I am sure there’s a systematic way to add to, aerate and otherwise mix my pile in the most efficient and productive way possible, a process whose inputs and variables could be modeled by a computer program, spit out and followed. Commercial composters take such a scientific and mechanized approach to their operations.
My backyard pile is much more artisanal, handmade in small batches, sampled throughout the year but mostly harvested en masse by late summer. The recipe for this homemade humus varies from year to year, as does its specific cooking time. Some parts mature early, and most springs I can usually harvest a wheelbarrow or two of fresh-hot compost to tuck along the rows of sprouting vegetables in the garden or new transplants in the perennial beds, or to fill the holes left by rocks I pluck from the lawn through mud season.
Creating each new vintage of compost is part art, part science. Mostly it’s about mixing air, water and sundry organic ingredients by turning my pile inside-out, in place, with a minimum of fuss and to the maximum effect. It’s a sport-like hobby, a pastime that engages me both mentally and physically.
The guidebooks and online sources describe a bewildering array of compost setups and contraptions, from the homemade to the high-tech. Google a few search terms and you’ll see that there is a composting solution for every need. It would be easier if I had room for a two-bin type compost heap; I’m envious of the setups using two or three side-by-side bins made of removable wood-slat bins that turns composting into more of an assembly-line process. As is, working my pile in place is a constrained, somewhat convoluted act, like changing your clothes in the backseat of a small car.
Structurally, the best description I can find for my pile is that it’s known as a “log cabin” compost heap. I rather like that. There is a Lincoln Log aspect to my pile, harking back to a baby-boomer childhood spent playing around suburban construction sites and building forts in the woodlots yet to be filled in by new housing. There is a bit of the rail-splitter in every American.
The literature defines my backyard composting as following the Indore process, first developed a century ago in India by Sir Albert Howard, with a prototypical American twist, which Rodale describes as the University of California method. It’s fitting, as my composting has its roots in California, and I happen to be a UC Berkeley alum.
“The composting method developed at the University of California in the early 1950s is probably the best known and the most clearly articulated of the rapid-return or quick methods,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “It is similar to earlier methods recommended by modifiers of the Indore method, to those practices in mechanical digester units in Europe and America, and to those described and advocated by Harold B. Gotaas of the World Health Organization in his 1935 book ‘Composting.’ Whereas the Indore method may be described as falling on the cool end of the compost spectrum, the California method aims for more heat and faster decomposition.”
“Turning is essential to the California method, for it provides aeration and prevents the development of anaerobic conditions. The more frequent the turning, the more rapidly the method works. If you have a single bin, turning the pile requires you to remove the front of the bin and fork out the contents, beginning with the top layer and keeping track of the original location of the material. When you return the contents, make sure that the material from the outer layers (top and sides) of the pile ends up in the interior of the new pile. The material should be fluffed as it is forked, and it should be so thoroughly mixed that the original layers are indistinguishable. In the course of the composting process, every particle of the pile should at one time or another have been exposed to the interior heat of the pile.”
Even more apropos is Rodale’s evocative, if tautological, description of the “wandering compost pile,” which seems to describe my pile well:
“For continuously composting household, yard and garden waste while maintaining optimum pile size, a ‘wandering compost pile’ is effective. Starting with minimum dimensions of 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep, this type of heap ‘wanders’ as fresh ingredients, such as kitchen refuse (minus meat or animal fat), are tossed onto the sloping front face and finished compost is sliced from the back. By screening the finished compost as it is removed and using the larger particles to cover additions to the front of the pile, newly added materials are seeded with the necessary microrganisms.”
There’s a good bit of manual labor involved in working a compost heap the size of my pile and its particular composition. Actually, the “how-to” reminds me of the old-fashioned flywheels that you see pulling taffy in a candy shop on a seaside boardwalk. First I spread my pile open and out, adding air and space, then fold back in fresh heapings of green and brown from the edges. I think this taffy-pulling bioturbation of my pile is the best way to go about it, as is the log cabin I keep it in.
Last time I turned my pile, to add the unplanned load of horse manure, I excavated twin channels across the top of my pile, scooping the rotting remains of the heap up and outward. I added in the manure and kitchen scraps, then back-filled with dried leaves shaved from the sloping sides.
Weighed down by a few inches of heavy spring snow that fell that night and melted the next day, the dome of my pile from a week ago has now settled in on itself, sagging beneath the tops of the bracing log walls. It’s a good sign of the foment within, and a pattern I’ve followed on pretty much a weekly basis since amassing this heap of fallen leaves and gathered seaweed and hay and other compostibles from the last days of summer on through the end of autumn.
At its peak last last year, my pile swelled to a height higher than my head and sprawled over the log walls that sought to contain it, spilling over the wire fence along the back and down a cascading slope onto the lawn at its front. Each time I watered it, or rain or snow fell upon it, my pile shrunk within itself, subsiding under its sheer weight and succumbing to the forces of gravity and similarly unseen forces of natural decay and entropy. And each time I tucked a fresh batch of kitchen scraps and other organic recyclables into the midst of my pile, I heaped more leaves upon it, gathered from its flanks or the yard, building it up again, as high as my eye. My pile would now be 20 feet tall, if it didn’t always, and inexorably, settle into less.
Over this time, I’ve narrowed my pile’s footprint by nearly half, pulling a wide swath of leaves that once bulged against the back wire fence up onto the top and cleaving three feet or more of compressed leaf litter from the once-sloping front. My pile is now a squat, vertical stack. True, I’ve prodded and poked and probed my pile through and through with the steel rebar rod, perforating it to allow air and water to penetrate its inner recesses. But up to this moment, I have only stirred the top portion of my pile, infusing it with fresh compostibles on through the winter. I have yet to get to the bottom of it, where fresh air and water are needed most to spur on the decomposition process.
Today, the first Sunday of April, it’s time for my pile to get a move on.
After setting out the day’s additions — a week’s worth of kitchen scraps, a fresh bucket of rotting seaweed and salt marsh hay and the last scraps of sycamore fluff hoovered from the winter lawn — I pry into the bottom front of my pile with the straight-tined pitchfork. I tease out clumps of matted leaves, some dry, some wet, from the grip of gravity, heaping shovelfuls up onto the back of the heap.
Before long I have created an overhang of pressed leaves and tattered seagrass, which I pluck off with the curved tines of the hay pitchfork and add to the top of my pile as high as it will repose. After shaving this scraggly brow, I have a new, near vertical face of old leaves, which I undermine once more, using the hay pitchfork to pull more leaf litter from the bottom toward my feet to form a berm, about shin-high along the front. Within this gathering are just glimpses of anything more than old leaves — stray bits of white shredded paper, a few egg shells and flecks of seashells.
The newly created overhang of leaves along the front of my pile quivers. I step back to take a quick cell-phone video of the gentle avalanche that results:
I’m pleased to see, newly exposed, a rich, dark, moist mass of leaf mold. It’s like I’ve bitten into a creme-filled chocolate. I tease out the mix with the pitchfork. I’d considered trying to harvest a few shovelfuls to spread across my vegetable garden, having read recently that tomato plants thrive under such unfinished compost. But after some digging, the batch still seemed too raw, and besides, I’m still at least a month away from the last frost and planting time.
So I spread the steamy leaf mold atop the berm of drier material along the new front of my pile, and heap shovelfuls across the top. It will infuse these rawer parts of my pile with a rich riot of decomposers.
Such busywork creates a trench along the front portion of my pile, all the way down to bare dirt. I scrape into the crevasse some dried leaves from the corners and creases of my pile, then add the sycamore seed fluff, the kitchen scraps and mix thoroughly, topping it off with a layer of seaweed flecked with salt marsh hay.
I fill in the hole by causing another avalanche from the midst of my pile, and scrape more leaves from the top. The log walls make good markers, and a reckon I’ve tossed and turned nearly the front half of my pile, from top to bottom.
Backfilling in this way shrinks the top of my pile enough to prompt me to walk around the back side to cleave a half row of compost from behind to restore the heap to shoulder high. I now have a shelf of rotting leaf litter along the rear, and I see that just behind the wall of leaves is a rich vein of humus-like compost. Facing south and exposed to the warming sun, it is thick with earthworms and within easy reach.
The next time I mess with my pile, I reckon it will be to add these raw leaves along the back with grass clippings from the season’s first mow. I also make note to mine the newly revealed backside for a pre-season top dressing of raw compost for the tomatoes, not to mention the rhubarb. It’s a comfort to have an itinerary for my wandering pile.
I finished my hour’s work by tidying up the front of my pile with a rake, restoring it, at least in look, to the heap of leaves it always appears to be. A good portion of the hard-pressed bottom of my pile has now become the fluffed-up top. With April showers on the way, my pile will soak up all the rain it receives and settle back into itself. But by taking two steps forward and once step back, my pile is newly suffused with air and freshly mixed organic material. It’s primed for productive decay, a healthy rot, thoroughly dead but rife with life, and all the other remarkable paradoxes that constitute and define my pile.
And so my log cabin of a pile wanders in place through the seasons. “Wandering in place” is also an apt description of me in my backyard, as it is for most gardeners.