A leaf-composting operation that any town can do


Okay, I'm going out on a limb in saying any town could do this – just because my own town of Takoma Park, MD does it.  But jeez, picking up residents' leaves and turning them into mulch for the
community seems like SUCH a nobrainer – both environmentally AND economically.   IMG_4889

Me, I have plenty of room to compost my own leaves and don't put them out by the curb like most people do, but I STILL have 24/7 access to wonderful leafmold mulch, and it's free to anyone.  Yes, even if you don't live here.  Just pick it up any time from this pile on the grounds of our public works department.

Then in the spring – in fact, later this week – the city will dump seven cubic yards of it in my driveway, where it'll sweeten the air (or make it stink depending on your own personal taste for the odor) until I can move it to my beds and paths.


Curbs and Driveways in November and March 

Department of Public Works Speaks

So if it's such an obviously good thing for towns to do, how come in the whole DC area there are only 3 or 4 small suburban towns that do it, and D.C. not at all?  To get to the bottom line of the whole operation I talked to Darrl Braithwaite, our director of Public Works (and because it's not obvious from her name, excuse me while I tell you she's a female.  There are so few women in that job I couldn't resist.)IMG_4885

According to Daryl, their grinding operation pays for itself because they avoid paying to transport and dump all those leaves somewhere else. The only cost was really just the purchase of this basic grinder because regular staff are used during regular hours to do the grinding.  Then for the many loads of mulch that are ordered delivered to people's driveways, the delivery fee covers staff time, and deliveries are only made when the crew isn't needed for something more urgent.  (The fee is $65 for up to 10 cubic yards.)

How the City Uses all that Mulch

Turns out we residents don't pick up or pay to have delivered nearly enough of the stuff – coz we're a very leafy town, ya know – so the big challenge in this whole operation is getting rid of all the mulch before leaf pick-up operations the following November.  So of course they use the mulch on all the city gardens (and we have lots), so the city saves there, too, by not having to buy mulch.

But what's really cool is that the city still gets to be generous with tons more of the stuff, and that just makes everybody happy.  Recipients of unlimited amounts of free mulch include: the county's largest public garden (they come and pick it up, truckloads of it).  The National Arboretum.  Bancroft School in D.C. (home of the White House gardeners).  Other cities around D.C.  The county's community college.  All sorts of nonprofits.

What's your City's Excuse?

If your town or county is still sending organic matter to the dump, why?  If they don't have the space for a composting operation, it may be possible to rent space and still break even on the operation.  Anyway, it can all happen in a surprisingly small space. 

For more about the grinder pictured here, especially how much it cost, I'm sending this to Darryl for her answer.  I wonder if grinders are available on Craigslist – everything else is, right?

The Big Recycling

A quick check of Takoma Park's website reveals that their leaf and yard debris pick-up is just one of a slew of recycling services they perform. If they've missed something, let me know and I'll pass along the suggestion.  Or if your town is missing out on an opportunity to recycle, let them know.


  1. There’s a difference between compost and mulch. If the leaves have been allowed to decompose completely, they become “leaf mould,” a kind of compost. If they are only partially broken down, they are simply mulch.

    It’s not true that the District of Columbia does nothing with its leaves. For years, D.C. trucked its leaves to a landfill. But in recent years, it’s been taking them to Pogo Organics, a local tree service in Maryland that also runs a huge composting operation. The compost was coming back to the city in plastic buckets sold at Whole Foods. But I didn’t see any of those buckets for sale last year. Public works and the city’s recreation department claim the compost is available at certain locations in the city, or by callilng Helping Hands. The latest talk is about mixing the leaves with food waste from the city’s schools and making that compost available to gardeners. But a site would be needed to set up the composting operation. This is still at a very preliminary stage.

  2. Ed, you’re right and what Takoma has is sometimes mulch, sometimes compost, and usually somewhere between those 2 states.

    And Daryl wrote me with details for anyone looking into doing this: “The cost of the grinder, most recently purchased in 1997 (15 year life expectancy – so we will be replacing in 2012) cost $89,988. I am not sure what it’s replacement will cost but we have set aside funds in our Equipment Replacement Reserve for it’s replacement.

    “Since we have to get the mulch out of here by Fall we have a set schedule for once a week delivery days. It requires 2 or 3 trucks and drivers for each truck, from our staff of 7 in that Division.”

  3. Ed, I forgot to thank you for the great news about DC and Pogo’s. I’m a big fan of Pogoland, and just wish he’d let me interview him and tell his strangely interesting story. And talk about photogenic!

  4. NYC was doing this. They stopped with the Wall Street collapse. Too much money to collect leaves separately they said. So now those of us who rake leaves put them in with the trash- shipping said trash to other states. The facilities still exist in two boroughs- the Bronx and Staten Island. The Brooklyn facility closed apparently due to permits problems and maybe odor complaints before the city quit collecting leaves.

  5. Berkeley’s curbside greenwaste is composted and available free at several locations. They do charge for greenwaste pick-up & dumping, but at a much lower rate than garbage. With my tiny urban yard, I am happy to pay for my greenbin and get the compost back as a finished product, since I don’t want to give over the space for a couple of compost bins.

  6. Most of the counties here in Florida collect yard waste and allow for free pick ups at the dumpsite. Some may have deliveries, but I don’t know for sure. The problem with our county (Clay) is the plastic bags are shredded along with the organic materials. Clay does use its own compost/mulch for county landscaping projects.

  7. Our city has a “compost site.” You can take yard waste there any day and there’s always a pile of compost available to use free of charge. The city “processes” the compost. The citizens haul the yard waste there and the compost out. It’s great! Our county takes tree limbs free and they get chipped for mulch which is also available free–it can be kinda twiggy but good for some places.

  8. This is the leaf mulch hotline for DC: 202-442-4257 — no answer this morning. What I have heard, but not personally witnessed, is that you can pick up leaf compost at the Ft Totten transfer station starting in March.
    I understand Pogo is no longer working with Whole Foods, but will contact him and see what the current status is on that and any city contracts he may have.
    Many Federal agencies and private schools like American Univ are also using Pogo’s services to cart away the leaf piles and landscape debris then have him bring back as mulch-compost and compost tea.

  9. I’m proud to say that my company (Gardener’s Supply Company) was instrumental in starting one of the first leaf composting projects in the country here in Burlington Vermont! And as a Resident of Burlington vermont few things make me more proud than seeing the bags of leaves at the curbside destined for the compost project.

  10. If there so few towns are doing it, and there is already so much extra mulch, they need to be able to distribute more. It seems that if there was no delivery fee (like the $65 you’re paying), a lot more people would want a lot more mulch. But of course it costs $ to take mulch all over town for people. So I propose a once a year delivery for each street in the city. By combining all of the houses in one spot for a free (or very very cheap) delivery, you lower the cost per house a great deal, in terms of gas, man hours and coordination.

    Another area to focus on is to encourage more people to compost their own leaves, so that it doesn’t have to get driven across town. They’d be a lot more likely to utilize their own home-made compost, once it’s made.

    How would you help encourage composting? Many ways, including subsidized compost bins, discounts on your garbage fees if you put in on green matter, etc.

  11. Ah, and to make the city compost more accessible for free pickup, it can be distributed at all the middle schools or high schools so that everyone knows a much more local spot to pick some up.

  12. As I travel around the country, I always check, and can say that more often than not the city I’m in offers this type of service–free compost, sometimes free shredded wood mulch. Most don’t deliver, but that’s what owning a pickup or cheap box trailer is for.

    More and more cities, suburbs and towns are becoming aware that it is leaf and lawn clipping debris being swept down storm sewers into ponds, lakes and streams that are the chief cause of excess algae growth in our fresh water systems. Phosphorus from fertilizers is a very minor, secondary cause (University of Minnesota study).

    The compost quality varies, but anything is better than nothing. Where I live in Minnesota, the city of Minnetonka has a huge free mulch supply, and handles the chore for several nearby suburbs. It’s pretty good stuff. You live with a bit of shredded black or orange plastic from the leaf bags, but that’s a small price to pay.

    Good post to point out that there is no reason this type of effort isn’t taking place in absolutely every city, suburb, and small town in America. All it takes is a quarter-acre of land, a Bobcat and a few employees, and every municipality in America has that.

  13. The city I live in (Roseville, CA) has green waste bins for every household with pick-up every other week. Usually the bins have little more in them than lawn or shrubbery clippings, or perhaps leaves in the Fall, but what’s deposited there goes to a private company for composting. We can’t get free compost or mulch back – they bag it & sell it back to us ! Well, not me. I compost my leaves, my neighbors’ when possible, & put anything that doesn’t need a chipper to break down quickly into my compost pile. I’ll give them the large prunings, but still wonder why they couldn’t just mulch it & give it back …

  14. Our area composts and we make good use of them. We don’t give the much yard waste since we have our own piles going (and our goats and chickens get a lot of it). We don’t create enough to use so we go down to the “dump” and for $3 they fill the back of our truck. Compared to the commercial composters that sell it for $27/yard, this is a steal.

  15. Our area (Rogue Valley) not only turns the leaves into mulch with a free pick up during the fall “leafy season,” for a small fee you can get a “green bin” for your yard waste. All of that is turned into different types of yard material — wood chips, compost, mulch — depending on what it is. If you want some, you pay by the cubic foot, and I assume the cost for the cans and for buying the yard material pays for the program.

    We chipper/shredded all of our leaves this last year and mulched all the walkways in our veggie garden (so far, very few weeds!). And we compost everything, so I can’t speak for the quality of what the “dump” offers, but I seem to remember it’s a helluva lot cheaper than the by-the-bag stuff at the garden center.

  16. My county (Arlington, Virginia, not far from Susan) collects leaves in fall, composts them and makes them available for pickup for free, for delivery to your house for a nominal sum. Two neighbours and I have ordered a truckload to be delivered every year for the past forever years. The county also picks up branches and puts them through a chipper, then lets you pick up the wood chips for free, and delivers them for a small sum.

    This is a great service — I don’t have much space to compost my own leaves, and I don’t own equipment heavy enough to chip branches, so all round this is a win-win situation for me, and I don’t mind paying the small sums to have the stuff delivered.

    Only thing I would like is to have a kitchen waste pickup service — composting kitchen waste is a problem for me, although I deal with it y a combination of pit composting and a bin.

  17. If you live in San Diego and haven’t seen the compost operation at the dump, it’s worth a trip. The compost windrows are turned by a giant machine the size of a semi trailer turned sideways. It slides down the windrows and disappears from sight about half way down in the cloud of steam that is released. Also, you can have all the free compost you want to shovel or for a nominal amount, they will load a pick up truck for you.

  18. I have a friend who lives in a town where they do this. After Christmas, people can take their trees to the city, and the city will grind them up for free to make free mulch. Wonderful idea! Anyway, thanks for sharing, and feel free to visit me back 🙂

  19. I don’t get it?

    So many of the rants and comments on this blog wail away at unsustainable/environmentally unfriendly practices, yet everyone that’s commented so far appears to think nothing of having municipalities across the country burn millions of gallons of diesel every year collecting, transporting, processing and redistributing leaves! (Not to mention that most municipalities are facing crushing budget deficits for decades to come, and leaves raked to curbs are a huge contributor to increased phosphorus levels in waterways!)

    Come on, not to be self-serving, but LEAVES AREN’T TRASH (http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/improve-soil-rake-less.aspx?nterms=74874) and (http://www.tlehcs.com/Special%20Topics/Leaves%20Arent%20Trash/lat%20introduction.htm), and (http://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2008/10/leaf-me-alone.html).

    Instead of congratulating communities for generating mulch and compost, we should be encouraging them to develop creative strategies for weaning residents off of such wasteful, environmentally unfriendly practices!

  20. Blacksburg, VA does this they just had the pick up this past weekend. Only it is free to anyone who comes!

  21. I think these pick-up programs are great. Buffalo just added one. Not everyone wants to compost and by no means everyone can just let their leaves sit on the ground and sidewalks. Not all leaves are created equal–some turn into hard mats that do not decompose.

    It is so much better than leaves going into a landfill. And it encourages people to use the free city compost rather than buy chemicals.

  22. Unfortunately, nothing is “free.”

    You’re paying for that compost, just like every other municipal service, it’s just not broken out in your property tax bill. And, we’re all paying (in many ways) for the fossil fuels consumed to haul leaves away, just to consume more fossil fuel to haul them back – after they’ve been processed by tremendously energy inefficient machines!

    Meanwhile, nature can be extraordinarily clever at figuring out how to find sunlight through a dense mat of leaves – especially if they’re disturbed just a little bit with a rake during a stretch of nice, late winter weather. It’s been happening in forests around the world for millions of years.

    I’m not trying to be contrary or difficult (though probably I am annoying a few people).

    My point is that we, as hopefully better informed gardeners thanks to the efforts of the four of you (as well as your tens of thousands of readers), are capable of considering alternatives to traditional lawn, landscape and garden practices.

    While I agree that not every last leaf can be left to it’s own devices (they are tricky little devils, after all), I’ll bet that we could collectively reduce the amount of leaves needlessly collected across the country by at least 25%!

  23. My brother lives in Summit, NJ where they collect yard waste and residents can pick up compost and chips for their gardens. I don’t know that they deliver but I have always been so jealous. I live in a town of 800 where we recycle at our Transfer Station (no dumps allowed anymore) but the select board gets testy when they hear anyone (like me) is removing sheets of cardboard from the recyle container. I say Reuse before Recycle.

  24. We have yard debris carts which are picked up weekly, in my area. For yard debris only at this point. I’ve been bugging the hauler that does the weekly pickup, asking when they’ll add food waste to the pickup service, and they’re working that out right now apparently. Everyone is hounding them because there’s still this perception that backyard compost piles are a smelly nuisance.

    Something that dogs collection of organics in areas of denser population is the space where the materials will be composted, i.e. ‘where ya gonna compost all that stuff?’. I lived in Berkeley CA for ten years, and it took them until 2006-2007 to add food waste to the organics collection stream w/ the yard clippings. Because it was hard to find a composter willing and able to handle the volume of material. Food waste isn’t being addressed in this post really, but I thought I’d mention it because it’s an example of cities having a hard time keeping up on doing the right thing.

    Back to the landfill thing, we’re actually looking at litigation in CA because at least one landfill operator in No. CA got caught using residential yard debris as ‘daily cover’. We talk about these waste diversion rates in No. CA until we’re blue in the face, and this landfill operator was using something like 25% of the local yard debris being diverted from the landfill as daily cover, at the landfill.

  25. That is really cool, and of course most people can’t burn their leaves do to zoning restrictions and such. Somehow leaf blowers always ticked me off, but I like this a lot.

  26. For years our town, Ann Arbor, MI, has picked up leaves (and Christmas trees as well) which they turn into mulch and re-sell to the community. It’s a great plan. We don’t participate, however, because we are composting fiends; we mulch our gardens with all of the leaves we can get our hands on. A couple of our neighbors know our habits and make a point of letting us know their leaf piles are ready for the taking. Our town will be adding compost carts to pick up kitchen waste curb-side in the near future. Again, we don’t have any to spare! but it’s great that the town is keeping compostable stuff out of the landfill.

  27. The city pays one way or another in Seattle. If they don’t get citizens to collect leaves and put them in the city yard waste pick-up, the city eventually has to come out because somebodys house flooded because a drain was clogged with leaves.

    We have more evergreens than deciduous trees though, so some neighborhoods are better off than others.

    We don’t get pure leaf mould from city composting 🙁 – we have to deal with muni compost of multiple things – mostly wood bark, leaves, kitchen scraps, pine needles, weeds, and whatever else gets put into the yard-waste bins.

    I think our city does however save some of our solid waste and creates a product called ‘groco’ – so the city of seattle firmly believes in the great law of return.

  28. Our city (Evanston IL) had free compost from yard waste until neighbors complained about the smell. I lived near the park where the composting was done and didn’t detect any odor, but I supposed some people’s noses are more finicky than mine. Darn yuppies! It was a great disappointment when they stopped the composting operation.

  29. I also live in Arlington, VA, but my question is about the receiving end–quality control. How do I know that compost or mulch isn’t teeming with weed seeds or black walnut???
    For now, I give what I can, but I am nervous about receiving the bounty.

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