From lawn clippings to productive compost

After living abroad for a time, Cliff Willson returned to what he describes as ''the glorious green'' of England. But that same emerald beauty, he is quick to add, ''interprets into once-a-week mowing and mountains of lawn clippings.''

To simply dispose of such valuable organic matter in the garbage is a ''monstrous waste,'' in his opinion, and quite intolerable in an age when the use of fertilizer on ornamental projects rather than on food production is being questioned.

On the other hand, when today's clippings can feed tomorrow's lettuce or the fall roses, then lawn expenditures are readily justified.

Simply spread on garden beds, fresh lawn clippings tend to mat down into a slimy mess that locks out both water and air from the plant roots. That is unacceptable, even if the smell doesn't offend the neighbors. Clippings can do similar things in a compost heap if added in bulk.

What Willson saw was a need for a batch-composting system that processed the clippings into an easily usable form in seven days - the average time span between mowings.

A little experimenting showed that in one week clippings can be converted into a very acceptable brown mulch that no longer turns slimy when spread between plants. Used in this way the grass-clipping mulch controls weeds, moderates soil temperatures, and does much to stimulate earthworms and the activity of other beneficial soil organisms.

The secret to this type of composting is the daily turning of the lawn clippings. This introduces fresh supplies of oxygen into the clippings each day which, in turn, allows the decay bacteria to work freely.

In his early experimenting Willson stirred the clippings with a spading fork each day. The tender green clippings, rich in nitrogen, heat up almost overnight. Excess moisture vapor is driven off so that by the end of the week the brown mulch is less than half the volume of the original clippings.

In this partially decomposed state the clippings are readily processed further into plant nutrients by the soil organisms. In this way, then, much of the fertilizer that went into feeding the lawn ends up feeding another part of the garden. It is, in effect, recycling at its best.

After experimenting in this way, Willson developed a batch-composting bin expressly for grass clippings although it will compost other materials as well. An Archimedes screw in the center makes turning the clippings each day a simple matter.

Willson introduced the new garden product at the Chelsea Flower Show here last month where British gardeners, with nearly a century of composting tradition behind them, expressed surprise at the results from just one week of decomposition.

If you want to do similar things with your lawn clippings, place them in a wooden box or plastic garbage can with several air holes drilled near the bottom of the bin, allowing air to get in, and an equal number near the top to allow moisture vapor to escape. Be sure to keep the box or can covered so that no rain can get into it.

You won't need to add water to the grass clippings as the tender shoots contain more than enough moisture for good decomposition. Stir them every day for the best results.

If you are interested in the Willson lawn composter, get in touch with the Kinsman Company, River Road, Point Pleasant, Pa. 18950, which is responsible for its distribution in North America.

Lawn success starts with good soil in which the bacterial soil life remains active and vigorous year after year. Often the soil life is damaged by too large a dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Thatch (not a natural condition of lawns) builds up and lawn quality deteriorates as a result.

A new Ringer information booklet entitled ''Success With Lawns Starts With Soil'' explains the problem and suggests what can be done about it. The booklet is available free to readers of this column.

Send your request to Department PTB, Ringer Research, 6860 Flying Cloud Drive , Eden Prairie, Minn. 55434.

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