My Pile: Size Matters

The parameters of my pile are shaped partly by my ambition but mostly by the sheer number of leaf-producing trees in my yard. Since moving to my small suburban property 10 years ago, I’ve lost a handful of mature deciduous trees, mostly swamp maples and mostly due to storms.

The grass lawn and garden beds have greatly benefited from the decrease in shade and roots. My house and those of the two adjoining neighbors are that much safer from the threat of their heavy, overarching limbs and rotted trunks riddled by fat black carpenter ants. But my pile is that much less for all the leaves that once dropped from those profligate trees each fall.

To compensate, I’ve expanded my pile’s reach, and more and more of its autumn crop of leaves comes from my neighbors’ yards or from along the street. I also now forage farther afield for bonus materials to add to the mix, chiefly seaweed and seagrass from a nearby beach. It all adds up.

My pile’s mass is bolstered by two parallel rows of seven whole logs (from those maple trees) set about seven feet apart. The smallest pair of logs at the front are a foot or so tall – they make nice flat perches for a hand tool, beer can or butt. I like to ponder my next garden project sitting at the foot of my pile.

The rest of the stacked logs rise in rough matching increments to close to four feet high at the back. A stretch of 36-inch-high wire garden fence, its cut ends stapled to the tallest logs, makes a useful backstop. So at best, my pile is seven feet wide, eight feet deep and five, maybe six feet high at the center.

As such, my pile is pretty sizable for a third-acre piece of suburban property, a sturdy set piece of barnyard nature in the back corner of my yard, on par with the garden shed, trampoline and picnic table. It’s a feature of both my landscape and lifestyle.


The backside of my pile, late fall.

The backside of my pile, as fall turns to winter.

My pile’s structure and dimensions are modest enough to allow me waist-high access to most any part, whether it’s with a pitchfork, rod of rebar, garden hose or shovel. The logs are sturdy enough to clamber up to dump material over the top.

The wire fence along back side bows backward with the weight of the gathered leaves. That and the sidewalls limit the height of the pile to five or six feet tall at best; leaves and such piled higher tend to tumble over the sides and make a mess. I like a tidy pile, so I fuss over its general appearance.

In these climes, a compost pile needs to be of sufficient size to sustain its own internal combustion. Today is Christmas Eve, and with temperatures in the 50s there will be no white Christmas this year. And even though the coming days will grow ever longer, the deep freeze that is a typical New England winter has yet to take hold.

Old hands and the research suggest that 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 4 ft. is the bare minimum for an outdoor, uncovered heap to keep the “hot” bacteria going. Anything smaller isn’t really a compost pile but just a prospect of one, a mound on cold hard ground.

“In most areas of the continental United States, a compost pile needs quite a bit of mass to be self-insulating and maintain ideal temperatures,” advises Stu Campbell in “Let It Rot!”

A pile that is too small may lose its heat so quickly each night that it will cool off, or even freeze, quite readily. Pathogenic organisms, weed seeds, and larvae will not be killed, slowing the whole process. If you want hot, fast compost, your pile should measure at lest 1 cubic yard.

“On the other hand, a pile that’s too large can have different problems. The length doesn’t matter, but if you make it much wider or higher than 5 or 6 feet, the center of the pile may not get enough air and you could wind up with an anaerobic area there. Air naturally penetrates anywhere form 18 to 24 inches into a pile from all directions, but not much beyond that. The center of the pile may heat up too much, killing off the microorganisms. You’re apt to overheat yourself if you try turning a huge heap.

Piles bigger than average – like my own – require more physical effort to sustain the proper mix of air and water needed to fuel the decomposition process. It’s a chore I relish. My pile provides me much more than an ongoing harvest of compost. It gives me an excuse to get outside for a while every so often, plenty of exercise, and a purpose.

A midweek storm, along with my recent soaking and poking, has caused my pile to subside. Its top is now nearly flush with the log walls that contain it. There is room for more.

Taking a morning walk with the dog at the local beach, I find that the storm has also deposited a fresh jumble of seagrass hay along the high-water mark at the local beach. I scoop up a big plastic bucket full, packing the crinkly stems together with a stomp of my boot.

Back home, I gather the bucket of a week’s worth of scraps from my kitchen, as well as the food waste that my next-door neighbors keep outside their back door in a galvanized can, its lid weighed down by a piece of cast iron to keep the varmints at bay.

I tease some empty space in the top of my pile with the hay pitchfork, pulling the mess of steamy leaves toward the edges so that a crater is formed, into which goes a week’s worth of kitchen slop. Farewell banana peel, egg shell and coffee filter — I’ll never see them again.

Next, I take the steel-tined rake and old bedsheet and cross the street. I need more leaves, and my neighbor Craig, a good but busy friend, hasn’t quite got around to cleaning the windblown leaves piled up against the rock wall that borders his gravel driveway. Earlier in the fall he ran his mower up and down the driveway, mulching the leaves as he blew them to the side. More leaves, mostly from the sycamore on my side of the street, have blown up against the wall through the fall and stuck in the rock crevasses.

It takes me 10 minutes to glean two sheet-fulls. With each load I first pick the biggest lumps of gravel and sticks from the edge of the sheet, bind up the four corners of the sheet and heave the pendulous  bag over my shoulder, then shlep it over to my pile like some lumbering, crunchy granola Santa. Prancing up the rotting log walls, I unfurl a blanket on each side across the top. Adding this gift to my pile is a lot easier than squeezing down a chimney. Besides, I owed Craig the favor of sprucing up his driveway, and in return my pile has a late-season boost of primo leaf mulch to cover the kitchen scraps.

I top off my pile by spreading the seagrass hay across the top. It makes good insulation, and once buried, the hollow stalks will keep things loose and airy and the masticated seaweed that binds it together will also help rot it away. The mop-top of blonde straw gives my pile a finished look, in a tossled, hayseed sort of way. I lean in to spot a baby clamshell dangling from the tip of a stem. The waning sun shines through the pearly skin; it twists in the breeze on a strand of sea green like a Christmas ornament. My pile, my crib. Merry Christmas!

Away, in a manger…

My pile on Christmas Day, with all the trimmings.

My pile on Christmas Day, with all the trimmings.




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