Community Columns

Council should trash plan to end free garden waste pickup

Tonight, the Modesto City Council will consider doing away with the free pickup of tree and shrub prunings. The suggestion is that these could be cut up and put in the green toter bin. My family has been doing this for years, which is why we are convinced it won't work.

We live on a cul-de-sac in Modesto and have little street frontage. There is barely space to park a car next to our house without blocking the driveway -- even at a 90-degree angle. Years ago, when the large green toter bins first arrived, I was a vigorous and healthy young man. It made sense to put all tree and shrub prunings into the bin to keep the street clear.

We are blessed (or cursed?) with a third of an acre. There are valley oaks, fruit trees, palms, bamboo, seasonal vegetables, shrubs, bushes and a profusion of various weeds. I will explain how we get all our tree and shrub prunings into the green toter bin; you decide whether or not you should try this at home.

Pruning a couple of medium-sized oak trees will take you about 20 minutes. Then you'll need to cut the branches into small pieces to fit in the toter. This could take another 40 minutes. You will need a stout compound pruner and strong arms. I lift weights three times a week just to stay in shape for garden slavery.

How much cutting do you need to do?

The objective is to fit all the prunings into the bin. If you have a lot of prunings, you will need to cut them especially small to maximize available bin space. The toter will fill quickly and you will be tempted to compress it to make more space. Be careful. You could get impaled by thorns or the surprisingly long and sharp spikes from citrus and palm trees; wear heavy leather gloves.

You might consider stepping into the bin to further compress the prunings. Be sure the bin is on a level surface and that the step you use is stable or you will fall on your butt or worse, as happened to me in a careless moment. And wear stout shoes with thick soles.

Sometimes you will compress the contents so well that they stay in the bin instead of falling into the garbage collection truck. You then have to figure out how to decompress what you have compressed. To avoid this, try to pack the bottom with heavier material -- rotten oranges, spoiled tomatoes or massive zucchini.

You'll need to cut large branches with a saw. Some branches will be too large to go into the bin; leave them out in the sun for a year and they become firewood. (Remember, on certain foggy days burning wood in your fireplace is forbidden.)

You might find, after a day of enthusiastic gardening, that you have far more clippings, prunings and waste than can possibly fit into a toter. See if your neighbors have space in theirs. Or buy some "normal" garbage cans and put the overflow in those. The default alternative is to leave a pile of clippings on your lawn or patio and wait until your green bin is empty. You can take pride and satisfaction in knowing that this is a more civic-minded alternative than chucking everything into the street.

If you have enough space, consider composting. I leave the details to a greener community columnist colleague.

As I get older, I find this process less convenient. Those with small gardens and infinite patience and energy will do fine using the green bins. Those with larger gardens will not be able to cope.

I recommend the Modesto City Council consider other alternatives. We can take pride in our city's beautiful gardens and trees. Keeping Modesto green needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.

Mensinger is a Modesto businessman and former visiting editor. Write him at