Clippings to Cash


A growing number of industry pros view grass clippings and other yard waste as a valuable resource and not a burden

Collecting clippings and other yard waste such as leaves gives Wade Landscaping the basis for a “total green” philosophy, which allows him to take zero waste to the landfills.

It’s difficult to think of grass clippings as a resource when you have so much to get rid of. What was once considered a waste product, a nuisance and a drain on a landscape maintenance company’s budget is considered an ingredient in some areas – if you’ve got clippings, make compost.

That’s the case for Brian Wade, owner of Wade Landscaping and Property Maintenance in Portsmouth, N.H.

“We compost maybe 90 percent of them,” he says. Wade, in fact, has gone beyond composting almost all clippings. He has instituted a lawn maintenance program based partly on clippings management. He also encourages homeowner participation in the composting enterprise. “We’ve set up home composting with 80 percent of our customers.”

Residential composting

Almost five years ago, Wade took his company to a “total green” philosophy. Part of that philosophy was to look more carefully at lawn mowing for his residential and commercial clients. His strategy: use a mulching mower to return the clippings to the lawn every other week and collect clippings on alternate weeks. The mulching weeks would give the lawns extra nitrogen and organic matter. The clippings primarily go into home compost facilities that his company worked with homeowners to install and operate. Homeowners would have to buy compost bins themselves, or in some cases pay Wade Landscaping to build them, and can use them to compost clippings and other landscaping and kitchen waste.

“I’m in an area where people understand what we’re trying to do,” Wade says. In general, he says, they’re happy to be recruited into his green philosophy. Commercial clients often don’t have the resources or inclination to compost.

Wade built a 30-by-30-foot compost bin at the company yard for clippings that aren’t composted by clients, and uses a lawn renovator to shred landscape waste and a Bobcat to turn the compost. He adds ingredients such as shrub trimmings and bark mulch left over at the end of the summer. It takes weeks to get a finished product, but he sells the compost for use in clients’ yards. This in itself is a profitable enterprise, and he’s able to sell it for less than homeowners would pay for bagged commercial compost.

As a result, Wade never takes clippings to a landfill, and his clients’ lawns are green and healthy. The compost operations have worked out so well that he wants to take over the town’s green waste disposal site and use that to make even more saleable products.

Clippings from mowings at Wade Landscaping and Property Maintenance are considered resources for compost at clients’ homes.

Composting science

For a look at the science of composting grass clippings, Turf turned to Roy Gross, sales representative for St. Louis Composting in Valley Park, Mo., one of the largest green waste processors in the Midwest. Clippings can be difficult, Gross says, because they don’t compost well on their own.

“They’re a great source of nitrogen, but in compost you need to have a nitrogen source and a carbon source,” says Gross. That means adding more woody and fibrous refuse, such as brown leaves and tree prunings, food waste or even commercial products such as shredded cardboard to the mix. The clippings and carbon source must be mixed or layered, then turned and remixed several times over a period of weeks or months. Maximum size for tree waste is about .75-inch in diameter and less than 8 inches in length. Ultimately, the temperature inside the pile should rise to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but not exceed 180 degrees.

St. Louis Composting creates long windrows of composting materials and uses a soil thermometer to check temperatures, turning windrows with large commercial machines to cool the compost down before it reaches 180 degrees. If the compost pile gets too cool, it may not have enough moisture, and water is added to encourage microbial growth. Pathogens and weed seeds are normally killed in the process. Composting on a smaller scale is done following these same rules.

Brian Wade uses bins like these, or ones his company builds, to compost clippings and other landscape waste right on clients’ properties. He then uses the compost on their landscapes.

The company annually collects about 150,000 cubic yards of grass clippings for this enterprise, stockpiling both brown leaves and clippings. Roger Hageman, owner of Hageman Earth Cycle in Ft. Collins, Colo., points out that a company can’t just create a huge pile of landscaping waste. Some areas may require permits, and they may be difficult to get.

“Yard waste material makes a superior compost,” Hageman says, and many of his customers pay to dump waste at his site because it is cheaper than the local landfill. But a site with available water and other requirements may be hard to find and take a long time to get permitted.

Work with authorities

On the other hand, government regulations are creating opportunity for composters. The city of Arlington, Texas, is a common example of a municipality that long ago prohibited grass clippings from the storm drain system and also prohibits the curbside bagging of household clippings. The city, like many others across the nation, encourages homeowners and businesses to either mulch their clippings into the lawn or send them to a compost site. All of this regulation can be incentive for composters.

Bart Morr, owner of Paradise Lawn Care in Smithville, Ohio, embraced the regulators and they embraced him. Because of his success in composting landscape waste over the years, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency invited him to expand his business. The company started up 27 years ago and began doing some limited composting not long after. It wasn’t until 1991 that the company undertook large-scale composting as well as selling the product.

“Then we started blending that into some soil we had,” says Morr, who now sells straight compost and topsoils blended with compost. The company still mows lawns and prunes trees, but now it also takes the yard trimmings and turns it into rich compost at one of three EPA-certified locations. A horizontal grinder reduces and mixes clippings, and a windrow turner facilitates final composting.

This innocuous pile of brush at Paradise Lawn Care’s yard will be part of a large composting operation that will include grass clippings and food waste.

Some brush is placed in separate piles and mixed with food waste using a front-end loader. The EPA saw how successful the Paradise compost operation was and asked Morr to take in excess food waste that was clogging area landfills. Now food waste comes in from facilities that include a local college, a Smucker’s processing plant and a grocery store. It is mixed with brush and turned into compost. Morr now has 15 employees in the lawn care side of the business, and two full-time employees handle the composting in a separate subsidiary.

Morr notes that this is not a get-rich-quick enterprise, but it is helping his bottom line. He originally started composting out of a sense of community. He felt that keeping landscaping waste out of the landfills and turning it into a useful resource was a good long-term goal. “We have to watch out for our environment,” he says. That is even more important now, and he’s doing his part.

A big operation

When you look at a company like Cedar Grove Composting in Seattle, Wash., you can see how this type of operation can be scaled up. The company doesn’t do lawn maintenance or landscaping, but they take in green waste from lawn and landscaping companies as well as Kings County and Snohomish County. Tipping fees are charged to support the composting process. The future of composting grass clippings can be seen here.

“We sell close to 300,000 cubic yards of compost annually,” says Jami Burke, a business development manager for Cedar Grove. The company is some 400 employees strong and uses more complex and controlled composting methods than your average landscaper with a bin in the yard. Yard and food waste is collected at two facilities that feature concrete compost pads with built-in aeration systems, electronic monitoring and Gore laminate coverings that meet state environmental requirements.

“Washington State has a very big push to compost yard waste and food waste,” Burke says. State best management practices (BMPs) have been developed for the construction and remediation industries that require the use of large amounts of compost. For example, soil disturbed and replaced at a construction site must contain a certain percentage of organic matter, and if 2 inches of compost is spread over 1 acre at such a site, about 400 cubic yards of compost is required. This created a huge market.

Cedar Grove also sells bulk and bagged materials of several types to small landscapers and homeowners. Parks and school lawns are now utilizing compost in addition to sand topdressing as a replacement for some synthetic fertilizers. Agricultural uses look to be the next market for compost from urban green waste.

In short, Burke says, “The inbound material we process is only going to grow.” Companies like this illustrate just how valuable ordinary grass clippings are becoming.

Don Dale is an experienced reporter, who lives and works in Pasadena, Calif. He has written extensively on green industry companies, trends and issues for more than two decades.