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Great Gardening: Don't waste your yard waste

Piles of brush, leaves and sticks are mounting at curbsides all over Western New York (and in many other regions). I understand people’s urge to clean up after winter leaves its debris behind – fallen leaves, dead branches, and trees knocked down after windstorms.

But it is disturbing to me, at an elemental level, to see so much organic matter pushed to the curb when it could be so in our landscapes.

Not everybody can repurpose the fallen logs, sticks or leaf piles – but many people could. The first step is how we think about what we’re doing.

Typically we err in our collective thinking. The error is in the term – and the concept: waste. My friend Dave Majewski, of Principal Resources Group, heard me say “yard waste” – and I won’t do so again.

“If we call it ‘waste’ we treat it as waste,” he said.

Majewski’s company consults on urban ecology projects, including site and soil remediation, and he has worked intensively on developing composts for optimum soil health. We talked about those piles at the curb and he advocated a language change: “It is not ‘yard waste’ but ‘surplus,’ ” he said.

And surplus is opportunity!

The first opportunity is this: Homeowners could improve their soil, help their plants, save money and benefit surrounding ecosystems by changing a few basic habits. They are small steps, one home at a time, but they would add up. Then some larger changes in our landscape practices could have a significant impact for the good of all natural systems.

If I have hope of changing anyone’s habits, I must explain the reason for using your own leaves and sticks in your own yard, where they break down and return to the soil. It’s because that is how natural systems work: The organic matter in an ecosystem is the right organic matter for feeding the microorganisms that are waiting in that soil, and they are the right microorganisms to get the nutrients into those plant roots.

That’s the simple version of an amazing system.

On the contrary, if you ship away all your organic stuff, and then bring in unknown mulch and topsoil, who knows what you’re offering to your soil’s community of microorganisms? Compost – decomposed organic matter – from a mixture of organic material is always good for compacted or depleted soil, but compost from the immediate ecosystem is the best bet by far.

Let’s start small and then consider our larger landscaping ways.

One yard at a time

Not everybody has acres of land, backs up to a field, or has a deep lot or space behind the garage where a brush pile would be acceptable. It you have this situation, the best thing to do with all your yard surplus is to pile it. Crisscross large branches on the bottom and add smaller pieces as you build it. Integrate leaves and grass clippings.

If you do nothing else, months or years later you will have wonderful compost in the middle of the pile and a few larger pieces left over to start again.

This same technique could be used all along the back edge of a lot, or it could be the beginning of a berm or a raised bed. Or you could even build or buy a compost enclosure or composter. Be creative. If you are worried about rats – don’t.

They seek tasty human food, not leaves.

If a brush or compost pile isn’t suitable in your world, here are some smaller-scale ways to use leaves, grass, and twigs:

• Rake them onto landscape beds. Chop coarse leaves with the lawnmower first. If you use mulch, rake it back and put the leaves under the mulch. Don’t pile more than 4 inches over plant roots, don’t crowd perennial crowns, and don’t let it touch tree trunks.

• If you are going to block a weedy area with cardboard, newspaper or black plastic, spread all the organic matter you can over the area first. The soil will be wonderful under there next season.

• Let grass clippings lie in place or use in garden beds. Clippings decompose in about a week and put moisture and nitrogen back into the soil.

• Fill raised beds with the yard surplus before adding compost or garden soil. By the time plant roots reach the bottom of a bed (even as short as 18 inches) the organic matter will be decomposing nicely.

• Make a “huegel” (hill) with it – like a tall raised bed without walls – with compost-rich soil on top, and plant directly into it.

• Bury leaves etc. in the vegetable/flower garden, hole by hole or trench by trench. Next year that area will be richer.

What the landscaper can do

Our culture is so conditioned to tidy up the yard in spring, throw out the “waste” and buy/spread new mulch, that it’s normal for your landscaper to sell this service as the first job of spring. Many understand and could offer alternatives. If you ask them to make a neat-looking brush pile or berm in your back corner, they can.

Many could and would build a compost structure, or dig trenches in your garden for burying the leaves and sticks. If you plan a future hedgerow or planting island you could ask the landscape pro to pile the o.m. (organic matter) 6 inches thick over the area. Add some compost for fast decomposition, and cover it with plastic or tarps until you’re ready to plant there.

The CNLPs (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals) in our region do know that the market is growing for eco-friendly landscaping, organic gardening, and native plantings. Many will be perfectly happy to apply alternative techniques to the typical yard cleanup approach. Start the discussion with whomever you hire and with family members, or just do it yourself.

Earth Day is April 22, but we know she is in grave danger in many ways. Make Earth Day every day. Keep environmental consciousness awake at all times.

One small effort is keeping and reusing organic matter as close to home as possible. Mother Earth wants it that way.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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