My Pile: Topping Off

Here in southern Connecticut in early December, leaf season has peaked and passed. The yards around town have, mostly, been swept clean of fallen leaves, giving way to the bleaker, bare-bones look of early winter.

Each morning the yellowing blades of grass in my lawn are etched with hoar frost and crinkle underneath my footsteps as I venture out with the dog to walk the property.

My pile, a week ago crowned higher than my head with the last big crush of swept-up leaves and gathered seaweed, continues to settle in upon itself, exhaling nightly as it assumes a more graceful angle of repose. The crystalline morning dew sweeps up the front flank from the cold ground to melt away as wisps of steam vapor waft into the ether from the soggy, saggy top.

My pile is never done. It is, by definition, a work in progress, and I am never done with it. Today, as soon as the morning warms, I will top off my pile with the remaining leftovers from the holiday just past. My pile is more than a match for all that we create and consume.

I read in “Improving Your Soil – a Practical Guide to Soil Management for the Serious Home Gardener” by Keith Reid (Firefly Books, 2014) that “For every 100 pounds of fresh organic material added, a mere 1 to 2 pounds end up as humus.”

I’m fascinated by the disappearing act that is my pile, and Reid has the scientist chops to explain what’s going on underneath the surface:

Every time you mix pea vines or carrot tops into the soil, you unleash a cascade of biological activity. Insects, mites, snails and earthworms begin tearing the plant material into pieces as they eat their fill, creating residues that smaller organisms can access more easily. Fungal hyphae begin growing through the leaves and stems, excreting enzymes that digest the tough cell walls. Bacteria and other microorganisms colonize the exposed surfaces, absorbing the nutrients that have been released for the plants’ growth and activity. All these organisms convert carbohydrates into more organisms, while some is respired as carbon dioxide and returned to the air.

This growing population of fungi, bacteria and other organisms attracts the nematodes and protozoa that graze on this bounty to support their growth. They, in turn, are eaten by other organisms. As these creatures excrete waste products or die, they are cycled through more bacteria and fungi. At each cycle, some of the easily digested organic material is respired and lost, while the most resistant materials gradually accumulate. Eventually, only the toughest material remains – the black substance we know as humus—but it represents just a tiny proportion of what was originally added to the soil.”

To be fair, Reid is ambivalent about the value of composting versus adding raw organic material straight into the soil:

“I am a bit of a skeptic about compost and the suggestion that it is a magical solution to all our garden problems.

“There are lots of advantages to composting. The materials produced through the composting process are much easier to handle and mix with soil … nutrients are stabilized in forms that are slowly released in the soil.

“Composting is essentially accelerated rotting, [and] logic dictates that since it is the fungal hyphae and bacterial slimes produced during decomposition that help create a stable soil structure, there is a greater benefit to having decomposition occur in the soil. With composting, most of the biological activity happens outside the soil environment. But if the choice is between composting your old pea vines and returning them to the soil or leaving them on the curb for the garbage truck, I vote for composting!”

Composting has my vote, and although I “grasscycle” much of my grass clippings and mulch many a fallen leaf back into the ground as I mow, I grow weary of having to sweep and vacuum up all the flecks of such litter I track into my kitchen and onto my carpets. Besides, my life and garden would be much poorer without the ongoing backyard science experience that is my pile.

So I will keep stuffing the ballot box that is my pile with the raw organic material that it likes best and that I have on hand. I have two more buckets full of pungent seaweed gleaned from the nearby seashore; another plump plastic bag of shredded office paper, and a small bucket of scraps from my kitchen.

Topping off my pile Dec 2015.jpg

The bottomless (or topless) pit of my pile, ready to receive more leftovers from the kitchen, office and nearby sea.

I skirt the old wood stockade fence along the backside of my property to check on the bigger metal ash can my neighbors keep outside the back door to their kitchen and find the lady of the house stuffing it full with the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers. She has a spare plastic bag packed with the soggy sheaves of newspaper from their rabbit’s cage; she begins to apologize for her youngest daughter being so neglectful of late in cleaning the hutch, but I am happy to take the load off her hands.

I glance toward the back of their small, fence-in yard to notice a low ridgeline of leaves raked just far enough away from their picnic table to be out of the way. She’s diligent in keeping her front yard tidy, and through the fall has swept up her leaves into piles for me to drag over to my pile with a bed sheet, but has yet to tackle the backyard. She knows that on through the winter I will help finish the task, as my pile is like the bear in the storybook and always wants more.

My gleanings assembled, I take the wide-tined hay pitchfork and, turning it upside down, tease the top of my pile from the center to the edges, releasing billows of steam vapor from the dank mix of whole and chopped leaves. Into this newly formed caldera I scatter the bright white office paper, then chuck the upturned plastic bucket full of kitchen scraps from next door. I gingerly tease the rabbit-hutch mess from its plastic bag, and use the tip of the pitchfork to separate the soggy, urine-soaked newsprint. The value of the bunny’s contributions to my pile far outweigh my squeamishness in handling the mess, but just the same, I cover it up with a thin layer of leaves raked up from the front of my pile.

The buckets of seaweed are next, and I stick the pitchfork into the mix to dredge up a tangle of sand- and shell-flecked rotting lettuce from the sea and sprinkle it across the leaves. I always like to stop to examine the flotsam. There must have been a mass molt among the crabs, for this batch is suffused with their carapaces.

I finish by taking up the four corners of the bedsheet full of damp maple leaves and, stepping up along the top of one of the log walls that frame my pile, drag the sack up and unfurl the groaning load across the top.

My pile, newly suffused with a fresh load of raw organic material, has returned to mounded form, and underneath its new cloak of old leaves, will continue the unseen magic of its transformation into something much less, and much more.

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What looks like a big ol’ pile of dead brown leaves actually conceals a riot of “accelerated rot.”

My Pile: ‘The Best Fertilizer in the World’

I’m blessed to live within easy reach of the ocean, and it’s to the beach I go to bulk up on the greenest of green for my pile, seaweed.

This is not a new idea in these parts, as I discovered through an exhibit held some years back at the local historical society. “A Bunch of Farmers” detailed the area’s agricultural roots, beginning in the 1830s, which over the generations developed richly with the “successful maritime exportation of fish and produce to New York, Boston and beyond. By the Civil War, Westport was the leading onion supplier to the Union army, and onion farmers used nutrient-rich seaweed as fertilizer.”

Onion blight, along with the invention of modern food production and preservation technologies, did away with the farming of onions in the loamy, sandy fields here in coastal southern Connecticut, which gave way to second-growth woodland and tracts of suburban housing, ranging from gilded manor and weekend New York retreat to postwar cape and modern McMansion.

My one-story, two-bedroom cottage was built in the early 1950s and sits squarely in the center of a flat, one-third-acre corner lot of coastal marshland long ago dredged and drained into farm fields for those onions and later filled in to develop as postwar housing.

Driving to work or errands along the narrow, winding road my house sits on, each day I pass by two old onion barns. The smaller was long ago converted into a house; the larger, two-story wood structure tucked into the side of a hill, is still pretty much a barn and now used as what looks like a pool house for the modern home it sits behind.

My home is just a mile or so away from several public beaches strung along the northern shore of Long Island Sound in a collection of rocky coves, sandy beaches and tidal-river marshland. I drive to one of the local public beaches often in the fall, with the dog sniffing sea breezes out the side window and a washtub-size plastic bucket in the back cargo space of my SUV.

My dog and I both prefer low tide — him for chasing a tennis ball over the tidal flats and me for searching out the easiest pickings of washed-up seaweed and salt marsh grass.

Gathering seaweed in the fall at a local beach.

Gathering seaweed in the fall at a local beach.

Depending on the season, the weather and the wind, high tide usually leaves a long scraggly line of flotsam, most of it a motley salad of different kinds of seaweed and scraggly reeds of salt marsh grass turned to hay. The wrack line, they call it.

Today’s catch was good; a recent storm had pushed up a dense patch of detritus along a rock jetty close to the parking lot.

The seaweed is yellow and brown and green and chopped by the waves into small mushy pieces, the edges crinkly like lasagna. The layer I set upon is a half-foot deep and flecked with all kinds of seaborne detritus, a Sargasso Sea at my feet. I turn the plastic tub on its side and scrape the briny mix into the bucket with a three-tined hand hoe.

Caught up in the tidal ebb and flow are dismembered crab legs and carapices of baby horseshoe crabs. Shells of mussels, clams and oysters dot the mix, and in they go, too. The clattering seashells, which slowly break down into their basic components of lime and calcium, offset the acidic mulch of all the leaves in my pile. (I’ve also heard that seashells give tomatoes more flavor, and I flick stray shells from the seashore straight into the vegetable garden. Like tossing a penny into a fountain, I wish for tasty tomatoes next summer.) I always have to separate out a few bits of styrofoam or plastic — a broken fork, a bottle cap, snags of fishing line or deflated mylar shell of a helium party balloon, with string.

I love bringing this bit of the beach back home with me. The bucket smells like part wet swimsuit, part low tide, and all pure summer.

Seaweed gathered from the local beach is a rich stew of ready to rot greens.

The town opens up its beaches to dogs on Oct. 1, and I bet I’ve made 10 trips back and forth since then. It’s always a good day when you are at the beach, and on most visits within an hour or so I can tire the dog out and fill up a keg-sized bucket with 30 or 40 pounds of fresh, ripe seaweed or, just as good, a lighter mix of salt marsh hay. My dog’s in great shape, and so is my pile.

“Seaweed garden nutrients are relatively low in nitrogen and phosphorus,” I read on gardeningknowhow.com, “but contain about 60 other trace elements, as well as fungal and disease preventatives. Using seaweed for compost improves soil consistency and increases water retention in sandy or grainy soils and may be used as a top or side dressing. Composting seaweed speeds up the compost process.”

Erik Hoffner, writing for grist.com, adds that “besides being full of necessary nutrients, [kelp seaweed] also contains growth hormones (auxins, gibberellins, and cytokinins) which are readily taken up by plants and put directly to use.”

“Talk about magic seaweed,” writes noted journalist David Kirby in a fascinating article published in late 2016 on takepart.com, wonderfully titled, “How to Stop Farts From Warming the Planet: Feed Cows Seaweed.”

“A single type of seaweed could cut greenhouse gas emissions, fight ocean acidification, removed invasive species, restore fisheries, and help coastal economies around the world,” Kirby writes.

“Researchers in Australia have discovered that the seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, when mixed with livestock feed in small amounts, reduced methane emissions from sheep by up to 80 percent.”

All those burps and farts and manure add up to a huge amount of methane — more than 5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, Kirby quotes a researcher, “The total contribution from land transportation is 10 percent, so we’re talking about the equivalent of half of all the vehicles in the world. It’s not a trivial number.”

I worry about the amount of methane, however negligible it may be in the greater scheme of things, my puny pile may fart out. So I take comfort in knowing that the seaweed I stuff into it may also be a solution to a far greater problem. Evidently, the seaweed contains a compound that helps disrupt enzymes used by gut bacteria to produce methane, which has up to 36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

We may be only just now finding out how basically good seaweed is, in situ and on my pile, but this new reporting makes me appreciate it even more.

Garden writer Eleanor Perenyi, in “Green Thoughts,” her classic account of gardening along the Connecticut coast in Stonington, also sought out seaweed, which required hiring “a man with a pickup truck and the willingness to scramble over wet rocks wielding a pitchfork, not a combination I find every day.”

“The ultimate mulch is, of course, compost and if I had enough of it I would need no other. But one never does have enough—wherefore the salt hay and, increasingly of late, seaweed.”

Perenyi also cites salt hay as “a good source of trace minerals and decomposes without depleting the soil of nitrogen.” Added to my pile it also helps aerate the mixture of other rotting organic material, and any bucket of seaweed I haul home from the beach is usually suffused with the straw of salt marsh grass.

“Like compost [seaweed] is a fertilizer as well as a soil conditioner, one of the oldest known to man. All marine peoples have used it. In seventeenth-century France, royal regulations established the kinds to be gathered and how they were to be used. It has twice the potash content of barnyard manure, making it perfect for beets, potatoes and cabbages, the potash lovers. More than that, it has the power to unlock minerals in the soil; it contains growth-inducing hormones that will increase the yields of tomatoes, corn and peppers. Plants given seaweed are better able to endure a light frost, and some are made more resistant to insect and disease attack. With those remarkable properties (some of which, it is true, have only lately been established by research), and given the high cost of commercial fertilizers and pesticides, you might expect to see the gardening citizenry of both coasts swarming over the rocks and beaches. You don’t, partly because no high-level interest exists to care to tell us.”

Another inspiration for adding seaweed to my pile is The Field, a fine if unsettling film by Jim Sheridan, made from a stage play in 1990 with a stellar cast, starring Richard Harris, John Hurt, a young and menacing Sean Bean and Tom Berenger as the rich, handsome Ugly American. The title role is played, with convincing Irish charm, by an acre or two of lush green pasture enclosed by a rim of ancient stone walls.

Bull, inhabited by Richard Harris, has tended the rented vale his entire life, turning it from barren ground to most productive pasturage, where he raises fresh hay and straw to feed his livestock for market. To Bull, his field is my pile a hundredfold.

The movie begins with Harris and Bean, as his mulish son, collecting heaping strands of giant kelp fronds from a rocky beach, packing the lot into wide-mouth wicker baskets on their backs and schlepping the harvest of seaweed over hill and dale back to their Field.

Their arduous trek plays out wordlessly over the opening titles. Cresting the last slope between the sea and the field, Harris plops down his basket. Gazing over the valley to his field, he says to his son, “God made the world, and seaweed make that Field, boy.”
the-field-richard-harris
“It’s the best fertilizer in the world,” Harris adds as they dump their wicker backpacks atop a pile of seaweed-infused compost, an Irish version of my pile.

It’s a tragic movie, and near the end, old “Bull” Harris tells the American, Berenger, who wants to buy the land out from under him, “It’s my field. It’s my child. I nursed it, I nourished it, I saw to its every want…”

If not to the same morbid end, I feel the same way about my pile.

Seaweed adds a rich mix of nutrients and minerals to my pile.

Seaweed adds a rich mix of nutrients and minerals to my pile.

My Pile: Waste Not, Want Not

Urban Dictionary defines a Connecticut Yankee as “someone who is so cheap with money, they use both sides of the toilet paper … A Connecticut Yankee will serve the same exact meal to house guests two nights in a row to finish the leftovers.”

Guilty as charged, at least as far as the leftovers are concerned. And like any good Yankee homesteader in these Connecticut climes, I make busy through late fall stocking the larder that is my pile with leftovers of leftovers. The entry bar is low: Most any old vegetative matter that the lower parts of the food chain can make a meal of will do. It can be as bland as shredded white paper from the office or as rich as a bouillabaisse of washed-up seaweed and shells plucked from the beach.

I also abide by the old saw that a good compost heap is 80 percent dead brown stuff — fallen leaves, in abundance — and 20 percent green materials — things that biodegrade with some alacrity and without malice. I have no interest in adding cat litter or dog doo to my pile, or meat, though some bones of various critters or crustaceans may be tossed in on occasion. I hear they are rich in calcium and other minerals.

The easy pickings are grass clippings from the yard, until they peter out with the waning autumnal sun. Filtered coffee grounds from a local caffeine shop are always free for the asking, or taking, and my pile is the end stop for all the remains from my kitchen and that of the family next door. Seaweed gathered from the local shore takes more effort, but a jaunt to the beach with a bucket in tow is always worth the trip, whether I bring back a pungent load of wet sandy gleanings or not.

A certain amount of scavenging suits me and my pile. My goal each fall is to find the time and wherewithal to add a layer of something “green” to most every load of leaves I gather from the yard and dump upon it.

At this point in my pile’s life cycle, there’s always way more leaves than anything else. The more fresh rotting green I can contribute to my pile at this formative stage, the hotter it will cook through the winter months and the sooner the mass of leaves and compostible whatnot will boil down into a finished batch of loamy new humus that enriches my lawn and garden.

There are not many rules to building my pile, more like guidelines — and opportunity.

I see value in every garbage can and recycling bin, and scrounging up these leftovers pays off in a very modest way as a local environmental good and a micro investment in my property. Each year’s compost heap adds a lot of fresh, healthy biomass to my yard, and stands as a convenient destination for organic discards. Time to toss the Halloween pumpkins? The puckered-up ol’ Jack O’Lanterns on the porch do cannonballs straight into my pile.

Jack o' Lanterns get tossed into my pile each fall.

Jack o’ Lanterns get tossed into my pile each fall.

Cover with a rounded-up mess o’ leaves, and repeat. Next with a bagful of gleanings from the bottom of a rabbit cage, courtesy of my next-door neighbors. Or a dusting of wood ash from my fireplace, or the tired-out dirt from an old flower pot, upended into a tsunami of fall leaves. It all adds up, into the distillation that is my pile.

I’m sure other compost compilers in other places have their own localized routines and recipes. I’ve seen lists of all the things you can compost, and it’s an impressive array, from dryer lint to hair swept from the floor of the barber shop.

It’s a dirty, messy  and inconvenient truth that we waste an untold amount of green biomass, mostly food but a lot of other things made from nature or manufactured by man. Most of the composting books I’ve perused include charts of the sundry materials that can be safely composted, and the listings are impressively creative and diverse.

In “Let It Rot,” Stu Campbell includes such items as feathers (very high in nitrogen and phosphoric acid), tobacco dust and stems (a rich source of potash) and bat guano (pretty much the richest manure around).

Cardboard and “‘Zoo Poo’ made from elephant, rhinoceros and other herbivorous animals’ poo,” make the list in Nicky Scott’s “How to Make and Use Compost — the Ultimate Guide.”

The silliest thing I will admit to adding to my pile is a gathering of fingernail clippings, cupped in my hand until I ambled outside to my pile. My pile makes work for idle, if manicured, hands.

I also once visited a work colleague who lived in a beautiful apartment in a stable house at a Connecticut estate and, much to her bemusement, brought home with me a bucket of horse manure. The horses she lived above were worth millions, and their droppings added value to my pile as well.

Such inputs are a very modest offset to the magnitudes more of soil that is lost each year across the living skin of the earth.

The United Nations proclaimed 2015 as the “International Year of Soil,” I read on biocycle.net, a website maintained by the “organics recycling authority.” What’s more, Dec. 5, is World Soil Day, my monthly issue of National Geographic reveals. “Soil, in which nearly all our food grows, is a living resource that takes years to form. Yet it can vanish in minutes …

“Each year 75 billion tons of fertile soil are lost to erosion. That’s alarming — and not just to food producers. Soil can trap huge quantities of carbon dioxide in the form of organic carbon and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. Over the course of 25 years, healthy soils can absorb an estimated 10 percent of human-generated carbon emissions.”

Writer Kelsey Nowakowski supplies more factoids:

  • Soil is now eroding up to 20 times faster than it is being developed.
  •  Since 1980, one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.

“If we protect and sustainably manage soils,” says Ronald Vargas of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “we can combat climate change.”

Think globally, garden locally. As Douglas W. Tallamy writes in “Bringing Nature Home,” “Gardeners enjoy their hobby for many reasons: a love of plants and nature, the satisfaction that comes from beautifying home and community, the pleasures of creative effort, the desire to collect rare or unusual species, and the healthful benefits of exercise and outdoor air…

“But now, for the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.’ In this case, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them…

“I needn’t elaborate on the many things our garden do for us,” Tallamy continues. “Properly designed, gardens tie our homes to the surrounding landscape as well as provide an outlet for artistic expression and a source of natural beauty that be enjoyed year round. Our gardens also offer us refuge from an increasingly hectic and unpleasant world. But because gardens are, in essence, groups of plants, they also have the potential to perform the same essential biological roles fulfilled by healthy plant communities everywhere.”

Tending my pile offers me plenty of good ol’ fashioned outdoor exercise. It serves as a crunchy-granola hobby, it keeps me at home and out of trouble further afield, and it all costs next to nothing.

If that all sounds simple and skinflint, know that the payoff is profoundly rich and complex. A garden that is healthy — diverse, well-balanced — begins with and is sustained by regularly replenishment of newly minted soil that is commensurately rich and complex and wholly in sync with the native ground from which it comes.

That’s compost. That’s my pile. Decomposers also “play a vital role in keeping the [plant and animal] in balance,” adds Tallamy. “Most decomposers are insects, and they can be present in fantastic numbers, ready to recycle the nutrients in dead plants and animals for later use by the living. Decomposers are also important components of the terrestrial food chain and help provide the energy required by higher trophic levels.

By adding the richness of organic compost to my garden, I can forsake the costly herbicides and pesticides required to keep most suburban gardens perky and pest-free. “Would we not better achieve our goal of a pest-free garden if we employed nature herself to look after things?” asks Tallamy. ” We have spent the last half-century proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a sterile garden does not work. It is a high-input enterprice requiring more time and money than most of us would like, or are able, to devote or spend.”

Bottom line? I think there’s a bit of the Connecticut Yankee in every composter, wherever their backyard heap may be.

Some kitchen scraps, a half bucket of seaweed, and a bag from the neighbor's rabbit hut. All good to go!

Some kitchen scraps, a half bucket of seaweed, and a bag from the neighbor’s rabbit hut. All good to go into my pile.