My Pile: Winter Windfall

I mowed the lawn today, the first Sunday of March. Though a bright, blue-sky day, it’s hardly in the mid-40s by mid afternoon. With the soil temperatures even lower, the grass is still dormant; in fact, it is brown and brittle. The sight of bare ground is at least a change from last winter, when snow covered the ground until nearly April.

Why mow, and why now? The sycamore tree that lords over the northwest corner of my yard has been shedding spiky seed balls all through the winter. Once as hard as golf balls, the seed pods that adorn the branches overhead by the thousands are now ripening. Cottony brown fluff drifts across the yard on the gentlest of breezes; firmer winds knock the balls down to the ground, where they disintegrate into so much dander.

You have to give the tree credit for being so fecund – old-timers know the sycamore as the buttonball tree for its prodigious supply of so much spawn – but on a suburban lawnscape, the scattered mess is a nuisance. The downspouts of my gutters are filled with fluff, as are the storm drains along the street. Last weekend I fired up the leaf blower to preemptively whisk the seedballs and dander from the gravel driveway; otherwise I’m sure I’d have to spend the spring pulling sprouts or, worse, contemplate using weed killer.

The fluffy seeds are so thick across the lawn that my across-the-street neighbor commented on it the other day; in fact it was he who suggested I haul out the mower and scarf it all up with the leaf catcher. Aside from the scandalous unsightliness of so much windblown detritus, I worry whether the covering of seeds will choke off growth of the grass. And I wonder whether this windfall of organic plant matter, once gathered, could benefit my pile.

So I haul the Toro from the saltbox shed and set it in a patch of sunlight in front of my pile to warm the engine block. I last used the mower in late November to mulch the final leaves of fall, and wonder if it will start up. I check the gas tank to find it half-full, and worry whether the gas has gone bad.  But the engine starts up after a few tugs on the starter cord, and off I go.

Coursing over the brittle brown grass, I fill three tall leaf bags full of fluff and set them against the side of the tool shed, hard by my pile. I have no plans to mess with my pile weekend, but at least for now my lawn is relatively clear of the messy amount of fluff.

I haul out the mower for a late-winter gathering of the seedballs that fall across the lawn in the shadow of the sycamore tree.

I haul out the mower for a late-winter gathering of the seedballs that have fallen across the lawn in the shadow of the sycamore tree.

Intrigued by such a display of fecundity, I read up on Plantanus occidentalis, and find that the seed balls are called achenes, which means “dry, hairy fruit.” Each ball contains hundreds of seeds emanating from a round kernel the size of a pea. Each seedhead has a tail, which ripens into silken strands. It’s actually a marvel of design. I also find, on www.eattheweeds.com, that the seeds are eaten by some birds, “including the purple finch, goldfinch, chickadees, and dark-eyed junco. The seeds are also eaten by muskrats, beavers, and squirrels.” I’ve never seen anything, feathered or furred, exhibit the slightest appetite for sycamore seeds, but this year’s windfall may explain why the finches and chickadees have been noticeably absent from my bird-feeder this winter.

On www.homeguides.sfgate.com, I read that “While sycamore seed balls can be a nuisance to clear away, they can also be put to a variety of practical uses,” from craft projects to, yes, compost:

“Since sycamore seed balls are organic plant matter, they will decompose naturally over time. Rather than bagging them and throwing them away with the garbage, compost the seed balls so that their nutrients can be recycled to create rich new soil. Sycamore seed balls take longer to break down than everyday kitchen scraps, so place them in a large outdoor compost bin where they can decompose gradually.”

The sycamore tree that lords over the corner of my yard is still adorned with countless seed balls.

The sycamore tree that lords over the corner of my yard is still adorned with countless seed balls.

Of course, the easiest solution would be for me to send off the bags of seed fluff to the yard waste dump with the collection of wind-blown branches and limbs I’ve collected over the winter. But that’s not why I tend to my pile.

The tricky part will be in incorporating this fine mess within my pile in a way that heats the seeds sufficiently to prevent them from germinating. As is, I’ve gathering up only a fraction of all the seed balls; countless more seeds now lie atop the garden beds and lawn. I look up through the sycamore arching branches to see as many, if not more, seed balls wait to fall across my yard.

Some years, the sycamore produces only a smattering of seed balls; who knows what vagueries of the tree itself and the climatic prompts it responds to have combined to produce such a windfall, but there it is. Keeping all this “brown” filler onsite and adding it to my pile will be my challenge as the season changes and my pile resumes its march toward fruition.

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