My Pile: Tools of the Trade

A strong low-pressure system roared up from the Southeast overnight, dousing the region with a cold, drenching rain. Howling winds whipsawed the trees in my backyard, their bare branches backlit by flashes of lightning. Thunderstorms in these parts in February are rare, or were.

Across town, roads were blocked by fallen trees, and many neighborhoods lost power. Nowadays, each passing storm extracts its toll on a century’s worth of suburban tree growth, and the trees that do fall victim are often the ones poised to do the most damage — those along streets lined with utility wires. Some are demasted, their top-heavy trunks snapped clean off, while others are upended whole, root ball and all.

Seeing a tall tree arching far overhead, the mind wants to picture a matching tap root extending as far and wide underground, but it often amazes me how perilous the purchase of an old tree is, a three-foot-wide trunk supported by the sketchiest of root structures. If a tree falls in the forest, no one hears it, but when it falls across a road and a power line, everybody hears the utility crews the next day, sawing it up and carting it away, and reconnecting the power cables.

The trees in my yard are mostly unscathed, but not before getting a haphazard pruning that has sheared off a copious amount of small branches and limbs. That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. The trees in my yard rely on these windstorms to shed the new growth they can’t support, culling the old rotting branches they can, and must, live without.

By morning, a bright and sunny Saturday, the storm has passed, and the warming powers of the late-winter sun draw me outside, mostly to pick up sticks from across the yard. I grab the leaf rake from the shed and pull the small green tarp from off the wood pile. About 3 ft wide by 4 feet long, the heavy-gauge plastic is ringed by grommets through which a small rope passes. The rope allows me to bind up the tarp and use it as a sled.

Arborists consider the sycamore a junk tree, and woodcutters have no use for it. I have two on either side of my property. Sporting pretty, dappled bark and firmly rooted in the ground, the sycamore is an attractive tree, but it’s particularly messy. The largest hovers over my neighbor’s driveway, and this morning I stray over the fence to rake up the twigs, bark, branches and copious amounts of fluffy brown seedballs that have rained down through the storm. My neighbors are in Florida for the month, snowbirds waiting out the worst of the New England winter. I swipe the broken twigs from the top of their car and off the windshield and pile the tangly tree debris on the tarp.

I drag the sled past my pile to the heap of branches and prunings I keep under the pine tree in the corner of my yard, close by the street. Some of the sticks I break into pieces and burn in the backyard firepit, but most of these trimmings get carted off to the town’s yard refuse center a couple times a year.

The trees in my backyard shed branches throughout the year. Some is burned as kindling, but most get hauled off to the yard-waste dump.

The trees in my backyard shed branches throughout the year. Some are burned as kindling, but most get hauled off to the yard-waste dump.

The small tarp and its cottony cousin — the old tattered bedsheet I use to gather up fall leaves — are just part of the collection of tools and implements I’ve assembled over the years to tend my backyard and compost heap. Most of the tools hang on hooks on either side of the double doors, within easy reach.

There are many kinds of rakes, but I’m partial to the old-school metal-tined variety, which is particularly good for teasing out leaves from underneath bushes. The flat-tined bow rake is for heavier tasks, including re-arranging the salt marsh grass hay atop of my pile.

A good spade is an essential garden tool, of course, and so is the wide-mouth scoop shovel, which I use mostly for moving snow and wood chips. The edges of the aluminum flange are worn razor-thin and peel up at the end corners, the result of countless scrapings over ice and asphalt. Every couple of years I pound the curled-up edges flat with a claw hammer.

I like the fact that in some parts of England a pitchfork is known as a prong, and in parts of Ireland, a sprong. I rely on two types, one with five rounded, curving tines. Sometimes called a manure fork or a hay pitchfork, it’s designed for moving clumpy, bulky stuff like straw or wood chips, or compost. It’s ideal for grabbing and turning masses of leaves, though sometimes not without a struggle.

My heap of composting leaves being denser than most haystacks or the bedding of a horse stall, the pitchfork sometimes gets stuck with a clutch of impaled leaf mold. the mix. A pitchfork isn’t designed to work in reverse, and tugging it out of a clutch of mashed-up leaves has caused the pronged metal head to detach from the wood handle. A wooden golf tee hammered into the joint serves as a shim. The strength of that splice pretty much matches the load my own joints can bear in twisting or turning my pile. Better it fail than my back.

It’s the workhorse tool for my pile, and I rely on it to dig through my pile and distribute gobs of leaves and such until the finished compost sifts through the tines. When I have to trade the manure fork for the spade to sort through my pile, I know the compost is done.

Some of the tools I use to tend to my pile. The pitchforks are the go-to implements.

The tools I use to tend to my pile.

Some of my tools are store-bought, but the ones I prize are garage-sale finds, made in sturdier times and well used. The latter describes the two other pitchforks I own. Both have four flat tines. This type is often called a garden fork, and I use it to tease out the most compressed leaves from the sides of my pile, or to twist and turn the tines into a hole in its midst to mix things up.

I keep them both outside the shed and within reach of my pile, and as a result the wood handles are deeply weathered, the iron rusted. I also use the garden fork as a spade, to tease out the roots of a perennial for transplanting. In spring and fall I also use the garden fork to aerate patches of the lawn, stepping on the crossbar to plunge the tines up to the hilt. Each step creates four, 9-inch deep holes that jab through the hard-packed subsurface crust that often forms underneath turfgrass roots. Stepping on the garden fork a couple dozen times punctures a patch of lawn, allowing rainwater and air to permeate down through a rich column of microbial activity to the water table below. It’s good exercise, and such deep-tine aerating is the secret, I believe to healthy turfgrass, especially in high-traffic areas like my backyard. The myriad micro-holes, which are surely soon filled with the old grass clippings, chopped leaves and humus that I scatter across the ground, must be like so many pixie sticks for grazing worms.

This sort of poor man’s lawn aeration leads each spring to a bounty harvest of my backyard’s most reliable, the Connecticut potato. That’s what locals call the small rounded stones thrust up by the freeze and thaw cycle through the silty, sandy subsoil deposited by glaciers that gouged their way southward across this land 10,000 years ago.  I gather wheelbarrows full each spring, and fill in the voids the larger stones leave with spade fulls of compost from my pile. The steel tines of both garden forks are now slightly crooked, bent from probing for and plucking out scores of these stones.

Having given my pile a top-level turn when I stuffed it full of fresh compostibles a week ago, I have no big plans to take a deep dive today. But I can’t resist prodding my pile with the manure pitchfork. I plunge the bended tines through the crusty outer layer of leaves, teasing the mix up and out of its repose. This fluffing up will allow my pile to take shallow gulps of air, at least, and to be able to soak up more rain, which is on the way. A few thrusts of the rebar rod also help to infuse the inner reaches of my pile with deeper drafts of air.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” said Michaelango.

The ribbed iron bar pokes through the compressed leaves to reach the ting of hard ground. I remove my glove to check the temperature of the metal probe. It’s warm to the touch. The poke holes will be conduits for air and water and the unseen creatures that are reshaping my pile from withi to turn a mass of dead leaves and other organics into finished humus, renaissance sculptors if ever there were.

The lineup of composting tools, ready for spring.

The lineup of composting tools, ready for spring.



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