My Pile: Ashes to Ashes to ‘Black Gold’

After a long cold week of work and further digging out from an additional dumping of snow, I finish up Saturday morning errands and indoor chores, pondering my pile all the while.

I glance across the backyard through a bedroom window. Like the ground that surrounds it, my pile is still thick with snow, though I can see from afar several craggy holes across the top created by the furnace of heat-producing microbes within. A good sign on a frigid winter day.

My pile, in the process of shrugging off its mantle of snow.

Still, I worry that the weight of the snow covering my pile will squeeze the life out of it.

Through the fall and into these winter months, my pile’s lung-like movement up and down has amazed me. It absorbs the blankets of leaves and buckets of seaweed I add to it, rising high. A day or week or so later, it settles back into itself. My pile is like the science experiment taught to grade schoolers: Here’s a glass of water and here’s a shaker full of salt. Add all that salt to the water, stir it up and wonder: where did all that salt go?

So now I wonder: will all the water locked up in the snow douse my pile’s inner fire? Or will the water melt into sips that will sustain my pile’s inner workings until the sun is potent enough once again to boil it off?

Like my pile, my musings about it are anything but dormant. I enjoy provoking it and prodding it along in all seasons. My pile, even in winter, is my favorite hobby, and more.

I gather dustballs from under the beds and empty the fireplace of its ashes. Rather than dump the resulting brown paper bag half-full of indoor detritus into the kitchen trash bin, I decide to sprinkle it all across the top of my pile. My fast-filling bucket of kitchen scraps has nowhere to go at the moment except into cold storage in the tool shed, but perhaps this dusty blessing of gray ash and carbonized wood will help further melt the snow.

I bundle up and trudge out across the snowpack to my pile. Setting the bag of ash and furry dander aside, I pick up the rebar rod I keep leaned up against the back side of the tool shed. I pierce my pile 20 or so times, from all angles and sides, circling its flanks like a caveman finishing off a woolly mammoth. I focus my prodding on places still thick with snow.

I’m wagering that my pile can continue to thrive under its blanket of insulating snow, and stabbing it a few more times will activate the now dormant areas of the pile underneath.

A 7-ft. length of ribbed rebar is a handy way to prod my pile, creating airshafts through and through.

A 7-ft. length of ribbed rebar is a handy way to prod my pile, creating airshafts through and through.

It’s a good, quick workout, and before long I’ve created a score of shafted pathways for meltwater to soak down through the cold, dry compartments of leaves that surely surround the areas into which I’ve forked in supplies of fresh green rotting stuff. As all the compost guidebooks say, a heap of compost should be like a damp sponge.

I lean over the log wall to peer inside one of the vent holes, rimmed with hoar frost. Within is a cavern of space, creating in part by the pile subsiding and its ceiling of icy snow rising. Like some salt dome down South, my pile’s covering of snow could easily collapse upon itself into a sinkhole of snow. But I figure the leaves inside have now fallen to about the level of the log walls; I decide to add more snow, if only to keep my pile high enough to pee on it in privacy.

I set the bar aside and pick up the wide snow shovel to scoop swaths of crusty powdery snow from an ever-widening ring around my pile, tossing the mushed-up snow across the top. I stop to heft a few chunks of snowbergs to plug the biggest vent holes. My aim is not to smother my pile but to seal any escape hatches of heat. A thermal blanket.

A dozen or so helpings of scrapped-up snow soon reforms my pile into a crested white butte between log walls.

Happy and panting with my handiwork, I grab the bag of ash and furry dustballs. I try to stay upwind as a tilt and flick the bag full of soot across the top of my pile. Chucks of charcoal tumble down the front face, but most of the ash swirls and sticks onto the snow covering my pile.

My pile, freshly adorned with more snow and a blessing of ash.

My pile, freshly adorned with more snow and a blessing of ash, containing nutrients from plant materials to be recycled back into the earth from whence it came. Truly, ashes to ashes…

This stubble of gray will gather sunlight and melt into my pile, the ash and flecks of wood coal sinking slowly downward to add its carbon and nutrients to the mix, the warm wet water vapor rising to meet it from below.

I’m sparing in the addition of wood ash, a very caustic material, to my pile. “Small amounts are fine,” advises Mike McGrath in his “Book of Compost.” “The ashes of high-quality hardwoods do contain high levels of calcium and potassium, which are essential plant nutrients. But we are talking small amounts. No more than a cup of ashes mixed into a 4 x 4 x 4-foot bin.” McGrath would rather see wood ash sprinkled across the lawn or garden (instead of lime) to raise the pH level of the soil, which tends toward the acidic in areas of plentiful rainfall. This I do, pacing across the yard as I jiggle wood ash and bits of charcoal from the paper bag.

McGrath expounds on the qualities and uses of wood ash on the website gardensalive.com: “Julia Gaskin, a Land Application Specialist for the University of Georgia Extension Service, explains that ash from good quality hardwoods contains a very nice amount of potassium; at least 3% by weight. Also known as potash, this is the “K” in the fabled N-P-K scale of plant nutrients—the Dow Jones of Horticulture! Potash improves root health and strengthens the very cellular structure of plants, helping them resist all kinds of stresses.”

Here’s more about potash, from Dan Sullivan, soil scientist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, quoted in an article by Carol Savonen on the Extension’s website. “In the 18th century, the benefits of ash-derived potash, or potassium carbonate, became widely recognized. North American trees were felled, burned and the ash was exported to Great Britain as ‘potash fever’ hit. In 1790, the newly-independent United States of America’s first patented process was a method for making fertilizer from wood ash (U.S. patent number 1: “An improved method of making pot and pearl ash).”

It’s fascinating to realize that processing wood ash was once so cutting-edge technology that it will forever be No. 1 on the list of American ingenuity. I am also intrigued by accounts of how the messy remains of my fireplace can turn my pile into a rich deposit of “black gold.”

Here’s what NPR has to say about it in a Science Friday story by Ira Flatow:

“Researchers say that adding charcoal to soil may provide more benefits for long-term soil quality than compost or manure…

“Poor quality soil. It’s a problem for farmers around the world. Dirt stripped of nutrients by years of over-farming and chemical fertilizers. Well, this week there’s new evidence that an old farming practice traced back at least 1,500 years to tribes in the Amazon basin can give new life to nutrient-poor dirt. It’s called “black gold agriculture.” The idea is really simple. You add charcoal from burned organic matter to the soil and the dirt holds on to nutrients and produces lots more crops.”

Flatow interviews Dr. Mingxin Guo is an assistant professor in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department at Delaware State University in Dover.

FLATOW: “Let’s talk about poor quality soil, a big problem around the world. Why is that?

Dr. GUO: Yes. So deterioration and chemical degradation is a severe and worldwide problem. It is expressed as soil compaction, poor tubes, surface crafting(ph), slow water seepage, low water draining, low nutrients and a low nutrient retaining, and also decreasing crop productivity. This problem is mainly caused by long-term chemical fertilizer application and mechanical tillage. The level of organic matter determines the quality of our soil. All the soils have high organic matter content, say, six to 15 percent. But soil plowing makes the organic matter decompose quickly, while chemical fertilization doesn’t incur any external organic matter adhesion. So year after year, farmland soils become low in organic matter and the quality turns poor. So currently, most of farmland soils have organic matter content lower than three percent.

FLATOW: Ah. So what does adding charcoal to the soil, why does it make it a better fertilizer?

Dr. GUO: Charcoal is a fine-grained, porous black carbon, and it is generated from plant materials. And it is non-toxic to plants. So there are many tiny pores in charcoal. So once applied to soil, the pores will allow air to diffuse into the soil. Plant roots need the air to breathe. And in the meanwhile, the tiny pores will hold water and nutrients and later supply it to plants. More important, unlike other organic fertilizers, charcoal is very stable and it will not decompose to carbon dioxide. So once applied, it will stay in soil for hundreds to thousands of years. So to summarize, the high stability and porosity make charcoal a better fertilizer than other organic materials.”

FLATOW: … And so, I know this is an ancient technique that was discovered in pre-Columbian tribes from the central Amazon. They were doing this 1,500 years ago.

Dr. GUO: Yes. We actually, we learned this lesson from the pre-Amazon people. An archeological event disclosed the fertile, charcoal carbon-rich and highly productive soil in the central Amazon basin. And later, scientific studies revealed that this fertile soil was fertilized by the Amazon people 1,500 years ago with char produced by smothering plant debris and annual bulbs(ph).

FLATOW: Ah. So the char, the fertilizer they made, the char they made 1,500 years ago, was still working?

Dr. GUO: Yes. The soil is still highly productive, even after 1,000 years of crop cultivation without any other fertilization.”

My pile is a long way from an ancient field in the Amazon jungle, but I subscribe to the theory. As I tend my garden beds and lawn and come across a chunky bit of charcoal, I think of a slash and burn farmer from a millennium before, and thank him.

Ash and bits of charcoal gather sunlight on my pile and add their own properties to the mix.

Ash and bits of charcoal gather sunlight on my pile and add their own properties to the mix.

Late in the day I step out onto the back porch to let the dog out for a pee. The sun is low through the trees and casts its light across the top of my pile. There, I see a wisp of steam backlit by a sunbeam. My pile has already punched its way through its new mantle of snow.

Life always finds a way, even on the coldest day of winter.

My Pile: The Comfort of Snow

A winter storm roared up the Atlantic coast late yesterday afternoon, turning into a Nor’easter that left more than a foot of snow in its wake. The morning-after view of my pile from the back porch is positively bucolic. My pile is as pristine as it will ever be, and I leave it be to bask in the morning sun, the snow crystals glistening across the smooth white covering.

My pile, newly covered by a thick blanket of freshly fallen snow.

My pile, newly covered by a thick blanket of freshly fallen snow.

My preparations for the forecasted blizzard included stacking up some firewood on the back porch next to the snow shovel, lifting the wipers off the car’s windshield and poking my pile 30 times or so with the rebar rod.

Knowing that my pile will soon get a thick blanket of insulating snow, I hope that poking holes through it beforehand will give it an infusion of fresh air for the aerobic bacteria to gulp, which it can then exhale as steamy vapor breath. It’s worked before, and the exercise of plunging the bendy bar deep into my pile over and over preps me for the repetitive work of shoveling that I know lies ahead.

After clearing drifts of wind-blown snow from the porch and shoveling off enough of the driveway to back my car out in case I need to, I clomp through the virgin snow toward my pile. Wind-blown flakes flutter by, and with the wind chill it’s in the low teens. It’s still a long way til spring.

The top of my pile, pck-marked by steam vent holes.

The top of my pile later in the day. It’s already pock-marked by steam vent holes.

Peering over a deep drift of snow along the log wall, I see that my pile is pock-marked with vent holes created by steam rising and meltwater falling. I peer through a fist-size chimney to glimpse a luminous cavern. A slick white ceiling of snow a foot looms over a mat of wet straw and leaves. It’s a cozy scene in an igloo sort of way.

A peek into the open pocket of warm moist air under the dome of snow.

A peek into an open pocket of warm moist air under the dome of snow.

I decide to give my pile a further burden of snow. I want to keep it insulated from the ongoing chill and to see just how much more snow it can suck into its midst as meltwater.

It’s been the better part of a month since I’ve watered my pile with the cold hard garden hose. There have been a few good rains, but this is the first significant snowfall of the season. I know from my insertion of kitchen scraps last weekend and my prodding of the spongy mass the day before that my pile can absorb a top-dressing of snoveled snow to slow-release as water.

I slide the wide, flat shovel through the fresh snowpack along the left-side log wall, then scoop the thick sheets of snow upward and across my pile. It’s like heaving a 10-pound wedding cake over my shoulder.

I carve a path around the pile, tossing a few dozen scoops atop my pile. The rounded heap soon turns into a mini Matterhorn of chunky snow, higher than my head. I like to keep my pile high, even if it’s an artifice of snow.

Heaping my pile with more snow.

Heaping my pile with more snow, shoveled from around its base.

I calculate: Each wide-mouth scoop must hold a cubic foot of New England snow, which translates to an inch or two of rain, which … Put another way, I figure I’ve just parked 50 or so gallons of water onto my pile. Some will evaporate with the winter sun, but much will be distilled down into the pile drip by drip from the vapors rising from below.

I am glad I’d tossed down a couple Advil before heading out to shovel. I can reason throwing out my back by digging out my car. I’d have a harder time rationalizing a herniated disk caused by spoon-feeding my pile a bathtub of frozen water.

After lunch I tromp back out to the pile. A vent hole had opened up in the back right corner since morning. I haul the shovel back out and cover it with a fresh slug of snow.

I’ll be interested to see how the pile handles its bonus dousing of snow. The snow cover will insulate it, no doubt, enveloping it in a 32-degree thermal blanket. The added weight of all that wet snow will compress it further. But the slow-release of fresh water, drip by icy drip, will allow my pile to continue to percolate  over the coming days and weeks.

Exactly what goes on inside my pile until it sheds its cloak of snow will remain a mystery to me. That’s the cold comfort of snow.

 

My Pile: Why Not?

Anne Scott-James, author of The Pleasure Garden, writes: “However small your garden, you must provide for two of the serious gardener’s necessities, a tool shed and a compost heap.” In my small suburban backyard, these two necessities are side by side.

In fact, along with a trampoline, much used by my son and the neighborhood kids and which sits on the opposite side of the shed from my pile, these three structures dominate the back of my backyard.

The shed, a prefab, 8 ft. by 8 ft. saltbox that I had trucked to my property from its Amish country makers several years ago, really is a necessity. My small cottage-style home lacks a garage, so into the shed go the bikes, lawn mower and cushions for the patio furniture, for safe-keeping, along with my collection of gardening tools, the leaf blower and hedge trimmer, cans and jugs of gas and oil, a couple ladders, and the other things you stick in a shed.

My pile is a fixture in the backyard, same as the tool shed and trampoline.

Like the trampoline, my pile is more of an elective. Despite Scott-James’ admonition, I realize and accept my pile fully as something I willingly choose to do. The compost heap stands as a statement of intent, of purpose, of what I value. It truly is a landmark, at least on the scale of my humble backyard.

The reasons why I keep a compost heap are what this blog is all about: among them, improving the soil, repurposing yard and food waste, sustainability, reducing my carbon footprint, creating something of lasting value virtually for free, nurturing a connection to biology, fostering a sense of community, exercise, entertainment, introspection and, yes, pleasure. In act and deed, a steady supply of all of that and more.

So the better question may be, why not keep a compost pile?

It may be an odd time of year to ask the question, as my pile, sequestered by the cold of winter and soon to be blanketed by forecasted snow, steadily recedes out of sight if not from mind. My pile is still there, hard by the tool shed and stack of firewood, but at this point in its life cycle is as distant and removed as it will ever be, from me, for now.

It’s been a week since I last dug into its top portion to mix in two full buckets of food scraps, covering them with a smattering of leaves and a fresh helping of salt marsh hay gathered from the beach. Since then, a blustery rainstorm has soaked my pile, and the temperatures have dropped to well below freezing, turning its outer layer of leaves into a hard-crusted mantle that to the touch feels like permafrost. I can only hope that underneath this cloak of cold my pile continues to churn and burn away.

Funny, but I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to compost. I’ve always liked to garden, and I suppose there was often a pile of leaves and organic detritus somewhere in a corner of the yard I tended waiting to be raked up into a bag or trashcan and hauled away. Or left forgotten…

My pile first came to be when I realized the copious leftovers to be had from the test kitchen at the food magazine I worked for in Los Angeles, the idea being that perhaps I could add these fresh greens and shells of deveined shrimp to the heap of yard waste I had stashed among a hillside patch of English Ivy under the ponderosa pine that lorded over the duplex I lived in. The rakings were mostly pine needles and the dry, brittle scrapings from underneath the olive trees that also grew on the property. In the dry, Mediterranean climate of the Hollywood Hills, that heap of collected yard trimmings wasn’t going anywhere unless I did something with it.

My choice. No one asked me to do it, not my landlord and certainly not the law. This being 25 years ago, composting was very much a fringe pursuit, an afterthought from the Age of Aquarius by way of earnest organic cranks and proselytizers like J.I. Rodale or garden aesthetes like Eleanor Perenyi.

The times, they are a changing. But ever so slowly. Despite mounds of evidence in support of composting, both at home and on a community and even industrial level, despite a sweeping cultural shift toward such a practice in sustainability and, lately, a raft of regulations to spur compliance of this greater good, tending my pile remains a quirky hobby of a habit that brands me as the neighborhood eccentric. As much as my pile stands out in my backyard, it stands for the most part as a solitary, somewhat quixotic enterprise.

“Even though more and more cities around the nation are offering compost pickup along with their trash and recycling, most of us are on our own to figure out how to recycle our food waste,” I read in a recent blog posting on www.sustainableamerica.org, titled “I Want to Compost, But…”

“And the rate of composting bears that out: only 5% of our food waste makes it to compost instead of landfills or incinerators. But there’s a growing awareness of the food waste problem, and most people want to help. A recent study sponsored by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that 67% of Americans would be willing to compost food waste if it was more convenient to do so.”

Convenience seems to be the greatest hurdle, and to that I would add cost, comfort and commitment. Adopting a new habit or practice — by person, then more culturally — requires a shift in what you are comfortable with, coupled with the decision to stick with it.

An important driver of my composting these days is, in fact, the convenience it affords. Having a backyard compost heap in which to park the leaves that fall each year in my yard is a blessing. It’s much easier for me to haul leaves and other yard waste to the corner of my yard than it is to stuff them into what would likely be dozens and dozens of brown refuse bags to stack along the roadside for pickup.

So, too, is it more convenient for me to stash my daily coffee grounds and food scraps into a small lidded bucket that I keep in the kitchen rather than dump them in the trash can. In my house, that wet, messy waste is what forces me to take the garbage out – often long before the container is anywhere near full of other household waste.

I’m fortunate to have stumbled across my “Hooch” bucket, a tag-sale find that has turned out to be a wonderfully useful addition to both my kitchen and my pile. The small plastic container, with lid and handle, looks just fine on the kitchen counter, and effectively keeps my food waste and its smells in check until I can tote it out to my pile.

The internet and bricks and mortar stores are awash in similar solutions for such compost storage, both indoors and out. Case in point, the www.altenergymag.com website, where I came across an article, “No More Excuses! Home Composting is Easier than Ever” by Kent Swanson, which provides some helpful product information that I would likely consider if I was starting composting from scratch:

Stainless Steel compost bucket“Most people don’t like to have a pile of these scraps sitting on their kitchen counter. Innovative products such as this stainless steel compost pail make it easy to save your kitchen scraps until they’re ready for the compost bin. This compost pail is easy to store under your kitchen sink, and thanks to a carbon filter, there is virtually no odor.”

And though I admire my pile for its sprawling, seemingly unkempt nature in the backyard, I can understand why another homeowner or backyard gardener wouldn’t be so inclined to tend to such a construct.

Author Swanson helpfully provides a tidier solution:

Australian tumbler“Thanks to a wide variety of new composting products on the market, home composting is now quicker and easier than ever. Moreover, with many new compost bins and tumblers, there is no need to have an unattractive compost pile in the corner of your yard at all.

For example, the Australian Tumbler Composter holds up to 58 gallons worth of kitchen scraps and yard waste. What makes this product great is that you simply need to spin it on a daily basis to fully mix your kitchen scraps and yard waste to active the composting process. Additionally, although the traditional compost pile may take several months to produce organic compost, this Tumbler will have your compost ready in less than a month.

Now that’s what I call convenience! If I had a smaller backyard, or a recalcitrant spouse or neighbor, I can see myself dappling with such a device.

Cost is another concern, of course, and as a resolute skinflint, I’ve always rationalized my backyard composting as a way to save money – on garbage pickup, yard maintenance and gardening. By reducing my kitchen waste stream, I don’t see the need to subscribe to the twice-weekly garbage pickup that is the rule of our local vendors. Nor have I ever paid someone to take the leaves that fall across my yard off my hands, much less mow the lawn or weed or sort out my plantings. And by producing so much fresh humus each season, my pile allows me to have a garden, for free, that needs no fertilizer or soil amendments and virtually no purchased herbicide or pesticide controls.

That said, I’m fully aware that I am an outlier, especially regarding the time and energy I devote to my pile, and time is money. There is an opportunity cost to composting, and the hours I spend tending my pile do add up. I sometimes fret that with the time I spend on my pile doing something I enjoy, for free, I could be doing something more renumerative. Like driving an Uber car. Still, I’ve always figured that the hours I “waste” doting on my pile is time I’m not using to spend money on more expensive hobbies.

This may not be the case for others, and for those people, other viable options for composting are emerging. So I read online, most recently at www.greenplanet.com, in “7 Things to Do with Compost if You Don’t Garden.”

“Perhaps the easiest solution, if it’s available to you, is to find a curbside compost service that will pick up your food scraps once a week, right at your house,” writes Mariele Ventrice. “According to EarthShare, more than 150 U.S. cities now offer curbside composting as a public service, to go along with trash collection and recycling. However, if you’re not one of the lucky ones, there are plenty of private compost pickup companies that will do this for you. From what I’ve seen, it costs around $8/week and is incredibly easy — just throw your scraps in a bin provided and someone from the company will pick it up each week, replacing it with another bin.”

I’m intrigued by the news of the rise of the compost entrepreneurs that have sprung up in communities around the country, often by millennials who use bikes to run urban routes, like chimney sweeps of old, the milk vans of a generation ago or the paper boys of my youth, collecting compost as they go. (For just one example, check out what the fellows at tilthyrichcompost.com are doing in Durham, N.C.) Godspeed to them, and failing that, find a neighbor, work mate or friend who gardens and pawn off your food waste on them. They will appreciate the thought, and perhaps return your kitchen scrap deposits as red ripe tomatoes next summer.

So it turns out that with a little digging, there are, if not easy, then at least some worthwhile and viable answers that address the issue of why not to compost in terms of convenience and cost.

Comfort and commitment require a little more effort when it comes to compost. I admit, to borrow a cliché, there is a fly in the ointment. A few flies, on occasion. Fruit flies, to be specific.

In my experience, the biggest turn-off to composting at home is the prospect of having the kitchen food-waste receptacle become the habitat of fruit flies. Though innocuous and non-biting, these flittering little drones (the Drosophila melanogaster, of high school biology texts) can become bothersome if allowed to populate a compost bucket indoors. The solution to eliminating their presence is fairly easy – simply keep the kitchen scraps in a lidded container, and after dumping it out, clean the bucket just as you would a dirty dish, with some soap or a spritz of a disinfectant that contains bleach or similar product.

The second biggest concern about home composting regards outdoor pests, chiefly rodents. Every guide to compost fairly screams with the advice not to add meat scraps, dairy products or fats to an outdoor heap, for fear of attracting varmints to your backyard compost heap.

Given the wide range of fauna that frequents virtually every suburban backyard, mine included, this is not a surprising concern.

I share my suburban property with many wild creatures. I rather like that the bird feeder I keep filled through the winter attracts such a wide variety of songbirds, and have learned to tolerate the sparrows and grackles and other “unwanted” birds. The yard and garden attracts all kinds of four-legged critters through the seasons, from skunks to possums to raccoons and deer and more. They, too, and the owls and hawks and foxes and coyotes that prey upon them, have their place in my yard, and I have learned to live with them, grudgingly, for some.

And though voles, moles and field mice, as well as chipmunks and squirrels, are also in residence on my grounds, and mostly tolerated, I draw the line at rats. Fortunately, those rodents are seldom a problem with my pile, but if they were, I would not be a happy composter for long.

Which leads us to commitment. To be effective and sustainable, composting needs to become a habit, one that’s both personal and widespread, a cultural meme.

“Composting isn’t just for cooks — it’s for anyone who throws out leftovers, stale bread, or pizza…”

“It’s for everyone,” I read on Huffington Post, in “Why Compost?” by Aly Miller. And everyone recycles plastic and paper, so what’s stopping us from recycling food waste? Toss it in a bin, cover with some soil and newspaper, and let microorganisms go to work, turning food into fertilizer for your neighbor’s garden.

“Why go through all that effort? Now watch their jaws drop: food scraps are the number one material sent to landfills. In New York, it accounts for a third of all residential trash; more food is thrown out than paper or plastic.  All of that goes to landfills, and for us New Yorkers, that means Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina. It costs the city 336 million dollars each year, but if we could return our food to the soil, we could save 100 million dollars a year.

“Your food gets dumped in landfills, where it’s trapped by tons of garbage, which generate 20 percent of the nations’ emissions of greenhouse gases. Microorganisms break it down by anaerobic digestion, emitting methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 22 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In a biogas facility, food scraps can generate electricity, but when food sits in landfills, the only work it does is raise the global temperature.

’Ok, that makes sense,’ someone said, ‘but I’ll only ever compost if the city makes it super easy for someone like me.’

“That’s what people said, 20 years ago, about recycling paper and plastic. Now, it’s second nature.

“San Francisco is a case in point: despite its residents’ initial complaints, the city diverts 80 percent of all waste from landfills with their city-wide composting and recycling programs. It makes sense that the Big Apple, mecca of restaurant life, consumption, and now, rooftop farming, will follow suit.

“It’s anticipated that New York City’s rodent and cockroach populations will decrease with this composting system. Instead of bags of food waste sitting on the curbside, people would store them inside in airtight bins until collection day.

“Looking at it that way, the inside of your compost bin isn’t some gross pile of dead plants and soggy bread; it’s a simple solution which practical people should take pride in endorsing.”

Composting gives my suburban backyard, and me, by direct extension, a sense of practical purpose it otherwise would not have. My pile allows me to be productive, the product being something akin to new soil. There may not be anything truly “new’ under the sun, but my pile at least allows me to play the ancient role of alchemist, to tap into humankind’s deeply rooted quest to somehow turn inert, base elements into something new and precious.

Why not?

Looking across the lawn and gardens to my pile, a backyard fixture.

My Pile: The Kitchen Sink

The chill of winter has settled over the landscape and across my pile. The thermometer outside my back kitchen door hasn’t ticked much above 30 degrees over the past 10 days.

The wood chips I spread before Christmas under my forsythia hedges and untended areas are frozen in place, like brittle particle board. The hardwood trees creak in the wind; the sap within the branches having retreated deep down the trunks into the roots. The ground is rock hard, and to keep from shattering the blades of grass I try to vary the path I beat each morning to check on my pile.

I haven’t seen a wisp of steam rising from my pile in a week, though am pleased to see that its crown has sagged into itself, forming a craggly crater. Perhaps it still percolates, deep down within.

My bucket of kitchen scraps is nearly full, and the winter downtime has given me time to cook up a plan to excavate a hole in the top of my pile and tuck the fermenting leftovers and coffee grounds into its midst. I visualize the crusty round loaf of bread that restaurants hollow out to ladle in a serving of chowdery soup.

I’ve also scouted the yard of my across-the-street neighbor for a batch of wind-blown leaves to add to the mix, and I have stowed a bucket of tangled seagrass stems gathered from the beach last weekend beside my pile. I’ll sprinkle them across the top when I’m done, to return my pile to its full midwinter form.

I like how my pile allows me to ponder and plot; it also teaches me patience. I will serve no compost before its time.

But a long week’s worth of garbage awaits. My backyard neighbor called a couple nights ago to let me know that the small ash can that her family uses to store their kitchen trimmings and rabbit-hutch cleanings is stuffed full as well. I suggest she start a second bucket and assure her that any varmints that might have an interest in rooting around the pails of frozen food waster are surely in hibernation. At worst, I could park the bucket in the backyard shed for safe-keeping. I’ve used it before as a cold-storage unit for kitchen scraps between my winter infusions to my pile, especially after a snowstorm covers it.

My back-fence neighbor adds to the week’s worth of kitchen scraps that will keep my pile cooking all winter long.

I’m glad to have a close neighbor who “gets” my compost pile. She grew up on a small, multi-generational family compound on the outskirts of Budapest, in the Cold War era. Now the mother of four very American girls, she remains a frugal Hungarian housefrau from the Eastern Bloc, and her kitchen scraps are quite unlike mine: hefty stalks stripped bare of their Brussel sprouts, lots of eggshells, potato peels and hard-pressed pellets of coffee grinds from her French husband’s espresso maker. Over dinner, she tells her kids of growing up in a multi-generational, semi-rural household with a large kitchen garden and a variety of fruit trees. Canning the apricots, slaughtering the pig before Christmas, packing the potatoes, turnips and beets in straw for storage in the cellar. They made the most of what they had, and wasted little. Her girls clean their plates at every meal.

Much different from my own mother, who had no further use for even the slightest potato peel – not for soup stock, much less for a bucket of festering food scraps to keep in the kitchen. Swanson’s TV dinners were a staple in our house. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I bet we discarded enough pocketed aluminum trays to make a jet airplane.

My mother was raised on a large Midwestern farm, where nature was mastered and the corn and milo fields were managed by awesomely large machines. Summer visits to my grandfather’s farm were always fun, albeit on an agro-industrial scale, playing on the huge green John Deere tractors and combines, running around the cobalt blue AO Smith silos as tall as Titan rockets.

I don’t ever recall seeing any sort of kitchen garden out back, and one day when I brought an ear of corn plucked from the edge of a corn field behind the barns full of machinery, my grandfather tossed it aside, saying it was yellow corn fit only for livestock. The vast corn rows along the rural highway that ran by his ranch house were labeled with small metal signs marking their genetic variety and, likely, the type of herbicide sprayed by crop duster and tractor pulling a liquid spreader with a wingspan even wider.

Interestingly, those two worlds intersect in Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts,” a classic on garden writing. An American who married a Hungarian baron in the decade before World War II, Perenyi writes of “remembering the smoking piles of straw and manure on our Hungarian estate.” Urged by her husband to flee Europe in the early days of the war, Perenyi relocated to the Connecticut coast, where she spent the rest of her long and productive life writing and gardening. She had a particular and prescient passion for composting:

When I learned about composting after the war, it was a hobby for cranks, and neighbors refused to believe the heaps didn’t attract rats (They don’t.) Now that ‘organic’ has become a catch word, composting has even acquired a kind of mythical status. That is nonsense. It is a practice as old as agriculture, and no civilization has survived for long that hasn’t found a way to recycle its vegetable and animal wastes…

“Composting was, in fact, general throughout the world until the development of chemical fertilizers, which farmers were brought to believe were all that was necessary to replenish the soil.  Especially was this true in advanced America. I certainly did when I planted our wartime victory garden….and knowing nothing of the virtues of mulch, allowed the chemicals to be poured on. The family paid handsomely, too, to have the leaves raked up and removed each fall. It pains me now to think of it.

“You can’t buy compost. Neither can a healthy, well-conducted garden do without it. Even if you can’t bring yourself to believe in it as fertilizer and use it only in conjunction with chemicals, you still can’t do without it, for the very life of the soil itself depends on it. Without the microorganisms at work in compost, soil would literally be dead.”

Agribusiness still rules the range and the supermarket shelf, but things have changed on the home front all across the country, cities and suburbs. Over my lifetime, recycling has had its fits and starts, but increasingly it has become big business, an ingrained personal habit to some, if not a necessity for many others as mandated by municipalities overwhelmed by the trash our lifestyles produce.

The push to reuse, recycle and eat local is driven by a growing grass-roots awareness of ecological concerns and passions, to be sure, but also by the sheer scale of the food we waste and the cost and logistics of what to do with all the resulting garbage we now produce.

I read in a recent report the EPA found that 21% of the municipal waste stream in the US is made up of food waste. That’s the largest segment of all waste types generated, greater than paper and even plastic.

It’s easy to track this trend, which started, as many such innovations do, on the West Coast. In 2009, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to make composting food waste mandatory, with a goal of becoming “zero waste” by 2020.

If you live in Seattle these days and throw away a banana peel or dumped expired milk into the garbage, you are in for a fine, reported CNN recently.

The network explained: “The new program will come into effect in January 2015 for commercial establishments and residences.

“Why is Seattle making residents compost? The city was not going to meet its self-imposed goal of recycling 60% of all waste.

“Compostables are about 30% of what is still in the garbage and they are the largest target we have to help us reach our goals,” said Timothy Croll, solid waste director of the utilities commission. “Also, composting food waste reduces emissions of methane, which is a strong cause of climate change.”

“Closer to home, before he left office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The report on CNN continued: “Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, the company that handles San Francisco’s food-waste recycling, said New York City is “definitely on the right track.” He added, “Food scraps are one of the most important types of refuse because they are full of nutrients and carbon, critical resources for the environment and human health.”

Much of San Francisco’s food waste, an article in National Geographic informs, is processed at a compost facility called Jepson Prairie Organics, 55 miles east of San Francisco in Vacaville. The orange rinds and pizza boxes are then feasted on by microbes, until they turn into rich compost, a natural fertilizer that is in demand by the region’s agricultural producers.

“A lot of wineries in Napa and Sonoma are big buyers of the compost [because] it has [a] high nutrient value, so that’s a nice way to close out the loop from what we put in our green bins,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, the communications director for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. The compost is also sold to individuals, landscapers, and the highway department. It is approved for use with certified organic soil.”

Repurposed from an old wine cooler, my humble Hooch bucket seems quite a fitting storage vessel for the kitchen scraps destined for my pile. And though it’s not destined for anything so grand as a Napa vineyard, I consider each finished batch of compost I produce from my own backyard a unique vintage in its own right.

Each year varies in composition and terroir. This year, I suspect, my pile will produce a briny, homebrewed mix of humus, rendolent of seaweed and mollusk shell, with a taste of oak tannin, a bit of pumpkin spice, dash of coffee, hint of horseshoe-crab shell and a subtle afternote of Angora rabbit pellets.

Despite frigid temps, my pile is still cooking inside. Mixing in a fresh batch of kitchen scraps will replenish the fuel supply.

 

My Pile: It’s the Cover-up that Always Gets You…

A growing awareness that my pile is its own self-starter and can sustain itself as it consumes itself, didn’t stop me from striving a season or so later with another act of nurturing rather than letting nature take its course.

I have a heavy-gauge tarp, about 12 by 12 ft., brown on one side, gray on the other. I didn’t buy it new but came across it while helping a friend clean up the backyard of his new rental house. We found it under a thick pile of leaf mold in the back corner of his yard.  Evidently a previous renter had simply dragged the tarp full of leaves off to the side and left it there. Seasons of more leaves had covered it until only a grommet in the corner stuck out from the deep covering of rotting leaves and branches. We had to shovel the leaf mold from most of it before fully unearthing the whole tarp, but once revealed, it was hardly worse for wear.

In a reversal of circumstances, one cold January several years ago I unfolded the stiff brown tarp and spread it across my pile, anchoring the corners with four large rocks. My pile was just large enough side to side to spread from one log wall to the other, but not big enough to cover both the front and back. I anchored the front end by setting a flat rock on a shelf of leaves, just off the ground. The tarp covered all but the last foot along the backside of the pile.

An Arctic Clipper was on the way, with a forecast of below-zero overnight lows through the week. Even though I keep my pile as sizable as I can, I figured the kind of cold snap that could freeze the local pond thick enough for skating could shut my pile down completely until the spring thaw.

The next morning I inspected the pile to find a row of icicles dripping down along the rear side of the tarp. It seems that water vapor, trapped by the tarp, had condensed up under the insulated covering, then drained along the underside off the lowest point of the tarp back into my pile, where most of it froze again. A nice feedback loop.

A thick tarp mostly covered my pile.

A plastic tarp mostly covered my pile during a cold spell.

A gust of wind would occasionally fling one corner of the tarp back upon itself, tossing its rock capstone off the log wall. But over the course of a week the brown plastic blanket kept the leaves on top of the pile damp during the day, capturing the steam vapor. The experiment was a success, at least in keeping my pile cooking.

When the cold front eased up, I took the wraps off my pile. I had a full bucket of food scraps to tuck inside and besides, I missed my pile’s mottled autumnal colors, being able to check how it subtly shifts and sags, poking it with my rebar aerator.

What’s more, another storm, this a blustery, rain-driven Nor’easter, was on the way. Unless I weighed it down with gobs more rocks, I feared it would take sail or be torn to shreds. Stuffed as it is with a surfeit of parched brown leaves, what my pile always needs at this point in its life cycle is water to keep cooking away. Full steam ahead!

My pile has proven itself big enough to "take the wraps" off. Even on a frigid morning, steam vapors rise from deep within to freeze as hoar frost on the surface. A much more interesting sight than a plastic tarp!

My pile has proven itself big enough to “take the wraps” off. Even on a frigid morning, steam vapors rise from deep within to freeze as hoar frost on the surface. A much more interesting sight than a plastic tarp!

My Pile: Nature vs. Nurture

The first hard freeze of winter has set in. I consider my pile from behind the frosted glass panes of the kitchen door, squinting through the low morning sun for a sign of steam vapor rising from its top. What combustible forces, if any, still go on within? How far into my pile has the cold seeped in? What protection does the heap’s insulating cloak of leaves and seagrass straw provide? Have I given my pile the resources it needs to keep from shutting down completely?

A good long winter’s slumber is just fine for groundhogs; aside from the birds that flock to the backyard feeder, all else in my yard has closed up shop for the winter, as it should. But part of the sport of nurturing a compost pile is in keeping its inner fires stoked to ward off the stasis of winter dormancy for as long as possible. A compost pile in hiberation is boring. It just sits there.

A pile of dried leaves and additions of rotting greens teems with the unseen creatures and natural processes that make humus happen.

Or so it seems. Some years ago, as I was beginning to take backyard composter more seriously, I went to the local garden store to shop for my pile. I’d read a little about “activators” that kick-start a pile’s decomposition, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t missing some essential ingredient, an edge.

On the shelf I saw a squat bag of a powdery product called Bio-Excelerator, that promised “to offer the complete solution to generating rich, fertile humus – Nature’s best soil conditioner.” The package looked and hefted like a bag of flour; the backside label boasted that inside were “the most effective microorganisms coupled with the proper energy sources and pH balancers to assure you composting success…”

I checked the side of the bag for a list of ingredients and instead found copy that claimed inside were “…billions of microbes especially cultured for composting. In addition to containing moderate and high-heat active microbes, special varieties are included that can speed the decomposition of difficult-to-compost organic matter. All are combined with special proprietary energy sources containing kelp and dried blood to ensure a rapid decomposition … also contains special natural organic calcium compounds to neutralize the organic acids produced during composting.”

Like a bottle of daily vitamins, it seemed to me, only more mysterious, in a secret sauce sort of way. So I plunked down $11.99 plus tax. I shook the white powder onto my pile like so much pixie dust. It figured it couldn’t hurt, and just might help.

That was before I’d begun my winter reading of composting and gardening books and blogs, and learned that my pile could do just as well left to its own devices.

Each random handful of dirt in my yard contains millions of bacteria; countless spores of mold and fungi settle each day on my pile. All play their roles in reducing the rawness and wholeness of my pile into more elemental, digested parts.

In “Let It Rot — the Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell writes, “Composting will be a whole lot simpler for you if you acknowledge the fact that the right bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes already exist within your compost pile. The potential for excellent decomposition is right there. Let Mother Nature worry about adjusting the various populations within the micro-community. That’s her job, and she does it well.”

Co-authors Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin explore the case for adding activators in “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide” (Storey Publishing 2008): “Even the slowest of heaps includes colonies of adapted microbes, but why not have more? This is the idea behind microbial compost activators, which are typically dry powders that contain compost-ready fungi and bacteria.

“It can be argued that using microbial activators is like selling ice to the good people of Iceland. Why would they need more ice? And if they did need ice, why not use some of their own? You probably already possess the best microbial activator you can use, which is homemade compost. Your own compost (especially almost-finished compost) contains an overflowing buffet of microorganisms that have proliferated in the unique setting of your own yard. They have a proven ability to work your one-of-a-kind compostable waste stream. They haven’t been imprisoned in a package, so they are ready for action. Need we say more?”

Actually, Mike McGrath, in his “Book of Compost” (Sterling, 2006) does have more to say: “…Turns out [compost activators] DO have value, but not when used according to the directions on most of the packages….”

“Saved your purchased ‘starter/activators’ till the very end. New research has found that many composts could use a little kick AFTER they’re finished. That’s right — after! Lots of beneficial creatures are killed by the heat of the composting process itself, and many others simply reach the end of their natural life span around that time. So, after a batch of compost is finished, mix the recommended amount of activator directly into the finished batch. Let it sit for 24 hours so the organisms can colonize the entire batch of compost, and then use it. That way, you’ll be sure to be adding the maximum amount of beneficial life to your soils.”

Food for thought. But for now I’ll stick to my new year’s resolution to leave my pile to its own devices, my good-natured meddling aside.

 

 

My Pile: Inner Workings (Part II)

The first Sunday of the new year. I let the dog out and follow him into the backyard. Each step makes a crunchy imprint across the frozen grass.

I take stock of my pile with a morning pee of my own over the wire mesh that girdles the backside. A tendril of steam rises through the damp stalks of seagrass cross-hatched across the top. A tea kettle on slow boil, my pile.

On the outside, my pile begins the new year complete, composed. A heap in full. It almost seems a shame to meddle with it.

But mess with it I will, for I have a holiday’s worth of gleanings from my kitchen and from the neighbors to contribute. I have more fresh supplies in store for my pile, from the yard and beyond. A bucket of seaweed, churned to mulch by the gathering high tides of winter, awaits, as does a white plastic bag of coffee grounds procured from behind the counter of the local java shop.

Plus, it’s a mild winter day with a mix of rain and sleet on the way. I could use some exercise and an outdoor diversion, a break between the football games on TV. My pile is my own private hot-stove league.

I do indoor chores while the sun slowly warms. I scoop the cold ash and charcoal bits from the fireplace into a brown shopping bag and set it aside.

I’m also long overdue to clean the half-filled 20-gallon glass aquarium in the den that’s home to Bubbles, the pet red-eared slider turtle. Soon the turtle is paddling about in his tank of fresh clean water, and I have a bucket full of murky green turtle effluent to add to my pile. Better that end purpose than flushing the slop down the kitchen sink.  Laced with nitrogen, urea and who knows what other nutrients that make up a Chinatown turtle’s night soil will be like adding jet fuel to my pile.

I assemble the rest of my stocks and implements alongside the left log wall, then scrape the frazzled toupee of seagrass hay to the side with a heavy gravel rake. Next I plunge the wide-tined hay pitch fork into the spongy wet leaves. I drag forkfuls back toward me to create a trench, releasing a faint whiff of the beach at low tide.

Excavating a space in my pile for an insertion of fresh green material.

I dig deeper into the time warp that is my pile, down through the stratified layers of past heapings, releasing whaffs of steam along the way. Two feet down, the tines of my pitchfork jab into a mat of flattened leaves like a fork sticking a phone book.

I stick my hand into the hole. The wall of leaves is cool to the touch. It seems my pile is combustible only in spots. The cold of winter is winning out over the hot flush of organic fusion.

But to each his own, say the smart folks at the University of Illinois Extension, on their Science of Composting website. My pile’s inner workings are sorting themselves out in their own time and way:

There are different types of aerobic bacteria that work in composting piles. Their populations will vary according to the pile temperature. Psychrophilic bacteria work in the lowest temperature range. They are most active at 55° F and will work in the pile if the initial pile temperature is less than 70º F. They give off a small amount of heat in comparison to other types of bacteria. The heat they produce is enough however, to help build the pile temperature to the point where another set of bacteria, mesophilic bacteria, start to take over.

Mesophilic bacteria rapidly decompose organic matter, producing acids, carbon dioxide and heat. Their working temperature range is generally between 70º to 100º F. When the pile temperature rises above 100º F, the mesophilic bacteria begin to die off or move to the outer part of the heap. They are replaced by heat-loving thermophilic bacteria.

Thermophilic bacteria thrive at temperatures ranging from 113º to 160º F. Thermophilic bacteria continue the decomposition process, raising the pile temperature 130º to 160º F, where it usually stabilizes. Unless a pile is constantly fed new materials and turned at strategic times, the high range temperatures typically last no more than three to five days. Thermophilic bacteria use up too much of the degradable materials to sustain their population for any length of time. As the thermophilic bacteria decline and the temperature of the pile gradually cools off, the mesophilic bacteria again become dominant. The mesophilic bacteria consume remaining organic material with the help of other organisms.

Into the maw of my pile goes the neighbors' bucket of kitchen scraps.

Into the maw of my pile goes the neighbors’ bucket of kitchen scraps.

Over the next two months, I’ll gouge out similar holes in a half a dozen places, hoping to spike my pile with enough hot spots to keep the biological processes churning through the cold months. Some hot, some cold.

What my pile does through the winter mystifies me, the obvious efforts of all these aerobic bacteria notwithstanding. Keith Reid, in “Improving Your Soil” supplies the most helpful explanation I’ve come across. As he writes:

“The usual textbook method of classifying the critters in the soil by species is not useful to most readers. It is more relevant to understand what these organisms do, so here, we have categorized the huge diversity of life in the soil by their functions.” Here’s the skinny from his book:

The Shredders
When fresh organic material is added to the soil, the shredders begin breaking it down into smaller pieces. As the shredders chew, they expose surface area that smallerorganisms can then access and also start to break down the tougher materials. The best-known shredders are earthworms. As they burrow through the soil, they eat organic materials that are broken down in their gut, mixed with mucus and excreted. The finely ground material left behind creates a rich buffet for smaller creatures.

The Decomposers
In addition to the shredders, fungi play a key role in breaking down big pieces of organic debris. Unlike shredders, however, fungi work from the inside out. Fungal hyphae can grow into decaying leaves, stems and even wood, excreting enzymes that destroy the bonds between cell walls, then digesting and converting lignin and cellulose into simple sugars the fungi can use.

The Digesters
Once the organic matter has been broken down into smaller pieces, bacteria and actinomycetes go to work. Through their sheer numbers, these organisms are able to access most of the easily digested materials in the soil and incorporate them into their bodies, with the sole purpose of making more bacteria. In the process, they release nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other nutrients that have been bound up in the organic matter.

The Grazers
Bacterial and fungal growth attracts a whole population of tiny animals that feed on them in much the same way that cattle or sheep graze a pasture. These include protozoa, such as the amoeba and paramecium. Large numbers of mites and nematodes also fill this role. Not all of the nutrients consumed by the grazers are used for their own growth, and the waste they release hastens the cycling of nutrients into a form that plants can use.

The Hunters
Just as in aboveground ecosystems, there are specialized predators in the soil. This group includes many species of nematodes, mites and small insects. Aside from keeping the population of grazing animals in check, these predators continue the cycling of nutrients through the soil ecosystem.

The Fixers
One group of microbes plays a crucial role in the soil environment by taking nitrogen out of the air and “fixing” it in a form plants can use. Most nitrogen fixation is carried out by bacteria that live symbiotically with legumes, but a few species of bacteria and blue-green algae fix nitrogen without being associated with higher plants.”

Sums up Reid: “The reality is that an active soil life unlocks nutrients in the soil, making them more available to plants, but it does so only if those nutrients are present in the first place.”

Which is where I come into play.

I dump the bucket of kitchen slop into the bottom of the hole, twisting it into the bottom of the hole to fluff things up. In goes the neighbors’ bucket and bag of coffee grounds, like soup into a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Stir again. The fresh additions disappear into the matrix of brown leaves.

I spread dollops of seaweed across the excavated hole, then cover it with a loose collection of leaves gathered from my neighbor’s yard –my way of a thank-you for them hosting me for Christmas dinner. I drain the turtle stew into the mix; who knows what bacteria will sup up that nourishment.

I finish by drawing the blanket of rotting seagrass stems back across the top with the rake, and sprinkle with a dusting of wood ash and charcoal bits from the fireplace. Once again, my pile is whole, its inner workings cloaked.