Stop throwing away your green $tuff

Date Published: 
February, 2005
Original Author: 
R. Scott Lankford
Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, Seattle, Washington
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, February 2005

Recycling the yard waste from your memorial park saves money on disposal, provides you with mulch and can lead to positive publicity.
Being a good neighbor and a good steward of your land is just good business.

Gardeners everywhere are aware of the value of good mulch. Mulch is the organic top-dressing applied to planting beds and gardens. It provides nitrogen, holds water, prevents erosion and reduces weeds, to name a few benefits.

What goes into good mulch is as important as what comes out. With the seasons' cycle, leaves fall, storms pass through and renewed growth begins. By working with these cycles, cemeteries can benefit and even flourish in the wake of seasonal storms.

Let's face it, storms happen. Cemeteries hit by severe weather can sustain excessive landscape damage. These parks, with their mature and manicured landscapes, can end up having to deal with large amounts of plant debris.

Many cemeteries still place seasonal leaves, storm debris and pruning leavings in the trash. At the cost per load, plus the cost of using precious landfill space, this is an expensive solution that can create poor public relations.

Mulching for dollars
Mulch is any product applied to the top layer of the soil to prevent erosion and reduce weeds. Topsoil is what plants prefer to grow in.  We make our plant beds with topsoil exclusively or by mixing topsoil with the existing soil to add nutrients.

With a good mulching program:
• leaves are collected seasonally and turned into a rich topsoil for the next year's planting and construction projects.
• pruned branches, fallen trees and woody debris are chipped and turned into bark mulch as a top dressing for the plant beds.
• grass clippings are left on the ground to provide nitrogen and reduce fertilizer needed in the lawn beds.

Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, in Seattle, Washington, which encompasses 140-plus acres, used to annually fill 35 to 45 waste containers, each holding 30 yards, with the leaves, pruning and fallen limbs generated within the park. Now a small portion of the park is set aside so that we can keep this material and render it for use within the cemetery.

The approximately 500 cubic yards of fresh leaves produced every year at the cemetery is turned into about 160 cubic yards of good rich topsoil, which is used on the grounds.

The cost of topsoil in our region—not including delivery—is about $25 per yard, so that 160 cubic yards we make ourselves is worth $4,000, plus delivery charges. This is money saved—on top of not having to pay for disposing of 35 to 45 loads of material. The value of a recycling program is easy to see.

Mulching is one of the ways the cemetery maintains its grounds. Each year, Evergreen-Washelli uses 150-200 cubic yards of bark mulch. The majority of this comes from trees, tree limbs and other woody debris from seasonal storms. In our region, bark mulch runs about $30 per cubic yard, so making our own saves up to $6,000 right there, in addition to saving us the cost of having the debris hauled away.

Setting up the work area
At Evergreen-Washelli, the recycle area is laid out to process and render down large quantities of leaf and wood debris. The key to making this work is to separate out the individual products into their piles:
• Separate the leaves from the branches and wood for chipping.
• Place products that cannot be chipped or mulched efficiently (such as pine needles and noxious weeds) in a pile to be hauled away.
• Pull out stones and boulders to be used for other projects.
• Set aside firewood for employees and neighbors to use.

Evergreen-Washelli mulches its landscape debris in three ways:
1. Lawn clippings are left where they fall. The grounds crew uses mulching mowers, and leaves the grass clippings where they fall. Grass clippings left on the lawn help replace nitrogen, reduce water evaporation and reduce the amount of fertilizer required.

Excluding grass clippings from the mulch piles means that herbicides used on the lawn areas do not get transferred to the mulch material. Herbicides, especially those used in lawns to kill dichotomous weeds (plants other than grass), can be a serious problem. Mulch contaminated by herbicide may, in fact, poison the very plantings it is intended to help.

2. Leaves are collected in the fall and placed in a pile that's turned and pushed throughout the winter to mix and break down the leaves. Depending on the weather, the pile is turned once every four to eight weeks. Warm, dry weather aids the decomposition process and cold, wet weather slows it down. In very cold and wet areas, cover mulch piles with tarps to help retain heat.

As the leaves age and decompose, the rich final product used for topsoil is pushed toward the loading area. The topsoil is used to build new plant beds and improve poor soil in existing ones.

3. Wood debris such as branches, logs and shrubs is collected in an area adjacent to the chip pile. Sometimes it's easier to chip the branches in the field and dump them in the chipping pile later, and sometimes it's easier to haul the branches to the pile and chip them there.

Either way, the chipped and rendered product gets collected in one area and pushed and turned. Eventually it is pushed around toward the loading area for final use as a top dressing for plant beds (mulch).

It is important to turn the chips on a regular schedule (every six to eight weeks). In the center of the pile, the temperature is high enough to cook and kill the seeds and break down the material, resulting in clean, well decomposed mulch.

The importance of turning the piles of mulch and topsoil-in-the-making cannot be emphasized enough. For large applications, a small bulldozer is best. For smaller areas, a front loader is sufficient.

Turning the piles frequently speeds up the decomposition process and keeps odors under control. Noxious smells can become a problem with mulch piles that are not turned frequently enough. It's amazing that a pile of fresh leaves can smell like fresh manure when decomposing.

When dealing with serious storm damage, entire trees can be destroyed.  The first order of business is to ask an arborist to determine whether any of the seriously damaged trees can be saved. Where landscapes have been uprooted, entire sections of mature plantings may need to be chipped up and disposed of and new trees planted. Unless the damage is where you want the recycle area to be, you will want to chip the material into trucks and move the chips to your recycle area to be processed later.

It is best to use commercial equipment and professional arborists for this type of cleanup and chipping. Since much of the cost savings is due to eliminating hauling and dump fees, using professional arborists is the most efficient way to clean up after major storm damage.
Plan for it!
Bad weather, dead trees, annual pruning and autumn are unavoidable. Set aside an area where you can dump leaves and chips. Provide enough room so you'll be able to move the individual piles around.

In smaller areas such as work yards, bins work efficiently. Typically bins 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep are set side by side. When the first bin is full, the material is dumped into the next bin, where it's turned, and finally into a third bin, where the final product is produced for pickup.
If you are fortunate enough to have a large area available within your cemetery or memorial park, your recycle area can handle a large amount of storm debris on site.

If by adopting a recycling program you end up with more mulch than you need, share it. Gardeners everywhere know the value of good mulch. One of Evergreen-Washelli's good-neighbor policies is to make leftover mulch available in the fall to their neighbors for pickup. Just think, you could take the damage from a serious storm and turn it into a useable and valuable product, one with many good customer relation opportunities.

So stop throwing your money away. Recycle the yard waste from your property. Collect your leaves and mulch them into good topsoil. Collect your trees, branches and shrub waste and chip them into mulch. What you don't use, sell or give away as a community service. All it takes is a little planning.