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Grass Clippings

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Ask Professor Rot



Professor Rot says:

What can I say? Grass clippings are invaluable to composting.

But you need to learn how to do it properly so both your lawn and compost bin are happy!


During the spring and summer months grass clippings can occupy up to 50 percent of one's total yard trimmings. Most homeowners quickly realize that their compost bin or system cannot handle all that grass! The following information will help you to better understand how to recycle those grass clippings.

The catchy word that describes the whole new movement to educate homeowners about composting and recycling their grass clippings is Grasscycling. So, let's start there.


Forget those long-held beliefs that grass clippings left on a lawn smother the grass underneath or cause thatch. Grass clippings are actually good for the lawn. From now on, don't bag your lawn clippings: "grass cycle" them.

grass bicycleGrasscycling is a simple, easy opportunity for every homeowner to do something good for the environment. Grasscycling is a responsible environmental practice and an opportunity for all homeowners to reduce their waste. And the best part is, it takes less time and energy than bagging and dragging that grass to the curb. Like the fellow in the image to the left, you might even take your grass clippings out for a Sunday bicycle ride; now that's grasscycling taken to the extreme!

Grasscycling, in short, is the practice of leaving grass clippings on the lawn or using them as mulch. Grass clippings are over 80% water, so they decompose quickly and release nitrogen and other nutrients back into the lawn and soil naturally, thereby improving lawn quality. Grass clippings add water-saving mulch and encourage natural soil aeration by earthworms.

Advantages to Grasscycling

  • No bagging or raking the lawn (Whew!)
  • Plastic lawn bags don't wind up in the landfill
  • 50% of your lawn's fertilizer needs are met, so you reduce time and money spent fertilizing
  • Less polluting: reduces the need for fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides
  • Non-thatch causing, thus making a lawn vigorous and durable
  • Makes you feel good and green all over! Yahoozy!

lawnscapeNot only does it make caring for your lawn easier, but grasscycling can also reduce your mowing time by 50% because you don't have to pick up afterwards. Leaving clippings on the lawn also slows water loss through evaporation and reduces the needs for fertilization. To grasscycle properly, cut the grass when it's dry and always keep your mower blades sharp.

More tips to help maximize the advantages of grasscycling clippings on your lawn:

  • Remove no more than 1/3 of the leaf surface area with each mowing.
  • Mow when the lawn is dry.
  • Use a sharp mower blade. A dull mower blade bruises and tears the grass plant, resulting in a ragged, tarnished appearance at the leaf tip.
  • Aerate your lawn. In the spring, rent an aerator which removes cores of soil from the lawn. This opens up the soil and permits greater movement of water, fertilizer, and air by increasing the speed of decomposition of the grass clippings and enhancing deep root growth.
  • Water thoroughly when needed. During the driest period of summer, lawns require at least one inch of water every five to six days.
  • Make sure you follow the proper lawn care schedule for your type of turfgrass.


Grass Composting Tips

Grass clippings, being mostly water and very rich in nitrogen, are problematic in compost bins because they tend to compact, increasing the chance of becoming soggy and emitting a strong ammonia-like odor. Follow these tips for composting this valuable "green", thereby minimizing odor and matting, and increasing quick decomposition:

Tip #1: Compost in thin layers, intermixed in a 2-to-1 ratio with "brown" materials such as dry leaves or plant debris (saving/bagging Fall's leaves is perfect for Spring/Summer grass composting). Always put a thick layer of course brown material at bottom of bin for aeration.

Tip #2: Let grass clippings dry out for a couple of days before composting.

Tip #3: If your bin is stuffed full of grass clippings, turn the pile (use a compost aerator tool) every few days for very fast results. Especially do this to bring air into matted, smelly piles.


6 Good Reasons to Practice Grasscycling

  1. Grasscycling improves lawn quality. When grass clippings are allowed to decay naturally on the lawn, they release valuable nutrients, add water-saving mulch and encourage natural soil aeration by earthworms.
  2. Grasscycling saves time and work. A recent study in the United States found that 147 homeowners who quit bagging their clippings saved an average of 35 minutes per mowing. That's an average of seven hours per season. Heck, that's a day at the beach!
  3. All lawn mowers can grasscycle. No special mower is necessary. For best results, keep the mower blade sharp and mow only when the grass is dry.
  4. grasscyclingGrass clippings are a free, high-nitrogen fertilizer. When clippings decompose, they release their nutrients back to the lawn. They contain nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as lesser amounts of other essential plant nutrients. When left on the lawn, clippings are rapidly broken down into these nutrients, which are returned to the lawn. There's no polluting run-off, no use of non-renewable resources and no damage to soil organisms or wildlife.
  5. Grasscycling means there's no need to spend tax dollars on landfilling grass. The cost of trucking grass clippings to landfill sites comes out of residents' taxes. This is a wasteful practice: all those nutrient-rich clippings could be fertilizing people's lawns, thereby saving money on fertilizers and water bills. And tax dollars could be spent on services and programs rather than on the labor, trucks, fuel and precious landfill space used in grass disposal.
  6. Grasscycling is a simple, easy opportunity for every homeowner to do something good for the environment. Grasscycling is a responsible environmental practice and an opportunity for all homeowners to reduce their waste. And the best part is, it takes less time and energy than bagging and dragging that grass to the curb.


The American Love Affair with Lawns

Today, 58 million Americans spend approximately $30 billion every year to maintain over 23 million acres of lawn. That's an average of over a third of an acre at $517 each. The same size plot of land could still have a small lawn for recreation, plus produce all of the vegetables needed to feed a family of six.

The lawns in the United States consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week: enough to water 81 million acres of organic vegetables, all summer long. These same lawns make up about 1/12 the area of all U.S. farmland, or roughly the size of the state of Indiana.

fred mowingLawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland. These pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides run off into our groundwater and evaporate into our air, causing widespread pollution and global warming, and greatly increasing our risk of cancer, heart disease, and birth defects.

In addition, the pollution emitted from a power mower in just one hour is equal to the amount from a car being driven 350 miles. In fact, lawns use more equipment, labor, fuel, and agricultural toxins than industrial farming, making lawns the largest agricultural sector in the United States.

But it's not just the residential lawns that are wasted on grass. There are around 700,000 athletic grounds and 14,500 golf courses in the United States, many of which used to be fertile, productive farmland that was lost to developers when the local markets bottomed out.




lawn cutProper mowing is a critical factor in your lawn's health and appearance. To mow properly, several issues must be considered: height, frequency, clipping removal, and blade sharpness. The chart below identifies the most common varieties of turfgrass grown in yards, and the height to set your mower.

Read the tips below for further instructions.


Turfgrass Variety
Set Mower to
this Height
Mow at or before
this Height
Cool Season Varieties
Kentucky Bluegrass
Fine/Tall Fescue
Perennial Ryegrass
Warm Season


MOWING HEIGHT: Under most circumstances, lawns should be mown at 2.5-3-inches. This generally is the highest or next-to-highest setting on your mower.

mowing lawnMowing height is critical. If you mow too short the root system will be limited and shallow. Your lawn will be more prone to summer drought and disease stress. The higher you mow, the deeper your lawn's root system will develop. Your lawn will stay greener longer into the summer and require less water.

Some people like to mow lower at the time of the last fall mowing. If you do, do not wait to raise your mower. Raise it back to 2.5-3-inches in early spring to encourage a deep root system before summer.

MOWING FREQUENCY: Most people mow once a week, which is fine. However, mowing more frequently, especially in the spring, will improve your lawn appearance. If you mow less frequently (i.e. every other week), lawn quality will suffer.

In general, do not remove more than 1/3 of the height of the grass each time you mow. For example, if you're mowing at 2-inches, mow before your lawn reaches 3-inches in height.

Lawns go through a natural growth surge in the early spring. Ideally, you should mow every 4-5 days during this period, although this is not practical for most people.

CLIPPINGS: Under most circumstances, do NOT remove clippings. University research repeatedly has shown that clippings do not contribute to thatch. Furthermore, clippings contain nitrogen, which becomes available to your lawn as clippings decompose. When you remove clippings you're removing a source of this important nutrient. In addition, mowing without the catcher will reduce mowing time.

lawn mowingYou should remove clippings under some circumstances. If you observe "clumps" of clippings on the lawn after mowing they should be removed. This occurs when the lawn grows too long between mowing, and it is common during periods of high rainfall and in early spring. Clumps of clippings repeatedly left on your lawn will lead to lawn deterioration.


BLADE SHARPNESS: Mower blades should be sharpened professionally at least once per year. Between professional sharpening, touch-up the blade yourself with a file every month or two. A dull blade will tear the grass, not cut it, making your lawn appear brown after mowing.

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