Mulching vs Bagging: Which One Makes the Cut?
IMAGINE, IF ONLY FOR A MOMENT, A lawn so overpopulated with weeds and overgrown blades of grass you’d think you were kneedeep in some faraway jungle. Not exactly idyllic, right? Well, no great surprise there.
When it comes to turf, people want a nice, clean cut that’s not only easy on the eyes, but comfortable—where you can lounge about on lawn chairs, host a barbecue on a pleasant summer evening and play catch with the dog. If you’re a landscape contractor who does maintenance, it’s your responsibility to give your clients the nicest, trimmest turf possible.
But how do you get that perfect cut? How do you dispose of the grass clippings? And how do you make sure the grass is as healthy as possible?
Many contractors use a side-discharge system, where the clippings are tossed to one side of the mower. Installing a side-discharge system is easy and cost-efficient, but the problem you’ll often find is how messy the lawn gets after that first initial sweep.
Say you cut off a half-inch of grass—with most conventional side-discharge systems, the clippings left behind after mowing will be that long. Nobody wants those clippings messing up their lawns. They can form large clumps of grass thatch and prevent the flow of air and nutrients from reaching the lawn’s root system, as well as promote the growth of fungus.
Other clippings will wilt and dry to a husky yellow-brown color and tarnish the look of the lawn. Because of this, contractors who use side-discharge systems often find themselves going back over the turf one or more times to collect and dispose of the clippings, a process that can be extremely timeconsuming. However, there are more convenient options available.
One option is to add a mulching system to the mower to return the reduced grass clippings back to the turf as a fertilizer. The other option is bagging. Bagging uses a grass handling system to vacuum the grass clippings into a portable storage bag that you can dispose of later on. Both choices have their plusses and minuses, but when it comes to deciding which one you want to use, it’s best to first look at the circumstances in which you’ll be mowing.
“Some people will say they just want the one thing that works all the time,” says Bob Walker, president of Walker Mowers, Fort Collins, Colorado. “They want the magic bullet. But the reality is that there’s too many types of grass, climates and environments that all add up to an amazing configuration of possibilities.”
A mulching system is made up of baffles, blades and a restriction plate for the side of the deck which can be installed on existing mowers. Think of the mulching process as a one-two-three punch—it first gives the grass its initial cut, then cuts it again with the blades’ recutting surface and finally discharges the clippings onto a separate deck on the front of the machine, so as the mower moves forward, the clippings are given one final cut. The shredded grass remains are then discharged onto the turf, returning the moisture and nutrients of the grass back into the soil. Mulching systems are an easy and effective way to fertilize lawns—a recycling system of sorts for the world of lawn care. “The clippings are so small you won’t even see them if your machine is effectively mulching,” says John Cloutier, marketing manager at Exmark, Beatrice, Nebraska. “The whole idea is that you cut and immediately recycle what you’ve shredded.” In addition to the immediacy factor mulching systems bring to the table, they’re also relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to bagging systems.
But not every situation is mulching-system-appropriate. As winter turns to spring and the temperature finally starts to rise, grasses will contain a high level of moisture. Mowing these grasses in the early spring can unlock large amounts of moisture from within their blades, spilling a wet, sticky substance all over the lawn and making a general mess of things. “People don’t usually enjoy having grass juice all over their lawn,” says Walker. “Plus, if you try to mow over juicy grass, all that green stuff will build up in the deck and you’ll have to do a lot of cleaning.” In the cooler regions of the country, where the spring season often kicks off with chillier temperatures, it’s wise to wait a few weeks before using a mulching system. “We’ll usually use the bagging system first in these kinds of situations,” says Walker. “We’ll wait until it warms up a bit before mulching.”
Another thing to keep in mind: if your client wants you to mow a lawn that hasn’t been tended to in some time, it’s best to opt for a bagging or side-discharge system. When it comes to especially lengthy blades of grass, mulching systems just aren’t up to the job. Trying to use a mulching system on a particularly unkempt lawn could be asking a bit too much of the mulching deck—after all, they’re only designed to remove a limited amount of grass at a time.
Although using bagging attachments to clear and dispose of grass clippings and other debris can be more costly and time-consuming than that of a mulching system, they’re perfect for contractors who care about lawn care aesthetics.
Bagging systems vacuum the grass the same way you might vacuum your carpets, removing and storing the clippings as it goes along. Some contractors feel that bagging systems provide a higher quality of cut than either side-discharge or mulching systems and are able to handle even the lengthiest of grass blades. The striping pattern you see on well-manicured lawns—that’s usually the work of a bagging system.
In areas such as the Northeast, where autumn leaves have the potential to kill the grass if not attended to quickly enough, bagging systems are recommended. “Some contractors will take a leaf plow and push the leaves up into big piles so the trucks can come along and haul them off to a disposal site,” says Walker. “But with a bagging system, they’re able to go out to the property and pick up all those leaves in one pass.” Bagging systems will also shred the leaves as they’re being sucked up, allowing you to fit more leaves into one bag.
The downside is that it takes longer to dispose of grass clippings. When mulching, disposal is instantaneous, as the shreds of grass are thrown back onto the turf as soon as they’re mowed. Bagging can be a bit trickier. After you’ve finished mowing, the bags must be taken to a disposal site. This requires extra labor, and oftentimes, disposal sites require a fee just to dump your bags onto the site.
Instead of simply diving right onto a property using the same mower attachments every time, it’s best to assess your environment. If the weather’s cold and the turf looks especially dewy, opt for the bagging attachments, and if the grass is looking particularly tall, this is all the more reason why you should go with bagging over mulching.
Those who live in regions of the country where it’s warm year-round, however, might be better off using mulching systems regularly. After all, without those wintry seasons, you see a drier, more stabilized turf year round. Maintaining it regularly with a mulching system should keep it healthy and looking good.
“From the landscaping perspective, mulching is the most productive way to maintain properties,” says Cloutier. “The important thing is to stay aware of where you are and what state the grass is in.”