To Bag or Not to Bag Grass Clippings

  • Reporter David Hammond's yard. He has the vague notion that not bagging grass clippings is more environmentally friendly. (Photo by David Hammond)

At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid, you probably developed a strong aversion to it, but as some of us get older, get married, and move to the suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important, but is there an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond takes a closer look at his own back yard:

Transcript

At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid,
you probably developed a strong aversion to it. But as we get older, get married, and move to the
suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important. But is there
an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond examines his own backyard.


To bag or not to bag? That is the question. Well, at least that’s my question… on most Saturdays
say about 10am.


(lawnmower sound up far away distance)


That’s when the men of my neighborhood head outside for their weekly call to arms. It’s yard day.
And once the first mower starts, like fruit flies to a banana, everyone heads outside to do their
mowing, edging, and weeding. It’s a procession that lasts all weekend.


(lawnmower sound up close distance, up and under)


This is a new neighborhood… only a couple of years old. Everybody has put in new landscaping,
and everybody spends a lot of time taking care of their lawns. Brian Van Netta is one of my
neighbors.


“It’s the showpiece of the house. It’s the first thing that people see when they drive by and it sets the tone for the rest of the house.”


Around here, that means bagging your lawn clippings. You know the routine. Mow a couple of
strips across the yard. Stop the mower. Take the grass bag and dump it into the compost bag.
Put the grass bag back on the mower. Mow a couple more strips then dump again. Then repeat
all afternoon.


I think it’s lunacy… a waste of the weekend. Something keeping me from solving really important
issues like: Does my beer taste great or is it less filling? I’ve also have a vague notion that not
bagging is better environmentally, but I can’t back it up with facts. So I decide to investigate.


(lawnmower sound out)


First stop – Wade Martingdale. He’s a neighbor who’s worked in the landscape business. Around
here, his word carries weight. Unfortunately for me, he recommends bagging.


“If you have a real full turf grass, you know, real thick and full, that when you cut your grass, the
grass clippings are so thick that actually strangles out your grass, its doesn’t let the water get to the
roots, the air, and then what water does get to the roots, it won’t dry so it can promote disease.”


He also says bagging makes a yard look better… usually as he’s looking at my yard.


“You can’t really tell from a distance, but you can tell up close. Just like your grass has a lot of
clumps in it…” (pause… laughter)


I was getting worried. If bagging was really the best environmental and the best neighborly thing to
do, I might actually have to start. No sense getting kicked out of poker night on account of some
grass clippings, but as I looked down my street at all the 30-gallon bags waiting to be picked up, I wondered where all that waste was going.


(sound of trucks picking up waste – up and under)


Canton Waste Recycling handles all of the recycling pickups in my town. Each week, they pick up
yard waste from nearly 20,000 homes, and then haul it to a regional processing center. There it’s
turned into compost and sold to landscapers and fertilizer companies. The only caveat is that the
yard waste collected from the neighborhoods can’t have any debris in it. If there are stumps or
rocks or concrete in the compost bags, then an entire truckload can be wasted. When that
happens, it gets sent to the landfill.


(begin fading truck sound)


So assuming that folks in my neighborhood are not sneaking any dead cats into their yard waste…
bagging seems like a decent bet environmentally. Sure, there is energy used to pick up and
process the yard waste, but the program employs a dozen local people. I had to give it thumbs up.


(truck sound out)


But now, my worry had turned to panic. I could see the rest of my summer out in front of me. No
more pool. No more picnics. No more Sea Breezes at high tea. No, what I saw was a sweat-stained, fat guy lugging 30-gallon compost bags to the curb. That was going to be my summer.
Hell, it was going to be the rest of my summers.


My last hope was The Huron River Watershed Council. They’re a local environmental group and
have developed a lawn care tip sheet. As I read through it, I started to feel the ol’ fun quotient
starting to rise. That’s because the tip sheet recommended not bagging your clippings. That is, if
you mulched them well when you cut them. Laura Rubin is the Executive Director.


“By leaving them there, they are sort of leaching those nutrients right back into the soil. So when
you mulch them, and you leave them, they just naturally put those nutrients back into the ground
and that’s what the soil needs.”


Rubin says that those added nutrients would allow me to save money because I wouldn’t have to
buy as much fertilizer. I also wouldn’t have to buy the composting bags. Rubin added that she’s
not against community compost programs. Just that leaving the clippings was a simpler
alternative.


“Community-wide composting programs are great and if you have a good one, you can’t go wrong.
It’s just changing the waste stream to a different area, but I don’t want to stress that there’s sort of
a ‘good way’ and a ‘bad way.’ If you send it to a composting program, you are still recycling and composting
that up rather than bagging it, and sending it to the landfill is the worst.”


So in the great bagging debate, it seems that both sides can claim the environmental high ground.
As long as I mulch my lawn clippings well, I can continue not bagging in good conscience. And for
the hardy souls who do bag? You’re good too. In fact, next Saturday, as I watch you schlepping
all those bags to the curb, I’ll tip a glass to you.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Hammond.

Related Links

New Lakeshore Wetlands: Nuisance or Asset?

  • Terry Miller, of the Lone Tree Council, is one of the few Bay City residents trying to protect wetlands sprouting up along the beaches of Saginaw Bay. Many of his neighbors prefer beaches with less vegetation. Photo by Steve Meador.

With water levels below-average in the Great Lakes, emergent wetlands are flourishing in many large, protected bays. This thick vegetation, a few hundred yards wide at most, fringes the shoreline of exposed lakebeds. Scientists and government officials say emergent wetlands are valuable resources worth protecting. Others say the vegetation is a nuisance and want it destroyed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Meador has more:

Transcript

With water levels below-average in the Great Lakes, emergent wetlands are flourishing in
many large, protected bays. This thick vegetation, a few hundred yards wide at most,
fringes the shoreline of exposed lakebeds. Scientists and government officials say
emergent wetlands are valuable resources worth protecting. Others say the vegetation is
a nuisance and want it destroyed. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Meador
has more:


There’s a dull gray sky over Saginaw Bay, a large, shallow arm of Lake Huron. A brisk
wind blows off the bay toward Bay City State Park.


“This is the area that bathers come to in the summer, and as you can see, there is only a
small portion of the beach left, that much of the rest has reverted to fairly high levels of
vegetation…cattails…bulrushes… lots of vegetation.”


Terry Miller heads an environmental organization in Bay City called the Lone Tree
Council. These days, Lone Tree is an appropriate description of Miller. He’s one of the
few locals trying to protect emergent wetlands. These wetlands remain mostly out of
mind during cycles of high water. However, with Lake Huron near its lowest level in
decades, thin bands of emergent wetlands now flourish along the shores of Saginaw Bay.


Scientists call these wetlands some of the most productive in the country because they
provide critical habitat for fish and birds. Yellow perch and northern pike use them as
breeding areas, and waterfowl feed and nest there. The wetlands also reduce coastal
erosion by anchoring shoreline sediment during storms.


Terry Miller sees the value of emergent wetlands and is fighting to protect them. He also
accepts that some people are less concerned with how wetlands benefit an ecosystem than
they are with clean, sandy beaches or an unobstructed view of Saginaw Bay.


“As you can see, some of this vegetation is taller than we are, and if you’re a homeowner
sitting back in your coffee hutch looking out and not seeing water but greenery, some
may find that pleasant, but more than likely they would prefer to see the water.”


One local resident who doesn’t like the wetlands is Ernie Krygier. He says the vegetation
reduces property values and prevents access to the water. Worst of all, he says it ruins
sandy beaches, like the one at Bay City State Park.


“This park used to be just jammed, you see all the parking lot space that’s out here, you
couldn’t find a spot back when we had beaches. Now you could shoot a gun through here
and not hit anybody.”


Krygier wants the vegetation along the park’s shoreline removed. He says the place for
wildlife is in the nearby Tobico Marsh, away from park users.


“This is where people belong, that’s where nature belongs.”


Krygier’s issue with the park is part of a larger conflict with government regulators that
also involves private property. The dispute has been dubbed the “weed war” by a
property rights group called Save Our Shoreline, or SOS, that Krygier heads up.


SOS members say they have the right to remove vegetation below the ordinary high
water mark. That’s land the state and federal government says is publicly-owned
bottomland. Government regulators protect this land by requiring permits for
mechanized activities like plowing or grading. This helps preserve the dense root mat
that anchors the shoreline.


Some less destructive techniques for controlling vegetation are allowed without a permit,
including mowing, weed-whacking, and hand-pulling vegetation. Nevertheless, many
property owners have used tractors and other heavy machinery to destroy vegetation on
public land without a permit. Government regulators say this is a violation of the Clean
Water Act. They’ve sent “cease and desist” letters to many property owners, including
one state legislator.


Krygier’s main contention is that property owners have ownership rights to the water’s
edge.


“The government, the state of Michigan wants to take ownership of our property, and that
is wrong. We feel we have the law on our side.”


Some law experts say Krygier’s interpretation is wrong. Chris Shafer is a professor at
Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Lansing. He’s had some experience in this area.
He ran the Great Lakes Shorelands program for the Michigan Department of Natural
Resources for more than 15 years.


“I think the law is real clear on this, that all of the land we’re talking about below the
ordinary high water mark on the Great Lakes is owned by the state of Michigan. It’s held
in trust for all nine million citizens of Michigan.”


Shafer says that while property owners have some legitimate concerns, they don’t own
the land out to the water’s edge as they believe. They have a right to access the water, but
no right to destroy vegetation on public land.


Shafer says that, unlike the sand dune shores of Lake Michigan, it may be unrealistic to
expect sandy beaches throughout Saginaw Bay. Dr. Thomas Burton agrees. He’s a
professor of fisheries and zoology at Michigan State University who studies wetland
ecosystems.


Burton says emergent wetlands have always been an important part of Saginaw Bay, and
that they naturally grow and recede as water levels fall and rise. He says wetlands are a
vanishing resource along the Great Lakes, and that the small portion of coastline that’s
not sandy beach should be protected. Burton says property owners are missing the bigger
picture.


“To call it a ‘weed war’ to me is very short sighted, and really says that the person doesn’t
either, A. understand the importance of these wetlands, or B. they just don’t care about
nature at all, and are willing to destroy it just so they have a sandy beach in front of their
house, and my own opinion is that that’s a pretty lousy way to look at nature.”


Back in Saginaw Bay, Terry Miller says his crusade to protect emergent wetlands is a
lonely one, especially when neighbors tell him he’s one of the most hated people on the
beach. He says these wetlands are held in the public trust to benefit everyone who uses
the bay, and hopes that some day the effort expended by property owners will be
redirected.


“And the sad thing, the thing that I find very frustrating is that, from an environmental
perspective, our Saginaw Bay is hurting. There are a host of environmental problems that
this energy could be directed at, but it’s not.”


For now, property owners are putting their energy into changing state law. A bill before
the Michigan legislature backed by SOS would allow unpermitted destruction of wetland
vegetation on publicly-owned lands.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Steve Meador.

Mallard Ducks on the Decline

  • In a narrow swath of grass in a roadside ditch, a mallard hen nests her second brood of the season, a rare event for these ducks. Her first ducklings were killed by a predator.

In the last decade or so, ducks in the Great Lakes region have not been reproducing as well as they have in the past. The number of ducklings hatching out and surviving to adults has dropped by about 25 percent. Researchers are trying to figure out why this is happening and what can be done about it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham went into the field with researchers and has this report:

Transcript

In the last decade of so, ducks in the Great Lakes region have not been reproducing as well as they have in the past. The number of ducklings hatching out and surviving to adults has dropped by about twenty-five percent. Researchers are trying to figure out why this is happening, and what can be done about it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham went into the field with researchers and has this report.


(sound of quack, quack overhead / cross fade to truck doors and engine startup/ bed of gravel sounds)


Mallard ducks are the most common duck found throughout the Great Lakes states. You’ll see them on farm ponds, college lagoons, and even in big city parks. But recently the mallard’s population hasn’t been growing as fast. The duck’s rate of reproduction has been falling off in the region since the mid-1980’s. Researchers with the sportsman’s conservation group, Ducks Unlimited, are involved in a three year study of mallards to find out why the ducks are not surviving in as great of numbers.


Tina Yerkes heads up the project. In a truck with something that looks like a TV antenna on top, fellow researcher John Simpson and she are in northwest Ohio, near Lake Erie, headed out to find some of the mallard hens. Tiny transmitters were surgically implanted in the ducks earlier this year and the antenna tracks the signals.


“So, this is the whole gizmo setup here. Everyday these guys go out and they track the birds. Each bird has a unique beep, if you will, uhm, a frequency. And that’s basically how we figure out what they’re doing. We started with 57 and you’re down to 38?
JS: Thirty-eight, roughly. And, eleven? JS: Twelve. Twelve have actually been killed, either by predators or farming operations on this site.”


(Truck sound under)


As the truck gets close to the last sighting of one of the mallard hens they’re tracking. John Simpson flips on the tracker and turns the antenna.


(beep beep sound)


He’s pulled over along a fairly busy road, and starts looking around in the roadside grass.


“So, she’s actually nesting in the ditch?”
“Yeah. I’m not entirely sure where her nest is here, so we’ve got to be careful.”


(sound of grass rustling)


It’s hard to believe a duck could find a place for a nest here. Most of the roadside is mowed except for a little strip of grass where we’re looking. She’s one lucky duck. A mower would kill her and destroy her nest.


“There she is right there. See her sitting on her nest?”


The mallard hen is three feet away and she’s still hard to see. John
Simpson has to flush her so that he can take a look at the eggs in the nest.


(Sound of flapping wings)


“There she goes.”
“She’s got a pile of eggs too. That’s her second nest.”
“That’s her second nest?”
“Yeah. She had a pile in her first nest.”
“Twelve eggs? Is that right?”
“Eleven.”
“Eleven?”
“Yep.”


(Ambience remains under)


The duck lost her first brood to a predator. Since she had nested close to a subdivision, it could have been a dog or cat. But the researchers say in this case it was probably a wild predator, maybe a raccoon.


“And, once we’re finished, we’ll just cover the nest so the predators don’t see it and we leave.”


It’s very rare that a mallard hen tries twice to raise a brood, But in this area the ducks are adopting a lot of unusual behaviors. Since there’s almost no grassland to nest in, hens have nested in hay fields where they’re usually killed at mowing time. One hen made a nest in a large flowerpot. At our next stop we found a duck in the backyard of a mobile home, and her eggs had just hatched.


(Peep, peep, peep of the ducklings)


The owner mowed around the duck’s nest, giving the mother and her eggs a chance to survive. Now that they’ve hatched, they’ll head to the water nearby. Tina Yerkes says development pressures have hurt the ducks here.


“In Ohio, we’re looking at pretty bad brood survival which tells us that probably we need to alter the landscape by putting wetlands back—by restoring wetlands and managed marshes for the broods. And then, probably also coupling that with some grassland habitat, ’cause as you can see, there’s not a lot of grassland habitat for them to nest in here. We need to improve that.”


The Ducks Unlimited researchers are getting some indications about what kinds of things are hurting the ducks ability to reproduce. Besides the loss of wetlands the researchers are finding that farming practices such as frequently mowing ditches and urban sprawl taking up grasslands are all contributing to a high mortality rate among ducklings and sitting hens. But the researchers haven’t collected enough information yet to make any solid conclusions. It’ll be two more years and many more sites before the Ducks Unlimited researchers have enough hard data.


Robert Payne is the Curator of Birds at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. He says while to researchers it might seem pretty clear that people are causing the lower rates of production in the duck population. Information like the Ducks Unlimited group is gathering will be helpful.


“Well, it seems to be common sense: the more people, the more development you have, the fewer places there are going to be for birds. But the people in our society who make the decisions like to have some data out there. (They) Like to know how many ducks, how much land, and so on. Otherwise, these people can’t really figure how much land the really should set aside for the ducks. No data, no well informed decisions.”


(sounds of birds and bullfrogs)


But some people might find data that are supposed to help ducks gathered by a group that’s chiefly supported by people who kill ducks for sport might be a bit of a conflict, or at least very self-serving. Ducks Unlimited researcher Tina Yerkes says there’s a larger purpose here than merely making hunters happy.


“The purpose is not necessarily to create more ducks to shoot, but the purpose is to alter and affect the landscape in a positive way for all the species that need the landscape. So, we’re trying to take a step back and determine what the wildlife needs and help put it back on the ground for the wildlife.”


Predictions are that the human population around the Great Lakes will steadily increase for the foreseeable future, and if the researchers’ early indications hold, it’ll likely affect the duck population even more. This study, when it’s complete, might give policy makers the information they need to find a balance between the needs of people and the needs of wildlife as the conflict between the two grows in the Great Lakes region.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

MALLARD DUCKS ON THE DECLINE (Short Version)

Mallards are the most common duck in the Great Lakes region, but their numbers have been declining during the last few years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Mallards are the most common duck in the Great Lakes region, but their numbers have been declining during the last few years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lester Graham reports.


The sportsmen’s conservation group, Ducks Unlimited is involved in a three year study, trying to learn why mallard duck populations are not increasing in the same numbers they once were. Tina Yerkes is a research biologist with the organization. She says starting in the mid-1950’s mallard flocks were growing at a pretty rapid rate.


“In the Great Lakes area, after the mid-80’s until now the production ratio has dropped and it’s dropped pretty sharply. And that for us is a warning bell, if you will, that something is going on in this area that’s causing birds not to do well.”


Yerkes and a team of biologists in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio are tracking mallard hens and their broods. Early indications are that loss of habitat is beginning to affect the duck populations in the region. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.