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 backyard compost heap 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 the 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 and salt marsh hay, to tangly tomato vines, shredded paper 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.
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 season’s 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 hurled 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.
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 allow about half of the mulchings to be disgorged back onto the turf from the stuffed-up mower as I go.
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 asphalt.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 just beginning…