By Christopher Marciello
A curious thing happens when we set out to keep our yards looking attractive. That curiosity is the removal of the best organic fertilizers the natural world can provide and the replacement of those lost nutrients with petroleum based fertilizers that continue to make the world, or at least the places that are most hidden from the public eye, less attractive. What makes it more of a compelling curiosity is that it’s not just the homeowner who does this; it’s the professional, also. Whether it’s the landscaper, the gardener or the tree trimmer, they all do it. In fact, I used to do it before someone who cared enough to challenge me to think of the affect society’s overall footprint creates and offered advice. I now offer that same advice and for the same reasons: I care about the water we use; I care about the habitat that is affected by resource waste; and I care about the future generations who are going to be left holding the proverbial bag we leave them if we don’t get our act together.
Grass as fertilizer is actually one of the easiest ways to have a healthy, low water usage lawn if you’re going to have one. Let’s start by looking at the natural cycle. Grass has an interesting life cycle which I won’t plant-nerd out on at length; what’s important to remember is that when grass dies, it doesn’t leave the ground it has occupied. Its above ground mass lies on the earth, which begins the cycle of decomposition. This is, in reality, a part of the natural process of soil building. Bacteria and fungi start to eat and excrete, breaking cellulose down into smaller parts. Worms and other larger macroorganisms do the same and so on down the line until we have humus and, later, soil. In addition, the nitrogen that is contained in the cellulose is released into the soil, allowing for absorption by the surrounding grass or plants.
Grass clippings break down quickly, in around two weeks, so the fear of unsightly clumping shouldn’t be an issue. If you have a pre-existing thatch issue, try raking it to break up the mass. Thatching is, as I understand it, an issue of unhealthy soil biology, which chemical fertilizers only compound. Don’t let the grass grow very long and you will certainly mitigate any clumping issues. Soil biology is really what we, as gardeners, need to cultivate. Without the health of our soil, we will continue to use artificial means to make our plant companions look healthy. Sadly, this health is short term. Chemical fertilizers focus only on nitrogen(N), phosphorus(P) and potassium(K)(N<P<K). Plants need than just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — much more in fact. Plants have 16 other nutrients (mineral and non mineral forms) necessary for health that are best gathered from soil built from organic means such as grass. This is how we cultivate healthy soil biology. Just using N<P<K is like our trying to survive off a few vitamins. I wouldn’t recommend that. Green waste is truly that: wasting precious organic nutrients.
But honestly, clumping is really of little consequence when we look at what has happened to the Colorado River watershed due to over-extraction, a process that, based on some typical figures of water usage for lawn care, is only worsening. Roughly 60% of urban water usage goes into lawn care. That translates into around 7 billion gallons annually. 100 square feet (10×10) of turf requires 11,000 gallons of water annually. $30 billion is spent annually on lawn care. Now keep in mind that these are figures from a few years ago, and our urban areas have continued to swell. So much so, in fact, that water allotment in urban areas has caused a decrease in water allotments in agricultural areas per government decree. (While I love to lie in the grass as much as the next person, I personally think melons and tomatoes taste better than fescue.) These figures don’t take into account the health risks from all of the chemical fertilizer run off that ends up in our water supply, of which ample scientific evidence shows is a very real concern.
In summary, here are some of the benefits of grass clippings when cycled in this way.
- a nitrogen(N) fix
- a surface mulch that will mitigate water usage by lowering the evaporation/transpiration rate(evapotranspiration)
- green material for the compost bin (grass will get those temperatures up for certain)
- less green material going into landfills
- cultivation of healthy soil biology which is key for all plants’ vigor and thus beauty
- less resource extraction in petroleum and water usage
- less chemical runoff
- and conservation of more of your monetary resources.
This doesn’t pertain only to grass; every bit of organic material from trees, plants and veggies can be added to the soil with the same benefits. Mulch under trees and shrubs, put it into potted plants and into your garden beds. Woody material can be cut small or mulched with a rented 6-inch chipper for the same results but in a slow release method and without buying unsustainable redwood bark mulches or products of that nature.
Turf is pretty, but it doesn’t grow naturally in too many places, especially Southern California. If we are going to use it, let’s try to make it less damaging to our communities. The city of San Diego now offers a program that pays $1.50 per square foot to replace turf with low water usage, sustainable landscapes. Native scapes can be beautiful, and there are native options that can produce a very attractive meadow which can be tamed. Isn’t that essentially what a lawn is, a tamed meadow?
I say these things because I care. For more information please contact me at my website, www.facebook.com/C2agriculture.
Some pertinent links: