(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 13, 2008)
The recent rains certainly have made plants happy. The green leaves on shrubs, flowers, trees and vines seem more brilliant than ever. Even browned, nearly dead-looking lawns that barely grew during the prolonged drought have responded to daily downpours by sprouting overnight into dense forests of swaying green blades.
The rumble of lawn mowers and the roar of weed-whackers trying to keep up with this flush of plenty has become an omnipresent sound in neighborhoods.
With so many people outdoors mowing and maintaining swaths of green, it's an ideal time to consider what to do with those grass clippings.
The homeowner has three options:
1. Mow the lawn and leave the grass clippings in place.
2. Mow the lawn and bag the grass clippings for trash pickup.
3. Mow the lawn and use the grass clippings for mulch around plants.
By far, the first two options are most frequently chosen.
Grass clippings left in place are good for the lawn, adding valuable nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
But many people don't like the look of cut blades drying in the sun on their otherwise green lawn. To combat the problem, they rake the clippings into piles, stuff them into trash bags and drag their heavy loads to the curb where the green blades will make their way into overloaded landfills.
Drive down any subdivision on a summertime yard trash pickup day and curbsides will be dotted with garbage bags stuffed with what I call "green gold." I'm always amazed how few people realize the value of the natural matter they toss away.
Grass clippings are filled with organic goodness. They are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and lesser amounts of other essential plant nutrients. These thin blades of green are loaded with vital elements, and they have them in a ratio -- four parts nitrogen to one part phosphorus to three parts potassium (4-1-3) -- that's ideal for lawn health. That's the same proportion you'd be seeking if you went to buy a lawn fertilizing formula at your garden center.
I can't help but wonder why so many people waste their money on chemical compounds when the product they need is right there beneath their feet.
Not only are grass clippings chock-full of important nutrients, but those nutrients also decompose rapidly, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium into the soil with efficiency and ease.
I have been using grass clippings as mulch for as long as I've been gardening. Second only to eel grass -- a type of seaweed that washes up on Cape Cod beaches and that we used extensively when we lived there -- freshly mowed grass is my favorite mulching material. I use it around all sorts of plants because it is easy to handle and aromatic when freshly cut. Also, grass clippings can be fitted with ease into even the most delicate of spots, a characteristic that makes them ideal mulch for young seedlings and mature plants.
You don't have to look any further than your own garden for proof of how beneficial grass clippings can be when used as mulch. Ground that has been repeatedly layered with the byproduct of mowing will be teeming with worms.
Earthworms -- nature's best indicators of healthy ground -- are drawn to the nutrient-rich clippings. They digest the organic matter and then return it to the soil in a form readily accessible to the mulched plants. As natural tillers, earthworms work their way in and out of the decomposing clippings, causing the soil to become lighter and richer.
In our nursery, when people come to purchase bamboo, I'm constantly telling them to use the grass they cut as mulch around the bamboo and other landscape plants. Over and over, I repeat: Don't throw away grass clippings -- give them to the plants.
But while people nod and say with surprise, "Oh, I didn't realize you could do that," I can tell they are just being polite. The throwaway mentality is so ingrained in the American psyche that it's difficult for people to consider new behaviors.
But consider them we must.
It may be difficult, but we must learn to be better stewards of the land. Using our grass clippings is a small way to create a healthier environment. Instead of taking time and money, mulching with "green gold" saves a little bit of both.