Toro, Toro, Toro

How to change your relationship with your lawnmower, now that the city says you can no longer bag grass clippings

The only epiphany to dignify my life came during the late ’70s, when I was about 11. It’s truly irrelevant on any religious scale because, after all, it involves nothing so grand as the sightings at Medjugorje, but rather a lawn mower and the promise of never again having to empty another bag of wet, newly mown grass. But I’ll share this story anyway because it’s seemingly relevant for Dallas considering that, beginning this month, city sanitation crews no longer will cart away curbside Hefty bags laden with grass clippings.



MY EPIPHANY CAME LATE ON A MAY afternoon when my grandfather arrived home with a new, red Toro lawn mower in the back of his truck. While we unloaded the machine he mentioned something about it being a mulching mower; truth be told, he spoke reverentially and loquaciously of this mower-nebulous information about the blade’s extended cutting length and the wind-tunnel action designed to keep grass shards suspended, like a dryer tumbling clothes, allowing the blade to cut and recut the clippings into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. Altogether impotent information for an 11-year-old whose only interest in lawn mowers was the use of their motors on go-carts and minibikes.

But then he said it: “And you don’t have to bag the grass anymore. We can leave the mulchings on the lawn because they’ll act like a fertilizer.”

That was the Rosetta stone. Those words, dangling in the humid Southern air like a comic book conversation bubble, bridged the communication barrier. Though I could understand neither wind tunnels nor the physics of mulching, I knew inherently that, in some sort of economies-of-scale way, losing the bagger attachment meant I would save precious weekend playtime. No longer would 1 stop every few minutes to dump 20 pounds of clipped grass into plastic garbage bags so limp I had to fight to keep them open; no longer would I strain to drag those leaden bags to the curb.

This mulching mower was visionary. St. Toro, the patron saint of lost weekend mornings.

Without saying as much, Bill Knoop and Bert Whitehead aim to bring this same epiphany to Dallas homeowners. Knoop is the guru of grass-a turf specialist at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Dallas, and leader of a nationally recognized program, “Don’t Bag It,” that seeks to keep ever-increasing amounts of lawn waste from homesteading in dwindling landfills. His message to ardent baggers: Shredded clippings are to a lawn what beer is to Norm Peterson-a source of nourishment. Whitehead, on the other hand, is a master gardener from Sunnyvale-a Mr. Green Jeans sort of chap who’s helping Dallas usher in the age of homeowner eco-environmentalism by inspiring folks to re-examine grass clippings and fallen leaves. View them not as waste, he insists, but instead as resources. His book. Don’t Waste Your Wastes- Compost ’em, is a homeowner’s guide to recycling everything organic, from yard shavings to kitchen scraps.

Together, these men are Mulch Maven and Compost King.

“There’s a generation of homeowners out there who think baggers are a necessary attachment to lawn mowers. They think they have some inalienable right to create garbage, like the Constitution somehow bestows a right to bag lawn clippings. For some, the Dallas clipping ban is going to be very traumatic-maybe worse than losing a driver’s license.” Knoop is joking-sort of. But he’s sincere when detailing the need to curtail the city’s continued accumulation of clippings. Statistics he’s compiled show that, historically, yard waste-grass, leaves, twigs, prunings- accounts for almost 20 percent of all garbage dumped in landfills. During summer months, mat green-waste can jump to as much as 50 percent.

Every year, for instance, Dallas disposes of about 100,000 tons of grass clippings. Two hundred million pounds. To cleave that quantity of detritus and effectively extend the life of local landfills, the City Council implemented the ban on yard cuttings. Meaning: Homeowners must find other means of contending with their lawn mowing byproducts.

And therein lies the rub.

Aside from late-night attacks by militant pro-bagger factions dumping bagged clippings on city parks and county roads as symbols of a horticultural jihad, the only viable alternatives as Whitehead and Knoop see it are mulching and composting. Now seems a most appropriate time to discover each.

Mulching is mowing with a twist. Where an average lawn mower blade sports a 2-inch, maybe 3-inch cutting surface, the business side of a mulching mower blade typically extends 6 inches: a motorized machete on wheels that slices, dices and purées grass clippings. And where nonmulching mowers either expectorate their cut grass into a canvas bag or out a side chute and into neat little suburban-like rows, mulchers masticate grass like a jackal ripping through prey, then leave the kill for lower life forms to consume. The late ’70s witnessed a brief surge in mulching popularity-in fact, the city of Piano saved $100,000 in 1980 with a Knoop-led anti-bagging program, the vanguard of which was mulching. But that plan, like mulching’s popularity, withered like a British royal marriage as homeowners embraced bagger attachments and the promise of a House Beautiful lawn. Bagging mowers relegated mulchers to a corner of the back-yard toolshed.

“That will change,” Knoop presages in his office-cum-“Don*t Bag It” national headquarters. “We’ve entered the Renaissance age for die mulching mower. A few years from now, bagger mowers will be almost impossible to find.”

Composting, on the other hand, is decomposition taken to the level of art- the structured rotting of organic matter. It is the ultimate result of mulching. And it is effectively the cornerstone of life. Think back on those high-school chemistry and Earth science classes…everything that dies returns to the ground, where bacteria and microbes attack like the hordes of Apocalypse, decomposing all once-living things into rich, earthy-smelling compost. The Book of Genesis isn’t real specific on this point, but read between the lines and you can hear the herald: Let there be compost. After a!!, when Adam and Eve discarded the core of that now-infamous apple. Garden of Eden microbes gathered for one of the first suppers, ending only when apple yielded to compost.

At the end of the world, pundits argue, the only things to survive will be cockroaches and Volkswagen Bugs. But compost will be there, too, renewing the land with the nutrients of the dead. Not that this is supposed to be grim, because as the bumper sticker on Whitehead’s truck pronounces. Compost Happens.

Just amble among the rows of Whitehead’s home garden for evidence of the potency of decomposed matter: Cantaloupes weigh more than 5 pounds; watermelons top 30 pounds. All nourished as seedlings with the nutrient-rich remains of mulched grass and fallen leaves-and kitchen scraps-decomposed in his backyard bin. It’s such a simple process, really. Almost a Betty Crocker recipe. “Mother Nature won’t let you fail,” Whitehead insists. “It’s just impossible to screw up the decomposition process because it’s going to happen whether you want it to or not.”

Composting begins with mulching, and with one of two plans of attack:



OPTION 1: THE MULCH MAVEN PLAN.

It requires first that you remove your bagger attachment or plug the chute on your mower (accomplished with a kit). And it requires that you know the breed of grass carpeting your yard, and that you possess a cheap, wooden 12-inch ruler, not unlike the kind with which nuns whack knuckles. This ruler will become a mowing gauge to measure the height of your lawn. Because, the trick to mulching, Knoop imparls, is never to cut away more than one-third of the grass blade.

Take, for example, St. Augustine grass, a quite popular turf that looks its best at a height of 2 inches and that should be trimmed at 3 inches. To facilitate the measuring, draw a solid line across the width of the mowing gauge at the 2″ mark; at the 3″ mark etch a dashed line. Now simply measure your grass. When your St. Aug reaches 3 inches, pull out the mower, adjust the blade height to 2 inches using (he levers alongside each wheel, and mow…remembering, of course, to mulch and not bag. As for other grasses, see the accompanying chart.

And contrary to the time-honored habit mandating that grass cutting is a weekly chore best begun while your neighbor sleeps at 6:45 Saturday morning. Knoop recommends that grass be cut every five to six days. He has gathered more statistics indicating that although adherence to this doctrine adds one extra day behind a lawn mower each month, homeowners ultimately cut their total mowing time by about 20 percent. Here’s the math: Knoop found that bagger aficionados cut their yard an average of 4.1 times a month, spending 93 minutes each time to do so; practicing ’”Don’t Bag It,” those same folks averaged 5.4 mowings a month, but only spent 58 minutes each time. Total time saved, more than 1 hour per month (68.3 min.).

During mulching demos at community rec centers across Dallas it is precisely at this point that homeowners garbed in overalls invariably stand and blurt. “Ah ha! But what you are telling us will cause thatch in my yard. And I hate thatch.”

So, now these words about thatch.

Thatch-technically known as a dead layer of plant tissue composed of high amounts of hard-to-decompose cell wall material called lignin-does not result from mulching, but from improper watering and improper fertilization with store-bought chemicals. Too much fertilizer, too much water: too much rapid growth, too much thatch. Clippings do not contain high amounts of lignin. Hence, no thatch.

To the contrary, mulched grass contains modest levels of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Therefore, its decomposition effectively acts as a natural slow-release fertilizer continually replenishing the soil. As Knoop likes to point out, “Golf courses have never bagged grass, for God’s sake. They let the clippings lie on the ground-and they don’t have thatch problems. Mulching is a long-accepted component of turf grass management. Look at the results: Golf courses have some of the nicest grass around.”

A brief treatise on watering: Do it in the early morning; never at night, which makes grass susceptible to diseases that weaken the root system. Also, grass needs about I inch of water every five or six days.



ON TO OPTION 2: THE COMPOST KING METHOD.

This is for those people who enjoy aerobic exercise and who, as children, liked to rut around in the dirt.

Left to their own devices, mounds of grass clippings and fallen leaves decompose naturally-but at the rate of elephant gestation. Whitehead, however, has the process down to a recipe that in three weeks produces humus-the ultimate byproduct of composting.

The ingredients:

6 32-gallon trash bags of mown grass

6 32-gallon trash bags of packed leaves (preferably shredded)

20-25 gallons of water

Any amount of kitchen scraps, raw or cooked. NO MEATS, FATS or OILS, or else you’ll attract varmints. If scraps are not available use high-nitrogen organic fertilizer.

1 4-foot length of plastic drain pipe with 1/2-inch holes drilled randomly six inches apart all over

1 foot-long thermometer

1 composting bin, either home-built or store-bought, but with a volume of at least 1 cubic yard (see sidebar)

1 bag cottonseed meal (available at hardware or feed stores)

Several shovelfuls of soil

1 empty plastic trash bag

1/2-inch wire mesh screen in wooden

frame First water the area where you will construct your bin. Stand the plastic drain pipe in the center of the bin and pour one bag of grass around it, packing the clippings in tightly to support the pipe. If the grass is matted, aerate it with a pitchfork or your hands. Oxygen is the fuel that drives composting: It helps nourish the aerobic soil microbes ultimately responsible for decomposition. On top, add half a bag of leaves. Mix and aerate. Sprinkle this mixture with about one gallon of water, and using the pitchfork, scratch through the mixture lightly to allow water to reach all leaves. Add in remains of first bag of leaves. Toss in a small shovelful of soil and four or five handfuls of cottonseed meal. Sprinkle with another gallon of water, and scratch through again.

On top of this, dump another bag of grass and aerate. Continue alternating between grass and leaves, soil, fertilizer and water until all bags are empty. Insert the thermometer fully into the mixture 6 inches from the perforated drain pipe (which, by the way, serves as a vent for oxygen intake). Cover the top with empty garbage bags to keep the rain out. Don’t mind the sides getting wet.

After 24 hours, the thermometer should register a temperature between 130 and 160 degrees (this temperature range needs to be maintained until the 20th day of the process; if the temperature dips below 130 degrees, turn pile immediately). That warmth, parenthetically, is produced by mesophile and thermophile microbes: the former thriving in mid-range temperatures: the latter more in tune with heat. Four days later, “turn the pile.” This entails removing the bin from around the compost heap and setting it up directly adjacent.

Pull the vent pipe out of the compost and again stand it in the center of the relocated bin. With the garden fork put the outer six inches of the compost in the middle of the new pile, and aerate: This replenishes the oxygen supply and adds new nutrients for those heat-loving thermophiles to attack. Since the outer edges will have dried out in four days, moisten with a gallon or so of water. As you work into the center of the compost heap, you’ll notice steam rising and you’ll detect a not-particularly-pleasant ammonia smell. This is good.

Four days later, turn for a second time, adding more water and making sure to place the outermost layers into the center. The goal here is to ensure that the microbes have equal opportunity to rot all ingredients. Four days later, turn for a third time. You’ll notice that after the third turning, the pile grows smaller, a natural consequence of the microbes’ work. Four days later, turn for the fourth and last time. And four days after that-on the 20th day, when the temperature of the pile falls to about 85 degrees-you have compost. Nay. humus. (All of this can be done on a seven-day cycle for those with real jobs. )

After a few days, run the clods of humus across a mesh screen to thin. Serve generously to your favorite plants. Not only does humus proffer a cornucopia of nutrients that make plants happier than a hog at a vegetarian hoedown, it also renders a number of added benefits: It insulates, keeping roots warm in winter and cool in summer; it provides air passages allowing more oxygen to reach the roots; it stops weed seeds from germinating; it improves drainage in wet weather, yet holds moisture longer during dry spells.

As for those 11-year-olds who’d rather be diddling with go-carts and minibikes instead of lugging bags of wet grass to the curb, your epiphany is upon you. Your Saturday mornings have been rescued.

Pay homage to your savior: St. Toro.

BUILDING A COMPOST BIN

The easiest way to build a compost bin is with wooden shipping pallets. Since Bert Whitehead’s quick-compost recipe requires a bin volume of at least one cubic yard, you’ll need pallets 48 inches square or slightly bigger (this accommodates overlapping the edges during construction).

Visualize an open-ended cube-a cardboard box with both ends missing. That’s the design. Stand the pallets end-to-end at 90-degree angles to create the cube. To each pallet attach two screen-door latch hooks-one high, one low. This holds the pallets together and facilitates dismantling when moving the bin for turning.

Since the slats between the pallets are wide enough to allow the grass and leaves to slip through, staple 1-inch mesh chicken wire on each pallet’s inside facing. Finally, cover the bin with tarpaulin sheeting or some hard plastic-even garbage bags held down by rocks. This will keep rain from drenching the compost and ultimately thwarting the heat-creating microbes.

There are easier ways to build a com post bin: Namely, buy one prefabricated. Several such creatures are currently on the market and others are on their way. Some are traditional black plastic rectangles costing under $100; some, such as the TumbleBug and the Yard Ball, are $160 spherical bins you fill and roll around the yard occasionally to aerate. Most are available at hardware stores or garden centers. -J.O.

MOWING PLAN

For optimum results, mow every five to six days. As a rule of thumb, do not remove more than one-third of the leaf surface at any one time.

Mow at

or Before

Mower Height

Type of Grass Setting Below

Common Bermuda 1 1/2″ 2 1/4″

“Tif” Bermuda 1″ 1/2″

Buffalo 2″ 3″

St. Augustine 2″ 3″

Tall Fescue 2 1/2″ 3 3/4″

Zoysia 2″ 3″

CHART COURTESY OF -DONT BAG IT!”

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