My Pile: Labor Days

I need all three days of the Labor Day holiday to put my pile to work. It’s the biggest compost heap I’ve ever raised, and harvesting it to spread across my lawn and around my garden plantings will be a happy but sizable weekend chore.

My lawn – a motley mix of poa annua, perennial ryegrass, some bluegrass and fescues, lots of clover and all manner of plucky weeds – takes a beating each year. It’s heavily trafficked by me and my garden wanderings, by the dog chasing after and fielding tennis balls, by kid traffic and deer grazing. The sod must also compete with the superficial roots of the trees that surround and shade it.

Some modern garden writers knock the idea of a grass lawn, but in a most rewarding way, my backyard is used much like a ball field or golf course, and every couple of summers I follow the lead of the greenkeepers and turf-growing pros that tend those green wards by aerating my lawn with a rented plug aerator.

I start Saturday morning with a trip to Home Depot. Configured like a walk-behind lawnmower, the gas-powered machine features a cylinder of four sets of hollow steel tubes that rotate when the self-propelled drive is engaged. In front is large rubber wheel filled with water that, along with a set of detachable lead weights, help drive the hollow boring tubes into the ground. As they rotate, the tubes poke into the soil, with each revolution extruding a fresh plug of soil, each about the size of a finger.

Muscling the gas-powered beast back and forth across the yard is a workout, and I have my hands full steering it. But in the time it takes to run a mower across the lawn, the spiked cylinder punches thousands of four-inch-deep holes into the turf. Littering the ground are that many plugs of soil, each a cross section attesting to the health of turf and the earth that supports it. Most of the finger-sized cores are topped with a snippet of green grass above a crumbly layer of brown thatch; below is a tangle of roots still clutching a small cylinder of soil.

Within weeks the grass rebounds, spreading its roots deep into the newly made and freshly plugged holes. What’s more, the softer and thicker lawn is better equipped to soak up all the rain it can take, which in this vicinity is more than 50 inches a year. At times, especially after a fall Nor-easter, or with this year’s spring melt, the groundwater nearly rises to the surface of my property, with the lowest part of my yard covered by standing water that takes a day or two to drain away.

Soil plugs, and the holes they came from, pepper the lawn after aerating.

Soil plugs, and the holes they came from, pepper the lawn after aerating.

Most lawns get compacted by foot traffic, creating all sorts of problems in keeping grass healthy; aerating helps break up the soil for air and moisture to seep in. The thousands of holes will soon be filled with fresh-made compost, mixed with the aerated plugs when they break down, along with the grass clippings and leaf litter that have been accumulating over the past few mowings.

I’ve rented the machine for four hours, which gives me just enough time not only to aerate my third-acre of turf, but also the smaller lawns of two of my neighbors. They help keep my pile supplied with leaves, and grass clippings and other things throughout the year, so it is good to be able to return a favor.

My arms have hardly recovered by the time I get back from the return desk at Home Depot and get to work dispatching my pile. I scoop up heapings of compost wholesale with the hay pitchfork. Holding a loaded pitchfork over the wheelbarrow, I toss and shimmy each shovelful so that it filters through the wide curve tines into the barrow. I don’t bother to screen it other than to reach into the wheelbarrow every now and then to pick out a stray wood chip or sea shell that clangs against the metal or catches my eye.

The simple act of tossing the compost into the wheelbarrow breaks most of the clumps apart, though every so often I also stop to pluck away a not-quite-cooked fragment of compressed leaves. I toss it into the back corner, and after a few loads I’ve built a mini pile that I’ll keep in reserve to seed next season’s batch. Each clump of old leaves is a veritable Dagwood of bacteria, mold and microbes to activate the coming crush of fall leaves.

It takes a dozen or so scoops with the wide-tined pitchfork to fill the wheelbarrow, and an equal number of flings with the spade to disperse the compost in arcing swaths across the yard. It’s not heavy lifting, as each load probably weighs about 40 or 50 pounds. But it is repetitive, and I fall into an easy if tiring rhythm.

Digging into my pile, after 10 months of nurturing a simple yet complex mixture of organic indredients to fruition as humus, the best soil amendment there is.

Digging into my pile, after 10 months of nurturing a simple yet complex mixture of organic indredients to fruition as humus, the best soil amendment there is.

I can cover about a 25 ft. by 25 ft. stretch of ground with each load, and after a couple hours, most of my yard is covered by a scruffy patchwork of compost. A neighbor walks by with his young son on a tricycle, looks across the rough, coffee-dark mess littering the yard and asks, “what happened to your lawn?” I explain that it’s just temporary, and take a few minutes to rake in some of the heaviest patches.

If screened and sifted finished humus is the smooth variety of peanut butter, then my pile is very much the chunky style. But I will further rake and then mow over all that I’ve spread across the yard, and the berm of compost I lay down along the perimeter of the long, narrow bed of perennials will soon mesh and melt into the deep mulch of rotting wood chips.

As I excavate my way into the midst of my pile, unearthing richly dark, cold-pressed humus — the really good stuff — I begin making trips with the filled-to-the-brim wheelbarrow to each of my three neighbors, who have contributed to the fulsomeness of this year’s heap. My neighbors Craig and Sylvia have recently renovated the front walkway to their home, creating garden areas lined by granite pavers. The garden beds so far are empty, with dirt floors some six inches below the top of the pavers. They are perfect vessels for load after load of compost to mix in time with the hard-packed base earth.

My neighbors the Giaumes have started an in-ground herb and vegetable patch beside their house this year for the first time. On a bare patch of ground nearby, I dump four loads of compost into a long pile, for the wife to mix into the new and now weedy beds.

My neighbors across the street, Jean Luc and Claire, have long tended their garden areas, and for them I spoon out barrows of humus as top-dressing.

My pile yields a prodigious amount of compost to spread wholesale across the lawn and garden beds.

My pile yields a prodigious amount of compost to spread wholesale across the lawn and garden beds.

By lunchtime, I’ve covered all the sections of my lawn that I plan to overseed, hauled 10 loads over to the neighbors and still have a third of my pile left. I’ve lost track of how many wheelbarrow loads I’ve spread, but it’s at least 40. After every few wheelbarrows, I stop to rake in the thickest spreadings; the tines of the rake further tease the clumps apart, and most of the compost disappears down through the blades of grass. A ton or so of wet, crumbly bits and pieces of humus — newly minted living soil — is but a small deposit when spread thinly across a patch of scrappy turf.

Spreading finished compost by the wheelbarrow across my lawn and garden beds.

Spreading finished compost by the wheelbarrow across my lawn and garden beds.

I dig my way around and into this year’s batch of compost. It has distilled into a fairly uniform mix of crumbly dirt and bits of leaves. Shoveling through it is like flipping through a scrapbook of organic memories; I come across a tangled length of monofilament attached to a rusty hook; a petrified husk of an avocado shell. My pile coughs up a furball of matted dog and cat duff from the vacuum bag I’d added to the mix last winter. I fill more wheelbarrows and dump loads across the garden beds, flinging it straight from the wheelbarrow with a twist one way and then another.

Toward the end of the day, I’ve worked through the bulk of my pile. I figure I’ve spread about two cubic yards so far, or about as much to fill the bed of a big pickup to the gunwales. All that remains of my pile is a rough mixture of clumpy old matted leaves, a few seashells and a stray corn cob or two. Over the next couple weeks, as I do more fall transplanting and find more garden chores to do, I know I’ll sift through my mini pile further until its shrunken to a few shovelfuls.

On Sunday, I take a break from my pile. I need a day off, and use it to go for a hike with my son and neighborhood kids. It’s yet another sunny day, and I want to let the compost dry in the sun. I want the  tiny critters lurking within it to have time to find refuge by burrowing down into the turf before I mow the yard to finish up my weekend’s work.

I haul the mower out of the shed after a late breakfast on Monday and give the lawn a quick mow to further shred the last scraps of the compost top dressing. The hot dry spell has yet to break, and I decide to wait until mid-week, when thunderstorms are forecast, to spread a 10 pound bag of new grass seed across my yard, an annual replenishment of perennial rye, fescues and blue grass. The fruit of turf-grass farms in the Pacific Northwest, if some of it sprouts and takes root, my yard will have that much more genetic variation. Abetted by some slick aspirational marketing and the best biology Big Ag can buy, grass is a world-class colonizer. It also may be in man’s nature to cast seed upon the ground.

But there is a time for everything, and on a hot Labor Day afternoon I head to the beach my son and the neighbors. I can’t help but notice the ragged lines of seaweed washed up at the high-tide mark, and look forward to returning in a few weeks’ time, after the beach-goers have gone, to harvest the first batch of rotting green seaweed to add to the dead dusty leaves that begin my next pile.

We end Labor Day Monday with a backyard barbecue. My neighbor Don comes over. He looks across the back lawn to the empty space where my pile has resided for the past 10 months and asks, “where did the compost go?”

Something's missing from my backyard -- a ton or so of fresh compost ... but not really.

Something’s missing from my backyard — a ton or so of fresh compost … but not really.

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