When mowing your lawn, there are three ways you can deal with the grass clippings. This guide lists the pros and cons of mulching vs side discharge vs bagging grass clippings.
Mulching mowers can mulch and fertilize your lawn with the clippings as you mow. Side discharge mowers offer powerful performance which allows you to cut wet and long grass quickly. Most side discharge lawn mowers also give you the option to bag the clippings if you choose.
The best option depends on a number of factors including the size of your lawn, the length of your grass, the type of grass, and your personal preferences. In this guide, I will outline the differences between mulching and side discharge and explain the benefits and drawbacks of both methods to help you decide.
What’s the Main Difference Between Side Discharge and Mulching?
Side discharge mowers eject clippings out of the mower through a chute in the side of the mower deck, leaving them on top of the lawn. You can rake them up or let them decompose naturally. You can also bag them.
Mulching mowers do not have a discharge chute. Instead, the grass clippings stay in the mower deck longer and are chopped into tiny pieces by the blade. The clippings are then distributed back into the lawn. The smaller clippings fall to the soil level, where they can decompose quickly and provide a natural fertilizer that contributes to soil health.
Mulching mowers cut and recut grass clippings into fine particles that are then returned to the lawn as you mow. The grass acts as a natural fertilizer for the lawn. The mulched clippings decompose quickly, releasing nutrients back into the soil. This promotes a lush and healthy lawn.
A mulching mower is specifically designed to cut the grass clippings into small particles. These mowers are equipped with a special blade, known as a mulching blade, which is shaped to keep the grass clippings circulating under the mower deck. This allows them to be cut and recut into very small pieces. Mulching blades are long and curved. This provides more surface area for the blade to cut.
The design of the mower deck is also important. The mower deck is closed off to prevent the clippings from being immediately discharged after they’re cut. This enclosed deck ensures that they stay inside the deck to be mulched properly. Mulching mowers do not have a discharge chute.
Mulching mowers can come in various power types, including gas and electric versions. There are also robot mulching mowers that mow for you. Some mowers offer both mulching and side discharge options. There are also push mowers that are capable of mulching.
The power of the mower impacts its ability to mulch effectively. A powerful motor ensures that the blade spins at high speeds, allowing it to cut the grass clippings multiple times into finer particles.
Pros of Mulching Grass Clippings
- Mulching grass fertilizes the lawn: The finely cut pieces of grass make their way to the soil, where they are decomposed by microorganisms in the soil. The decomposition process releases nitrogen and other beneficial elements into the soil. Because the particles of grass are so small, they decompose quickly. This natural fertilizer helps your grass grow stronger and healthier. It also reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.
- Less cleanup afterward: When you mulch your grass clippings, you don’t have to rake them up or bag them and throw them away.
- You don’t have to stop to empty the bag when you mulch: You can mow your whole lawn without stopping.
- You can mulch leaves: A good mulching mower can mulch leaves, pine needles, and small twigs that may fall on your lawn. These will break down and improve soil quality.
- Safer: Mulching mowers keep rocks, sticks, and other debris in the mower deck. They are not ejected out the side.
- The clippings are not visible: When you mulch with a good mower, the clippings are so small that they fall down to the soil surface. After mowing, you may see some clippings but they will quickly deteriorate.
- The grass will look healthier and more lush: Mulching is good for your grass. It puts nutrients back into the soil that help your grass grow. You’ll have a healthier lawn if you mulch regularly.
- Mulching helps in retaining soil moisture: The mulched grass shades the soil to reduce evaporation. You won’t have to water quite as often when you mulch. This saves time and cuts down on your water bill. It also helps keep your lawn greener.
- Mulching maintaining an even soil temperature: The mulch acts as insulation. It keeps the soil cooler in the summer and reduces soil temperature swings between the day and night. This can be beneficial in areas with extreme weather. Temperature swings can stress the grass roots.
- Mulching is sustainable and environmentally friendly: Mulching reduces waste and avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers.
- Saves money: Mulching will reduce water and fertilizer costs.
Cons of Mulching Grass Clippings
- You can’t mulch tall grass or wet grass: You have to make sure the grass is at the proper mowing height. Tall or wet grass can get stuck inside the mower deck. When this happens, your mower becomes less efficient. Eventually, you’ll have to stop to clean the mower before you can continue. If you try to mulch tall or wet grass, you may also see clumping. Clumps of mulch won’t fall down to the soil level. They’ll just sit on the surface, where they can harm the lawn underneath. The best time to mulch is the mid-morning after the dew has dried up.
- Mulching is slower: When you mulch, you have to mow slower. You have to move at a slow walking pace. This is because the mower must cut each blade of grass multiple times so it is small enough to fall to the soil level and break down quickly. It takes time for the mower to cut multiple times. If you mow too quickly, the mower won’t have time to cut the grass small enough. As a result, the mower can get clogged up. This means mulching mowers are best for small areas.
- You have to mow more often: Because mulching mowers can’t handle long grass, you’ll have to mow more frequently. On average, you’ll have to mow once per week. If you let your grass get too long, you’ll have to use a side discharge mower to cut it down.
- Mulching can spread weeds or disease: If you have weeds in your lawn, a mulching mower will cut them up with the grass and spread the seeds all over your lawn. Soon, you’ll see weeds sprouting up all over your yard. Before you begin mulching, you should weed your lawn. Only mulch when your lawn is weed-free.
- Can add thatch to lawn: Mulching grass clippings can contribute to thatch buildup. Thatch is a layer of dead grass, roots, and other organic matter that accumulates between the soil surface and the grass blades. Excessive thatch buildup prevents essential nutrients, water, and air from penetrating the soil. Over time, it can kill patches of grass. Over-mulching can cause thatch to build up. When this happens, you’ll need to dethatch or stop mulching for a while so the existing clippings can decompose.
- Lower quality cut: Because mulching mowers do not have a discharge chute, the vacuum effect is reduced. The mower doesn’t pull the blades of grass up before they are cut. Mulching blades also move slower than standard blades. This results in a lower-quality cut. The grass won’t be quite as even in length as it is with a side discharge mower.
- Not ideal for large yards: Because mulching mowers must move more slowly, they aren’t great for mowing large areas. Mowing would take too long. You should only mulch if you have a small lawn.
Side discharge means the grass clippings are expelled out of the side of the mower. They are distributed onto the lawn’s surface, sometimes in noticeable rows or clumps.
The mower has an opening on one side of the deck where the grass clippings are expelled. The blade in a side-discharge mower is optimized for efficient cutting. It is usually a straight blade that moves fast. The blade works together with the side discharge mower deck, guiding the clippings out of the side opening in a wide and even spread. This helps to prevent clumping.
Side discharge mowers come in various options such as gas, electric, and battery-powered models. If you have a large area to mow, you could also get a side discharge tractor.
Side discharge mowers have powerful motors. A powerful motor allows the motor to operate effectively, particularly in challenging conditions like tall or wet grass. A powerful motor also ensures that the mower blades rotate at an optimal speed, providing a clean cut and efficient expulsion of the clippings.
Pros of Side Discharge
- You can mow a large yard quickly: A side discharge mower allows you to mow a large yard quickly. The mower works faster because it only has to cut each blade of grass once. After the grass is cut, it is immediately discharged. This allows you to mow quickly. This makes side discharge better for large lawns.
- You can mow tall or wet grass: This is a key benefit. The side discharge method is particularly useful when mowing taller grass because it prevents the mower deck from getting clogged with clippings. This makes the mowing process smoother and more efficient. You can also mow wet grass. You don’t have to wait for the morning dew or rain to dry up. Wet grass may clump up but it won’t get stuck in the mower deck.
- You don’t have to mow as frequently: Because you can mow taller grass, you don’t have to mow as often. You can let your grass grow longer between mowings. You may be able to mow once every 10 days instead of once per week. This saves you time and effort. This makes side discharge the best choice if you don’t have time for regular lawn care or if your grass grows quickly. This is a major benefit of side discharge.
- High-quality cut: Side discharge mowers create a vacuum effect that makes the blades of grass stand up straight. They use fast-moving blades that cut the grass at the same length. This results in an even and beautiful cut.
- Can be used on all soil types and grass types: It doesn’t matter if you have sandy soil or which species of grass you have, a side discharge mower can cut it.
- You can mow close to the ground: Side discharge mowers can be set to cut very close to the ground. If you have a species of grass that can be cut short, this can be useful.
Cons of Side Discharge
- Messy: Side-discharge mowers throw grass clippings several feet out the side of the mower. While you’re mowing, you can easily expel grass clippings onto your sidewalk, walkways, flower beds, and driveway. The freshly cut grass can stick to walls and fences. You could even throw grass clippings and other debris at your car and scratch the paint. You have to be careful about which direction you’re mowing so you don’t get grass clippings everywhere. After mowing, you may have to take a broom and sweep off your sidewalk and walkways. You might also have to do some raking if your grass clumped up anywhere. This gives you extra work after you’re done mowing.
- Can be dangerous: A side discharge mower can expel pebbles, sticks, or other objects out of the side of the mower. These could hit another person or a pet and cause injury.
- Can leave clumps: If your mower isn’t powerful enough or if the grass is too long or wet, side discharge mowers can leave clumps of grass or rows of grass. In this case, you’ll have to rake it up. This adds more work. Leaving large clumps of grass can smother the grass underneath.
Bagging Grass Clippings
Bagging grass clippings is probably the most common way to deal with them. The cut grass is collected into a bag that is attached to the mower, rather than being left on the lawn.
This method uses a side discharge mower equipped with a bag attachment. The mower is designed to direct the cut grass clippings into the bag through an opening in the mower deck. This results in a clean and tidy appearance. There are no clippings sitting around on your lawn.
Most side discharge mowers are versatile and can be easily converted to bagging mowers by attaching a bag to catch the clippings. The bag is typically attached to the side or rear of the mower. It is included with the mower.
The design of the mower deck and blade is important for effective bagging. The blade creates an airflow that stands the grass upright for cutting and then propels the clippings into the bag through the discharge chute. When the bag fills up, you’ll have to stop and empty it.
Pros of Bagging Grass Clippings
- Can reduce weeds by removing weed seeds: Bagging removes weed seed heads from the lawn. This prevents weeds from spreading. If you have weeds in your lawn, you should bag your grass clippings until you’re able to get rid of the weeds. It’s an effective method of weed control.
- Creates a professional appearance: When you bag your grass clippings, there is no residue on the lawn. There won’t be any clumps. You won’t spread grass onto your sidewalk or driveway. Your yard will look clean and tidy. Bagging improves curb appeal.
- You can cut wet or long grass: This allows you to mow in all conditions. Long grass will fill the bag quicker. On some mowers, long or wet grass can clog up the opening of the bag. If this happens, you’ll have to remove the clog or the grass will be left behind.
- Bagging removes all debris including grass clippings and leaves: Bagging doesn’t just catch grass clippings. It can also remove leaves, pine needles, twigs, and other small debris. If a few leaves fall on your lawn, you don’t have to rake first.
- Safer: All debris is ejected into the bag, not away from the mower. You don’t have to worry about ejecting debris into a person, pet, or vehicle.
- You can collect the grass clippings and use them for another purpose: You can use the grass clippings to mulch around trees, shrubs, or flowers. You can also put the clippings in your compost pile.
Cons of Bagging Grass Clippings
- It takes longer: When you bag grass clippings, you have to stop to empty the bag multiple times while mowing. If you have a big lawn or if the grass is long, you might have to empty the bag 4-5 times. This is an annoying job. To empty the bag, you have to turn off the mower, detach the bag, carry it to the yard waste bin or wherever you plan to store the clippings, and then empty it. After, you have to replace the bag and start the mower again. It disrupts your mowing.
- You need to have a place to properly dispose of the clippings: There are a number of different ways to get rid of grass clippings. Most cities ask that you place the clippings in a yard waste bin. If you don’t have a yard waste bin, you can take the clippings to a yard waste collection center. It’s best not to place them in the regular garbage can. In some cases, it’s against the law. Alternatively, you can use them for mulch around your flower beds.
- It removes nutrients from the lawn: One of the biggest drawbacks of bagging is that it takes away valuable nutrients from your lawn. If you bag your grass clippings, you will have to apply fertilizer once in a while to supplement your soil. Having to apply synthetic fertilizers isn’t great for the environment.
- The bag can get heavy: When the bag fills up, it can get quite heavy. Particularly if it’s wet. A full bag of clippings could weigh 20 pounds or more. Carrying heavy bags of grass clippings around could be an issue for some people. Older individuals, those who are recovering from an injury, or those with disabilities may have trouble carrying and emptying heavy bags of grass clippings.
Converting a Mower from Side Discharge to Mulching
If you don’t have the right mower type for mulching, it is possible to convert a non-mulching mower to a mulching mower. This involves installing a new blade and a mulching plug or mulching plate to close the discharge chute.
Mulching requires specialized mulching blades, also known as a 3-in-1 blades. This blade is designed to cut, recut, and circulate the grass clippings within the mower deck.
The unique design of the mulching mower blade creates an airflow that keeps the clippings suspended, allowing them to be cut into finer pieces. You will need to replace the standard blade of your side discharge mower with a mulching blade.
Next, consider the mower deck. A side discharge mower typically discharges grass clippings out of the deck and onto the lawn. To convert it into a mulching mower, a mulching plug or cover is needed to close off the discharge opening. This plug ensures that the clippings remain within the deck to be mulched by the blade, rather than being discharged.
You can buy mulching conversion kits for many modern lawn mowers. A mulching kit includes a new blade and a mulching plug.
Many modern mowers are capable of mulching, side discharge, and bagging. They use special blades that are multi-purpose. They can be used for mulching or regular cutting. In addition, they also have a spring-loaded flap over the discharge chute. This can block the chute while in mulching mode.
If you’re buying a new mower, it’s a good idea to buy one that is capable of mulching. This improves versatility.
For more info on converting a mower into a mulcher, check out this great guide.
Operator Controlled Side Discharge Chutes (OCDCs)
Operator Controlled Discharge Chutes (OCDC) on mowers are mechanisms that allow the operator to quickly and easily open or close the side discharge chute. They are typically controlled by a lever or a foot pedal.
The OCDC provides the user with the ability to manage where and when grass clippings are ejected from the mower. This system is especially useful when mowing around mulched areas, sidewalks, or flowerbeds where you don’t want clippings. It prevents the clippings from being scattered onto these surfaces.
There are two major benefits of an OCDC including precision and flexibility. Giving the operator control over the discharge significantly reduces cleanup time and keeps lawn clippings out of undesired areas. This improves the aesthetic appeal of the mowed area. In addition, it improves safety by allowing the discharge to be closed off when mowing in the direction of cars, pets, or people, minimizing the risk of flying debris.
Should You Mulch Every Time You Mow?
Mulching every time you mow can be beneficial for your lawn, but it’s not always necessary or advised. Mulching is most effective when the grass is dry and not overly tall to prevent clumping and uneven dispersal of the clippings. If the grass is a little bit too long or wet, you should side discharge or bag it.
It’s also important to monitor the condition of your lawn. If signs of weeds, disease, or thatch build-up appear, it’s best to switch to side discharging or bagging the clippings until you solve the issue.
During the growing season when the lawn needs to be mowed more frequently, mulching every time can be advantageous. On the other hand, in the dormant season, or when the lawn growth is slower, it might be unnecessary to mulch with every mow.
When Should You Mulch Grass Clippings?
Mulching is a good choice for:
- Those who are able to mow regularly
- People with smaller lawns
- Lawns that are weed and disease free
- Environmentally conscious individuals
- Those who want a healthy lawn: Grass cuttings can enrich the soil and improve its fertility.
- Those who live in variable climates: Grass clippings can help regulate soil temperature
- Lawns with moisture issues: Mulching can help your lawn retain moisture
- Budget-conscious homeowners: Mulching can save on water and fertilizer costs
- Those with uneven or sloped lawns: Mulching can reduce erosion and runoff
- Those who don’t want to deal with grass clipping disposing of grass clippings or cleanup.
When Should You Side Discharge?
Side discharge is the best method for:
- Those with tall or overgrown lawns
- Those with larger lawns
- Rough or uneven lawns
- Lawns that grow quickly
- Those who don’t own a mulching lawn mower
When Should You Bag Grass Clippings?
Bagging is a great option for:
- Lawns with weeds
- Lawns with disease
- Those who prefer a clean appearance
- Lawns with a thatch problem
- Those who use grass clippings for other purposes such as mulching flower beds or composting
- Those who can’t mow frequently
- Municipal regulation compliance: Some jurisdictions and HOAs have rules against leaving grass clippings on the lawn
The decision between mulching, side discharge, and bagging grass clippings comes down to your personal lawn care goals, the local environmental conditions, and your personal preferences.
Mulching is a great way to provide natural fertilizer, improve soil health, and improve moisture retention. Mulching can really improve the health of your lawn.
Side discharge offers a time-efficient solution for those with larger or uneven lawns. It also works well for wet or tall grass.
Bagging, on the other hand, is ideal for those seeking a clean aesthetic and for preventing the spread of lawn diseases.
Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best way to deal with your grass clippings.
Do you mulch, side discharge, or bag your grass clippings? Share your experience in the comments below.
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