My Pile: All the Trimmings

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday as they now call it. My shopping today will be all for my pile, and I don’t have far to go to collect it.

My pile is freshly stuffed with a new supply of seaweed gleaned from the local beach after a pre-feast walk. The compost bucket is full of kitchen trimmings and plate scrapings. I heap the leftovers of the leftovers and turn to top off my pile with a fresh and final gathering of leaves.

A fresh batch of seaweed, spiked by sea grass, tamps down my pile on Thanksgiving day.

A fresh batch of seaweed, spiked by sea grass, tamps down my pile on Thanksgiving day.

On the north side of my corner lot, two 30-foot strips of forsythia bushes line the road, flanking either side of the driveway.

I prize the forsythia hedge for shocking my yard back to life each spring with its vibrant display of small yellow flowers that spark upward along spiky stems, exploding like fireworks above the more dainty crocuses and daffodils poking up from the wood chips underneath.

Come summer their profuse cloak of growth creates a privacy screen for my house and yard, impenetrable to even the dog chasing after a muffed tennis ball. The deer don’t touch their small oblate leaves, and their pick-up-sticks matrix of stems give perch and refuge to the flocks of dusky sparrows and colorful chorus of finches and wrens and cardinals that flit back and forth from the bird feeder I’ve hung from the lowest branch of a nearby maple.

Rooting out a mess of leaves from the tenacious limbs of the forsythia hedgerow is always among the last tasks of the fall cleanup.

I keep these tangly hedgerows trimmed about head high, just wide enough to reach over the middle with my clippers from either side.

Not only does the forsythia usher in the growing season with its burst of spring yellow and prolific growth, it’s about the last deciduous planting to give up its leaves for the year.

Being set along the road and within the spread of a sycamore, four maples and a pine — and a gust away from a cluster of ancient oaks nearby — the forsythia also serve as catch-all windrows that snag all the leaves blown their way. By the end of each fall, the spiky shoots that form the base of each forsythia bush have trapped a deep layer of rotting leaves. Papery sycamore and waxy oak leaves are suspended mid-air like so many plastic bags stuck in a tree along a highway.

Extracting this leafy mess is a chore, and some years I don’t even bother. I either leave the detritus to settle into itself or cover up the base with shovelfuls of wood chips tossed into the hedgerows. But having assiduously raked or mulched up the rest of my leaves this fall, and having some newfound capacity in my pile, I decide to plunge in.

First, I tease out the top layer of leaves with a rake, the tines bucking and bowing with each thrust and parry into the tangle of limbs.

With the easy pickings gleaned with the rake, it gets down to hand-to-hand combat. I’ve tried blowing out the leaves by poking at the leaves still locked in the base of each arching bush with the nuzzle of my leaf blower. But it’s a noisy job and success can only be achieved by a scorched-earth sort of blowing to blast out the holdouts.

I’ve found it’s just as well to kneel down to grab the wet leaf mold and pluck the stray leaves by the handful. I wear a heavy work jacket, but have no defense against the springy broken branches that whip back up into my face, aside from my eye glasses.

That lack of protection has hurt me before. As a high schooler, I made pocket money by mowing and tending the lawns of a half-dozen neighbors. One yard I cared for had a similar hedgerow, and one fall I was raking leaves from out of the bushes when the tip of a branch poked me in the eye. It hurt, then kept hurting. After a few teary days, my mom took me to the doctor. He took x-rays and showed me the film, which revealed that a tip of a branch had penetrated my eye socket, broken off and was lodged behind my eyeball. I still remember the sight of the x-ray, showing the ghostly image of a perfectly formed bud tucked behind the orb of my eyeball.

I also still remember quite vividly the experience of the surgical procedure to remove that bud from behind my eyeball; the pinchers forcing my eyelids apart; the slender needle of anesthetic poking into my eyeball, bending; the brusque bending of the eyeball itself as the surgeon got behind it to remove the fat splinter. And I remember going to my high school football coach, wearing an eye patch, to say that I would have to miss the Friday night game. I was a receiver, and he asked me if I could still play if I could just line up “on my good side.” He was a very winning coach, but that game I sat on the sidelines.

Forsythia doesn’t give up its leaf litter without a fight. But it’s worth it for my pile.

The two rows of forsythia produce four long rows of heavy, wet leaves, thick with rich crumbly leaf mold and studded with broken branches flicked up by the aggressive raking.

This collection is too heavy and too “sticky” to move with my old bedsheet, so I use a small plastic tarp, about 3 ft. wide, 5 ft. long and rimmed by a clothesline laced through  grommets along its edges.

I rake the dense leaf and shrub litter onto the tarp and drag it over to the pile, six loads in all. It’s good stuff — a heavy topper of veteran brown stuff that, once moved, will now resolutely refuse to be scattered about again by any winter wind storm. It will easily absorb the rain and blankets of snow that will come. This thick layer of leaf mold and half-rotted wood chips gives my pile reassuring bulk, a fine addition to the freshly deposited Thanksgiving scraps, seaweed and the last big harvest of leaves.

The dark top portion is from underneath my forsythia hedgerows.

The dark portion of leaves atop my growing pile is from underneath my forsythia hedgerows.

My Pile: It Takes a Village

The Latin origin of compost is “compositum,” which can mean a few things, among them “made up of little pieces.” The word “compost” as we know it today, a “mixture of leaves, manure, etc., for fertilizing land,” stems from an Old French word, composte, the roots of which are “bring” and “together.”

My pile defines all that and more, both in and of itself and because of the way it brings together the small community that is made up of my nearest neighbors. It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true of my pile. I’ve come to share its building up with these neighbors, and we share alike the disbursement of the homegrown bounty that is its final result.

A good thing, too, because my pile now needs a little help from its friends. In recent years I’ve lost four rotted old swamp maples in my yard, undermined by the slow, pernicious work of carpenter ants and then toppled by the sudden coup de grace of a Nor’easter or hurricane. Gone, too, is a tulip magnolia in the front yard that in a future post I will take blame for killing with too much love in the form of a smothering load of wood chips. (I still mourn that specimen of a tree for its blossoms in the spring, less so for its waxy leaves that seemed immune to composting.)

Still, that’s five or more tall trees full of leaves that have gone missing from my pile. So much, that for the first time early this fall, I gave some thought to not having enough leaves and stuff of my own to fill my pile as it now stands between its twin log walls.

Good thing that my pile now takes in an ever greater supply of leaves and other compostibles from the neighboring homes that surround my corner property, four in all. In their own ways, my neighbors have come to value my pile, as a convenient depot for their own garden and kitchen waste, as well as a source for potting soil and refreshment of topsoil for their gardens. And that’s a very good thing for my pile.

The family whose home is to the back, southern side of my property nowadays simply rakes their leaves in their front yard into a big pile; they know before long I’ll be by with my handy bedsheet to drag them all away. They also keep their kitchen scraps in a lidded bucket by the back door for me to collect on a weekly basis. A homespun family of six that rarely goes out to eat, their kitchen contributions to my pile far outstrip that of my own.

An older, empty nest couple lives on the western side of my corner lot, and for them I haul away the leaves of the sycamore tree on my side of the fence that collect in messy drifts in their driveway. You could argue (and I think they do over the dinner table) that all those leaves are my responsibility anyway. I don’t mind; they are sweet super seniors who are ever-friendly when talking over the short fence that separates us, and who often bring over home-baked goods.  Besides, I’ve read that sycamore leaves make particularly good leaf mold.

My pile is gluttonous, and I have no problem spending a few minutes cleaning up their yard in the fall or shoveling snow from their steps in winter. My pile is a mix of altruism and self-interest, which is another way to define community.

My other neighbor across the street, to the north, donates grass clippings from his mower basket all summer long; he also gives me a shopping bag full of rabbit bedding and pellets every week or so, from the family pet. In the fall he bags most of his leaves, though I’ll pitch in when he cleans the leaves from along the street we share, and drag a load over to my pile.

The fourth adjoining neighbor, a retiree who lives with his wife in a home she grew up in across the other street of my corner lot, to the east, used to spend hours sucking up leaves from their small, tidy lawn with a vacuum attachment to his electric leaf blower. It would take him an afternoon to fill a garbage can or two with pureed mulch, which he would then load into his pickup truck to take to the yard-waste center.

We’re friendly, and I was only too happy to take the burdensome can of finely chopped leaves off his hands. It always made a fine addition to my much more fulsome heap of whole leaves.

Most prized are the contributions from the two large Japanese maple trees in his yard, which drop their vibrant crimson leaves late each fall, in a shudder like Harry Potter’s whomping willow. I covet those delicate, star-shaped leaves each fall like no other, and over the past several years have gladly crossed the street with my rake and bedsheet to sweep them up and add them to my pile, icing on a cake.

A closeup of the Japanese maple leaves, a prized addition to my pile.

A closeup of the Japanese maple leaves, a prized addition to my pile.

It’s the color that attracts me, though I am intrigued to find that I might be swayed by more basic instincts.

Joanna Klein explain things further, both the poetry and the science, in a New York Times article, “Why Does Fall Foliage Turn So Red and Fiery? It Depends.”

“Leaves scream their final cries in color before dropping to the ground. Their shouts — in golden, crimson or scarlet — eventually fade to brown bellows, and their lifeless bodies dry up on the forest floor. It absorbs their crinkly corpses and that’s it — worm food. The fall of a leaf in autumn is an orchestrated death. A complex, brilliant, beautiful death.

“When you think of it as watching the death of leaves, it sounds morbid, but it’s captivating nonetheless. Does the way some turn red in the process serve any purpose?

“Leaves actually start out yellow. Chlorophyll, the chemical responsible for giving leaves their green appearance and converting light to energy during photosynthesis, just overpowers it in the spring and summer. But when temperature, daylight and weather events like rain or drought cause leaves to die in the fall, chlorophyll breaks down and reveals the yellow or orange helper chemicals known as carotenes or carotenoids that were there all along.

“Red is another story, because it’s made on purpose. As some leaves die, they produce chemicals called anthocyanins (also found in the skin of grapes and apples) from built up sugars. These chemicals produce a red pigment that can combine with green pigments left from chlorophyll and display different shades of red.”

“How bright this red is depends on what species the leaf belongs to, its inherent genetics and the environment around it …. but the question still remains: Why do some leaves use precious energy to turn red right before dying?

“According to a 2007 paper, published in The Botanical Review, red and yellow fall leaves could be flashing arrows that attract birds and mammals to a tree’s fruits. Animals that stop by for a bite will then do what animals do, dispersing the seeds as they go, thereby aiding in the species’ survival. On the other hand, colored leaves could work like the wings of the monarch butterfly, warning others about bad-tasting defensive poisons or chemicals that tend to be in red leaves.

“But this could be wrong, too. Pests laying eggs in the fall might prefer drab plants rather than bright ones, leaving the bright ones to survive. “It may be an ‘I’m super-healthy, don’t bother’ signal to potential insects, pests, or parasites that they should look elsewhere,” Kerissa Battle, a community science educator at Community Greenways Collaborative, wrote in an email. But then again, she said, the red color could also signal that a leaf is on its way out, and there’s not much healthy stuff left to eat before it drops.”

For me, red in a leaf is like a matador’s cape to a bull — an irresistible signal to gather what I can, while I can, from wherever I can, for my pile. And when the delicate, scalloped, deep scarlet leaves of the Japanese maples fall upon my neighbor’s lawn, I’m there to catch them practically before they land. Otherwise, I’ll miss out on them if not altogether, then at least as a whole.

Over time, my neighbor wore out his little blower turned leaf sucker. He now mows his leaves into mulch on the ground, rakes them onto a big blue tarp and drags the load across the street over to my pile. If I’m around, I’m happy to help. My neighbor is very happy with our arrangement, and now spends a fraction of the time he once did in cleaning up his yard each fall.

There’s actually a fifth neighbor who comes into play with my pile. My neighbor’s neighbor across the street is a single woman who lives with her elderly father; her house is lorded over by several large oak trees, many of which fall on the street side of her white picket fence. I still have the thank-you card she kindly sent me after a buddy and I swept her leaves along the street onto my bedsheet and dragged them over to my pile. The card reads, “Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.

Since the late 1980s, Connecticut towns have been required to recycle a number of things, including all leaves. Most of the yard waste is collected at a town-run facility on the other side of town. I’ve heard that the town’s yard waste used to be composted locally, but some years back the local recycling operation was blocked by neighborhood opposition to the thought of mold spores emanating from the facility.

So the town shut down the composting facility and sold off its machinery. (Once nearly denuded of trees, our part of the Northeast is now heavily wooded, and I can’t imagine how you’d make the argument that a local compost yard would produce any kind of mold that’s different from what comes out of all the other woods and bogs and fields and yards that make up our part of the world, but that’s NIMBY for you.)

In our neighborhood, the composting is very much an IMBY affair. Aside from generating lots of nice neighborly feelings, I figure my pile now takes in the bulk of leaves from nearly a three-acre reach of suburbia, counting pavement. That’s six homes that have gone “off the grid” of the town’s fall leaf cleanup.

My pile is awesome…

 

My Pile: Full of Sheet

My father introduced me and my brother to the convenience of using an old bed sheet for gathering up autumn leaves. We lived in Kentucky at the time, on a two-acre lot with a parkland spread of mature hardwood trees that produced copious amounts of leaves each fall.

We’d rake the leaves into big piles, spread a sheet across the just-swept ground next to the pile and rake and “kick-walk” the leaves high onto the sheet.

Of course, this process works only if you have a nearby place to dispose of the leaves en masse, and we did – across the street was a wooded ravine that sloped down to a creek, too steep to develop as a home lot.

Gathering together two corners each, like a king-sized hammock, we’d drag the sheet, bulging with leaves, across the street and unfurl it down the steep slope that began just past the pavement.

I’ve used the same old bed sheet in my much smaller yard for the past four or five years. It’s battle-scarred, ripped by sticks, stained by mud and tannins and sporting a duct-tape patch over a tear in the middle that a few years threatened to render it useless. The tear has been joined by a few new small rips, but the sheet is still serviceable.

I rake a patch of lawn or the side of the street clear of leaves and spread the sheet downwind of the pile. I cover the sheet with leaves, pluck up the four corners and twist them together, then sling the bag over my shoulder. I feel like Santa Claus delivering the bag of leaves to my pile.

It’s quickest and easiest to move leaves by staying close to the ground with a bedsheet, blanket or tarp.

Depending on the amount of moisture within the leaves, or whether the piles I’m making are from mulching with the mower, each sheet-load weighs, I’d guess, 50 pounds or so. Sometimes it’s light enough for me to swing off my shoulder and fling up onto the pile, more often I clamber up the log staircase on one side of the pile and drag the sheet up to the top. I release the bottom two corners and pull the top two toward me. With a little fididdling, I can usually draw the emptying sheet toward me to drop its payload on just the part of the pile I want.

To my mind, it’s far easier and rewarding to gather up my leaves in this way and keep them on-site. My old bed sheet does the trick; I also have a 3 ft. x 5 ft. rope-rigged plastic tarp for smaller or heavier jobs.

The alternative: stuffing a dozen or more tall brown bags with leaves each time I’m out in my yard, holds little appeal. For one, it’s hard to grasp a mess of leaves. And jamming leaves down the throat of an open-ended brown paper bag is a frustrating lesson in proving the 90-percent air theory of leaves; it takes forever to stuff a bag full, even if you don’t rip it first with a stray branch or wayward tine.

I know most people are happy for the town to take all those bags off their hands or hire out a service and be left with a blown-clean yard, but I see both as a colossal yearly waste of municipal resources, and my own.

The yearly cleanup of leaves is a costly burden to communities across the nation. Pick a suburban town at random, say, The City of Oak Park, Michigan. The town runs a leaf-pickup program in which residents rake leaves from their property into rows along the street. Crews come by once a week in October and “generally” every two weeks in November and December.

Leaves raked to the gutter line of a street in Oak Park, Mich., at a high cost to the town.

Leaves raked to the gutter line of a street in Oak Park, Mich., at a high cost to the town.

Its website reports: “With municipal budgets being squeezed further each year, the expense of leaf collection/composting programs is being scrutinized as well. One study reported the average cost of a municipal leaf collection program per 1,000 population of $2,353.41.”

Tallying up the cost of equipment and labor, Oak Park spends about $370 per mile of curb to vacuum up leaves each fall.

“Since before 1995 when the Federal Solid Waste Management Act eliminated the disposal of yard waste in landfills and the Clean Air Act simultaneously became more stringent regarding burning of tree leaves, homeowners have become accustomed to raking leaves to the curb for collection. However, ongoing research at Michigan State University, Purdue University and others has demonstrated numerous benefits to mulching leaves on-site including, improved soil organic matter, nutrient levels and reduced presence of broadleaf weeds.”

I’ll get around to explaining what my pile allows me to return to the yard each season later, but to take all this material away from its source, midstream in the life cycle, seems a clear-cut loss to me. No wonder companies sell so much fertilizer each spring, after so many consumers spend so much paying to have it taken away from their homes each fall.

Mark Gilliland, writing for the New York State Conservationist, spells out the situation in more detail and offers a solution for New Yorkers to “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em”:

“To maintain a healthy lawn, fall’s leaves must be managed in some way. If you live in a city, town or village, many of these municipalities provide a service to pick up the leaves and take them to a compost facility. Often a portion of this compost is made available to residents. Compost can be used as mulch, tilled into the soil or spread in a thin layer on the lawn. It retains soil moisture, adds nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, and improves soil structure.

“While collecting leaves and composting on a large scale is great, in densely populated suburban areas this may not always be a cost-effective and available option, and it can have drawbacks. For municipal pickup, leaves are frequently raked or blown into piles on the curb. Sometimes these piles spread out, creating a safety hazard for drivers and pedestrians. Leaf piles can also wash into storm drains, clogging storm sewers and causing flooding. Some communities require homeowners to put their leaves into bags by the curb. Aside from the amount of effort it takes to move bagged or loose leaves to the curb for pick up, where destination facilities are distant, the transportation takes a lot of fuel and generates emissions.

There is another option for property owners to deal with fall’s bounty of leaves: an initiative that the Village of Irvington in Westchester County and some local municipalities have instituted. It’s called “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.” Simply put, the idea is to mulch (shred) your leaves in place. It’s an easy practice to do, and has a number of benefits, including:

  • Keeps your property healthy: Leaf mulch recycles nutrients into your soil to feed your plants, improves soil health, helps retain moisture (reducing the need for watering in dry spells), and provides additional winter coverage for plant roots.
  • Saves money: Helps keep your taxes down by reducing municipal leaf pickup and costs associated with municipal composting or disposal.
  • Saves effort: Many homeowners (and landscapers) find that mulching leaves in place is easier than raking or blowing them to the curb or stuffing leaves into bags.
  • Helps the planet: Avoids the energy use and air emissions associated with transporting leaves to a distant composting or disposal facility.”
A common sight in these parts each fall; seems to me a waste of labor and resources.

A common sight in these parts each fall; seems to me a waste of labor and resources.

 

I do admit to having some envy for the lawn maintenance crews that use a vacuum hose to scarf up leaves and shred them to pieces into a big wooden box in the back of a pick-up or two-ton. What use I could make of all that finely chopped leaf litter!

But my homestyle method works for me and my pile, and a few sheetfuls helps all the way around. I know my pile will soon settle down into itself. I always try to add a layer or two of green stuff between loads or at the end, and I know I’ll be able to repeat the feeding in a day or two.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould! Painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living.”

My Pile: Falling Into Place

It’s a Saturday in the lingering warm autumn days of mid-November, the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday. With a soaking rain due to arrive on Sunday, high time to do the final fall yard cleanup and fully stuff my pile.

Leaf season in these parts lasts about six weeks, beginning in early October when the first leaves start to flutter down from the tops of the maples and sycamores that ring my yard. Some fall on the lawn and garden and gutters; many seem to find their way to the street, where they are then blown to the curb by passing cars and delivery trucks.

I focus on the street leaves first, as they’re easy to rake up in piles to transport wholesale to my pile. It keeps the gutters and storm drains from clogging and makes me look like a good neighbor, in a curb-appeal sort of way. And my pile, its coffers emptied, will take in all it can get.

As the trees withdraw their stores of energy from the canopy down to their roots, they shed their colorful crop in measured doses, spiked by a blustery fall storm or cold snap.

This steady retreat is halted at ground level, where the plantings extend their growing season until the last possible moment. Most autumns, the lawn kicks in with a burst of renewed growth, spurred on by warm days, cooler nights and fall rains; in flush years I have to mow it weekly through the fall. The kitchen garden hangs on with its diminishing returns until the first hard frost, usually in late October. The perennials and small shrubs and ornamental trees that now crowd my garden beds hang on to their color and berries nearly till Thanksgiving.

By mid-November, the big trees have shed their leaves, while other parts of the yard hang in there.

By mid-November, the tall trees have shed their leaves, while the shrubs and bushes cling to their season’s growth.

All of this seasonal growth is dispatched to my pile according to its schedule, and my own, which turns out to be exactly what we both need. The process of putting my lawn and garden to bed for the winter and filling up my pile is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s certainly the most active, a race to harvest the year’s outpourings and put them to a creative, productive end use. And what better time to be outdoors and soaking in the daylight of a lingering Indian summer before the long New England winter sets in.

For a very cool look at how this seasonal cycle of growth plays out on a global level, check out this NASA animation of the yearly cycle of plant life on the land and in the water. The place I hold on this map turns from brown to green and back again.

My pile follows a yearly cycle of growth, as this NASA animation of the earth's biosphere attests. (Click on image to see it play out.)

My pile follows a yearly cycle of growth, as this NASA animation of the earth’s biosphere attests. (Click on image to see it play out.)

Green grass and brown leaves are the two main components of my suburban backyard pile, by bulk. As I start my pile each fall, it’s easy to add heaping layers of each – an after-work session of leaf raking, followed by a weekend mow. At its most basic level, the most productive compost pile is one with a healthy proportion of fresh green things and dead brown material. A pile of cut grass cooks itself into a rotten mess; a pile of leaves just sits there. Mixed together, they have real chemistry.

As much as I can, I add a host of other ingredients to my pile, mostly aimed at following a layered approach to building up my pile for an active winter season of internal combustion of green and brown.

Here’s how it plays out in my backyard: If I rake up a batch of leaves one day after work, the next day I’ll take the dog for a run on the beach. I bring with me a plastic bucket – the kind you use to set a beer keg in and fill with ice – and scrap up a bucket-full of seaweed from the high-tide line to take home with me back to my pile. In my town, dogs are allowed back on the public beaches on Oct. 1; he loves chasing after a tennis ball, and I’ll take every chance I get to collect seaweed while we’re at it.

Later in the week, I’ll hit another spot in my yard or the street for more leaves, then add a bucket full of kitchen scraps, from both my house and my neighbor’s; or perhaps another neighbor has left a shopping bag full of shavings and poop from their rabbit hutch. Or I’ll stop by Starbuck’s for a groaning bag of coffee grounds.

“The word harvest comes from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck,” I find on dictionary.com. “The season we call fall was once referred to simply as “harvest” to reflect the time when farmers gathered their crops for winter storage, roughly between August and November. Astronomically, the season lasts from the end of the September until December, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“In the early 1600s as more people started moving into cities, the word harvest fell out of use. Instead, city dwellers began to use the phrase ‘fall of the leaf’ to refer to the third season of the year when trees lose their leaves. The word fall comes from the Old English word feallan which means ‘to fall or to die.'”  (The word autumn comes from the ancient Etruscan root autu- and has within it connotations of the passing of the year. It was borrowed by the neighbouring Romans, and became the Latin word autumnus. As more people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns, the word harvest lost its reference to the time of year and came to refer only to the actual activity of reaping, and autumn, as well as fall, began to replace it as a reference to the season. Evidently, I read further, nowadays only the British use “autumn.”)

In any event, and at last, inexorably, every autumn my pile falls into place. Each harvest of pluckings gathered from kitchen, beach or dumpster is topped off by the latest collection of fallen leaves. If mulched into pieces, all the better.

The “at last” of leaf drop varies from season to season, though the timing is increasingly much up in the air. “As the seasonal change creeps later into the year, not only here but all across the northern United States and Canada, the glorious colors will last longer,” writes Craig S. Smith in The New York Times in a 2016 article, “How a Changing Climate Is Shaping a Leaf Peeper’s Paradise.”

“We only have to read Henry David Thoreau to know that climate change is pushing the changing colors into the year,” Smith continues. “In his 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” the naturalist wrote: ‘By the twenty-five of September, the Red Maples generally are beginning to be ripe. Some large ones have been conspicuously changing for a week, and some single trees are now very brilliant.”

Nowadays? “‘In general, peak leaf color in Concord and the surrounding Boston area for these maples is now more typically a week or two later,’ than what Thoreau observed, said Richard Primack, a biology professor at Boston University.”

In fact, Smith cites data that sound even worse. Looking at autumn color in a central Massachusetts forest studied form 1993 to 2010, he predicts that “the duration of the fall display would increase about one day for every 10 years.” That’s a week per lifetime, and may explain why I feel like I’ve been raking leaves for a lifetime this fall, and will continue into December.

The point is, this slow-motion fall does give me time to add that many successive layers of sundry green additions, which contribute their own energy and froth to the mix. Though after every work session with my pile, as much as I tell myself that this is no garden-variety pile that I am making, it always ends up looking the same – a big, boring old heap of dead leaves.

Until, that is, the first hard freeze of fall, when this multi-layered approach gives the unmistakable sign that my backyard bio-engineering is paying off: On frosty mornings a vent of steam rises from the crown of my pile like the tell-tale plume of a brewing volcano. I won’t much disturb this big fat brown cocoon until early spring, and then only to add fresh hot compostibles to it. Until then, I know my pile will be cooking under its own weight and energy. It’s taken in everything that I can throw into it, and will now make that lot its own.

Proof that my multi-layered approach pays off; steam rising from the depths of my pile in late fall.

Proof that my multi-layered approach pays off; steam rising from the depths of my pile in late fall.

My Pile: A New Home Base

Some years ago I relocated from Los Angeles to Connecticut, landing a better gig with a golf magazine, and looking forward to a change of scenery. I plunged into marriage, then homeownership, buying a tidy little Cape in Westport with a sizable yard of trees and grass and not far from Long Island Sound.

At last, I had a compost pile that I could call my own. We had a son, and it was nice while it lasted. Then things fell apart, and I ended up buying a smaller, cottage-style house nearby for me and my 5-year-old boy.

It was an old widow’s home, with a seriously overgrown yard on a one-third acre lot studded with tall trees, including several different types of maple, two large sycamores, a pair of mulberry trees, a big white pine, a pretty tulip magnolia in front and an ancient, bedraggled willow tree in back. I knew I would buy it the moment I pulled into the driveway to meet the realtor. I was sold on the yard, a reclamation project that I knew would keep me preoccupied while rebuilding my own life.

I heard later from a neighbor that the woman of the house once enjoyed gardening, but after losing her husband and contracting Lyme disease, she gave up on maintaining the property. As she aged in place, a shut-in, the invasive vines and trash trees slowly took over, encroaching from the tree-lined edges of the yard, rolling over her garden borders until only a narrow moat of grass was all that separated her house from a suburban jungle.

When I moved in, the property was the neighborhood eyesore. I couldn’t wait to reclaim the yard from decades of neglect and make it my own.

Closing on the house in May, I spent the summer clearing the property of 20 years of unchecked growth, hauling away truckloads of brush. Spending so much time outdoors, I got to know my neighbors, who would stop by to appraise, and praise, my efforts at overhauling the blighted mess.

The property was so untended that when I was grubbing out the tangled mess of vines in the back corner of the yard, I came across tramplings and scat from deer that had overnighted there in seclusion, though my neighbors’ houses were less than 30 feet away on either side. I also had to encourage the fat and happy groundhog who lived under the back porch to take up residence elsewhere.

After a summer’s worth of sweat equity, the bones of the property were revealed, and they were good.

 

The west side of the yard, looking from the street to the back corner, where my pile makes its home.

The west side of the yard, looking from the street to the back corner, where my pile makes its home.

A corner lot yet not quite square, the yard had what English garden creator Vita Sackville-West called “minor crookedness.” Plotted from an onion farm that was developed in the postwar years into a modest neighborhood of capes and split-level ranches, the yard slopes from the road in front about a foot in grade, with the back corner the lowest point, tending toward the mucky. The neighborhood is less than a mile from Long Island Sound and just a few feet above the mean high tide line, which means that in wet times the water table rises up to nearly ground level.

A friend in the tree business tackled the trees that needed to come down – a pair of old mulberry trees that draped over two sides of the house, carpet-bombing the roof with purple berries; a slender maple tree fatally wrapped and warped by hairy tentacles of poison ivy that reached far up into the canopy; a bigger, rotted old maple that stood at the center of the new grass lawn I envisioned for toss-and-catch games with my young son.

I recall it being a handsome tree, but it was a swamp maple, considered a junk species by most arborists, and its roots spread far across the ground. Swamp maples sprout early in the spring. Their dense leaves block the sun in summer and come fall their weak, over-extended limbs often fall victim to storms, usually across power lines. Swamp maples are becoming the dominate tree species in the Northeast, unchecked by humans and aided and abetted by deer, turkey and squirrels, who chomp away at oak saplings and acorns and have no use for swamp maple.

Dominating the backyard was an old willow tree, a good three feet thick at the base. It had three main branches, each lopped off about 25 feet off the ground. Years of second growth had sprouted from the topped ends, giving the tree a ragged if still majestic crown. It was a dramatic sight, thickly cloaked in heavy strands of English ivy. I considered keeping it as I worked my way across the rest of the yard, rooting out truckfulls of brush, daydreaming of elaborate treehouse constructions to place atop its thick trunk and tripod arms.

Willow trees, too, are considered second-class citizens of the modern suburban landscape – fast-growing but unruly, messy and weak. They generally don’t age well. I suppose the old widow had the money to trim it but not the cash or will to take it down entirely.

Likewise, I resisted my tree guy’s entreaties to put it out of its misery. Cutting down the huge old willow would nearly double my tree-clearing bill; I got a deal on the maple because it made good firewood to be hauled away as logs, but the soft, spongy wood of the willow wasn’t good for anything. It would cost a small fortune to haul off, even if you could figure out a way to load it into a truck.

Chris, my tree guy, made the decision for me, and I came home from work one day to find it prostrate on the ground, in massive, chopped-up pieces.

It was those chunks of willow that I used to construct the new home base for my pile. I rolled them to the corner of the yard, upending two of the biggest pieces about eight feet apart. I hoisted two more logs atop them each, rejoining the pieces of the limbs so that two logs stood as one across the backside of my pile, about chest high.

I stacked two twinned smaller logs next to the first pillars, pleased to find them about six inches lower than the cuts of the anchor logs. For the third row I used two logs, each about six inches shorter in length than the stacked logs before, and finished with two squat logs of park-your-butt size, creating a wooden crib with twin barked sides that stepped from two feet high to about four feet.

The side wall of my pile, made of logs from an old willow.

The side wall of my pile, made of logs from an old willow.

The whole logs made a decent, if rustic enclosure. I nailed an 10-foot section of wire garden fence, caged from a neighbor, across the back end to complete the three-sided enclosure. I filled the crib with its first batch of leaves and dirt and debris left over from the cleanup of all the brush and tree limbs.

By the time the leaves of the trees left standing began to rain down upon my newly seeded lawn, that first flush of yard waste was well on its way to being cooked. I had a new patch of ground with plenty of green grass for my son to play on, freshly prepared garden beds to plant the coming spring, and a sturdy new home for my compost pile to call its own.

Five seasons later, the willow logs are now encrusted with fungus and molds and sprout mushrooms after rains. They look like old pilings, rotting away as they age in place. But they’ve done their job containing my pile, and adding to it. The log walls harbor billions of fungus spores and bacteria that launch themselves into each year’s new pile, just like my son once did.

Mushrooms sprouting from the rotting log sides of my pile.

Mushrooms sprouting from the rotting log sides of my pile.

My Pile: Pig in a Poke

A backyard compost pile is a pastime, a passion, a pursuit.

It’s all that, and more. I’ve made my pile a big part of my yard, and my life. In return it provides me plenty of exercise, a diversion from other duties and perhaps even a bit of a karmic boost. And in the end my pile pays back (and forward) my investment of time and energy with heaping wheelbarrows full of rich new earth to spread atop the garden and across the yard.

My pile keeps me grounded. More than a hobby, it’s like having a pet. My pile needs care and feeding to keep it active and in good health. I’m devoted to it.

And like any pet owner, I am sensitive to comments about it. One being, “Eww, a compost pile? With all your garbage in it? Won’t that just attract rodents, like rats?

Well, yes — but it’s not my pile’s fault; it’s just doing what a pile does. It’s its nature. It is nature.

We share our suburban landscapes with all kinds of critters, welcome or not. The duplex I lived in in the Hollywood Hills in California, just down the way from rugged Griffith Park, was frequented by all sorts of wildlife. The yard I kept was a real hangout for all kinds of urban critters, chiefly because my downstairs neighbor set out bowls of kibbles and water on her front stoop for her big tom cat. The compost pile was also a draw: One cool morning I dug into the compost pile and surprised a possum that had carved a nesting spot in its warm flanks.

Coming home late from work one evening, I bent over to pet what I thought were the two house cats, mine and hers, crouched beside the dishes, only to realize that the backsides belonged to a skunk and a possum. Thank goodness they paid me no mind, each face buried in a bowl of food. The cats would also scatter whenever a raccoon ambled by. All were afraid of the coyotes that roamed the Hollywood ‘hood at night.

My pile was not big enough for the both of us.

My pile was not big enough for the both of us.

Then the pig arrived. A Christmas present for my downstairs neighbor, it was an adorable little Vietnamese pot-bellied pink piglet with a red bow tied around his thick bristly neck.

Micro pigs were the trendy pet in those days, smarter than a dog, easily house-trained, and with a sense of humor, almost. Plus, this breed was promised to stay cute and cuddly.

The little porker pranced around my neighbor’s ground-floor apartment like a toy poodle on high heels, his hoofs clicking along the wood floors. He used his little snout like the mini-trunk of an elephant, always nosing around, sticking his nozzle into your side for stroking, sniffing out anything and everything. He was the energizer piggy.

And that was the problem. The piglet had one button – the on switch – and he was indefatigable in his search for one thing and one thing only: Food. He was a snout attached to a stomach set on cloven feet.

On occasion, I’d come home from work before my neighbor, and as I tramped upstairs to my apartment, I could hear him below, rooting around. He’d learned how to nose open her kitchen cabinets and delighted in kicking and licking her pots and pans across the apartment in a rackety din. If a pot had a molecule of a food particle, even a memory of a meal, on it, the metal got licked and nosed right until the Teflon wore off.

My neighbor put child-proof locks on all the kitchen cabinets and secured the cat-food bowls. She took the piglet for walks on a leash around the neighborhood. In time, she let him run around the yard, as it was mostly fenced and fairly private from the street.

And then the little piggy sniffed out my compost pile.

At first, I didn’t really mind. Wasn’t it entirely natural that a pig and a compost heap were made for each other? I was prepared to share my bounty, as there’d always been enough to go around. Besides, the pig rooting through my pile did help turn it over a bit.

But soon, the pig’s relentless pursuit of all things edible overwhelmed my little pile. It wasn’t a fair fight. Any bag of fruit and vegetable scraps I added to the mix was gone by the next day. My pile became was his pig pen, his feeding trough, no doubt about it.

The little piggie grew bigger, belying the idea that it would stay cute and cuddly. It put on pounds and pounds each week, and before long had grown to over 100 pounds. Its personality, over-hyped to begin with, grew more single-minded. All it wanted was food; it screamed “Feed Me! Feed Me!” with ever bristly fiber of its being.

I grew resentful and stopped bringing home leftovers from the kitchen. I allowed my pile to devolve into, well, a pig pen, more dust than loamy dirt in the making.

One day I got home to find my neighbor in a fit. She’d left the pig outside rooting around the yard while she was inside her apartment, then found him gone. She printed up “Missing Pig” posters and stapled them onto telephone poles around the neighborhood. The ABC-TV affiliate station was just a couple blocks away, and a news producers saw the flyers and sent a TV crew over to interview her.

“Pignapped! Live at 5!” led the evening newscast. My neighbor, who happened to be a beautiful British ex-pat, was tearfully persuasive in pleading to be reunited with her pig.

Sure enough, some hours later the station got a call from a viewer in East Hollywood, whose neighbor had seen the pig in our yard and absconded with it, he later admitted to the police, to serve as the weekend’s barbecue. The pig was safely returned home.

I moved a while after, taking a job with another magazine on the other side of the country. My neighbor and I stayed in touch, and few months later she called to say that her Christmas gift had grown to 150 pounds of pure surliness. She was sending it to an animal rescue shelter on the outskirts of the Valley, where she said she hoped it would have a long, happy life.

I didn’t miss that pig, but I sure did miss that California compost pile.

 

 

 

My Pile: Gourmet Beginnings

A gardener is very much an editor.

That sensibility has played out over a career largely spent writing and editing for a mix of national magazines. It also might help explain my fascination with the pleasure and the process that is composting.

“The perpetual regeneration of forest parallels the timelessness of literature,” Richard Fortey writes in “The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature.” A noted paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Fortey retired to a four-acre patch of woodland in Oxfordshire; his book is a closely drawn account of what he found in those ancient woods over the course of a year. “The wood is as old as, or even older than, the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf, proving the endurance of art can be tracked by the life of trees.”

My pile begins as a load of raw if purposeful rubbish that over time and with some effort is refined into a finished product put to immediate use. As such, it is of incremental, temporary value, more ephemeral than lasting. A heap of fresh compost pales in comparison to a stately old beech tree that stands and delivers for generations; my pile is not literature; more like yesterday’s news in search of a better end than as bird-cage liner or a wrapper for Mr. Fortey’s fish ‘n’ chips.

There’s no exact recipe for making compost; it’s a creative, unscripted act, yet its production plays out in a time-honored format and fashion. My pile is very much a magazine; at its root, the word refers to a collection or storage location, like a gunpowder artillery magazine. My pile is the Guns & Ammo of gardening.

My vocation as an writer and editor and my avocation as a backyard gardener and composter go hand in hand. I often mull over writing projects while busying myself with the pruning and curating and transplanting that can keep a suburban backyard gardener preoccupied. I also sometimes plot out garden and landscaping projects while idling myself at work.

I’ve kept a backyard compost pile since my days as a writer/editor with a food magazine in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

It was a wonderful job in many respects, chief among them the twice-daily tastings in the test kitchen. Every recipe that ran in the magazine, and then some, were prepared in-house by our chefs, with assists from other staffers and guest editors.

The tastings were held three days a week, the first at 10 am and the second at 2 pm. I was invited to attend not because I had much culinary expertise but because for much of my tenure at the magazine I was the designated male among an office-full of women. Maybe my boss figured that my taste buds, if not discriminating, were at least different enough to give me a seat at the table.

In truth, the dishes were almost always delicious because the chefs could turn even the sketchiest handwritten recipe from some homemaker in Omaha into something to savor.

I’d hang out in the test kitchen as much as I could, watching and listening and smelling all that went into their work while avoiding the stack of recipe transcripts and manuscripts in my inbox.

This was in the early days of modern comfort food, just as the artery-clogging, cholesterol-laden recipes of old were being replaced by Mediterranean menus, featuring lots of vegetables simply prepared and seasoned not with rich sauces but with fresh herbs and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I ate amazingly well from 9 to 5, and couldn’t get a date for the better part of three years.

I don’t recall how the subject of me taking home all the trimmings the cooks threw out each day came up, but once they knew of the modest compost heap I’d started in the side yard of the duplex I rented, they happily and conscientiously loaded me up with all the kitchen scraps I could take home at the end of each day.

kitchen scraps

It was gourmet stuff – floppy green carrot tops and big bottoms of fennel bulbs. Pounds of flicked potato peels, whole volumes of papery onion skins. Lots of shrimp shells, as I recall  — all in all, enough, usually, to fill two paper grocery bags every test-kitchen day.

Each issue of the magazine included about 100 recipes, which every month found its way into a million or more kitchens. Food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom, writing in his blog, wastedfood.com, continues the math by reporting that 95 percent of the food waste produced in the U.S. that could be composted actually ends up going into a landfill or incinerator.

Food waste accounts for some 28 percent of all this trash, though Bloom argues that the total amount of food wasted in the U.S. is actually closer to 40 percent when you take into account farm loss or waste between farm and retailer.

Even though a minuscule amount of food and other organic material ends up being composted, overall the recycling or composting of organic material, including paper products and yard trimmings, “prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Diverting these materials from landfills prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year,” according to an EPA report Bloom cites.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I suppose my LA compost pile offset its fair share of the smog I created driving back and forth to work each day, to help produce a magazine made of many acres of wood pulp.

“When we throw away food we don’t just throw away nutrients,” points out David Owen in The Conundrum, “We also throw away the energy we used in keeping it cold as we lost interest in it, as well as the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and preparing it (assuming we got that far), along with its proportional share of our staggering national consumption of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water, packaging, and landfill capacity. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded. And rotting food is the main source of the methane — an especially worrisome greenhouse gas — that leaks from landfills.”

I lived in a Spanish-style duplex perched on a knoll at the base of the Hollywood Hills. On the edge of the back patio was a tall Ponderosa pine, its lower branches trimmed so the trunk branched upward and outward into a wide canopy sculpted like a statuespue standard poodle.

It was a gorgeous tree, especially in the evening when the setting sun over the Pacific and across the Los Angeles basin nearly lit it from underneath, making its orange-red bark glow and the waxy green needles sparkle. A patch of ivy covered the slope below it, and there, in the bottom corner of the yard, I carved out my first compost pile, digging steps into the terraced hillside to reach it.

Our landlord actually owned two properties on the narrow lot; our two-story unit and, behind it, a small bungalow that faced the next street over connected to our back patio by a pathway. The bungalow’s backyard was taken up by two old olive trees that shed copious amounts of long slender leaves and a rich rain of black olives.

Alongside the duplex was a sliver of grass bordered by a boxwood hedge beside the walkway to the street. The tiny lawn gave way to a small rose garden perched above the street, with an impenetrably huge hedge of brilliant magenta bougainvillea fronting the sidewalk and running alongside the downhill side of the property.

Though small and set on a hillside, the yard produced enough growth throughout the long California growing season to keep my compost pile in business. I especially liked scooping up piles of the day-glo petals of the bougainvillea to add to the heap, as thin as the breath strips you put on your tongue and just as fast to decompose.

Profoundly spoiled by the chefs in the test kitchen, at times my pile was more kitchen scraps than yard refuse. It was a turbocharged stew of vegetable matter, with just a few rakefuls of pine needles, scratchy live-oak leaves, a dose of grass clippings and a dollop of homegrown rotting olives for me to contribute.

My landlord was happy that I took ownership of the yard, and my downstairs neighbor was pleased, too, that she could clip flowers for her apartment as she wished, and happy to have me puttering about in the yard.

Being a monthly magazine, we worked off an editorial calendar set several months ahead of real time. In October we tested our Christmas menus, which meant that our fattest issues hit at the tail end of California’s dry season and just before the winter rains began. The test kitchen worked overtime in those months, producing turkey after turkey to taste, and more important, all the trimmings for me to take home.

Pound for pound, there wasn’t a more fecund compost pile in all of Los Angeles. I’d pitch my LA compost pile as two hours of a great movie, produced from miles of raw film.

Over the course of several years of magazine issues, my gourmet compost pile helped turn a rented patch of compacted, hardpan dirt into a lush backyard oasis. When the fall rains came, the garden soaked up every drop, and the roses and bougainvillea and rosemary thrived in the California sunshine. And I became a composter.

That all changed when my downstairs neighbor got a baby pot-bellied pig for Christmas…