What to do with lawn debris after spring cleanup

By Tom Seymour | Mar 29, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Removing thatch in early spring helps prevent brown spots later.

Soon the winter blanket of snow will melt and homeowners will be out cleaning their yards and lawns. But cleaning up and disposing of all that fell on our lawns are two different stories.

Thanks to countless windy days, many with extremely high winds, more twigs, limbs, leaves and whatnot will have fallen than usual. In my case, a stand of mature white pines makes major contributions to my debris pile. And in addition to pine branches and innumerable pine cones, I’ll have to contend with lots of human-induced junk, too.

Specifically, I like to shoot air rifles in winter. For targets I’ll throw several soup cans out on the snow and, standing in my doorway with the door open just a crack, bang away. So I’ll have lots of perforated cans to deal with come open ground.

Even worse, a surgical procedure last fall left me unable to weed my gardens, so I’ll have to deal with that as soon as possible. In all, I’ll have lots of organic material to somehow dispose of.

The cans will go out in the trash, but the rest of the stuff will require a different disposal method. The garden weeds will go on a compost pile, there to decompose and eventually become rich, black compost. But what to do with the thicker, woody material?

To compost or not to compost?

All too often, people simply pile everything but the kitchen sink on their compost pile. Some of it will decompose and some won’t. It works this way. To decompose in a timely fashion, organic material needs air circulation and carbon. That’s why grass clippings decompose so readily – they have a high carbon content.

But pine and any other tree limbs and branches won’t break down in a compost pile, at least not as soon as we might hope. So what do we do with the heavier stuff?

Well, if you have a woodlot, or at least a wooded area behind the house, just add the limbs and branches you collect this spring to a brush pile. In this case, the more the merrier, since the combined weight of lots of debris will compact the pile and lead to quicker decomposition. Brush piles are nature’s compost heap.

If you have no woodlot or other place to make brush piles, you have several other options. First, a small wood chipper can make short work of most winter-fallen limbs and branches. The chips can go on the compost pile. But make sure to use a fine setting on the chipper, because large chips take a long time to break down.

You might even make a separate pile exclusively for wood chips. These you can stir and mix at your leisure. This helps to aerate the pile and accelerate decomposition.

Finally, if you have neither a woodlot nor a wood chipper, you might consider getting a burn permit from your local municipality and dispose of your organic lawn debris that way. If you aren’t up to tending a fire or lack the hoses and so on needed to burn safely, only one option remains, and that is to pay to have the stuff hauled.

Some towns and cities include picking up brush and leaves as part of their package deal. Other places have spots where you can dump your lawn debris. And lacking any of these, there are always paid haulers, people with trucks who will haul and dispose of your limbs and other organic junk for a fee.

Lawn thatch

After taking care of lawn debris, it’s time to remove thatch from your lawn. This happens when the weight of winter snow compacts grass, causing it to become hopelessly matted.

In years past we all burned our dead lawns. This was like adding compost. Soon after the burn, grass would grow like mad. But burning is frowned upon nowadays, so we must use a garden rake. Failure to remove thatch will result in brown spots on the lawn.

Tom’s tips

Ever go to open a can, only to find that your can opener balks? This has happened to me many times. Lacking counter space for an electric can opener, I am resigned to using the hand-operated variety, most of which are virtually useless.

But I found the answer. It’s called a “Swing-A-Way” can opener and is the same brand that was mounted in the wall in Grandma’s kitchen. NASA uses this reliable device, designed in 1932, in the International Space Station. It is the best available can opener and won’t fail you.

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