My Pile: Child’s Play

The transition from winter to summer, while always inevitable, has so far been tentative here in coastal southern Connecticut. I woke this cold Saturday to read online: “The National Weather Service in New York has issued a freeze watch for Westport and area which is in effect from late tonight through Sunday morning. It said temperatures around freezing will occur late tonight into early Sunday morning with the potential for sensitive crops and plants to be killed.”

Among the casualties already are the waxy leaves of the montauk daisy to the side of the back door and, I noticed on my morning run, the pink blossoms of a large tulip magnolia along a neighboring street, shriveled to black. I imagine both will recover from their frostbite.

Still, this week in mid April marks the tipping point when the season begins to shift, delightfully, from cold and dormant to warm and growing. Two days of showers have doused the landscape, and my pile. The forsythia are ablaze in yellow, the fiddleheads and other ferns in the backyard garden beds are unspooling upward, and the most precocious of the perennials are emerging from the deep wood-chip mulch spread late last fall. The purplish stalks of the peonies, slender tiger lily shoots and coiled thrusts of the hostas are all sprouting.

In the vegetable garden, the rhubarb leads the charge, unfurling its elephant-ear leaves from its robust, ruby-red stems thrusting up through the mound of compost I’d heaped upon it last fall. A friend who grew up on a New Hampshire farm once told me that rhubarb grows best on a pile of compost, and I’ve long followed that bit of farm wisdom. Other self-seeding herbs, chiefly the cilantro, are also sprouting like weeds.

The grass lawn, though slowed by the still-cold temperature of the soil, is greening nicely under the strengthening sun of spring, especially the dark, thick patches where the dog does his business. The overarching trees that surround my yard have yet to issue leaves, though the wine-dark flowers of the maple trees dapple the grass like so much confetti. Soon the lawn will be littered with countless winged maple seeds that helicopter down from the branches above.

My pile seems a doughty old relic in the midst of all this nascent green growth, though from the puffs of steam vapor I see rising from its mounded top in the early morning I know that it is churning and burning under its cloak of dank, matted leaves.

I hadn’t planned to spend much time with my pile this weekend, but that changed yesterday evening when my neighbor stopped by with a gift from his wife, who teaches Kindergartners at a local pre-school. She’d guided her students in a special project the past few weeks to make compost in plastic tubs, combining kitchen scraps the kids brought from home with what I expect was the giggly fun of a class trip outdoors to add to the mix some dirt and leaves and any earthworms they could find. The class assignment over, she’d brought the stuffed bins home to pass along to me.

I happily added this bin of Kindergartner compost to my pile.

I happily added this bin of Kindergartner compost to my pile.

I will happily add this bin of grade-A compost to my pile, along with my own half-full bucket of scraps from the kitchen and more from the backyard neighbors. The hausfrau spots me wandering the yard as she’s stringing wet clothes on the line that stretches from her back porch, and calls over the fence. Her youngest daughter has finished a long-overdue chore and thoroughly cleaned the rabbit hutch. Could I take the stinky mess off their hands?

Of course. The Sunday morning work also allows me to further prep my pile for the coming load of grass clippings that will transform the heap, still largely composed of leaf mold, into a finished product of humus.

Since excavating my pile last weekend, and stuffing and fluffing it, two days of rain mid-week have caused it to sag back into itself, especially the front slope. Time to toss it once again.

First I dig around the perimeter of the top of my pile with the pitchfork to rebuild a berm along both log walls. It’s steamy and fragrant in a loamy, good way, and the loose leaf litter is flecked with earthworms. Next, picking a spot high along the saggy front slope, I tease out more forkfuls of mushy leaf mold to fashion a new facade. Behind this ridgeline a void opens, into which I dump the bin of compost from the kindergartners, the buckets of kitchen refuse and the shaggy green hay from the bottom of the rabbit hutch.

The bits of colored shells of easter eggs and wattled husks of avocado skins mix easily and deeply with the warm, musty leaf mold. The tine of the pitchfork snags a tangled mess of seaweed wrapped in the remains of a flounder rig, which I pull out and set aside. Another pitchfork plunge produces an old tennis ball stuck between the tines. I don’t know how long it’s been buried, but when I toss it out onto the lawn, the dog, who waits patiently next to my pile, happily retrieves it. Otherwise, I see little evidence of past insertions of compostibles, even from a week ago.

I add fresh compostibles to the front of my pile and will bury it all by borrowing from the back.

I add fresh compostibles to the front of my pile and will bury it all by borrowing from the back.

I walk around the back side of my pile to mine the strip of leaves along the rear wall. Last weekend, I’d carved down about halfway, creating a bench of sorts. Reaching over the wire fence,  I plunge the pitchfork into the caches of dry brittle leaves in the two corners and toss the crumbly leaves onto the top. Having excavated two rows of leaves already this spring, I’ve reached the inner sanctum of my pile, unearthing the swath of leaves mower-mulched by my across-the-street neighbor and dragged up onto the pile en masse. The crumbly leaves are easy to extract and make good fresh fodder to spread across the top of my pile.

I dig out this back bench of leaf mold all the way to the ground, fashioning a vertical wall that is moist and rich in the center. The two tallest logs along the back, now unbound by the crush of leaves, yet still connected by the length of wire fencing stapled to their decaying skins of bark, teeter in place. I rock one of the log pilings loose from its mooring and examine the impression it has made upon my pile. Where log has faced leaf mold for these past few months is a vein of rich, dark crumbly rot, seething with roly-polys. The log is rotting away faster than the leaves; it’s another sign of how the log walls of my pile help seed my pile with the microbial actors so important to decay. I set the log back in place, and shore up its footing by kicking a wedge of firewood underneath it.

I finish the half-hour’s work on my pile by tidying up the front, trimming a row of loose moldy leaves from the base to stack up onto the top. My pile is now less a heap than a construct. Once wide and sprawling, it’s now tall and compact. My pile is steadily consuming itself, a process of entropy and attrition aided by my fididdling of pulling layers of raw, even untouched leaves from these lower reaches out to upper edges and top. My goal, as always, is to keep my pile chest-high by borrowing from the front and back, in the process basically turning the heap inside out and upside down. Wandering in place.

It is child’s play, this playing in the dirt. I’ll soon add insertions of green grass clippings from the season’s first mow and further kitchen scraps and what else as I go, to thoroughly mix the old brown leaves that have been entombed since the fall with the fresh growth of spring. I’m continually thankful that my pile keeps me connected to such simple pleasures, and with mother earth.

A side view of my much-condensed pile in mid April. Soon, it will be engorged with the green fodder of the growing season.

A side view of my much-condensed pile in mid April. Soon, it will be engorged with the green fodder of the growing season.


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