My Pile: Armchair Composting

Winter is slowly loosening its grip upon the landscape and my pile — but here in coastal southern New England the onset of spring remains a distant prospect. In a futile bid to break a bad case of cabin fever, I tried to take a walk on the beach with the dog yesterday but was turned back by a biting, bone-chilling wind.

The lure of resuming outdoor pleasures is growing stronger by the day, spurred on by the fact that spring training is now under way down south for the boys of summer and the envious sights on weekend TV of pro golfers playing away across verdant fairways in warmer climes.

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but for the moment it is: I awoke this morning to find the backyard dusted by a thin covering of snow. Letting the dog out, I trudge across the crusty stubble of grass to check on my pile. Tendrils of steam rise through damp patches of salt marsh straw. The inner warmth of my pile is sloughing off the coating of snow, a most welcome sign.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

But still, it is a slow march toward spring, which in these parts always includes a slog through mud season as the frozen ground slowly thaws and turns to mush. At the moment, there is little of productive use to do with my pile, or anywhere else in the backyard lawn and garden. There is no seaweed to glean from the beach; no green yard waste to dispatch; not even much kitchen scraps to bother with. If there is a downtime for my pile, a period in its yearly cycle when the heap is best left to its own devices, this is it.

“January to the end of March,” lamented Vita Sackville-West. ” I wish we had a name for that intermediate season which includes St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and All Fools’ Day, April 1st. It is neither one thing nor the other, neither winter nor spring. Could we call it wint-pring, which has a good Anglo-Saxon sound about it, and accept it, like marriage, for better or worse?”

No wonder the concept of taking a spring “break” — a fling from wint-pring — is so tantalizing for those of us still sidelined by winter. In years past, Florida has been our escape, whether it’s a week on the beach near the grandparents’ condo or a visit to the fantastical attractions of an amusement park in Orlando.

Alas, this year my son and I will ride out the remaining days of winter at home. I head inside to spend a Saturday afternoon with further readings from my shelf of garden books and some online browsing. Many avid gardeners while away this interrugnum by perusing seed catalogs and such. I long for a more active escape.

Call it armchair composting, a virtual trip to where the sun is always shining upon ground more fertile and fecund than anything back home. I grab my copy of Dirt, by William Bryant Logan, a “mystic biologist” who has written the Cuttings garden column in The New York Times.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

He’s also described on the jacket as the Writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, which no doubt contributed to the book’s subtitle, “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.”

Setting out the case for replenishing the global supply of quality topsoil in part by through recycling efforts, Logan writes: “Like every other gardener, I wanted to find the magic soil, the dirt of Eden. The eighteenth-century Agriculturalist Arthur Young called the vale in southern England between Farnham and Alton ‘the finest ten miles in England.’ I wanted to find the finest ten acres in America.”

I turn to the chapter, “The Compost Man,” and soon find myself happily transported to the Disney World of compost.

Logan’s quest for the best dirt on earth takes him to Florida, where he meets one Clark Gregory:

“He slung a gallon Ziploc bag into my lap. ‘Smell that,’ he said.

It looked dark and it felt squishy. ‘What is it?’ I asked. After all, I’d just met the guy.

‘Scallop viscera compost,’ he replied.

Ah….Well, I was asking for it, so I opened the bag and took a very slight whiff. Then I breathed in deeply. It smelled sweet and earthy, with a little tang of citrus somewhere. If I’d been a wine taster, I could probably have described it fully, but it was more than ok. It was very pleasant.

‘Ninety six tons of scallop viscera, twelve hundred yards of shredded pine bark from a log builder, twenty-four tons of orange peel, and nine tons of shredded water hyacinth,’ said Gregory.

What? I asked.

‘That’s what it’s made out of,’ he said.”

Gregory escorts Logan to a municipal landfill and composting operation in Brevard County. There, Logan meets up with Ollie King, who takes him up on top of his Scat tractor and starts to work the five-hundred-foot-long rows of compost in the making.

“’I like working the compost,’” he says.

A whitish cloud of steam rises behind us as we churn up the eight-foot-high rows. He turns neatly at the end of each row and guns the big Scat down the next one. Occasionally, we hit a patch that is less well cooked and a stink of dead meat rises.

Afterward, as we walk down the chocolate-brown rows together, Ollie says of the smell I’ve mentioned, ‘That’s nothing,’ He looks around in the heap, combing through the remains of conch, crabs, whelks and barnacle-covered cans, the wasted ‘by-catch’ of a commercial scallop-dredging operation. He sniffs at a red crab claw that now has the texture of wet cardboard, then discards it. He sniffs a whelk, makes a face, and hands it to me.

‘There!’ he says simply.

This is not the smell of ammonia or sulphur. It is beyond odor.

I asked him, ‘I know that you can compost many things, but aren’t there things that just have to be thrown away?’

‘There’s no such place as away,’ he replied curtly.

‘Look,’ I insisted. ‘Compost is compost, but aren’t some things just waste?

He answered, ‘It isn’t waste until it’s wasted.’

I’m also intrigued by the chapter, “Saint Phocas As Fertilizer,” which is about the patron saint of the garden, who instructed the Romans who killed him to compost him in his garden.

Here’s more dirt on “Dirt,” from

If I had a bucket list of compost destinations, high on the list would be Cedar Grove Composting outside of Seattle, Washington. I found mention of the operation on the delightfully named website,, managed by Dave Dittmar, who professes to be “addicted to compost.”

I learn that Cedar Grove is one of the largest commercial composting companies in the United States, processing over 350,000 tons of yard waste and green waste annually at five facilities that is then sold for use in soil amending, water conservation, erosion control, farming, and post construction soil enhancement. It is also used as the base to create high-end mulches, designed soil blends, green roof mixes and other growing media. Cedar Grove offers a full line of compost-based soil amendments available for purchase by the truckload or sustainable organic products for consumers by the bag, according to their website.

An aerial view of one of Dedar Grove's composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

An aerial view of one of Cedar Grove’s composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

“Working collaboratively with waste haulers, city and county government, businesses and citizens, it represents one of the best models of green and sustainable industry in the country,” reports Dittmar.

I’m fascinated to learn that there are more “compost junkies” out there than I ever realized: I read on Cedar Grove’s website that their facility in Everett has “had more visitors than any other composting facility in North America, with over 5,000 people from 17 countries touring our operation.”

Below is a visitor’s photo of his son playing in Cedar Grove compost. And I thought I was immersed in my pile…

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.




2 thoughts on “My Pile: Armchair Composting

  1. Pingback: My Pile: Holy Ground | My Pile

  2. Pingback: My Pile: Holy Ground | My Pile

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s