My Pile: Spring Forward

Last night, we got a timely nudge forward toward spring with the changing of clocks.

The yearly adjustment means little to my pile, which keeps to its own time. But the added hour of sunshine each day will give me that much more daylight after work to spend dithering about in the backyard, a fair share of which benefits my pile.

While my pile’s decomposition is largely driven by biological processes that take place within its midst, especially through the cold dark days of winter, it is solar power from above that fuels my pile’s annual sprint toward its transformation from a heap of dead and rotting remnants into a fresh batch of newly reconstituted, living soil.

At the moment, the seasonal tilt of the planet’s axis relative to the sun is tipping my pile in the right direction, warming it through and through. Soon, the whole heap, not just the top portions into which I’ve plugged a winter’s worth of compostibles, will be engaged in composting itself.

The weather is also cooperating. This past week the daytime temperatures have spiked into the 60s, even 70s, a record for the date. Judging from the extended forecast, there will be no late-winter snowfalls this year, but rather a couple of rain storms amid a long run of warm days and frost-free nights until spring officially arrives next weekend on Palm Sunday. We are rewriting the record books for seasonal warmth.

Spring has already sprung: The robins returned this week to stake out their patches of turf, stomping around and cocking an ear to the ground to root out fat, juicy earthworms for their coming hatchlings. The crocuses are up across the lawn and garden beds, displaying their cupped flowers of violet, white and yellow like so many tiny Easter eggs. The downward daffodil blooms are not far behind, and striving to keep pace are the forsythia bushes, another harbinger of spring, fast forcing themselves to bloom.

This Sunday morning is a fine time for me to plunge back into my pile. It’s been a couple weeks since I last stirred it with an infusion of kitchen scraps and coffee grounds and topped it with a covering of rotting salt marsh hay.

Hanging from a hook in the tool shed, safely off the floor from any intrepid rodents, is a groaning bag of kitchen waste and rabbit-hutch gleanings from the neighbors. My own bucket of food scraps and spent coffee grounds is full, and I have the three-bags-full of sycamore seedball fluff gathered a week ago to dispense with.

I wish I’d gotten around to the local Starbucks for a fresh load of coffee grounds to add to the mix, for I fret that adding so much dead brown detritus to my pile would best be counter-balanced by an equal supply of fresh green organics. But I’ve been lazy, though I did take the big plastic bucket to the beach this week with the dog in hopes of filling it with a supply of washed-up seaweed. Alas, the beach was bare. I’ll have to wait for the grass on my own lawn to begin growing to harvest fresh greens for my pile.

Still, with an insertion of compostibles from my kitchen and the neighbors’, along with the linty seed fluff (surely spiked with nutrients of its own making), what my pile needs now is a good tossing, to air it out and prepare it for the hot-house growth of spring and summer that will allow it to consume itself wholly and fully.

I begin by using the wide bow rake to scrape the salt marsh hay from atop the back of my pile toward the middle, exposing the dank leaf litter underneath. I grab the hay pitchfork to heap forkfuls of musty leaves to the sides and across the back, building up the edges of my pile and carving out a trench across the middle nearly two feet deep and twice as wide. Aside from a stray egg shell, inside I see no sign of the kitchen scraps that have nurtured my pile through the cold days of winter. Newly exposed, the inner reaches of my pile look like so much old rotting leaves, warm to the touch.

I scatter most of the first bag of sycamore seed fluff into the chasm, chuck the bucket of food scraps from my kitchen into the cottony brown fluff, and bury them by dragging the tangly salt marsh hay back over the top. Adding so much lint-like sycamore seed dander is a curiosity for me and my pile. It may act like saw dust and resist rot, or may be subsumed, ready-made, like shredded paper, which disappears in my pile like so much cotton candy on the tongue. But I have a pretty good idea that the combined forces of dried brown tree-seed fluff, rotting green organics and brittle hay will interact to form a fresh hot mix of decay just below the newly ruffled surface of my pile.

There is no scent of anaerobic rot from below, and that’s a good thing, though I know that today’s exercise has only scratched the surface. Out of reach of the thrusting tines of the pitchfork is the bottom half of my pile, which for now remains terra incognita. At least for now, above those undisclosed depths, the heap is suffused with air, and fresh compostibles, all tossled enough to soak up the rain that is predicted over the coming week.

The fluffy seed balls of the sycamore tree in my yard, spike by a fresh load of kitchen scraps, make good filler for my pile.

The fluffy seed balls of the sycamore tree in my yard, spike by a fresh load of kitchen scraps, make good filler for my pile.

I top off the trench with pitchforks full of gatherings from the back edge of my pile. Much of it is fairly soaked with the pees I take each morning when I let out the dog. I’m counting on the sterile urine to serve as the wondrous compost activator I’ve heard it to be. In any event, the cleanup effort of cleaving chunks of soggy old leaves from the back wall both builds up the top of my pile to chest high, and wipes the slate clean of my daily pit stops.

I have bags more of the sycamore dander, and my neighbors’ household wastes, to add to my pile, so I begin another trenchlike excavation along the front of my pile. First I tease out matted leaf litter from the top to build up a higher wall along the front, a palisade above the sloping front edge of my pile. This is the construction of my pile that I like best, preparing it architecturally for the deconstruction that awaits it. A few cockle shells and a tangled bit of monofilament fishing line are all I unearth, building up the front and sides of my pile to match the height along the back.

I empty the rest of the bag of sycamore fluff scarfed up by the mower last weekend into the cavity, toss in the neighbors’ bucket of food scraps and the green, alfalfa-like hay from their rabbit hutch, then give it all a good mixing with the pitchfork. The center fill of my pile is thus freshly primed with a new mix of fodder to rot away.

It’s the cover up that always gets you, and that comes next.

The front of my pile is a sloping scree of minced leaves that tumbled into place last fall when my neighbor Craig and I dragged plastic tarps full of mower-mulched leaves from his yard and cast them wholesale atop my pile. Over the winter, these gatherings have compressed into a cliff-face of compacted leaf litter, as tightly bound as a bale of hay and structurally rigid enough for me to carve a nearly vertically wall along the front.

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I’ve added 50 or so pounds of food scraps and sycamore seed fluff to my pile and am burying it under pitchforks full of leaves borrowed from the front.

Turning the bended tines of the hay pitchfork backward, I cleave whole chunks from the sloping front of my pile and turn them up and over to fill the trench hole. Freed from the crush above it, each forkful of dried leaves taken from the bottom front of my pile and tossed across the top expands and unfurls; spring uncoiled.

My pile is renewed and recharged. I’ve dug deeply into it and added a fulsome supply of nutrient-rich organic wastes, both brown and green, along with big gulps of air. By borrowing from both front and back, it once again rises high, a thick stack of compost.

I step back from my pile to consider, to calculate. For all the world, my pile still looks like a tall mound of dried, crumpled leaves, shaved to near vertical walls front and bag. But within this cocoon of rotting leaves I know there is a seething riot of new life being created, waiting to emerge.

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