Every February the homeowners of Victoria, British Columbia, place their garden clippings on the street for pick up. These piles and bundles of branches, sticks and twigs inhabit the boulevards for a few brief weeks, before being tossed into City trucks destined for the chipping machine.

Cycling home, I can't resist stopping, getting off my bike and pulling out my phone to photograph these bundles. They have such character – and yet are so poignant, exhibiting both the imagined enthusiasm of an almost-Spring gardener outside, clippers and saw in hand, and the actual demise of once-living branches, often covered in the buds of leaves or blossoms that will never now burst forth.

How to judge this apparent display of good citizenship? Is this a positive example of how gardeners can recycle their waste to the advantage of our urban paths and parks whilst diverting it from the municipal dump? Or should the notion of waste be anathema to gardens and the living plants that grow in them?

In natural systems leaves, twigs and broken branches lie where they fall to decompose into and enrich the soil, feeding countless organisms. But we exist in a cultural and economic system based on subjugating nature and separating ourselves from the wild. In our gardens, we tidy up and neaten for the sake of appearances and convenience. We have interrupted and outsourced the recycling and composting of plant matter. It has become a transaction between taxpayers and the City, involving the use of heavy machinery, and creating work for City employees.