Gaura spicing up some containers while the dead branches from pruning a Contorted Hazel give this arrangement form, dynamism, and appeal.

Guest Rant by Jenna O’Brien

I found a pile of weeds on my land recently. Some gardener had done some work at a nearby property, and at the end of the day, left with a load of weeds and other organic refuse, found a nice little meadow patch on my property and dumped it. They dumped their load among other weedy-seeming plants along the roadside and just below my fence, a site that was on the verge of cultivated/not-cultivated. Regardless of whether the dumpsite seemed like someone’s cultivated property or “just” the roadside, to me, the dumping is obviously wrong. But not everyone sees things like I do. So, I want to talk about why this act was extremely irresponsible. 

For starters, this wasn’t just any pile of weeds. It mostly consisted of the vigorous, invasive, and prickly Canada Thistle. At its bud stage, nonetheless. Meaning, as a plant that is adapted to set seed even after it has been pulled, it would have survived, flowered, gone to seed and spread. This very wet weather we’ve been having would have helped their survival rate, the piled-up roots protected, kept moist, and able to re-root themselves. If I hadn’t caught them and dealt with them, this whole neighborhood could have been subsumed by Canada Thistle at this time next year.

The offending pile, just up from my driveway and below my fence.

I don’t know from whose property the Thistle came, but I have a scenario in mind: a homeowner realized their garden weeds had become overgrown, and they called a gardener to come do a quick cleanup, probably a one-off. The gardener, maybe young, maybe inexperienced, maybe not charging much for their labor and just glad to have a job, wasn’t given any specific place to dump the weeds. At the end of the day, tired and ready to be done and enjoy the July 4th holiday, they did what was easiest and dumped the load. Maybe they thought, “It’s compostable. It’ll break down.” The gardener who dumped it is to blame, but just as much, the homeowner who hired the gardener is to blame. (If indeed that’s how this scenario went.)

Obviously, the use of my property as a dumping ground for an invasive weed is infuriating enough. Living on a dirt road adjacent to a state forest in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, I see this kind of dumping quite a lot and it really perplexes me. There is simply no reason to be hauling refuse away from properties, particularly in rural areas like my neighborhood, where some corner can easily be dedicated as a refuse area. And so, here’s my plea: please don’t haul – or have your gardener haul – refuse off your property! It’s simply bad land management. 

Dealing with refuse – weeds, clippings, deadheads, thinned plants, bug-eaten leaves, etc. – appropriately is good land management. If we want to define land management, it’s taking care of not just your own land, but of all land. It’s having good practices always: being gentle in your cultivation techniques, being aware of the surrounding landscape, and not spreading pests. Many properties can afford to dedicate a sliver of it for garden waste management. This isn’t an extra – it is a key piece of having a garden. A garden cannot exist without it!

This lush garden of one of my clients was enhanced by organic “waste” materials.

Caring for your own garden waste also creates an ecologically-sound closed system. If you’re managing your weeds properly – i.e., not letting them go to seed before they’re pulled – then fresh, green leaf matter, because of its high water content, decomposes rapidly and, when mixed with brown material such as fall leaves, you’re left with dark, rich soil. Then all you have to worry about is how to use that wonderful material! A healthy garden produces tons of biomass, and biomass is good! If I’m able to, I create separate refuse piles: one for fresh leaves and plant material that have a high water content (I call this the “green pile”), one for fall leaves (the “brown pile”), one for woody material, such as fallen peaches or pruning trimmings. Stones and gravel have their own places. 

I think of those stickers I’ve seen on garbage cans, with a photo of Earth from space and the slogan: “Remember, when you throw it away there is no ‘away.’” True, garden refuse isn’t plastic wrappers, but the message still applies. Weeds are waste, and excess waste reveals a kind of wealth that we ought to handle responsibly.

Wood chips serving as mulch. I was thrilled to see these Goldenseal plants thriving in a local entrance garden on a recent garden tour. While my gardens get a more refined mulch, we do use wood chips to build soil and establish new planting spaces.

We can get creative with how we manage waste. You can burn woody material from a pruning job in a campfire or in one of those little patio fireplaces. You can take a page from permaculture and use the chop and drop method, leaving your clippings beneath the tree or plant that you’re trimming as mulch. If you’re trimming frequently and in small amounts, you won’t be left with piles to deal with, just little bits that can decompose on their own right there. 

As for smaller properties where perhaps space really is so limited there’s absolutely no place to dump, here’s an idea: talk to your neighbors. Find a neighbor who does have enough space and might be willing to sacrifice a sliver of land to use as a neighborhood refuse site; they could charge a fee for others to dispose of refuse properly. That way, any potential pests are still in the same neighborhood. Not only would this create an appropriate and easy way to dispose of waste, but it helps shift our mentality away from “my property” and “their property,” reminding us that our yard and our neighbor’s yard are part of the same ecosystem. 

Beauty and decay, refuse and refugia.

And if there are no neighbors able or willing to sacrifice a bit of property for neighborhood plant waste, there are places that will take it, sometimes for a fee, sometimes not. Do a little research to see who takes yard and garden waste in your area. Check your town/city website, as some municipalities contract with farms and land management companies to collect decomposable material.

As for the pile of Thistle: I picked it up during a downpour on July 4, the day I came across it. I was headed up the hill on a family dog walk. It is now in a wheelbarrow under a tarp in the shed, rotting. I’ll uncover it soon to dry it out, then toss it on the firepit. I considered filling a heavy duty jumbo trash bag and just bringing it to the dump. But it feels wrong to me to put organic matter in the trash. So the infamous pile is still with me, for now.

Jenna O’Brien is the owner of Viridissima Horticulture and Design. She has been designing gardens and working in the landscapes of Berkshire County, Massachusetts since 1998.