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Extension: Three ways to handle yard waste if trash service won’t

By Heather N. Kolich, For the Forsyth County News

As our community experiences the at-home togetherness of telework, online school, and sheltering in place, the warming temperatures of April tempt us outside to enjoy the beauty that spring in Georgia offers. This spring burst of plant growth also brings the necessity of yard work. 

Weeding, mowing and pruning produce loads of yard waste that many people are accustomed to leaving curbside for disposal by their trash service. In recent weeks, however, several trash collection services have notified customers that they aren’t picking up certain types of trash during the COVID-19 crisis, including yard waste.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce, reuse and recycle yard waste at home in ways that are safe and beneficial to your landscape.

Composting is my go-to for handling dead leaves, weeds, and trimmings from landscape plants, as well as kitchen food scraps. In the compost pile, billions of beneficial microbes digest plant-based waste, literally reducing the size of the pile. Once the waste is composted, it can be recycled back into your yard and garden beds for reuse as a soil amendment. Compost returns needed organic matter to soil and improves its structure, making it a better growing environment for plants. 

To start a compost pile, pick a shady spot in the backyard and start dumping non-woody yard waste there. Smaller pieces break down faster than large stuff does, so I use my pruning tool to chop up long stems and small branches as I add them to the pile. 

The soil microbes need moisture and air to do their work. Moisten the pile each time you add a layer of yard waste and use a pitchfork to mix the material and open pockets for air. When the pile measures between 3-6 cubic feet in size, stop adding new material. Stir the pile every two to three weeks as it “cooks,” and add water as needed to keep it evenly moist. 

When all the material looks the same and you can’t tell an oak leaf from an apple core, the compost is ready to use. Work several inches into garden beds, or broadcast it as a topdressing over lawn areas. Compost helps lighten up heavy clay and improves drainage, while the microbes work to increase soil fertility.

Grass-cycling is an effortless way to return organic matter to the soil and nurture your lawn. Simply remove the bag from your mower and leave the grass clippings where they fall. Because they’re mostly water, grass clippings melt into the soil within a day or two, helping to replenish the organic material that is often missing from Georgia soil.

Chipper-shredders are an option for reducing brush and branches. While the cost to rent or buy chipper-shredder equipment may seem prohibitive, consider what you’ll save in herbicide and labor costs by using home-made mulch to control weeds around your landscape. Mulch also returns organic matter and nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.

I’ve seen several neighbors burning yard waste recently, but that is a last-choice option for several reasons. Burning yard waste poses safety issues, including introducing pollution into the air. Protecting air quality is the primary reason that Georgia imposes outdoor burning bans in 54 counties from May 1 through Sept. 30 each year. Some counties have already prohibited outdoor burning to reduce the burden on emergency responders as we all practice social distancing. In addition, burned yard waste does little to improve soil.

Rather than an inconvenience, let’s try to see managing yard waste at home as a silver lining to the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. It allows us to both improve our soil and extend the life of our landfill.

Heather N. Kolich is the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for the UGA Extension Forsyth County.