My Pile: Acid Test

Here’s what continually amazes me about my pile: Over the past eight months I’ve added to the original, virgin mass of autumn leaves a dozen or more tubs of seaweed and salt marsh hay, hundreds of pounds of soggy kitchen scraps, a dozen carton’s worth of egg shells, a bathtub full of coffee grounds, more pee than I’m willing to fess up to, reams of shredded paper, a steady supply of droppings from the back end of both horse and rabbit, and, lately, enough grass clippings and pulled weeds to fill the bed of a pickup truck.

My pile has taken all that and more. And after everything I’ve thrown at it and into it, my pile still looks just like a heap of old rotting leaves.

Exactly what has been going on deep inside my dark, dank heap of compost remains a mystery to me.

So before I mow the lawn and give my pile its weekly toss and turn I take three ziplocs bags and label each with a Sharpie: #1 is “compost pile”; #2 is “wood chip mulched perennial bed” and #3 is “vegetable garden.”

The precise nature of my pile will soon be put to the test by the Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory of the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources Cooperative Extension System’s Department of Plant Science.

And if that’s not enough of a mouthful, wait til they get a load of my pile…

Actually, the sample, as specified in the pdf I downloaded from the UConn website, calls for 1 Cup, “taken from 10 or more random, evenly distributed spots in your sample area.”

Though by now I figure my pile is the very definition of “random,” still I try my best to follow the instructions and extract representative tablespoons with the tip of a trowel from 10 or so spots. I take care to flick away any identifiable bits of leaves, and toss back a sea shell or two.

A close-up of my nearly finished pile. I know what it's made of, but wonder what it's become of itself...

A close-up of my nearly finished pile. I know what it’s made of, but wonder what it’s become of itself…

The other two bags, my idea of control samples, are easier to get. One is filled with trowel bits gathered from a few spots along my perennial beds covered by mostly decomposed wood chips, the other with small scoops from a few spots in my raised, fenced-in vegetable garden.

Why put my pile – and yard – to the test?

“Soil testing is an inexpensive yet valuable tool for assessing the fertility of lawn and garden areas,” advise the ag experts from UConn. “Test results indicate the soil’s pH level, the amounts of available plant nutrients and the existence of nutrient imbalances, excesses or deficiencies.

“Soil testing eliminates the guesswork many gardeners face when deciding the kinds and amounts of fertilizers or soil amendments they should purchase and apply…

“The standard nutrient analysis will provide the soil sample’s pH, the available amounts of phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium, extractable micronutrient levels and a lead scan…Separate analyses offered by the lab include percent organic matter, particle size analysis (the relative amounts of sand, silt and clay), micronutrients, soilless media and soluble salts.”

I seal the ziplocs and stuff into a small box the three samples with a check and a form, checking off the option that requests the sample to be tested for organic matter. In all, the soil test costs $7 a sample, and results are said to be prepared in 7 to 10 days.

After a quick run to the post office to mail the box, I mow the lawn, depositing two hoppers worth of freshly cut grass to the side. I worry now that I am overloading my pile with these surplus grass clippings, and only after I finish mowing do I recall a trick I’ve used in years’ past: I seal off the mower’s grass catcher with duct tape so that all the grass clippings are recycled straight back into the yard. I’ll do that with the next mow, as I figure to be aerating my lawn this fall. The grass thatch and finished compost that I spread will be easily absorbed when the aerator plugs the turf with thousands upon thousands of thumb-sized holes.

I haul out from the kitchen the Hooch bucket half-filled with a week’s worth of coffee grinds and vegetable peelings and a box filled with a dozen or so Dunkin Donut holes, leftovers from a local fundraiser the weekend before that I’d agreed to take home and promptly forgot about in the fridge.

The donut holes are now rock hard, so I add them to my pile, figuring that if it’s worth any endorsement dollars, I’d be happy to say my pile runs on Dunkin’ donuts…

The kitchen scraps, including the stale donut holes, go into a trench in the middle of my pile.

The kitchen scraps, including the stale donut holes, go into a trench in the middle of my pile.

I carve out trenches on three sides of my pile, stuffing the voids with tossed clumps of grass clippings. I go where the pile leads me, as it’s ever-more likely to collapse into itself if I dig too steeply. My pile this year is more massive than in season’s past. I have yet to reach the very core of my pile, middle earth. But still, I am able to turn and aerate a large swath of the outer edges of it, garnishing the leaf mold with as much fresh-cut grass as I can.

My pile is nearly done. From years past I know that if I wait much longer to begin adding its harvest of humus across my garden and the lawn, the surface roots of the adjacent two maple trees will infiltrate the foundation of my pile, sucking nutrients away and leaving behind a web of tangly fibrous matter I have no use for.

A close-up of the surface roots of the maple tree my pile sits beneath.

A close-up of the surface roots of the maple tree my pile sits beneath.

I plug as much of the surplus grass clippings into my already stuffed pile as I can and finish by spreading more grass across the top, then covering with the scrapings of crusty leaves from the bottom edges.

More than ever my pile is a tossed salad of fresh greens and old browns. With enough air and moisture it will  ferment into something that is more than the sum of its parts, a small batch of new soil born of the old.

My Pile: The Grass Is Always Greener…

Happy to be back home after a week-long trip to Memphis. I’ll take coastal southern New England in mid-July any day over the sweltering summers of the Deep South…

After a few long work days catching up at the office, I start the weekend with a Friday evening mow of the lawn.

It’s been just over a week since I last mowed, but the grass is as thick as I’ve ever seen it. It’s been a good turf-growing season so far, with well-spaced rains and no long heat waves. I have yet to hook up the rainbow sprinkler to the hose, and have put no fertilizer on the lawn other than the spreading of last season’s finished compost last fall. Even so, the grass is ankle deep and a lush dark green.

And best of all, the crabgrass this year is sparse, and what sprigs I spot on my wanderings about the yard are easy to pinch out of the ground. There’s no space left for the weeds to sprout in the bare ground, so they grow suspended above the mat of grass.

My experiment with creating micro meadows of clover in my lawn has paid off with an ankle-high swarm of bees. They alight on the white flower balls and sway on their slender stems while supping the sweet clover nectar.

A few years ago, when the bee blight became a national story, the waxing and waning of local populations played out in my own backyard. One summer the honey bees were gone, save for a few lumbering bumble bees that nest in the rotting wood of the small lean-to shed in my vegetable garden and hover above the garden.

Maybe the native bees had someplace better to go. Maybe they’ve were hijacked and trucked across country to serve as migrant labor in the almond groves of California. Maybe they were dead in their whiteboard hives and tree trunk colonies, brought down what seems like a variety of human-induced causes.

I’m happy to see the bees back in force, for lately I have another backyard delight to worry about: fireflies.

“Blink and you’ll miss them this summer. Around the world, people are reporting that local firefly populations are shrinking or even disappearing,” reports John R. Platt in a recent article on TakePart.com.

“You can wipe fireflies out really easily,” says firefly researcher Ben Pfeiffer, founder of Firefly.org, a website about the decline of the insects, also called lightning bugs. “It’s not hard. You’ve got a one-acre plot, and you put a house there. Good-bye, fireflies. They’ll never be there again.

“The loss of fireflies, which are beetles, can have multiple effects on their ecosystems. For one thing, some firefly species—there are at least 170 in the U.S.—play a role in pollination. They’re not as essential as bees, but they help pollinate milkweed, goldenrod, wild sunflowers, and other species.

“More important, however, firefly larvae are voracious predators that live in the ground and eat slugs, snails, worms, aphids, and other problem critters that would otherwise grow out of control. “I call them nature’s pest control,” Pfeiffer said. (On the other side of the dinner table, fireflies are important food sources for species such as bats and spiders.)

“The insects play a role in human health as well. Two of the enzymes fireflies use to create their bioluminescent flashes—luciferin and luciferase—are used to track the growth of cancer tumors, among other things. Fireflies have also been used to help detect bacteria in food products.

“The exact extent of the decline is unknown, but early indications suggest that lightning bug populations have shrunk in many places and disappeared from others. “Everyone is reporting declines,” said Eric Lee-Mäder, codirector of the pollinator program for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“The causes, however, appear to be clearer: a combination of habitat degradation and loss, light pollution, destruction of water tables, and pesticides, Pfeiffer said.”

Bees and fireflies are the winged hands that help feed us, making possible the propagation of species through what’s now seeming like a worldwide neural network that’s beginning to misfire.

Like my Toro. I decide to plow through one of the tangly islands of clover to deadhead the blossom balls, now turned a dingy brown. The nitrogen rich clover will make good fodder for both my pile and when it’s grass-cycled back into the lawn. Choking on the thick wet clover, the mower seizes up, sending out blasts of white oily smoke.

As I let the engine cool, I dump the groaning grass catcher at the front of my pile atop my neighbor’s regular contribution. From the looks of his gleanings and a glance across the street, I notice that his lawn has thinned out and turned a paler shade of green, having burned through its springtime fertilization.

To my relief, the two-stroke engine fires back up, and I resume my snail’s pace of a walk behind the mower. I go slowly enough to flush all but the most myopic bees before my path, with the blade set high enough, I hope, to spare the fire flies preparing to take flight with the night. I skirt a micro meadow and am pleased to see it crowded with refugees bees, and leave unmowed a long stripe in the center of the lawn to create a new landing strip for the bees to alight on.

Still, the grass catcher quickly fills back up, and the whirring blades spit out tufts of finely chopped clippings from underneath the chassis. Hotter weather is forecast in the days ahead, so I’ll let the sun shrivel the clippings into slivers that melt back into the turf.

My backyard after a mid-summer mow. I've kept one patch of clover in the middle of the lawn.

My backyard after a mid-summer mow. I’ve kept scattered patches of clover in the middle of the lawn.

As Mike McGrath writes in The Book of Compost, “If you use a mulching mower … you’re already providing about half the food your lawn needs. Those grass clippings are powerful sources of nitrogen — the primary food for turf. If they were bagged and sold as fertilizer, those mulched clippings would rate an impressive 10-1-1 nutrient count on the label. That’s right — they’re 10 percent nitrogen! And that’s about as good as a natural fertilizer gets.”

Taking pity on my Toro, I stop twice more to empty the grass catcher, in the process creating a dauntingly large heap of fresh hot greens beside my pile.

Mowing at such a laborious pace gives me time to plot out the coming overhaul of my pile, a chore I relish. My pile needs a good tossing, and I could use the exercise. Plus, I have a yard’s worth of grass clippings, as well as a half-full plastic bag of shredded paper from the office, plus some past-due produce from the fridge to dispense with.

I plunge into my pile by turning the wide-tined pitchfork over and using the curved tines to pierce through the back bottom wall of pressed leaves to draw and disperse the clumps a couple feet backward into a new berm. As I build this backstop of moist, dark gleanings from the bottom of my pile, I spread a thin layer of grass clippings atop the berm and along the newly exposed earthen floor.

I dig further into the midst of my pile, creating a trough into which I pour the shredded paper, more grass and the Hooch bucket of kitchen slop. I cover these additions with scrapings of the dried-out leaves from across the top of the heap, then step back to watch the backside of my pile topple down upon itself. Steam rises from the newly exposed inner reaches of my pile through slanted shafts of the morning sun. It’s a rewarding sight, proof that my pile has enough oxygen for the aerobic bacteria and other micro denizens deep within it to continue to munch away.

I dig deeper still, building a new backside to my pile as steep as the crumbly matrix of leaf mold and whatnot will allow, layering it as I go with the fresh-cut grass. Before long, I’ve cored out a hole that reaches nearly to the center of my pile. I step back to take a break and give me and my pile breather.

Steam vapor rises from the void. In this hole goes the maple seedlings that bedevil my gardening.

Steam vapor rises from the void. In this hole goes the maple seedlings that bedevil my gardening.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I. It’s then I get what I consider a bright idea: I’ll gather up the heap of maple seeds rotting away in the other back corner of my yard near the street and bury them in the middle of my pile.

Since sweeping them off the driveway and along the street, the mass of maple whirligigs has been left to mold away next to the base of a large maple. Lately, I’ve been kicking myself for not having blown more of the winged seeds off the chipped wood mulch that rings the perimeter of my yard. Over the past month or so, hundreds of the seeds have sprouted across the mulch beds, creating a chia bed of maple seedlings that I’ll either have to pluck by hand or smother with a new supply of chips this fall. Left unchecked, they would soon throw lethal shade over the variety of young oaks that I’ve have grown from acorns tucked underneath the wood chips over the past decade.

The maple seedlings go untouched by the fauna on my suburban plot because most fall from an alien species, the Norway maple. “It throws such deep shade that it outcompetes native vegetation and is moving toward monoculture in many woodlots,” writes Douglas W. Tallamy in his seminal “Bringing Nature Home — How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.”

Writes Tallamy: “The message in this book is a simple one. By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity hat has been one of this country’s richest assets. I have argued that native plants support and produce more insects than alien plants and therefore more numbers of species of other animals. People who accept this logic from the perspective of creating functioning ecosystems in our growing suburbs may also be alarmed by the apparent disconnect between the typical goal of the gardener, to grow beautiful undamaged plants, and my suggesiton to use gardens to produce lots of insects. Yikes! Am I crazy? Maybe just a little, but not because I want suburbia to do a better job supporting the natural world.”

Tallamy would, quite naturally, take exception to the square footage that I devote to growing grass, though I’d like to think he’d give me a pass on the the micro-meadows I tend on behalf of the bees and fireflies.

Dispatching the moldy mound of maple seeds en masse into my pile gives me a small measure of payback as well. I fill a plastic tub of the featherweight seeds and dump them into the hole in the back of my pile, then mix in a supply of grass clippings. What seeds might still be viable will soon be cooked and broken down; No doubt the seeds are packed with nutrients to be returned to my yard. I cover them by dragging the top of the pile over them and tidying up the ground along the rear edge of my pile.

In a half-hour’s time, I’ve worked up a good sweat – and worked my way through nearly half my pile – and about half of the grass clippings piled along the front. So after scraping them aside, I plunge into the front, to mix and turn to the front half of my pile. Using the tip of the pitchfork tine, I tease apart what clumps of whole leaves I come across, and cover with the rest of the grass clippings.

I short order I’ve reassembled my pile. It looks the same as before, only it’s reconstituted as a freshly mixed tossed salad of old browns and new greens, well on its way to becoming black gold.

I step inside as the evening gives way to twilight, leaving the backyard to the fireflies that rise from the lawn to twinkle in the gloaming. My work is done for the day, and for the week. My pile has all it needs to continue doing what it does best on its own: Composting.

 

My Pile: Fecund to None

A free Saturday afternoon gives me time to mow the lawn and plunge back into my pile.

The patches of clover around the yard are now lush and quirky enough to catch the attention of my 15-year-old son, who volunteers to spot me on the mower. He carves his way through the grass, unbound by the usual boring back-and-forth striping, and proceeds to create a few new clover islands of his own. The bees have at long last shown up in some profusion among the clover flowers, and I am happy to see the summer’s first hummingbird flitting about the magenta blooms sprouting in the garden beds.

With the now customary two hoppers worth of grass clippings waiting off to the side, I use a rake to skim sun-dried leaf litter from my pile’s top and flanks, scraping the dry scraps of brown to the side. I’ll use it as backfill, to mix with the week’s kitchen scraps and grass clippings. In two days I leave town for the week, and today I intend to give my pile a good airing out and mixing of old brown and new green so that it can continue to digest and foment.

This is a wholesale excavation and turning of my pile, focused on the right flank, the final quadrant to be exhumed as virgin territory. Up to this point I’ve been circling around my pile, working the front and back and lately the left side, as well as the top center. My pile has become a rich mix of nearly mature compost, though the bottom right side of it remains more or less undisturbed. Not for long.

First I tease out the front side of my pile, creating a berm of nearly finished compost and an open maw into which to mix the raw material laid down last fall that I will soon unearth. At this point in the life cycle of my pile, it’s as much about re-arranging the existing materials as it is incorporating new compostibles.

I tear into the right side with the flat-tined pitchfork to excavate forkfuls of rich compost in the making, turning them out onto the top and flanks. I mix pockets of dry leaves with helpings of grass clippings, combining the steaming hot sections of my pile with the cool dark pockets.

Before long I’ve opened up a cavity along the right side, into which I dump a bucket of kitchen scraps from the neighbor’s, full of corn husks and other summer vegetables. I top with gleanings of dry material as I go. It’s a three-step process, adding in equal measures fresh grass clippings and food scraps to mix with clutches of raw brown leaves first laid down last fall, and the in-process compost from here and there.

I bury a week's supply of food scraps deep within my pile, and mix the fresh green compostibles with old dried leaves excavated from the bottom.

I bury a week’s supply of food scraps deep within my pile, and mix the fresh green compostibles with old dried leaves excavated from the bottom.

My neighbor wanders by to retrieve his remote thermometer sensor, but not before aiming the gun into the depths of my half-rent pile. A week after the last insertion of fermenting seaweed and grass clippings, my pile is full steam ahead. We make sport of aiming the probe into the maw. The LED display tops out at 131 degrees, and I imagine we could have easily found hotter spots within.

The heat itself is not what is cooking my pile; it’s just the exhaust of the countless microorganisms thriving inside it. As they say, it’s not the heat, it’s the fecundity. At this point in its death spiral, my pile must surely rank among the most lively places on earth.

“Every compost pile is a complex eco-system of decomposition experts,” writes Julia Rymut, creator of the compostheaven.com blog.

“The main groups of microorganisms in soil are bacteria, fungi, protozoa and actinomycetes.  These tiny little creatures are major players in decomposition.  In a teaspoon of compost, you may find up to a 1,000,000,000 bacteria, 440-900 feet of fungal hyphae, and 10,000 to 50,000 protozoa.”

I don’t know how many teaspoons of compost are in my pile, but I imagine enough to add many zeroes to those numbers.

Bacteria are not only the most abundant microorganism in soil, accounting for up to 90% of all microorganisms in compost, they also produce enzymes that further break down the complex carbohydrates – the cellulose and lignin of woody plant matter – that are slowest to rot. These enzymes continue to work even after the bacteria die off, decomposing and helping the fungi and actinomycetes finish up the hardest materials.

My pile is a riot of tiny creatures, each taking advantage in its own turn of changing food, temperature, moisture and air.  It’s Hunger Games, writ small.

The worms may have fled to the cooler, outer fringes while my pile cooks off; as I was rolling the logs from the right-side wall a strip of bark peeled off, exposing a teeming mass of red worms. But worms are are far from the only slithering and creepy-crawly habitues of my pile. The proverbial teaspoon of compost can contain 30 to 300 nematodes, I discover in Compost Heaven, which “are the second most dominant form of life, with maybe as many as 1 million species worldwide.”

A slithering predatory nematode.

A slithering predatory nematode.

A type of tiny worm usually much smaller than a whisker, nematodes get a bad rap, in part because of their onomatopoeic name, but also because some forms are considered garden pests that attack plant roots. But many other species live nobler nematode lives eating decaying organic matter or preying on other microscopic critters, and some even as large as the dreaded turf-killing grub.

My pile: It’s a jungle in there, a backyard ecosystem that is alive with truly countless living creatures, all living, loving, laboring and dying to turn a heap of leaves and organic matter into a useful (and still living) product called humus.

To further sample Walt Whitman:

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person–yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,

What chemistry!

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

My Pile: Fire Works

I return home from work early this afternoon. It’s a getaway Friday, before the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I’m hoping to take a long overdue walk at the beach after work, in advance of the next night’s big fireworks display at the local beach, which each year attracts thousands of people.

First, I head out to the shed to grab the plastic barrel. Though the long hot days of summer have slowed the growth of grass in my yard, they’ve also warmed the shallow waters of the nearby Sound, leaving the local beaches awash with seaweed. I know from years past that the town tidies up the beach before the fireworks by dragging a mechanical sifter across the sand. I hoped I’m too late to do some beachcombing of my own.

The lawn is awash in blooms of white clover flowers, which I’m happy to leave uncut for the bees to sup upon. I don’t know how much more fresh hot “greens” my pile needs, but I like the idea of finishing off my pile as I started it – with “the best fertilizer there is” – seaweed from the beach.

As Mike McGrath writes in the “Book of Compost,” “Seaweed contains trace elements, micro-nutrients and plant growth compounds you’ll never find in any chemical fertilizer – or even in most organic ones. Research performed at Clemson University found that seaweed contained at least 70 trace elements vital to plant growth – in just the tiny amounts plants like best.

The plant-growth compounds in seaweed can speed up flowering and fruit production and help plants better resist stress—especially the stress of cold weather … . Seaweed can really boost yields as well—one study found that seaweed-fed plants produced a third more tomatoes than non-seaweeded plants; and in another study, seaweed increased strawberry yields an astounding 133 percent. Yow!

After my stroll along the sand I haul the barrel out to the high-water line and scoop up a load of rotting, pungent seaweed. I top off the barrel with a heaping of old seagrass stems, chopped by the surf into tangles of short, hollow straws. Once buried deep in my pile, the pixie-sticks of seagrass will also help aerate the innards and regulate the final decomposition of the compost.

“You want some heat,” advises Stu Campbell in “Let It Rot,” who adds, “heating can be tricky if it gets out of control. Earthworms are killed at 130 F, and they will not stick around and endanger themselves for very long in temperatures that even approach that figure. Azobacteria, the precious microorganisms that transform nitrogen gas into a form that plants can use, are killed at temperatures above 160 F. Excessive heat is far more dangerous than no heat at all.”

As I plan to use this year’s batch of humus to invigorate my lawn, I want all the nitrogen I can beg, borrow or steal. That’s one reason I’ve let the clover grow in patches across the lawn; their leguminous roots help lock up nitrogen. I can tell my grass could use more nitrogen – the patch of thick green grass below the hanging bird feeder tells me that. A winter’s worth of bird droppings has been well-received. And though my lawn could stand for mowing, I decide to wait, after seeing more bees than before hovering about the clover flowers that are springing up across the lawn. Besides, it’s more fun to walk the sea shore than the backyard behind a mower.

Returning home from the beach with plenty of daylight left, I find that my across-the-street neighbor, Craig, has mowed his lawn and heaped the grass clippings at the base of my pile. I set about my evening chores to mix in the grass and the seaweed, along with a week’s worth of kitchen scraps, into my pile. Having excavated the left side of my pile a week ago, today it’s time for the flip side.

As I prepare to dig into the right side of my pile, my neighbor Chylla comes by with a special request that makes the job easier. After several years of talking about creating a garden in her own yard, she has finally done it. She walks me to the side of her house, where she has dug up the ground along where the fireplace chimney, painted white, rises from the foundation. A small pile of unearthed shard of clay pots includes a set of horse shoes, crusted with rust. No doubt the play set had been set aside many years ago, and then lost to weeds and time.

She has already planted free seed tidy rows of baby swiss chard and spinach, and nearby are various pots containing herbs — I see sage and rosemary — which she wants to plant in the freshly dug ground.  It will make a fine kitchen and herb garden, but what it needs now is a generous helping of compost.

Wheelbarrows of raw compost from my pile make a welcome addition to my neighbor's new garden.

Wheelbarrows of raw compost from my pile make a welcome addition to my neighbor’s new garden.

It’s only fair: For years my pile has thrived on the voluminous scraps from her home-cooked kitchen, as well as raked leaves from her bare-swept front yard. In return, she has an open invitation to gather fresh pickings from the garden, and does so on a daily basis. But until now, aside from a few plant containers and clay pots to fill, she’s never had a place in which to share compost from my pile.

And that, I have in spades. Returning to my pile, I haul out the wheelbarrow and set in front of heap and plunge into the right front corner with the manure fork, turning out cavalcades of dark, rich proto-humus. My pile is more like dirt than leaves, and as with the wheelbarrow of compost I’ve already added to my own ripening vegetable garden, I’m happy to have reason to move the near-finished compost once.

I dig into the front right side of my pile, teasing out mature compost with the straight tine manure fork. The compost crumbles, and I use the spade to fill up with wheelbarrow. The only screening I do is to flick a few clumps of pressed leaves onto the top of the heap. I trundle the first load to the yard next door and spoon out compost across the new garden beds, and return twice more to leave my neighbor with her new garden beds chock-full of compost to work into the soil.

The borrowings from my pile have carved out a tunnel into the right front corner, revealing the dark inner core. To gain ready access to the cliff-face of compost along the rest of the right side of my pile I turn out the log wall, twisting and teeter-tottering them to the ground.

I've toppled the log walls that contain my pile to gain access to the right side.

I’ve toppled the log walls that contain my pile to gain access to raw brown material — mostly leaves from last fall — on the right side.

To slow walk my pile from one side to the other, I pull clumps of decaying leaf mold from the center of the pile up against the left side, creating space to heap more unearthed compost from the bottom right side, mixing in fresh scraps of grass clippings and pulled weeds. I use the short-tined pitchfork to tease out forkfuls of autumn leaves flecked with sand from the many loads of seaweed deposited last fall.

This is the cold-pressed part of my compost heap, which over the past six months has slowly decomposed under the press of leaves and mixings above it. I toss the cool, danks forkfuls of leaf litter across the growing mound on the left side of my pile, briefly exposing them to fresh air and sun for the first time since November before burying them anew under further heapings of more mature compost gleaned from the front and back sides. Much of my pile is now a rich mix of crumbly leaf mold and grass clippings. The few whole leaves that remain from last fall will soon succumb to the decay now going on at a fever pitch within the tossed sections of my pile.

All this work on my pile attracts the attention of my neighbor Craig, who wanders over to watch as I tuck his grass clippings deep within my pile. He volunteers to retrieve the remote thermometer sensor he keeps in the dashboard cubby of his car. He owns a foam-installation business, and uses the pistol-shaped device to measure radiant heat.

I dig out a small bore hole in the front face of my pile, and he clocks it with his temperature gun, the digital readings flicking 119, 123, 114, 124. Cool! I dig a little deeper and a 128 pops up. I fear for the safety of the earthworms but take some measure of pride in creating a hot-house of a heap.

My pile is chugging along quite nicely. Here I've clocked it at a toasty 124 degrees.

My pile is chugging along quite nicely. Here I’ve clocked it at a toasty 124 degrees.

I return to my excavations, and in short order my pile is reconstituted. The left side, newly infused with a rich mixture of grass clippings, seaweed and kitchen scraps, rises tall. The right side is a shear cliff-face of dark, rich leaf mold, which has been steadily decaying since last fall, a cold press of compost, which I’ll dig into after the next time I mow. Once exposed to fresh air and mixed with grass clippings, it will go on the fast-track of disintegration, joining the rest of the heap as crumbly compost, well on the way to fruition as humus. New soil, from old life.

As my pile burns through this combustible mix, soon I’ll trade in the pitchfork for a shovel, and my pile will be no more.

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.”

So wrote Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

 

 

My Pile: Scratching the Surface

It’s a Friday in late June, a midsummer night’s eve to enjoy with some idle yardkeeping. In my backyard, cocktail hour is garden hour, and unwinding from the workweek by reconnecting with the ground I keep is a pleasure, especially at this time of year when the plants are intoxicated with new growth.

I stop by my pile before ducking into the shed to collect some pruning tools. I’m surprised at how little it has settled after the last big deposit and dig-out of the left side, even after a soaking rainstorm earlier in the week. My pile is in its cups as well, positively Falstaffian in its fulsomeness.

The leaf litter across the rounded surface is moist and crumbly, mottled clumps of caked-together leaves bound with layers of proto-dirt. My pile now has its own heft, and the whole lot is well on its way to recomposing itself as a matrix of new earth — humus — that I can shovel instead of pitchfork. In no small way, it’s something I don’t want or need to mess with right now. It is its own thing at the moment, a complete ecosystem of teeming life, best left to its own biological devices.

Especially when my pile is damp with rain, it takes only a scrape with a rake or pitchfork to uncover all manner of centipedes, rolly-pollies, skinny red worms and fat racers. It fascinates me to see how much life is contained within my pile, even just scratching the surface.

Each morning and evening when I let the dog out the back door, he makes a beeline for the back corner of the yard and circles around my pile. Sometimes he chases off a squirrel or sniffs out a chipmunk, but more often on these mid-summer days, morning and night, he gives flight to two or three robins that have taken to perching on the log walls beside the pile. I can see tell-tale signs that they flick about the surface of my pile, scattering flecks of leaf litter in search of easy pickings.

Not unlike the robins, I inspect the surface of my pile each time I visit, plucking out and flicking away the twigs and wood chips that continually bob up like corks to the surface. I seldom notice those woody chunks and stems when I rake up the leaves from the yard each fall. Maybe some fall directly from the overhanging maple that shades my pile; most get hoovered up when I pass the mower along the mulched garden beds. But still, these stray pieces remind me that a leaf really is just the tip of the spear, and the trees in my yard continually crop themselves by shedding bark and limbs and branches, which fall to the ground to be broken down further by hand or blade. I pick them off as a habit all through the winter and spring and toss the pieces to the side, their dark moist color standing out from bed of the sun-bleached wood chips spread between my pile and tool shed.

An oblique view of my pile from a couple years ago. At this point in the season it is a squat, rounded mound of nearly finished compost.

Each chip I toss aside is one less piece I’ll need to screen the finished compost come the time to disperse it across my lawn, a laborious task I rarely bother with anyway. Mostly such grooming is my way to stay connected with my pile, by hand, much in the same way I enjoy picking up seashells and curious rocks at the beach, or plucking rocks from the lawn heaved up by the spring thaw. A touch is sometimes all it takes to stay connected, bonded. Ask any chimp.

My pile gives me much pleasure, in the way that a backyard sandbox once entertained my boy, a world unto its own, full of imaginings and possibilities.

The recent hard-pounding rain has exposed, like it always does, a fresh smattering of wood chips and twigs gathered to flick away. Flotsam and jetsam from the beach constantly reveal themselves as well; the rubber heel to a flip-flop, a stretchy wristband and other scraps of plastic are tossed aside as well, to be taken back inside to the garbage can in the kitchen. Tonight’s surprise find is a salad fork, likely discarded from a dinner plate hastily scraped off by one of the neighbor’s girls and dumped into the waste bucket. Its tines are crusted with humus; I’ll stick it in the dishwasher before returning it, once again shiny and stainless, to the family next door. My pile is nearly done. I can tell that not by sticking a fork in it, but by pulling one out.

In no small way, I want to delay the end game, to string out my pile for as long as I can. Over the past six months I’ve mixed into the base heap of autumn leaves hundreds and hundreds of pounds of reclaimed green organics, from kitchen, lawn and garden, beach and barn. I’ve turned and aerated the top and front and back and left side. Next will I will plunge into the right side, squaring the circle that is my pile with pitchfork and rake.  It’s the final untouched quadrant of my pile, and once I turn it up and over, I will have handled most every inch of my pile, save for the very bottom core. Though I’ve scratched the surface of my pile through and through, deep inside it is a time capsule of compost undisturbed since late last fall. No doubt there will be new surprises to come across, along with a rich supply of humus I had no hand in making. My pile always does its own thing, and that thing is turning the rot of old life into living new soil.

I’ll harvest a small portion for the vegetable garden, adding shovels of nearly finished compost around the tomato plants and along the rows of salad greens to keep the weeds at bay and the soil from baking in the hot summer sun. The rest I will soon broadcast across the yard and mulch into the turf — a labor of love but laborious, too. And then, my pile will be no more.

So for now, I am content for my pile to stay itself, in all its glory.

 

My Pile: Hump Day

It’s hump day. This pleasant Wednesday evening in June marks the summer solstice as well. The Earth’s axis is now tilted as far as it can go toward the sun, which makes it hump day for the whole year. As far as daylight goes, it’s all downhill from here until the darkest, shortest day of December.

Tonight the solstice and full moon coincide—a rare event, The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells me, one that hasn’t happened in nearly 70 years. The Almanac further informs, “The month of June’s Full Moon’s name is the Strawberry Moon. June’s Strawberry Moon got its name because the Algonquin tribes knew it as a signal to gather ripening fruit. It was often known as the Full Rose Moon in Europe (where strawberries aren’t native) and the Honey Moon.”

I make hay of the longest day of the year by mowing the lawn after work, decapitating a galaxy’s worth of round white clover flowers and collecting three hoppers of grass clippings for my pile. Once again I mow around the several small island meadows left to grow in the middle of the lawn. The uncut stalks of grass have turned tawny brown and bow their seedheads with the breeze. I spot a bee or two hovering above the dense crop of clover that’s making rough green mounds of the meadows, and, nearby, a few butterflies nosing about in the garden to help with pollinating duties.

Tipping two logs to their sides gives me insider access to my pile.

Tipping two logs to their sides gives me insider access to my pile.

I consider my stout, rounded hump of a compost heap. Over the past few sessions I’ve thoroughly worked the front and back sides, strip-mining the flanks to aerate and mix it full of fresh clippings from the yard and kitchen and dried brown leaves gleaned from the corners. It’s time to shift my pile from side to side.

Having gouged out the lower corners of my pile for crumbly old leaf mold to cut the grass clippings with, I’ve already exposed most of the log walls, leaving only a reach of about three feet of untouched compost bound in by the two rows of stacked old logs.

I start in on the left side, digging along the log wall with the hay pitchfork, heaping the heavy clumps of pressed leaves onto the top center of my pile. I tease out a few pockets of tinder-dry leaves and pine needles, tossing them like confetti across the top of my pile, but most I pry out thick wads of leaf mold, damp and crumbly and well on the way to rot, which I mix in thin layers of grass clippings grow my pile ever higher and steeper.

I channel my way from front to back. My pile also feeds off the decay of the log wall that contains it, themselves well on the way to rotting. The deeper I go, the richer the compost.

My neighbor has brought by two large plant containers with the request to for me to fill so she can plant with basil. This rich dark leaf mold isn’t quite humus yet, nor a total substitute for planting soil, but will make a good amendment and filler for the bottom of these vats. I fill them near full and haul out my own wheelbarrow. This proto compost will make good top dressing for my vegetable garden. Consider it the first pour, a sample of all the humus to come.

This is the hard labor part of tending an active, hot compost heap, especially one that wanders in place. I’m happy to have to move this batch of compost only once, to my garden. I still have a lot of my pile to get into and move around, and a lot of grass clippings and kitchen waste to dispense with. It’s tough work, working in the cramped space between the log wall, to unpack the compressed leaf mold from underneath the crush of compost above it. I feel like a miner working a seam of coal, and I turn out clump after clump of peat-like proto-compost.

This where my inputs of manual exercise, my sweat equity, pay off. I divert the crumbliest to the wheelbarrow, and cast the coarser snatches across a new trench I’ve opened along the backside of my pile, mixing the cool dank mass with the week’s kitchen scraps and regular dousings of freshly clipped grass. Hump Day, indeed.

At last I create a foot-wide gap that spans the length of my pile and the log wall long stacked against it.  The left side is revealed in cross section, a thick stack of cold-pressed compost that begs to be teased out and turned. This Humpty-Dumpty of a pile needs a great fall.

I teeter to their sides two logs midway on the left side and standing perpendicular to the wall of newly exposed compost, I step in close with the pitchfork and gouge a hole starting from the inside middle. The bound layers of seaweed and leaves laid down early last fall are now compressed into a dark moist stack, like so much meat on a shawarma spit. I unbound the pressed leaf mold and turn it loose onto the top and backside of my pile.  I heap these leaves into a trench I’ve formed along the backside to bury the kitchen waste, mixing the oldest part of my pile with the newest.

I've dug a trench along the log wall that contains my pile to heap the near-finished compost on the top and back side of my pile.

I’ve dug a trench along the log wall that contains my pile to heap the near-finished compost on the top and back side.

At last I’ve chiseled deep enough into the bottom side of my pile so the overhanging matrix of leaves and past mixings collapse in a tumble. I set the two logs back in place and draw more of the newly expunged compost up against them, adding the rest of the grass clippings to the mix. I feel a bit like Beetle Bailey, digging a foxhole only to fill it back up.

With the rise of the full Honey Moon nearing, I scrape the last of the grass clippings from the front of my pile and toss them over the top and left flanks. I’ve carved out about a third of the left side of my pile and much of the backside, and backfilled it all with tossed layers of rotted leaves, fresh grass clippings and kitchen scraps. My pile now a slightly lopsided version of its former self, leaning to the right, though taller and much suffused with air and freshly mixed compostibles. It turns out you can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, after all.

Rain is forecast for the weekend, which I hope will slake my pile’s thirst and ensure a further crop of lush green grass. The next time I mow the lawn and dig into my pile, it will be from the right side. Only the very bottom center of my pile will then remain untouched, as all else above and around it has been revealed and mixed into a mulch of old brown and new green, churning and burning with a hot riot of bugs and bacteria and all the other creative acts of biological decomposition. My pile is over the hump, and well on its way to fruition.

 

My Pile: Brush Off

Returning home to coastal Connecticut from drought-stricken Southern California, I’m struck once again by how lush and verdant this well-watered corner of southern New England is, especially in mid-June, the height of the growing season.

That happy fact brings my outdoors on a lengthy evening mid-week to tackle a related and recurrent backyard chore: pruning the bountiful growth of the shrubs, bushes and small trees that populate the property. Properly spaced and prudently tended, these plantings make up the bones of the classic suburban landscape. Among other attributes, they create a beautiful, shady backdrop for the flowering annuals and perennial plantings, provide screening from the street and neighbors and offer a wealth of food and shelter for all kinds of backyard birds and critters.

Left unchecked, this under story of big bushes and small trees would in a few short years overtake the property, turning it back into the state I found it 10 years ago: An uncivilized briar patch of brambles and brush and vines, all scrambling to crowd each other out.

The dynamic — some would say romantic — tension between chaos and cultivation in the garden was perhaps best expressed by Vita Sackville-West. As Sarah Raven writes in “Sissinghurst,” her biography of her mother-and-law and the garden she created from the ruins of an Elizabethan estate in the south of England, “Vita loved her borders to be packed. She hated the sight of too much mulch, criticizing Edwardian rose gardens with their ‘savagely pruned roses of uniform height, with bare ground in between, liberally disfigured by mulches of unsightly and unsavoury manure’.

“An enchanting garden like Sissinghurst is, I would say, at its most beautiful at precisely the point where its informality is about to tip over into chaos. I am with Vita and her desire for sprezzatura — a studied nonchalance, a balance of formality of structure with informality of planting.”

So tonight I browse across the yard with clippers in hand to help guide the growth of yard’s shrubs and bushes, pruning, tidying up the property and freeing up time for the coming weekend, Father’s Day.

Like parenting, pruning generally follows fairly well-established guidelines, in terms of where to cut, how much and when. I start tonight’s session with one of the more straightforward pruning tasks: Cutting the old-wood stems from the hydrangeas that bloom big and bold each summer. The bases of the plants — I have three in the perennial garden — are thick with fat green leaves emerging from the bloom buds. But rising from each plant are dozens of old-wood stems from last season, a thicket of stout, two-foot tall hollow shafts that end sharply with cuts from when I dead-headed the big blue flowers last fall.

Just the other day my son proudly showed off the scars he’d collected over the years; one a lasting scrape on his kneecap from falling off his bike, and another a puncture wound on his calf from trying to jump over a neighbor’s oversized hydrangea while playing some game of tag with with an older boy, which I’m reminded of as I snip off the dagger-like pickets of old wood.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor's hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor’s hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

Tending a backyard, a garden or a compost pile is very much a paternalistic exercise. My goal to raise a yard that is sturdy, strong and resilient; one that is a product of its environment, yet individual, a unique creation that I can be proud of having nurtured along and to seasonal fruition, one that is not a danger to itself of others.

Though I prune with some impunity, to tidy things up around the edges, or remove a limb hanging over the house or power line, the backyard is shaped in its own image. It’s still thick with invasives that planted or took root long ago and that through pluck and perseverance, have become tolerated, even accepted, permanent residents of the local landscape. “It’s my nature, and I’ll do what I want,” the backyard continually reminds me, if not insists. I’ve grown to admire the scarlet show of the burning bush in autumn, and the edgy show of its angular branches in winter. The white blooms of the privet in spring are fragrant; the birds feast on their purple berries as they ripen over the winter. The yew and japonica alongside the house, likely planted by the first homeowners 50 years ago, have grown thick and massive. Each time I prune their tops and side branches that scrape against the shingles I have to take care not to disturb the two or three bird nests hidden within them.

These naturalized citizens of the backyard are especially profligate in their growth, in branching out toward the sun, in sending up suckers from the trunk, in seeding, by self and with help from birds. Regular weeding and pruning keeps them in check, and through the year I gather armful after armful of stemmy dead twigs and sweeping new branches. Hard to say what I pick up more after: My 15-year-old son or the plants, bushes and trees of the backyard.

Even the native shrubs and foreign ornamentals I prize as specimens need their growth guided by saw and shear. The rose of sharon I planted as sprigs near 10 years ago require reining in each spring, or else will flop over with the weight and drama of their late-summer blooms. Same with the fragrant lilac that grows outside the back door.

Early each spring I snip the flowering tops to capture their aromas in a vase indoors, but still it grows scraggly. A thunder shower passed earlier in the week, causing a main branch of the old lilac to droop over the limestone step of the stoop that leads to the kitchen door. I lop off the limb and trim the suckers at the base and add the lot to the brush pile I keep in the back corner of the yard, tucked under a maple tree beside the street.

Made up of all the branches and yard trimmings I drag to the curb for disposal, twice a year or so the messy sprawl grows to rival my pile in size. The tall trees that lord over the property shed bark, twigs and limbs with every storm, and after each I sweep the yard clean of the wind-blown debris. Today’s brief squall also brought down a thigh-thick stump of a branch from a maple beside the driveway. I could have sawed it down before, but left the snag aloft. It was riddled with holes made by the woodpeckers that picked at it for grubs. I drag it off to the brush pile as well.

I’ve thought keeping this refuse on site, perhaps by creating a second compost pile to serve as a starter for the next year. But backyard space is limited, as is my time to spend harvesting and recycling all the more readily compostible organic matter that my suburban yard produces each year. I could use the leafy branches whole as the bottom layer of next year’s pile, but know I’d be picking the woody stems out of my pile all through the next season, cursing as they tangle themselves in the tines of the pitchfork. I suppose I could chip the sticks and branches by purchasing or renting a shredder, though that’s a commitment and expense I’ve never been able to justify.

(I’m fascinated to learn that some English gardeners save the clippings from English yew (Taxus baccata) to donate them to companies that produce Taxol, an anti-cancer drug. “The potent medical effects of Taxol weren’t discovered in the West until the 1970s, though native American Indians had been using the bark of Pacific yews (Taxus brevifolia) for generations to treat ailments as diverse as rheumatism, scurvy, and lung and bowel complaints,” writes Sarah Raven.

Would that I could. I do whittle away at the brush pile through the fall and winter by breaking some of the the limbs and dead wood over my knee and burning them in the small firepit in the corner of the back patio. We make a special bonfire each January with the crackly remains of the Christmas tree. I add the ashes to my pile or cast them across the yard.

But when the stack of limbs gets big enough to cause me worry about it becoming an eyesore, I borrow the neighbor’s pull-behind trailer, a ramshackle contraption of plywood and rust, and haul the tangly mess off to the town yard refuse center behind my SUV. I make couple trips a year, usually one after this pruning of spring growth and another, in the fall, to tidy up the yard after a season of fulsome growth. Then there’s the occasional Nor’easter, a limb-snapping early snowfall or other weather calamity that requires a special cleanup. Nature culls as much from my backyard as I do.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.

 

But, yes, I prune. It’s a discipline, and disciplinary. After ordering my son off the trampoline in the backyard and inside to study for his final exam of the school year — which, coincidentally, involves writing an essay on Lord of the Flies, I tackle my biggest pruning project of the day, and the year: The long row of forsythia bushes that extend from each side of my driveway and along the street. (The main difference between gardening and parenting? The limbs you seek to prune don’t talk back…)

The hedgerows serve to give my yard privacy, especially in summer, when the green screen is thick enough to snag wayward frisbees and tennis balls. In winter, the hedgerow harbors flocks of sparrows, which use the bare branches as jumping off points for the nearby bird feeder. And in spring, its bare branches burst with electric-yellow flowers. But what was then a fairly uniform mass of plant has grown into a spiky riot of green shoots that angles every which way. It’s like the hair on a cartoon figure plugged into an electrical socket.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

The untrammeled growth juts out into the street, blocks the street sign and thrusts upward into the lower branches of a young oak that I planted as an acorn in the wood chips on the lawn side of the hedge. I trim the forsythia with a pair of shears, selectively picking limbs to trim by hand. It requires extra effort, but I like the exercise for my hands and arms, and it keeps the hedge prim and proper in a natural, free form sort of way, not scalped roughshod by a mechanical trimmer.

I strive for a light touch to pruning, favoring a more natural, almost jungly yardscape. My backyard is no poodleized version of a topiary garden. Like my 15-year-old son, I keep most of the plantings on a long leash, and allow them to grow on the wild side, while trying to maintain some sense of order. Put another way, my backyard ideology is a mash-up of Father Knows Best and any of dimwit dad sitcoms you now see on TV. It’s a nature vs. nurture struggle for control that has played out over the centuries:

“The image of man’s dominion over nature is deeply rooted in Western thought,” I read in a paper by Eleanora Montuschi, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Order of man, order of nature: Francis Bacon’s idea of a ‘dominion’ over nature.”

“It first appears, in different forms, in the Book of Genesis. It also reappears as one of the leading images of the emerging ‘new science’ in the 16th century…. Over the ages, Western thought has been variously concerned with the image of the ideal garden. At the same time, it has been rather eclectic in its illustration of what constitutes such an ideal. If we look, for example, at the planning and construction of gardens in the 17th and then 18th/19th centuries, we will soon and vividly appreciate these differences in conception.

“Starting from the 17th century, gardens were then designed as geometrical spaces. Plants and bushes were cut into triangular, spherical, conical, and pyramidical forms. Sometimes they were shaped as animals or human beings. In other words, nature was altered by imposing specific forms over her spontaneous ways of expression.

“Instead, in the 18th and nineteenth centuries, gardens were conceived in view of complying with nature. Nature was to be allowed to express herself in her own forms: she was at most to be ‘perfected’. An idea (or ideal) of cooperation between man and nature replaced the idea of human calculated planning and imposition of an external order on nature. Man was to improve on, not to transform, nature – that is, he was simply to respect whatever form nature might happen spontaneously to suggest.

“According to the former ideal, man is encouraged to think of himself as a conqueror of nature, as someone who succeeds in imposing an order over natural wilderness. According to the latter ideal, man appears rather as an ‘executor’ of a pre-given natural order, an order which at most needs to be brought to completion.”

That about sums up the duality of gardening and parenting: striking the balance between being a control freak to maintain order and letting things develop with a gentler guiding hand.

Nature, like a child, will always find a way to express itself, fully in “her own forms” and in keeping with the soil in which its offspring is nurtured and under the sun that shines upon them. The day I asked my son, “Do you want me to tell you what to do, or do you want me to let you make your own mistakes?” and he answered, “I’ll make my own mistakes,” was the day I realized I could no longer much “prune” him. And everything (I don’t recall what, exactly, mistake we were talking about) turned out fine.

Pruning, like raising a child, is about guiding growth in the right way, with a fair amount of culling in a never-ending pursuit for some sense of order and control. It’s also about knowing what not to cut. A plant doesn’t talk back to you when you prune it, which appeals to the parent-gardener in us all. An ill-treated plant will let you know when you’ve done it wrong. I still miss the thriving butterfly bush that I incautiously pruned at the wrong time of year; the next season it sprouted just a few meager branches, and this year refused to come back at all. Sometimes Father doesn’t know best. Earlier this spring I dug out the stump and added it to the brush pile.

Pruning, and parenting, is about letting go, and recognizing that not everything will fit into a neat package, or my pile. The truth is messy, a writing professor once told me, as is raising a child or tending a garden. The tangled stack of brush I leave at the side of the curb is ample evidence of that.

But both child and garden tend to work out as long as you keep serious problems from taking root, prune when necessary to help guide growth, ensure sufficient food and water — and always add as much compost as you can.