I find one of the bothersome aspects of mowing the lawn is stopping every few minutes to empty the grass catcher. It breaks the momentum of the job, and probably doubles the time it takes to mow the lawn. Fortunately, there’s no need to continue this practice.
Collecting and removing the grass clippings is not only unnecessary, it may in fact be counterproductive to growing a healthy lawn. The clippings, when left in place after cutting the grass, will provide a ready source of fertilizer while helping the soil retain water which promotes root growth and a healthy lawn.
The simple practice of leaving clippings on the lawn after mowing is called “grasscycling”. There are a few tips to successful grasscycling, and when done properly, clippings quickly decompose and return nutrients to the soil naturally.
Steps to grasscycling properly
1. Cut your grass when it’s dry.
Wet grass is heavier and the blades do not stand up uniformly or cut as cleanly as when the grass is dry. Wet grass clippings clump together and do not disperse as evenly as dry clippings. Also in wet conditions the ground is softer and the weight of your mower on the wheels can develop thin ruts through your lawn which can collect water.
2. Cut your grass regularly.
A good rule is to cut no more than one-third of the grass height at any one mowing. Cutting off more than one-third at a time can stop roots from growing and require more frequent watering during dry summers to keep the grass alive. In addition, the one-third rule produces smaller clippings that disappear quickly by filtering down to the soil surface.
3. Cut your grass with a sharp blade.
Sharp blades cut the grass cleanly and that helps ensure rapid healing and regrowth. Dull blades tear and bruise the grass. The wounded grass becomes weakened and is less able to prevent invading weeds and recover from disease.
4. Leave the grass clippings where they fall.
At first glance, it will appear that the lawn needs raking, since the fresh cut clipping are on top of the lawn. But these short clippings quickly fall between the standing grass blades and disappear from sight.
That’s all there is to it. Grasscycling is a win-win practice that enriches your lawn while reducing lawn maintenance.
Timing: The secret to successful grasscycling
To get the full benefit of grasscycling, it’s best to wait until your lawn is tall enough so that after mowing the grass is still about 3” tall. But if the grass is left to grow too tall before mowing, the clippings will be too long and will lie on top of the lawn, leaving a “hay-like” look.
When the lawn is cut before it gets too tall, the clippings will be small enough to fall between the standing blades of grass, and they will decompose quickly. A rule of thumb is to cut the grass when the clippings will be less than one-third of the remaining grass height. For example, cutting the grass when it is 4” tall to a height of 3” will leave clippings which are approximately 1”.
Cutting the grass too short may give your lawn the “marine cut” look which some homeowners prefer, but this does not benefit the lawn. Short grass exposes the soil to more sunlight and airflow, resulting in evaporative water loss, and root growth is diminished. By letting your lawn grow a bit taller, to a height of 3”, the grass will be thicker and healthier.
If the lawn is not cut frequently enough and long clippings are left on the lawn, it may produce a “hay-like” look that can be unsightly. Again, it is important to cut the lawn frequently to produce small grass clippings that will fall between the standing blades and decompose quickly.
Does grasscycling cause thatch?
The short answer is no. It is a common misconception that clippings left on the lawn will contribute to thatch buildup. But thatch is not made up of grass clippings.
Thatch is a mat of stems and roots that forms at and just beneath the surface of the lawn. It is a natural growth pattern of the plant which helps to preserve soil moisture and protect the roots below. Thatch becomes a problem when it forms an overgrown mat so tightly entangled in itself that water cannot penetrate it, air flow is restricted, and the risk of disease is increased.
There are several things which cause this overgrown thatch. Frequent shallow watering is the most common culprit. Roots grow where the water is. Watering a few minutes a day means all the water is near the surface, so not only do the normal thatch roots grow there, all the grass roots compete for the same small amount of moisture that never gets far beneath the surface.
Less frequent, deep watering sends the water inches below the surface where the roots will follow. The moisture deeper in the soil will not evaporate as readily as moisture near the surface, so deep watering actually requires less water than shallow watering over time. And when a drought year comes along, those deep-rooted lawns will be more likely to survive than shallow-rooted lawns. Regardless of the weather, the deep-rooted lawns will always be greener and healthier.
What about mulching mowers?
Many lawn mowers come with a mulching attachment or mulching chamber. A mulcher works by circulating the grass within the lawn mower so that it can be chopped several times before it is dispersed back into the lawn. Some mulchers have a special blade and an enclosed deck. The finely cut grass is blown into your lawn instead of being blown out of the side of the mower.
For small yards, an electric mulching mower may be the perfect grasscycling machine. In general, electric mowers are not as powerful as gas mowers, so they usually have slightly shorter blades and will have to be pushed a little slower in overgrown, wet grass. But advancements are seeing this change quickly: soon electric mowers will offer the same power as gas mowers. Stay tuned!
While mulching mowers and mower attachments are useful for grasscycling, you can still grasscycle with any mower.
Push reel mowers are effective at grasscycling because they send the cut grass off the reel in a fine spray of short clippings which are virtually invisible on the lawn. Since the clippings are 80-85 percent water, these clippings will have withered to almost nothing in a few hours. The remaining plant material will help preserve soil moisture while returning valuable nutrients to the soil. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, grasscycling can provide 15 to 20 percent of a lawn’s annual fertilizer requirement.
Besides the obvious benefits for your lawn, grasscycling also benefits the environment by recycling the grass clippings and eliminating the need to deliver lawn waste to local landfills. Although many waste collection centers reuse lawn and garden waste for compost making, it is more efficient when the clippings are simply recycled in place.
This summer, give grasscycling a try and you may find your lawn improves while you managed to reduce the time it takes it takes to care for it!
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