygen plummets, and fish turn belly up.

Now you’re going to complain that you’ll get thatch, like it’s some kind of STD, if you let the clippings stay on the lawn. If you cut the grass with a sharp blade, remove only one-third of the leaf blade (if the grass is two inches high, cut two thirds of an inch), and mow when the grass is dry, those little clippings that are 80 to 90 percent water will just fall down into the turf. Thatch occurs at the interface of grass and roots, creating essentially compost. It can actually help break down that accumulation of material.

Stormwater runoff is a hot topic for cities and counties because of regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. The city of Columbia, among other S.C. governmental entities, prohibits sweeping (or blowing) litter into the street. A hamburger wrapper is actually less harmful to water quality (although no less illegal) than grass clippings.

California has laws that prohibit putting yard debris on the curb. Other places restrict it from the municipal garbage stream as it adds ton after ton after expensive ton to shrinking space in landfills. Well, heck, you’d expect that from California, but listen to what Texas is saying.

They ran a volunteer “Don’t Bag It” program in Fort Worth. Most “grass cyclers” reported they thought their lawns looked better after a summer of that practice. Last time I checked, Texas was not full of fuzzy-thinking one-worlders. Those cowboys don’t consider a noisy leaf blower a substitute for a six-gun, either. Saddle up, pardner, and let those chips, I mean, clippings fall where they die.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Email: amcnult@clemson.edu

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