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Enough Already: Encroachment by Yard Wastes Harms Urban and Suburban Forests

Submitted by Jonathan Kachursky and Jeff Feaga, Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources

A beautiful autumn scene in Frederick County, Maryland. Does it look like this near your backyard? Photo courtesy of Kai Hagen.

Many of us have mixed feelings in autumn. After all, it is one of the most beautiful and exciting times of the year with all the colors, the perfect light, and the holidays. On the other hand, winter is coming. It can also be a lot of work! For those that have to take care of the yard and lawn, autumn means an inexhaustible amount of tree leaves, rotting un-ripened vegetables, bunches of browned grass, and crispy dried flowers from our overgrown flower gardens. This adds up to a lot of raking, pulling, and loading of material.

After the physical work is done collecting all this yard waste, where do we get rid of it? If we were to do things the “way granddaddy did it”, we would simply load all this waste up and dump it in the nearest unoccupied non-turf area such as a stream side or to the inside edge of the adjacent woodlot. After all, it’s all natural material and will rot, right? By the way, forgive me for the granddaddy reference. Clearly our ancestors did have a lot of practical experience that we should probably use most of the time; but when it comes to some issues, doing things exactly the way they were done 50 years ago doesn’t necessarily mean it is right or a conservation-minded way to do things.

Times have changed since our granddaddies and most other people lived in rural settings, when they generated relatively little yard waste compared to the amount of area they had to dispose of it. Nowadays, the high density neighborhoods where we live are not bounded by large swaths of unaltered forest land. The small forest lots of today can easily be overwhelmed by the yard waste generated by numerous residences. Further, the type of yard wastes that are generated in modern neighborhood include an incredible number of seeds and cuttings from invasive plants, waste from family pets, and vegetation with pesticide and fertilizer residue.

It follows that the dumping of lawn waste risks spreading invasive species, clogging small water ways, and degrading vegetation. Heaps of leaves, grass clippings or other plant material from your lawn can take up to a year to fully decompose in a natural environment. Over time, this seemingly harmless way to dispose of yard waste can have severe effects on the environment; large piles of waste can even create enough heat to harm aquatic life, damage trees, and kill ground cover that protects against drought and erosion. Yard waste disposal may even result in losses in local or regional native wildlife biodiversity (Friesen et al. 1995; Jokimaki and Huhta 2000). To make things even more locally relevant, deciduous forests like those that dominate central Maryland are among the most effected by yard waste encroachment because they support sensitive ground floras (Kuss 1986; Kuss and Hall 1991).

Urban and suburban forests are often used by neighborhood residents as a yard waste dumping ground. These forests can have abundant invasive plants, little understory, and numerous gaps in the canopy. Photo and caption concept from Center for Watershed Protection and US Forest Service (

To prevent these potential dangers, yard waste should be properly disposed of by composting, mulching, or drop off at County Yard Waste Collection sites. Here is link to a local brochure from Fairfax County, VA that further discusses the reasons not to improperly dispose of yard waste and presents environmentally-friendly alternatives. Composting and mulching are easy ways to both prevent environmental damage and help your lawn and garden flourish. To start a successful compost pile, select an area with good drainage, moderate sunlight, and protection from high winds. Plant matter should be shredded or finally chopped before being added to the compost pile to ensure fast composting. A compost pile should be turned and watered every five to six weeks or until the yard waste has been completely broken down. Alternatively, composting bins or tumblers can be purchased or constructed. A composting bin requires less maintenance and ensures more even heating than a pile. This link to an EPA composting website provides some good information on what, and what not to, compost.

So, enjoy yourself this beautiful autumn. Take comfort in the fact that your hard work in the yard will give you good exercise, get your plants and turf ready for winter, and provide the raw material for compost that will keep your yard beautiful for years to come.    







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