My Pile: All In

The final page of the calendar for a full year in the life of my backyard compost heap has turned. Today is the first Saturday of November, a crisp, frosty morning that promises to warm into a sunny autumn afternoon. Prime time for my pile.

There is no true end to my pile, for it exists on a continuum, a pendulum set to deep time that sways with the seasons from growth and life to rot and decay and from there back to rebirth. But if there is a day that defines my pile and all its promise, this is it.

The neighborhood is already abuzz with activity as I head outdoors to scope out the yard and plot the day’s pleasant duties.

Through a week of seesaw temperatures, a bit of rain and windy bluster, the trees in my yard have steadily given up the lion’s share of their leaves. I look up to see the bare limbs of the maples silhouetted against the brightening blue skies. The big sycamore in the corner of the front yard, recently scalped by the tree trimmers, has also dropped most of its leaves, some the size of dinner plates, still green. Left dangling from the remaining limbs are countless round sycamore balls, which will ripen and flutter their fluffy spawn down upon the cold ground of winter. The young hickory tree in the other corner of the backyard is now surrounded by a footing of amber leaves. Still attached to their petioles, they are much too heavy to do anything but drop straight to the ground. I surrender, the trees are saying.

Some leaves remain aloft – the crimson Japanese maples, the willow, privet bushes and forsythia and more low shrubs and bushes cling to their colorful fashions. Just beyond my property, the ridge line of oaks are still thick with multi-hued foliage, providing a scenic backdrop and the prospect of further weekend cleanups on the horizon.

I reckon I’m halfway done raising my pile off the ground. The first quarter I built up with generous doses of rich green organics, from slender grass clippings and tossled mops of seaweed, to tangly tomato vines and spent flower stalks. I’ve heaped upon this rich base two garbage cans of compostings, twin barrels a biological heat, leavened by fluffy layers of salt marsh hay. And don’t forget the bin of llama beans, which scattered like so many multi-vitamins of pelletized manure into the maw that is my growing pile.

Nov 8 2015 041

Halfway through fall leaf cleanup is a good time to dagwood into my pile a layer of salt marsh grass hay, shredded paper and kitchen scraps.

Last weekend’s first fall cleanup, plus a dosing of shredded paper, kitchen scraps and more, lifted my pile by half again. Today’s cleanup will, if seasons’ past give reason, make my pile about three-quarters full.

The leaf season here along the mild but breezy southern Connecticut shore usually lasts until the first snows begin to fall, if not for a white Christmas, then soon into the new year. I’ll keep after the straggler leaves as long as the weather permits, ladling the latecomers to the party that is my pile with a steady supply of damp, dark, granular coffee grounds from the local Java shop.

Sometimes the fall leaf season ends with a gentle, graceful whimper, like today. Sometimes it ends with a walloping bang.

At this moment in 2012, my neighbors and I were coping with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which hurtled up the Atlantic Seaboard on Oct. 29 and slammed ashore just up the Connecticut coast.

Sandy’s rain-lashed winds toppled trees across power lines and houses, whipped leaves and branches far and wide, and left the neighborhood without power for the better part of a week. The year before, on the same day, a “freak” snowstorm dumped seven inches of wet, fat snowflakes, burdening the trees still cloaked in leaves with unsustainable weight. The snow melted within the day, but my neighbors and I spent the next week dragging snapped limbs off to the town refuse dump.

An unexpected snow storm snaps leaf-laden branches and surprises all, even the dog.

An unexpected snow storm snaps leaf-laden branches and surprises all, even the dog.

In crisis, neighbors pull together, lending portable pumps to drain flooded basements, generators to keep freezers from becoming a total loss, and chain saws to clear roads and driveways. Picking up leaves were the last thing on our minds.

Not today. The whine of leaf blowers, from backpack commercial crews and homeowners yielding small electric models, echoes across the neighborhood. The pros suck up leaves through great big vacuum hoses; the homeowners stuff leaves into brown paper bags. The first costs too much money and the second seems like too much bother, packaging leaves in paper cylinders to be stacked by the curb and collected in time by municipal crews to be hauled off by the countless thousand to a distant landfill.

I keep all my leaves on property and plan for today a repeat of last weekend’s preliminary cleanup. First I prep my pile by tossing atop it a week’s worth of kitchen scraps. A supply of shredded paper follows, topped by two buckets of salt grass hay. It’s become my habit to gather both, the first from the office each week, and the second collected on a detour to the beach after dropping my son off at school.

It’s my routine, and both my pile and I are the better for it.

Next comes another composting habit that I’ve come to enjoy: First I blow the leaves from the garden beds onto the lawn, then I mow and mulch. I empty the grass catcher after the mower belches through the heaviest patches of leaves, but as I go allow about half of the mulchings to be disgorged back onto the turf from the stuffed-up mower.

My neighbor Craig across the street is at it as well, and I wave to him as I slowly mulch and mow across the grass. In years past, he’s raked all his leaves into a pile and then stuffed them into dozens of tall brown bags. Sometimes, I’ve heaped a big brown paper bag or two of his leaves into my wheelbarrow and dumped them onto my pile, returning the empty bags for him to refill.

This year he’s taken another tack. He’s blown the leaves from his thickly shaded yard over the rock wall that fronts the street and is using his mower to grind up the leaves straight off the asphalt. The result is a windrow of pulverized leaves, minced more finely, and more quickly, than my practice of mulching leaves by mowing only on the lawn. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that the mower would work more efficiently when walked through a pile of leaves splayed out on more unforgiving pavement.

I walk over to admire his handiwork, an innovation, Craig explains, that was borne of necessity. He lifts his work shirt to show me the back brace he’s wearing and explains that this year there’s no way he’s doing all the bending and lifting involved in stuffing dozens of paper bags full of leaves. He makes me a proposition: If I help him drag his road-kill leaves over to my pile, he’ll use his mower to help me mulch the rest of my leaves.

It’s an offer I can’t refuse. I scan the side of his street to consider the 50-foot-long windrow of minced leaves and know that these easy pickings will be a bounty for my pile.

My neighbor Craig, mulching his crop of leaves into a thick windrow of mulched leaf litter.

My neighbor Craig, mulching his crop of leaves into a thick windrow of pulvierized leaf litter.

I leave my mower in place in the front yard and grab a large plastic tarp that covers my wood pile and set it in the street along his property. Together, we rake and sweep and blow a foot-thick layer of fricassed leaves, mostly oak, onto the tarp.

We gather up the four corners to drag the tarp across the street toward my backyard and pile and within steps realize we’ve overestimated the heft of the mulched leaves. It’s like tugging at a tarp-full of sand. We stop to regrip, and Craig worries that his back won’t hold out. I take the lead to scooch the fat bag across the backyard, clamber up each side of the log walls dragging the fat back up the slope between us and unfurl it across the top between the log walls of my pile.

The crushed leaves blanket my pile, spewing out from containment of the tarp like a dry pyroclastic flow of flecks of carbon and dust that melts across the preceding mass of whole leaves. We collect four more tarp fulls, each load smaller than the previous to be able to keep dragging the tarp up over the top of my ever-higher pile. Never before has it received such a dense prize of organic matter, minced leaf mold already ripe for the making into fresh compost. The remains of a tree or two or three, upwards of a million leaves, have just exponentially expanded into billions of bits and pieces, which will cook down that much more quickly into new soil.

My pile has become such a spectacle that Craig’s young daughter comes out to play, first to play toss and catch with the dog, then to scamper up the slippery slope to the summit, where she buries a tennis ball for the dog to nose out. Her small feet hardly sink under the surface, my pile is that stiff and stout with crushed leaves. I think back to when my son was Kayla’s age, and him doing somersaults to disappear into the same space. This year, he’d bounce right off.

This year's pile has more gravitas than ever, and holds up well under play.

This year’s pile has more gravitas than ever, and holds up well under play.

The take of leaves from Craig’s yard far surpasses the gathering of leaves from my own lawn. In short order we’ve spruced up his streetscape and are mowing my lawn in tandem. He mulches the front patch of lawn while I make my way through the layers of sycamore leaves, maple and hickory, dispersing a few grass-catchers full of mulchings into the recesses of my pile.

It takes a village to make my pile. By midday we’ve made short work of both our yards and stop the mowers. It’s the first time in memory I’ve actually had the help of anyone in cleaning up my yard, and we toast our teamwork with two cold beers from the fridge.

Sipping my beverage on the back porch with Craig, I consider my pile. It’s a round mound, chest high, like it normally is this time of year when it’s fluffed up and airy and mostly whole leaves gathered en masse. I congratulate myself for taking such pains throughout the fall in layering the beginnings of my pile with as much seaweed and rich green organics as I could gather, for now the heap is engorged with a dense load of mulched leaves. I couldn’t be happier with my pile at this stage in the season.

There’s more to come. Craig directs my attention to the other across-the-street neighbor of my corner property. Jean-Luc, our neighbor, an ever-so-kind older man, has just finished raking a large pile of leaves onto his driveway. Another large pile rises from the corner of his yard, caddie-corner to Craig’s. I tell Craig that Jean Luc came by earlier in the morning to ask me for permission to park cars in my driveway tomorrow; he and his wife are having a family gathering.

Jean Luc is in the process of cleaning up his yard for the guests to come, but both Craig and I know that he will be hard-pressed to round up and do away with the leaves on his own. After I ask Craig if his back will hold out for a bit more work, we set our beers down and haul our mowers, tarps and rakes across the street to pitch in.

It's a clean, neighborhood sweep Craig and I tackle the neighbor's yard across the street.

It’s a clean sweep as Craig and I tackle the neighbor’s yard across the street.

I know now how yard crews can be so efficient at cleaning up a yard, for within an hour Craig and I have mowed and mulched Jean Luc’s yard of leaves and dispensed with the two large heaps of leaves gathered up on the pavement, using Craig’s tarp to drag the lot over to my pile.

My pile takes it all in, and in so doing has become the repository not only for all the leaves in my yard, but Craig’s and Jean Luc’s, not to mention the collections I’ve made already made from the other two neighbors along the two backsides of my corner property.

My pile is the now final resting place of leaves (and much more) from five homes in our close-knit neighborhood of small lots and helping friends. My pile has become much more than I ever thought it would. And best of all, once again and in the end, my pile is not finished. It’s just beginning…

My Pile: Tricks and Treats

It’s the last day of October, All Hallow’s Eve.

I read on Wikipedia that “it is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from Celtic harvest festivals …. it’s the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.”

My pile is all about celebrating the faithful departed, the martyrs, hallowed saints, at least those of the vegetative kingdom that I lord over. Some Christians historically abstained from meat on the feast of All Hallows’ Eve, a practice my pile faithfully honors; others to this day still light candles on the graves of the dead.

All in all, it’s a most fitting day to devote to the first big cleanup of the yard and in turn to bury the hallowed remains of the day and the season. Tricks and treats for the grave that is my pile.

I step outside on a pleasant, sunny fall morning to hear the neighborhood abuzz with the sound of unseen small engines, blowing, mulching and otherwise engaged in the collection of fall leaves. Halloween has become a big holiday, held at a fine time of year and a rare modern tradition that still involves welcoming friends and neighbors, not to mention goblins and ghosts, to your home. Aside from stringing up Christmas lights or preparing for a Fourth of July barbecue, it’s the one time of year when you want your property looking its best. It’s also the last day of Daylight Savings time, and I’m already burning daylight.

Homeowners have different strategies for coping with the seasonal blitzkrieg of leaves. Some spring into action as the first leaf hits the ground, fastidiously sweeping their yards clean of any and all debris, and making it a daily habit. Others wait until the final leaf drops before beginning on any cleanup. (And some homeowners, or their renters, never get around to do any seasonal upkeep at all to their yards or gutters or streetscapes…)

While the young hickory in the backyard clings to its shock of bright yellow leaves, enough leaves have fallen on the yard to begin fall cleanup.

While the young hickory in the backyard clings to its shock of bright yellow leaves, enough leaves have fallen on the yard to begin fall cleanup in earnest.

I take the middle ground and time my yardwork based on my weekly schedule, the work at hand, and the weather – and for special occasions like the hordes of costumed youngsters that by dusk will be clamoring up to my back porch to plunge their tiny hands into a bowl of wrapped candies, while their parents idle along the street and make the kids’ trick or treating a rolling block party.

I have enough house pride to want my driveway and corner property to be safe and sound for the trick-or-treaters and presentable for the pub-crawling grown-ups promenading by. Some I recognize from the gatherings at the front-yard corner each morning, which serves as the neighborhood bus stop. I have appearances to keep up, after all.

Besides, my pile has been waiting all season for this moment, the day when I raise it from the ground with the first wholesale contribution from the landscape it nurtures, not just with a batch of freshly fallen leaves, but some special treats as well.

Despite a dousing of rain mid-week, most of the leaves of the trees in my yard remain stubbornly airborne. But enough have fallen gently upon the ground to make a day spent cleaning up a worthwhile yet manageable task.

In short, today marks the peak of leaf-peeping season here in southern New England. If you have any time or inclination to be a backyard gardener who also composts, today is a hallowed day. I can’t wait to get started.

Shredded paper and a helping of salt marsh grass harvested from the seashore will keep my pile airy under the coming crush of fall leaves.

Shredded paper and a helping of salt marsh grass harvested from the seashore will keep my pile airy under the coming crush of fall leaves.

First I set out my ad hoc compostibles: Two more barrels of salt-marsh grass gathered from the local beach, two half-filled bins of scraps from my kitchen and the neighbors next door, and more shredded paper from the office.

Do I spoil my pile with such lavishings? Perhaps, but all these treats are part of the waste stream that I produce at home, or bring home like a big bag of candy after a jaunt to the nearby seashore or farm.

The big treat for my pile today is the lidded metal garbage can that I first began filling in September with layers of shredded paper, kitchen scraps and mature compost. It’s the second such helping of proto-compost I’ve kept on hand after dispersing last year’s crop of compost across the yard and garden beds. Pile or no pile, kitchen scraps and whatnot need a place to go, and parking them in a lidded metal can for a few weeks has worked out well for me and my pile this season.

Two weeks ago I emptied the first garbage bin of proto compost into the initial crush of maple leaves gathered from the street and the neighbor’s front yard, mixing it into the tangle of tomato vines and spent stalks from the vegetable garden. It’s been a sweet Indian summer for both beachcombing and grass growing, and I’ve since nurtured my child prodigy of a pile with generous amounts of seaweed and salt marsh grass, clippings from the lawn and the choicest remains from the mountain of mulch from the previous week’s tree work in my yard.

All the while the second can has been sitting tight beside the log wall that frames my pile. Every so often I’ve lifted the lid to peer inside, raising a small storm of fruit flies that reside within. But until this day my pile has not been large enough to absorb this second deposit of hot compost in the making.

First I use the spring-tined rake to tease leaves from the fence edges backing the flower beds and from the pachysandra that surrounds the house like a green moat. I recognize the value of a leaf blower but have limited patience using one, so reserve it to quickly blast the leaves out from their resting places in the garden beds onto the grass where I can mow and mulch them.

I use the mower to mulch the leaves on the lawn and drag the shreddings over to my pile.

I use the mower to mulch the leaves on the lawn and drag the shreddings over to my pile.

I fire up the Toro and make my way across the leaf-covered yard, vacuuming up 22-inch strips at a time. The wheels stumble across the many sycamore balls that still dot the ground. Most are too heavy for the whirring blades to vacuum up and dice but enough make it to seem as though the mower has turned into a popcorn popper, the tough nut balls pinging around the undercarriage.

As the catcher fills with crushed material, I use the mower as a mulcher, nosing it through the thick layering of sycamore leaves. When the grass catcher fills, the Toro spits out leaves to the left, so I reverse course to disperse rows of freshly chopped leaves and grass clippings. Worms gotta eat, I tell myself, and mowing coarsely tidies the lawn of whole leaves, gives my pile an ample supply while leaving much mulch to grasscycle straight back into the lawn.

Whenever the Toro chokes and stalls on too much leaves, I stop to empty the catcher onto my pile. After laying down two or three catcher fulls, I spread out the shredded paper, then empty the garbage can of proto compost across the top. It must weigh 50 pounds or more, and adding so much fecund compost starter to my pile makes me feel almost like I’m cheating, especially after I top it with heapings of dry salt-marsh grass stems and seaweed.

This "compost in a can," held in reserve until I had enough leaves to absorb it, will kickstart my pile.

This “compost in a can,” held in reserve until I had enough leaves to absorb it, will kickstart my pile.

Never before have I taken such pains to layer the beginnings of my pile with such a diverse supply of raw material. In years past, I would have been content to simply dump the leaves of fall wholesale onto my pile and then stuff it over the next few months with kitchen scraps.

“Composting is not something you facilitate as much as let happen,” writes Jonathan Bloom, in American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), 2010, by Da Capo Press. “The leaves that fall in a forest eventually break down. Converting food and other organic materials into a nice soil requires a bit more work than simply leaving it alone, but not much more. At its core, you’re preventing a pile of food waste from emulating a landfill. That is done by “turning” it to ensure exposure to oxygen; by keeping it from going anaerobic, you keep it from releasing methane. Simple. In addition to the environmental benefits, composting gives us agricultural wannabes an excuse to use a pitchfork.”

Bloom’s book paints a stark picture of a gaping problem in our society, both on the residential level and commercial scale, that composting seeks to address one humble backyard pile at a time.

“The majority of food discarded today ends up in a landfill, with its associated problems. Unfortunately, we seldom think about the effects of our food once it’s gone because, well, it’s gone. Then, it’s somebody else’s problem. ‘There’s a misconception among the people. They think that throwing away food or organic materials is environmentally benign,’ says Jan Lundqvist, author of an influential waste study. ‘But it depends on how food is being disposed.’

Food scraps are the second-largest component of the national waste stream, making up 19 percent of what we dump into landfills…As anyone with a mailbox can understand, paper is the most common landfill stuffer, despite our significant recycling rate … By contract, we barely recycle, or compost, any of our food…In 2000, we composted 2.5 percent of food discards. In 2008, the rate was a strikingly similar 2.5 percent.”

“It’s time to compost,” Bloom states. “Now, I believe in composting. It’s a cheap, green solution for food waste that anyone with a few square feet of outdoor area can do…. No matter what kind of contraption you use, composting allows us to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions and produce a useful soil amendment that recycles the nutrients of food waste.”

Such food waste is my secret sauce, a stew of energy-rich ingredients that will ignite my pile from within. The leaves give my pile volume, depth; the salt grass and seaweed added measures of air and further rich, green fodder.

I finish up the mowing, stopping only so often to empty enough crushed leaves to cover my pile while leaving the yard thick with minced leaf litter. The grass remains a deep green and from the street looks fairly pristine, though I know from experience that I’ll be tracking flecks of leaves and grass inside the house for the rest of autumn.

My pile, freshly stuffed, will settle into itself and be ready to take on the rest of the fall leaves.

My pile, freshly stuffed, will settle into itself and be ready to take on the rest of the fall leaves.

I end the Saturday yard chores by scooping up several sheetfuls of whole leaves from the street and neighbor’s front yard and dumping them directly onto my pile, then fire up the leaf blower for a victory lap around the property to tidy things up for the trick-or-treaters.

At dusk, the yard is a snapshot of the peak leaf-peeping season in the suburbs of southwestern Connecticut. My pile is just getting started but already has all the makings of a fine heap of hallowed ground.

My Pile: Chipping Away

With a sprawling load of shredded wood and leaves parked in my driveway, I know what I have to do this weekend.

After Saturday morning errands, I haul the wheelbarrow from behind the backyard shed and load into it a set of tools – the wide-tined hay pitchfork, two rakes and the wide-brim shovel. I wheel them to the front of the yard and set up shop beside the mound of tree mulch, already steaming with the raw, aromatic scent of sap and fermenting wood pulp. It’s easily the largest load I’ve ever had to tackle.

Digging into the massive wood-chip mulch pile, which I'm relieved to find is actually a fluffy mix of leaves and shredded sawdust and sycamore balls.

Digging into the massive wood-chip mulch pile, which I’m relieved to find is actually a fluffy mix of leaves and shredded sawdust and sycamore balls.

I feel like a rube for accepting the chips without first peering into the covered dump truck to see that not only did it contain the diced-up remains of my tree trimmings but also that of a previous job. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck; it fell on me. I eyeball the wanton load and attempt to mentally parcel it out across the perennial beds that ring my property. Just thinking about the work ahead is tiring. I glance up the street and wonder who among my neighbors I can pawn off the excess chips I will surely be left with after covering every square inch of my available ground.

Spreading wood-chip mulch is both a physical and mental exercise. I think back to the many other times and seasons I’ve accepted a load of wood chips from a crew working nearby and know I’ve thought the same “be careful of what you wish for” before. A large pile of anything you’ve suddenly got to dispense is always a daunting task; massive, real, and seemingly immovable.

But volume measured in cubic yards invariably becomes manageable when spread across a lot of linear square feet. Picture an above-ground swimming pool filled with water. It bursts, and the water spreads out across the ground and is gone. That’s the same with spreading wood chips across the garden beds and other weed-free spots around my tidy suburban property. Call it sheet composting, for I’m taking a heap of freshly dead organic material spreading it across the ground where it will over the coming year block a season’s worth of weeds before decomposing straight into the ground. It’s a pop-up version of my pile; here today, gone tomorrow.

Such mental gymnastics helps but doesn’t change the fact all those chips won’t move themselves, so I lean the wheelbarrow against the steepest side of the mound of chips and plunge the hay pitchfork into the peak of chips above it, using gravity to fill the wheelbarrow with several scraping thrusts.

Last spring I spread a small load of wood-chip mulch under the row of forsythia bushes along the side street and across the back fence of my property. I devoted much of last year’s finished compost to the largest stretch of planted garden, along the western side of my yard, and now the perennial beds are covered with the end result: Deep, loamy, newly minted soil. If I don’t blanket the ground this fall with a layer of fresh wood chips, come next spring the strip of garden will surely grow in thick with weeds that I will have to laboriously have to evict by hand and trowel. Funny how striving for a low-maintenance garden involves so much work.

I start by dumping whole wheelbarrows full of wood chips in the spaces between the perennial plantings of ferns and seasonal flowers as well as the azalea, rhododendron, rose of sharon and butterfly bushes that take up their own separate spaces along the border garden, a curvaceous stretch about 110 feet in length that ranges from five to 15 feet in width.

I’m pretty efficient at working a pitchfork, shovel or rake to load the wheelbarrow with wood chips. It’s easy lifting, when you get down to it. Most of the energy expended is in the transport. I schlep a dozen or so wheelbarrow loads to dump across a section of garden before stopping to rake out the tidy piles to cover the bare ground with a meringue of mulch, taking care not to bury the perennials. I strive for a depth of 4 inches; enough to keep the weeds at bay without making life to difficult for the many bulbs of daffodils and crocuses that are buried beneath. All the while, I make the mental calculus of figuring out how much ground I’ve covered against how big of a dent I’ve made in the mound of chips blocking my driveway.

In years past, I’ve spread chips made almost entirely of chopped-up tree trunks and branches, harvested after the leaves have dropped and the sap has been chased underground by the cold. But this batch, I’m relieved to realize, is a fluffy, airy mix of fresh tree potpourri, suffused with shredded leaves and diced sycamore balls, nearly as light as cotton candy. I spread it more thickly than usual, knowing that the shredded leaves will soon condense themselves into a matrix of leaf mold and wood chips, flattened by rain and further stitched together, first by frost and then by freezing ground.

Besides, I enjoy the manual labor, working up a sweat wielding a wheelbarrow and the business end of a pitchfork and rake on a pleasant fall afternoon in late-October. It’s a weekend warrior’s workout, and  a good one at that, if a lost practiced art in the age of the leaf blower. It’s also a hike, all that back-and-forth muling. I spread another dozen or so loads, dumping the wheelbarrow in the spaces between plantings, then raking it all in. The leaves on the trees in my yard are just now peaking in color, and I have figure I have just enough time to finish spreading the chips before the major leaf cleanup begins.

By evening time on Saturday, I’ve covered about half of my long garden bed of perennials along the western side of my yard and figure I’ve used up about a third of the pile of chips. I’m working on a tight timeline, and at a certain point in moving any gift of cast-off wood chips, my thoughts turn from how best to spread the supply to getting rid of it. I have just Sunday afternoon to scatter the wood mulch, as the weather forecast calls for heavy rain midweek, as much as two inches, the first significant rain of the month. As easy as it is to load, haul and spread a feather-light mix of wood chips and pureed leaves, I don’t fancy shoveling up chips soaked with all that rainwater.

On Sunday afternoon I power through the rest of the mound of mulch, layering the remaining flower beds with a four-inch covering of the minced mulch, and dumping wheelbarrows wholesale along a shallow ditch between my back fence and bed of ferns and hostas. The lowest part of my gently sloping property, the ditch briefly fills with water during the heaviest of rain storms. It makes a fine final resting place for a thick layering of wood chips left to rot.

The small culvert that runs along the back fence becomes the repository for much of the chips, which will soon decompose in the shady, damp environs.

The small culvert that runs along the back fence becomes the repository for much of the chips, which will soon decompose in the shady, damp environs.

By late Sunday afternoon, I’ve packed up the tarps and used the leaf blower to scoot the last flecks of chips from the gravel driveway. The garden beds are now cloaked in a mesh of fresh chopped mulch.

My pile has benefited as well, for at the bottom of the heap of chipped-wood mulch were pockets of ground-up leaves, masticated sycamore seed balls and pure shavings of sawdust. I add two wheelbarrows of the fluff straight onto my pile.

I glean several wheelbarrows of minced leaves, diced sycamore balls and chain-saw sawdust curlings to add straight to my pile.

I glean several wheelbarrows of minced leaves, diced sycamore balls and chain-saw curlings to add straight to my pile.

I’ve kept the remains of my own tree trimmings on the property, and the yard has absorbed much more decompostible organic matter from somewhere nearby. If and when the rain comes, it will soak deep into the mulch beds and settle in place, making the coming fall cleanup of leaves that fall onto the beds that much easier. I’d salute myself in triumph for a backyard gardener’s job well done, if I wasn’t so tired to lift up my arms.

My Pile: Clean Margins

I turn out the dog for his morning relief and am standing in the front yard when a cherry-picker and a covered dump truck hauling a chipper pull into the driveway of my across-the-street neighbor, one house down. The tree crew is there to remove a big old white pine that overhangs one of the two houses on the property.

Over the past several years, my neighbor has reaped what he sowed long ago. He’s lived in his house across the street for more than 50 years, raising a family, and, some years ago building a second house on the property where his grown daughter now lives. He’d planted a row of yews along the driveway that separates the two houses, and also placed pine trees in front of the new house, an A frame, he built for himself and his wife a couple decades ago. Behind both  houses is a ridge studded with ancient oak trees that grow from crevasses in the granite ledge.

His property, once a shady, private haven, has become an aerial minefield. Two nor’easters ago, a fallen oak took out his sailboat and deck, as well as a portion of his roof. He must have spent thousands of dollars on tree work, and still the yard is deeply shaded. The yew trees are now tall and spindly, long past their prime, as is the remaining white pine.

Like so many homeowners in the suburban Northeast, I face the same problems, a double-edged sword of Damocles hanging over me and my house. The tall trees on my property are stately and provide much shade and of course fodder for my pile. But they are also a hazard. Over the past few months, my next-door neighbors, an older couple who, like their neighbor directly across the street, have lived in their house for a half-century, have asked me to do something about the sycamore that rises from the border of my yard and spreads its long dappled branches over their house.

So as the tree crew sets up shop across the street, I ask the foreman to quote me a price on trimming the sycamore, as well as a large branch of a maple that extends over my own house. Almost as an after-thought, I ask him how much it would cost to take down the tall, gangly maple that rises from the backyard just in front of my pile. I’ve never much cared for the look of the tree; it’s a male maple with multiple trunks, one of which was trimmed 10 years ago when I first moved into my house, the amputated sight of which has always bothered my eye. Plus, its limbs cast shade over the largest stretch of lawn in the backyard and its roots infiltrate the lawn, garden beds and no doubt the base of my pile. I look forward to seeing the sun the tree now blocks and being rid of the unwanted invasive species. The scraggly maple’s best use now is for firewood, which I need. I tell the tree guy I’ll take the logs for firewood, and the rest of the trimmings as mulch to spread across my perennial beds.

His price is so reasonable I agree to the terms on the spot, and he says he’ll be back tomorrow morning to do the job.

I take the day off as a holiday, for seeing tree trimmers at work is a sight to behold. What you would need to pay me to climb a tree with a chainsaw would be far beyond the work I will be watching and paying for today. They begin at 8 am, backing an industrial-sized wood chipper attached to an enclosed dumpster truck onto the lawn. A worker scales the largest trunk of the maple with ropes and a small chain saw and begins to lop off the tallest branches, still thick with golden leaves, 40 feet up. The limbs fall straight to the ground, guided by his steady hand, where they are dragged to the chipper by a co-worker and fed into the grinder.

A tree crew takes down the scraggly maple that grows close to my pile.

A tree crew takes down the scraggly maple that grows close to my pile. Removing the maple from the back corner of the yard will allow other more valued plantings to prosper.

Some of the branches he ties off to a higher branch before lopping off, and lowers them by the ropes to the ground. Within an hour, he’s worked his way down the main trunk, sawing man-sized logs as he goes, which topple to the ground with heavy, pounding thuds.

I help the crews stack the logs of maple along the backside of the shed; the heaviest, longest pieces, which I asked to be left long to use as new borders for my pile, we roll over to the side of my pile. As the crew hauls the remaining branches over to the chipper, I rake up the thick layering of sawdust from around the trunk and drag the minced shavings on the small plastic tarp over to my pile. Sawdust takes a long time to break down, but its raw, granular nature makes it easy to add to the mix. Besides, I like abiding by the guiding philosophy of what grows on my property, stays on my property. Till death do us part.

My Spanish is not good enough to eloquently explain my pile and its purpose, but the workers get the point. The one with the chain saw asks me how low he should leave the stump, and I tell him through Spanglish and pantomime that I want it left tall enough to use as a perch to sit on and view my pile. He smiles and makes a last slice with the chain saw about a foot and a half high.

The crew then sets up the cherry picker in my neighbor’s driveway and lifts it high to trim the sycamore branches, first from above the neighbor’s property, then on my side. The tree has dropped some of its leaves but is mostly green, the branches heavy with countless hard spheres of sycamore nuts the size and weight of golf balls. Before long tree is shaped and trimmed and my yard is covered with small branches tousled with the sycamore balls. The branches are stuffed wholesale into the chipper, which spews a steady stream of dusty mulch into the dumpster.


Removing the branches of the sycamore on my property that hang dangerously over by neighbor's house.

Workers in a cherry picker trim the branches of the sycamore on my property that hang dangerously over by neighbor’s house.

As the crew moves the articulated lift to trim the third tree, the maple over the other corner of my property, I spread all three of my plastic tarps across the gravel driveway on the front side of my house. I ask the foreman to dump the chips produced by my trees onto the tarps, figuring I could make easy work of spreading the homemade mix of mulch back across the garden beds.

I hadn’t thought to check the covered dumpster for what was already in it. The dumpster was still half full from the crew’s job the day before, and I watch slack-jawed as the back bed rises to disgorge a truly daunting amount of shredded trees. The pile spills over all three tarps and onto the grass on either side of the driveway. The crown of the pile is nearly head high. You could hide an SUV under the pile, it’s so big.

A bright new horizon over the yard and neighbor's and a daunting pile of chips to be spread.

A bright new horizon over the yard and neighbor’s and a daunting pile of chips to be spread.

The tree crew is gone by lunchtime. My neighbors come out to review the tree work and are greatly relieved to see the ponderous limbs that once spread over their parked cars in the driveway have been amputated back to near the property line. I ponder the task of dispensing all the resulting chipped-up wood and know now that I will have a busy weekend ahead.

Before I spread the chips throughout the perennial beds that border my property and ring the lawn, I need to do some spadework. It’s been two season since I last added mulch chips to the garden beds; last year I spread loads of finished compost atop them. Since then, the border between grass and the gardens has become a ragged line. The creeping ryegrass has infiltrated the garden bed, and the self-seeding perennial flowers, mostly black-eyed susan and cleome, have spread into the no-man’s land as well.

I take the flat shovel from its perch in the shed and the wheelbarrow to the beginning of the perennial bed. Time for some border control.

“Clean margins” is a phrase that I first heard when my son’s mother, then my fiancée and now my long-since former wife, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the many procedures that followed, her surgeon always talked about getting clean margins around the cancerous tumors that had spread from her chest to the lymph nodes under her left shoulder and arm.

To this day, it is a mantra that turns over in my head as I go about the busy work of snipping, pruning, edging and other forms of surgery that helps ensure that all the plantings play well together in the sandbox that is my backyard. Gardening is as much about nurturing and celebrating differentiation — creating a diverse, interconnected landscape where all can thrive within their own places — as it is about protection, rooting out malignant growth, maintaining order.

I look overhead at the sawn-off branches that now stop safely short of my neighbor’s house and my own, and feel good about doing what I can to protect all from falling harm. Clean margins. The thought remains with me in a more meditative way as I stomp on the shovel to etch a new sharp new boundary between the lawn and the garden bed, plucking away clumps of encroaching grass and weeds. Clean margins.

I take a break from the tedious task of stepping on the shovel and drag the plastic tarp of culled sod over to my pile. Usually when I weed the invasive grass from along these borders, I take the fullest clumps of turf – which always seems to grow thick and deep-rooted in this interregnum between lawn and garden – and tuck them into bare patches around the yard. But this year the lawn is already thick, filled in by the reseeding of last month. So I toss the chunks of sod onto the plastic tarp and drag the lot over to my pile. More dirt than grass, the clumps will add a new mass of biology to my pile, heft and weight, as no doubt all kinds of living things and decomposers that dwell in the root zone. My pile nurtures both lawn and trees and garden, and they in turn nurture it.

Before I toss the sod onto my pile I take the rake and bedsheet over to the street. It is tree-lined with maple, sycamore and a white pine that rise above the hedge of forsythia; its streetside border is thick with leaves swept into windrows by passing cars. The pine has sloughed off the oldest of its long slender needles, a yearly molting that leaves a matted layer of pale yellow pick-up sticks on both lawn and pavement. I rake the slender needles off the grass lawn, back under the pine. Not worth much in a compost pile, the pine straw does make a tidy ground cover.

The wind-blown leaves along the street make easy pickings. I sweep them into several piles about the size of the bedsheet, and gather them in loads I sling over my shoulder and unfurl across the pile. The leaves rise my pile high, but I know they will soon be overburdened by much denser stuff. In just a few minutes, I take four bedsheets full from my side of the street and my neighbors, easy fodder for my pile and a clean sweep of gutters for a coming storm. More clean margins.

For all its sprawling, come-what-may makeup, my pile has margins, too. I’ve already reset the log walls that border it side to side. I take a break from stomping on the shovel to stretch the wire fence back across the tallest two logs at the back, hammering staples into the rotted bark. Soon the fence will strain to contain the leaves that press against it, presenting a cross section of coming compost that I will monitor on through the coming year. Clean margins.

Preparing the garden beds for a fresh covering of mulched wood chips and leaves by re-establishing the border between flowers and grass.

Preparing the garden beds for a fresh covering of mulched wood chips and leaves by re-establishing the border between flowers and grass.



My Pile: Buried Treasure

This year’s stretch of fine fall weather – warm days, scant rain and little wind – has allowed the trees that ring the backyard and beyond to cling to their leaves. The neighbors and town wags marvel about our good fortune, which has kept the local beaches crowded on sunny days and the municipal leaf-picker-uppers on hold.

I take advantage of a warm Wednesday afternoon to head home from the office early. Daylight savings is still nearly two weeks away, and I have plenty of time to tend to the yard.

But the clock is ticking, and I know that soon enough my pile will be swamped with the fall harvest of leaves  – all that cast-off carbon is almost too much of a good thing, though not quite, provided it’s leavened with a supply of nitrogen-rich greens.

I plan to use this borrowed time to layer my nascent pile with a rich mix of starter material and to stockpile more fodder, both hot green fuel and light, airy tinder to help it ignite. I’ve brought home another bag of shredded office paper and set it beside a plastic washtub full of fresh green seaweed gathered from the seashore the day before. A harvest moon and hurricane that stayed offshore had whipped up high waves and tides, leaving behind a thick crop of seaweed. I’m saddened to see the carapaces of a clutch of baby horseshoe crabs, but am glad to have their pale green shells to add to my pile.  I also have a brimming bucket of scraps from my kitchen, and my neighbor’s ash can of food waste is stuffed full as well. I’ve ladled a few shovelfuls of leftover llama beans across my pile, but still have plenty more of the pelleted poop to sprinkle into the mix.

Over the past week a blaze of fall color has steadily crept up the trunks of the three maple trees along the side road of my corner yard. The crowns are now bright red, the middle branches a golden yellow, and the lower leaves brown, which slowly trickle to the ground. They fall along the street and onto my neighbor’s front yard, a hardscrabble patch they use mostly to park their cars. The neighbor sweeps the area clean with a rake and builds a heap of leaves for me to gather onto a bedsheet and drag over to my pile. It’s a simple task, and these early gleanings are the first to add to my pile.

I haul the mower out of the shed and park it in the sun to warm the metal casing. It seems to start better this way. The lawn has grown lush and tangly in the fall growing season, and I want to cut it to add fresh green clippings to my pile, to chop up the first fallen leaves and to have the grass short for when the full measure of leaves finally do begin to fall. It’s much easier to rake and blow leaves that way.

While the waiting mower warms to its task, I sprinkle the paper shreds around the thick sunflower stalk that is my pile’s tent pole, and top it with the kitchen scraps. I then parcel out the seaweed with a pitchfork, spreading it thickly across the top.

A thick layer of seaweed and other green fixin's will get my pile off to a hot start.

A thick layer of seaweed and other green fixin’s will get my pile off to a hot start.

The mower fires right up and soon I’m trundling along the yard quickly filling up the grass catcher with a fine mix of green clippings and chopped leaves, mostly from the sycamore. I let the catcher run full, disgorging much of the clippings back onto the lawn before stopping in front of the pile to empty successive loads to cover the stalks and stems that rise above the rotting base.

I finish up the mowing as the sun lowers. The lawn is now swept clean of leaf litter, a verdant green stage upon which the leaves will soon fall en masse.

I’m pleased to front-load my pile with so much “hot” green fixin’s, but worry that once buried under the crush of coming leaves it might turn anaerobic and begin to rot. So after I park the mower back inside the shed, I dead-head some of the more wispy spent flowers and add their brown, hollowed-out stalks to the top of the pile. The tangly mess will create pockets of air that allow life to breathe into the base of my pile.

I have just enough daylight to grab the rake and bedsheet to sweep the side of the street along my property clean of leaves, mostly maple but also a scattering of windblown oak leaves and fallen acorns from the yard across the street, and I add two loads as a grace note to my precocious new pile. Gazing up into the twilight and seeing all the many-hued leaves still aloft, there will be much more to come, but I know I’ve given my pile a solid foundation on which to rise.

My pile in mid October, a mix of fresh whole leaves, dead-headed stalks and stems and other gleanings from the yard and kitchen.

My pile in mid October, a mix of fresh whole leaves, dead-headed stalks and stems and other gleanings from the yard and kitchen.