Yard waste practices impact water quality

Simple practices such as grasscycling can help protect local water resources.

The Great Lakes and its tributaries are the largest fresh water source in the world. Increasingly, there are challenges to the quality of this important resource. Individuals don’t have much direct impact on some of these challenges, such as invasive species, but there is one area that individuals can address that directly impacts water quality.

Yard waste makes up 20% of the waste stream annually – and can top 50% of waste collected during summer and fall. This much yard waste, if handled incorrectly, can have significant negative impacts on our local water resources. Homeowners are recognizing the advantages of handling yard waste at the sources – at their own homes – to save money but also reduce possible water pollution.

Grasscycling and composting are two techniques homeowners can use to reduce waste disposal and possible water contamination as well as save time, money and energy while returning valuable nutrients back into their lawns and gardens.

Grasscycling means leaving the grass clippings on the lawn. There are many benefits to grass-cycling including:

  • Grass clippings are mostly water and nitrogen. They decompose into the grass quickly and return nutrients to the lawn which will result in a greener, healthier lawn.
  • Chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, stay on the lawn to do the intended job.
  • Grasscycling saves money by reducing gas consumption, lawn bags and fertilizer. By returning clippings to the lawn regularly, you can reduce fertilizer use by one application per season. Grasscycling does not require the use of lawn bags because the clippings are not being picked up. With no clippings to bag, less frequent stopping and starting of the lawnmower saves gas and mowing time and reduces air pollution.

Grasscycling must be done correctly to eliminate water pollution. Clippings should be directed back to the lawn. This is especially important when using a side discharge mower. If clippings are left on driveways, sidewalks or other impervious surfaces, they can end up in surface water or drains. These clips will add nutrients to surface water and increase the growth of algae and other aquatic plants that can deplete oxygen in surface waters.

All mower types can be used successfully for grasscycling. To prevent clumps or discharge onto impervious surfaces when using a side discharge mower, mow toward the center of the lawn toward the discharged clippings to re-cut and distribute over the lawn. This will prevent “windrows” from forming on the lawn. Most rear bag mowers have a flap that covers the discharge shoot when the bag is removed. This allows the clippings to drop right down onto the grass. Mulching mowers pull the clips up into the mower so they can be re-cut into smaller pieces before depositing them on the lawn.

Any clips that blow from under the mower onto sidewalks or driveways should be swept or blown back onto the lawn.

When you can’t leave the clips on the lawn, collect grass clippings for use as mulch. Use clippings in a thin (0.5-inch to 1-inch) layer around annual and perennial plantings. Remove all weeds before applying mulch. Grass clippings also can be mixed with shredded leaves and spread around plants.  

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