Dirty Secrets of Grass Clippings

Just like a horse, sometimes the compost pile gets hungry for a little grass.  This time of year it’s especially true.  After all the rain and dark skies, my bin gets soupy and a little stinky.

OK, yuck.  Here’s the remedy: Kitchen scraps. Layer with leaves for minerals and carbon. Fluff it up.  Add grass for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous.  Stir and let simmer.

Such a simple thing.

We have  plenty of leaves, aeration is easy enough, but grass clippings are a problem.  Our lawn, small to begin with, hasn’t grown in three months except in bushy clumps that duck under the mower.

Winter Grass by Dealink

Not to fear.  Intrepid lawn care men come regularly to the neighbors’, whose lawns must be growing a little.  The lawn guys are happy to unload a bag or two of clippings, and don’t seem to mind me following them in their sound-blocking headphones and begging for a donation.

I prefer not to speculate on what the neighbors think.  Just take that bag of green and mix it in.  It smells good.  The clippings are flecked with leaf bits, ready to give back their all to the cause.  I wish all problems were so easy to solve.

 Or maybe not so easy:
DuPont Label Says “Do Not Compost” Grass Clippings  
BioCycle June 2011, Vol. 52, No. 6, p. 23
I kind of suspected this, didn’t want to think about it, but there it is in black and white: some chemicals applied to lawns do not break down in compost.  These cause commercial composters to shut down and damage crops.  Names: Bifenthrin, Slopyralid, Aminopyralid, Picloram, and others too hard to spell.  Commercial names include: Imprelis and Weed and Feed.
More research is in order, so I read on.
What a relief!  In Oregon where I live, some of the worst chemicals are banned — but only from home use.  It is fine to use them in parks and golf courses.
How much of a problem is this?  I don’t know.  No one follows gardeners around to see what they are using or how much of it or how often.There are “do not compost” warning labels, but some appear on page 7 of 9-page booklets.  I’m willing to bet that not everyone gets to page 7.
Other problems: the National Cancer Institute reports that children in households using lawn pesticides are at 6 1/2 times higher risk of leukemia. Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are regularly detected in groundwater and 50% are listed as possible or probable carcinogens.
OK, no need to panic.  I don’t have many foreign clippings, and in the future I’ll check with the gardeners to see what they use, or find other sources of nitrogen, phosophorus and potassium.   Like — coffee grounds (high in nitrogen).
Still, it seems kind of weird, a huge industry creating exotic chemicals to feed a crop that we value mainly because it looks good.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing lawns (I live in the Grass Seed Capital of the World) but couldn’t we go lighter on the possible and probable carcinogens?
Image source: Pixel Packing Mama's Photo Stream

Anybody else worried about the life cycle of kitchen scraps?

I would love to hear about your favorite additions to compost bins, how you feed your lawn, or whether you’ve given up on a lawn and why.

Resource material, and a thought-provoking video about people and their lawns:

http://www.jgpress.com/archives/_free/002374.html, “DuPont Label Says Do Not Compost Grass Clippings”

Virginia Scott Jenkins book Lawn: History of an American Obsession

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7388/Gimme-Green

4 comments

  • Another great focused blog!

    Purists my be uncomfortable adding grass to compost. In the past, English gardeners used grass clippings around the base of roses and other flowers to control leaf disease and bug invasions. It works well here in our damp, Northwest climate; but it looks a bit messy. Coffee grounds are excellent in composts, as are egg shells. Anaerobic composters can break down kitchen wastes fast and they they don’t smell, nor do they get sloppy with excess rain water. They are lidless trash cans turned upside down, with removable tops for loading any kind of organic material and with a sliding door at the bottom for unloading compost. As you know, kitchen waste is so rich in nutrients that grass and other yard debris can be mere bonuses.

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  • Didn’t want to bore anyone with details, but I have both aerobic and anaerobic composters, a regular composting laboratory in the back yard; and yes, the anaerobic are much tidier. Some women go for shoes, and me, I go for … well never mind. I am experimenting with eggshells. They seem to take a long time to break down and look kind of funny in the beds.

    Thanks for the reply.

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