Don’t bag your clippings.
This is a lesson I learned early in my lawn and landscape career.
The Tale of Two Very Similar but Very Different Lawns
In the late 1980’s, our company provided full service landscape management for two homeowners associations located directly across the street from each other in NW Oklahoma City.
The economics of the two HOAs were very different. The HOA on the south side of the street had a contract with two less fertilizer applications than the one of the north side of the street. The one on the north side also required us to bag and remove the lawn clippings. The south side HOA couldn’t afford the extra expense for bagging and waste disposal. The HOA on the north side also had an irrigation system with nearly perfect coverage that ran every other day while the one on the other side of the street had an old inadequate system that we struggled to keep operating during dry spells.
Which HOA do you think always had the greenest grass?
Not the one with the most fertilizer applications and abundant moisture…
The one with the greenest grass was the one that couldn’t afford to have their grass clippings bagged and removed!
Why Does Not Bagging Your Clippings Make Such a Big Difference?
Grass clippings are 80-90% water and nutrients, mostly nitrogen. Every time you throw away a bag of clippings you are throwing away moisture and valuable nutrients.
You can gain one pound of nitrogen per growing season by returning your clippings to the lawn each time you mow. This is a significant amount considering most turf grasses require 4 to 5 pounds of nitrogen for optimal growth, density and color. Research at the University of Missouri and Kansas State University confirms that 25% of your lawns needed annual nutrients are contained in your lawn clippings.
NW OKC Bermuda lawn that is mowed regularly without clippings being bagged & removed.
Not bagging your lawn clippings is like someone offering to give you free fertilizer and you turning it down.
Decaying clippings will increase organic material in the soil. As clippings break down beneficial bacteria increases. Healthy soils contain at least 5% organic material. Most lawns contain 2-3% organic material and research shows that consistently allow your clippings to return to the soil will increase organic material by at least 1%.
Not bagging your lawn clipping is like someone offering to top dress your lawn with compost for free, and you saying, “No thanks”!
NW OKC Fescue lawn immediately after mowing on Thursday, May 9. Approximately 1” was cut off and of course the clippings weren’t bagged!
Keys to Successfully Mulch Mowing
Mow frequently enough that you only remove 1/3 of the grass per mowing. For example: If your goal is to maintain your lawn at 2”, mow before your lawn grows past 3”. This may require you to occasionally mow every 4-5 days instead of the traditional once per week. When only cutting 1/3 of the growth you are only cutting off the leaves. Grass leaves break down very quickly and do not increase thatch on the soil surface.
If you get behind with your mowing, raise your mower up and gradually lower it back down over the next couple of cuttings. In the worst case, bag the clippings one time and then return to mulch mowing as you regain a more frequent mowing routine.
Don’t mow when the grass is wet. Wet grass clippings clump and don’t breakdown quickly.
Mowers designed for mulch mowing work best since they cut the clippings multiple times. If you don’t have a mulching mower, most brands have mulching kits and/or mulching blades you can add to your mower. There is nothing wrong with just mowing without the bag on most mowers, but you may need to take a minute when you are finished to spread out any clippings that are unsightly with your blower or a rake.
Keep your lawn mower blade sharp. A sharp blade will cut the clippings finer instead of tearing the grass leaf.
If you haven’t figured it out, I’m a big believer in not catching your clippings. It makes a huge difference in the color of my turf and health of my lawn. When done correctly, you don’t even notice clippings on my lawn.
Fertilizer applications make a difference in the health of a lawn, but not near as big of a difference as the best lawn maintenance practices of which not bagging your clippings is the biggest.
So, the next time you drive past the guy down the street’s house who doesn’t seem to care as much about his lawn as you do and you shake your head wondering why his lawn looks so green, it’s probably because he doesn’t donate his valuable lawn clippings to the already too full landfill on the edge of the city.