My Pile: Aerial Assault

It’s a breezy, sunny Saturday morning, the start of Memorial Day Weekend. I wander out to check up on my pile, first scaring off the resident robin couple that tromps across the top in search of worms and other snackables, then disrupting the squadrons of midges and hover flies that waft above it in the warming air.

Like a stand-alone mountain, my pile is its own, stratified ecosystem. Its ragged summit and steep, flanking slopes are rife with life. I step behind the chest-high log that stands at the rear corner to pee away some coffee, skirting a colony of mushrooms that has sprouted at its base. Midway up a solitary soldier ant marches across the jumbled scree; a loose leaf jostles, and a foraging red worm wriggles into view.

Higher still on the craggy heap, stems of fungi rise here and there amid damp hummocks of sycamore seed fluff, sprouting green like so many chia pets in a pastoral parkland of rot. If Thomas Cole had painted The Course of Empire in miniature, this view would memorialize the passing civilization that is my pile “in the livid light of a dying day.” It makes a pretty picture of decay writ small, my pile.

But as Sir Thomas Overbury once wrote of the love of his life, “All the carnall beauty of my wife is but skin-deep.” The true beauty of my pile is in the fecund, complex matrix of earthen food and shelter and air and unseen seething contained within.

A gust of wind kicks up, and I follow a maple-seed whirligig as it flutters down from the nearby tree that casts its shade and leaves and fruits upon my pile. The flighted seedling comes to rest on the rotted cross section of one of the stacked logs that abut my pile, hewn from a maple tree I had cut down several years ago. I give the lacy winglet a toss, and it helicopters down to the wood chips below.

I will let my pile sit in graceful repose today, for I have other backyard chores to attend to as the holiday, and summer, gets under way.

Having flowered and budded out with countless clutches of winglet seedlings, the female maple trees in my yard let fly their progeny virtually all at once. One day my driveway is clear, the next it’s a fluttering carpet of maple seedlings helicoptered down from above. So thick is this windfall, I need to turn my wipers on to clear the windshield before backing out of the driveway.

A small portion of the maple winglets that rain down on my yard each spring.

A small portion of the maple winglets that rain down on my property each spring. Much I mulch up with the mower; the rest are swept up and left to rot under an old maple in the corner of the yard.

The release of the profligate maple seedlings, generally heaviest every other year, is truly a marvel of nature. It’s a spectacle to see the winged seeds spin through the air, a lesson in evolution and aerodynamics that always delighted my young son, especially when I clamor up to the rooftop to toss whole clouds from the gutter along the front porch.

So many seeds rain down across the property that I haul out the leafblower to breeze them into collected piles. By inclination, I’m more of a manual raker and a sweeper than a power blower, but this is one use of the noisy little device that makes sense, if not poetic justice. I take some satisfaction in turning the motorized fan of the spewing little two-stroke against the wind-driven invasion of so many seeds, using their own propulsion to blow them into piles for pick up.

And an invasion it is. Maple trees are early winners in the ecological battleground created by manmade climate change and habitat disruption, at least here in the New England Northeast. I’m not talking sugar maples, a valuable commodity which is in now steady retreat northward. What now dominates the landscape is known in these parts as the swamp maple. This weed of a tree spreads its leaves first and fully and its toe-stubbing, concrete-cracking surface roots far and wide, hogging both sunlight and rainwater.

Swamp maples are the bane of my backyard, though their leaves do make good fodder for my pile. In fact, I read on Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute’s website that maple leaves have a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, ideal for composting. (Oak leaves, with their higher levels of tannin, have a ratio more like 60:1, which means they take longer to decompose and require more green material high in nitrogen to spur their breaking down.)

Having come up with the evolutionary trick of creating countless winged seeds rather than a more modest crop of hard-shelled nuts, swamp maples are unequaled as seed dispersers, though this year the sycamore trees are giving chase. A maple seed whirligig can flutter afar and find purchase in every nook and cranny — a damp gutter, in the gravel driveway and between the cracks of a wood-slatted patio. They particularly thrive in rotting wood-chi mulch, and as such would take over the entire property if given a chance.

In the years I’ve owned my property, I’ve dispatched many of the old maples that had overtaken the landscape, some with a chain saw, others grubbed out by shovel, and many more plucked by hand. I weed out far more maple seedlings than I do dandelions, even crabgrass.

This enterprising native has mostly taken over New England, as the hardwood forests of the eastern North America have changed radically over time. When European settlers arrived, a squirrel could travel from Connecticut to the Mississippi river without ever touching ground — or scarcely a maple tree. The king of the forest was the chestnut, which I’ve read once amounted to 25 percent of all trees in the native forests. It was followed by oak, hickory and other stout hardwoods, prized for the quality of their wood and the useful fruit from their seeds.

Acer rubrum (Red Maple, also known as Swamp, Water or Soft Maple) is one of the most common and widespread deciduous trees of eastern North America,” I read on Wikipedia. “The U.S. Forest service recognizes it as the most common variety of tree in America. Over most of its range, red maple is adaptable to a very wide range of site conditions, perhaps more so than any other tree in eastern North America. It can be found growing in swamps, on poor dry soils, and most anywhere in between. Due to its attractive fall foliage and pleasing form, it is often used as a shade tree for landscapes.

Rubrum is one of the first plants to flower in spring. A crop of seeds is generally produced every year with a bumper crop often occurring every second year. A single tree between 5 and 20 cm (2.0 and 7.9 in) in diameter can produce between 12,000 and 91,000 seeds in a season. A tree 30 cm (0.98 ft) in diameter was shown to produce nearly a million seeds. The red maple can be considered weedy or invasive. It is taking over forests in the eastern US, replacing traditional mainstays like oaks, as well as hickories and pines… ”

Each fall I empty my pockets of the acorns I’ve collected from walks in nearby woods, tucking the nuts into the wood chips atop the perennial beds that border the lawn. What the squirrels and deer don’t find sometimes sprouts. So each spring I transplant a few seedlings here and there in my yard where I think they have the best chance of growing mighty and tall.

Many of these little oaks are plucked from the ground by the relentlessly searching squirrels, which have a taste for even sprouted acorns. Other saplings are munched on by deer. Both strike me as short-sighted feeders, whose thoughts of the future end with their next meal at the tip of their nose. I wish squirrels and deer and turkey had a taste for maple seeds and saplings, but they don’t.

These oak saplings rising from the garden bed alongside my neighbor's property were planted as acorns and have replaced a row of rotted old maples that threatened to fall on the neighbor's house.

These oak saplings rising from the garden bed alongside my neighbor’s property were planted as acorns and have replaced a row of rotted old maples that threatened to fall on the neighbor’s house.

Despite this backyard war of attrition, enough young oaks and other prized hardwoods I’ve planted — several beeches, a tulip poplar, hickory and white pine — have made it through the gauntlet of foragers and other obstacles to rise tall enough to begin to take their place in my landscape. I tend these young trees with water and care as other gardeners fuss over roses and heirloom plantings. They will mature long after I’m gone from the property, and may well require further care and culling, but I’m proud that my own little niche of a backyard now stands as a  nursery and preserve of  a modestly diverse collection of old-school native forest, mostly oaks which sustains an astounding array of native fauna. (How I would love to get my hands on a blight-resistant chestnut sapling, but I’m afraid that onetime mainstay, like the American elm and, increasingly, the white ash, will not soon return to the American landscape.)

I don’t know exactly what kind of oaks I’m bringing home, but judging from the variety of acorns and the leaves on their fledgling limbs, I now have six or seven different types — white, black, red, pin, gamble, as far as I can tell. They may well grow on this piece of ground for the next 100, 200 years; the swamp maples grow stringy and rot out after about 50, often ending up on a roof or across a power line.

Though I mulch up countless winglets that fall across the lawn with the mower, as well as the fluffy seedlets of the sycamores that continue to rain down upon the yard, I just don’t trust adding the maple seeds wholesale to my pile, especially at this late point in its seasonal cycle. I fear that too many would survive through the final stages of converting the heap to humus, leading me to being the unwitting distributor of them to my perennial beds.

So each May, and today is the day, I tidy up the yard by sweeping and blowing away enough maple seedlings from the porch and driveway and out of the gutters to top off the small plastic tarp two times over. And though I’m sure the seeds are loaded with nutrients that would further prime my pile, I drag the lot over to dump them next to the brush pile I keep under an old maple along the street in the corner of the yard. It, like two of the other remaining maples in my yard, is on town property; otherwise, I probably would have taken them down, too. I let the seedlings rot in the shade of the northern side of its trunk.

All these maple seeds don’t deserve my pile, is what I’m saying.

The maple seeds en masse on the tarp. The dog is fascinated by the leaf blower, and wears himself out trying to bite the noisy nozzle.

The maple seeds en masse on the tarp. The dog is fascinated by the leaf blower, and wears himself out trying to bite the noisy nozzle.

My Pile: Trunk Full of Junk

The morning weather report foretells of a “top 10” day of the year, and I can see why: It’s a Friday, finishing off the third week of May, and it will start out partly cloudy and grow increasingly sunny, with a breezy high of 75. A perfect spring day to take off early from work and spend the afternoon idling away in the backyard.

Now until the gloaming dusk of evening, I’ll mow the lushly rising lawn, groom the blossoming backyard gardens, sweep the driveway and patio clean of windblown leaves and other tree debris and even spruce up the neighbor’s front yard, and in so doing add measurably to my pile. A top 10 day, indeed, for a backyard gardener, if less idle than ideal.

Even with the blade set on high it’s a bit of struggle to plow through the newly lush lawn. The grass-catcher hung off the back quickly fills, and even after changing directions to blow the excess clippings out to the cropped side, grasscycling large swaths of the lawn, I still have to stop five times to empty the bin of clippings on a tarp set down next to my pile and to allow the two-stroke engine to catch a breather after it nearly chokes on a particularly moist, almost chewy patch of clover.  I leave three patches of uncut grass in the middle of the lawn to grow as mini meadows, each the size of a beach blanket, an archipelago of ankle-high nature amid the manicured turf.

The plastic tarp brims with freshly harvested green as well as a bushel-worth of fallen petals from the dogwood tree mixed with the swept-up sycamore fluff that continues to rain down from the myriad seed balls that hang from the dapple-barked trees, like disintegrating Christmas ornaments. More presents for my pile.

Next door, my neighbor raked up a pile of needles from the blue spruce that lords over their front yard. Little grass grows from the dusty bare dirt and exposed roots that surround the big tree, partly because of the shade the tree produces and partly because she rakes up all the leaf litter, sweeping the ground to bare dirt into a dusty mound of spruce needles and branches.

Unwanted in my neighbor's yard, this mound of old spruce needles and dirt will meld with fresh grass clippings in my pile.

Unwanted in my neighbor’s yard, this mound of old spruce needles and dirt will meld with fresh grass clippings in my pile.

The stash has since settled into an unkept island unto its own. Typically, I take the swept-up leaves, mostly maple, that she gathers when tidying up her small patch of yard. She has nowhere convenient to put it, nor a trash service to haul it away. Though she knows I gladly take the food scraps from her kitchen to add to my pile, I hemmed and hawed about this prickly lot, mentioning to her that needles from fir trees were awfully hard to decompose, especially at this late part of the seasonal cycle. Some kinds of coniferous needles even contain a hormone that deters other plants from growing nearby. That’s why nothing usually grows under pine trees other than thick mats of rusty pine-needle straw.  I found that out the hard way when I killed the tulip magnolia in my front yard under a suffocating blanket of spruce needles that cooked its roots.

I mentioned that perhaps I’d stuff the sweepings into a rubbish bin the next time I haul the pruned and fallen branches from my own yard off to the town refuse dump. But I haven’t needed to make that trip this spring, and I suppose the open invitation to do so has resulted in at least partial ownership of the abandoned heap of refuse. Eminent domain, of sorts, for being the resident composter. Besides, why go to the time and bother with hauling the mess away by car or truck when an alternative destination, a way station, is just a wheelbarrow away?

To some in the neighborhood, the scrap heap of needles is an eyesore, like having a junked car parked in the front yard. To the family next door, it’s a bother of a chore left unfinished. To me, the litter has just enough value to sweep up and deposit in my pile. Maybe that’s the solution to the yard and food-waste solution that clogs our landfills and waterways and taxes municipal budgets; to find a way to monetize such refuse so it’s worth it to dispose in a way that is profitable. It’s worked for plastic and glass and junk metal, a nickel or pennies on the ton at a time.

“There is a hefty price tag for food waste to business and society. It has only recently been quantified: an estimated $165 billion per year,” I read in an article by Forbes, “A Food Waste Reduction Movement Gathers Steam.”

“The good news is that both corporations and consumers now have access to a growing number of initiatives making it easier to avoid waste—solutions that go from farm to store to fridge, and all the way through to trash …. A growing number of companies are monetizing even rotten food. Harvest Power has 40 plants across the North America that take food waste plus leaves and yard trimmings and through anaerobic digestion and composting transform them into renewable energy to power neighborhood homes. A fringe benefit: natural fertilizer that Harvest Power sells to farmers and landscapers.”

According to Harvest Power, more than 33 million tons of organic waste gets sent to landfills in North America each year. “Our vision is to reduce organic wastes in North America, transforming them into renewable energy, beautiful landscapes and rich soils for agriculture,”says CEO Kathleen Lidocki. The company’s mission is to put organic waste to a higher and better use through a growing network of some 40 composting facilities around the U.S. and in Canada, to turn a healthy profit by helping states to meet recycling targets, produce clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainably revitalize the soil for its crops and landscapes.

I see my curbside pickup as a modest, neighborly act that adds to the present and potential of my pile. It takes a village to make a proper compost heap, and my pile is a manifestation of that neighborly collective, a living link that connects us walking and talking creatures as it does the web of life that exists at, below and above our feet. Put another way, if I didn’t keep a backyard compost heap, I’d have that much less of a reason to interact and share with my neighborfs, if only on a bare, grass-roots level.

I scoop up a wheelbarrow full of the spruce needles, separating out the stray sticks and branches by hand, getting several pinpricks along with the heady, resinous scent of a high-country forest glade. The gathered sweepings are about the size of a throw rug and a foot high. Augmented by a smattering of old leaves and dirt, the needly mix holds together as I scrape pitchfork fulls off the hard pan, locked together in its own slow-motion decay. A big fat nightcrawler protrudes from a snatched clumpful, making me realize that this dusty mound of spent fir needles will make a fine counterpoint to the hot-house heap of grass clippings already stationed by my pile.

I park the first wheelbarrow of spruce at the back corner of my pile, jostling for space with the plastic tarp overbrimming with grass clippings, already steaming. Another plastic sheet lays covered with more clippings at the front of my pile. I try to make the mental calculations of gauging how much new material I’ve gathered against the space I can create to tuck it all in. It will be a tight squeeze, fitting all I’ve gathered into the boot of my pile. I also wonder if I’m up to the physical task of carving into the backside of my pile, and how much resistance it will put up. I may have bitten off more than my pile, and I, can chew.

But it’s a beautiful spring evening, golden hour here beside the Gold Coast of Connecticut. I need the exercise, and turning my pile gives me a good workout, the upper body especially, like steering a kayak in a bathtub. I’ve heard that music conductors never suffer heart attacks because they’re always waving their arms. Wielding a pitchfork in concert with my pile gives me much the same cardio lift.

As always, I begin by tugging apart the top part of my pile, to shift old rotting material up and out from the middle reaches. It’s not a coincidence that my pile is precisely as wide as I can reach into the middle with a pitchfork, from either side and, nearly, from back to front. I pull out pitchforks full of rank, rotting organic matter, a mix of grass clippings gone bad and moldy leaves, and stack them along the front and sides. I’m relieved to see no sight nor hear no buzz of a batch of beachflies gone rogue. The smell, however, is just short of anearobic stink bomb, and I’m glad to be giving my pile a good airing out.

The freshly dug cavity along the front side of my pile needs a good supply of raw brown matter to offset the foment within and the new batch of grass clippings I have on hand. The spruce needles — long an afterthought in the neighbor’s yard — now seem like a timely contribution to the rotting tinderbox that is my pile.

I also cleave out chunks of tightly bound clumps of old leaves from the back edge of my pile. Each new pitchfork full gleaned from the ragged wall seems to come with a spring release, replacing itself with a new edging of easy pickings, some of it marbled with the moldy stems of salt march grass, some so fresh I can still read the numbers of the slips of shredded office paper deposited last fall.

A carve into the rear wall of my pile, a hard-pressed mix of moldy leaves layered with salt marsh grass, seaweed and other rotting organic matter.

A carve into the rear wall of my pile, a hard-pressed mix of moldy leaves layered with salt marsh grass, seaweed and other rotting organic matter.

The clutches of old leaves help me fill up the yawn with alternating layers of grass clippings and spruce needles, while steadily pecking away at the back wall. I wonder if it will collapse before I exhaust my supply of clippings and conifer duff, and how far I can dig into its footings before I can prompt it to do so. Most of the fun in a game of yatzhee or pick-up sticks is when the structure tumbles down.

I heap my pile with this tri-mix of compostibles until I’m literally up to my eyeballs. I’ve piled the top of the heap as high as I can, and come to a literal point. The crest can take no more, yet I still have to make room to accommodate the rest the grass clippings, and a barrow more of spruce needles. I’ll have to go in whole hog and rip into the back of my pile until it caves out to create the space in which to tuck in the rest of these recyclables.

I step away from the back-side wall and plan my way into the cliff-face like a rock climber plotting his ascent. I undercut more the bottom under edge, pulling out compressed tufts of dried leaves first laid down last autumn, to form a berm that stretches a step back along the entire backside. I keep plucking away, the pile stout enough to resist my undermining until I’ve carved out a channel a foot or so deep and as wide that reaches down to bare dirt. I fill the chasm with scraggly, alternating layers of clippings and needles, brown with green, then drag tumbled pitchforks full of more rotted remains down from above it.

This is a newly conquered cross section of my pile, and I stripmine my way further up the backside. Once teased apart and resorted and stuffed anew, these terraced layers of tossed compostibles will not again see the light of day for some weeks and hopefully will settle into their own zones of decomposition, consuming themselves according to their mix. My pile is not monolithic; it contains any number of areas of varying ingredients that cook away at their own time and pitch. It’s like a gourmet kitchen stove, its top burners and oven tasked to finish a multi-course feast all at the same time.

I backfill with more spreadings of fir needle mulch and clippings, stopping to catch a breather and to gather up the rest of the littered mound of spruce needles from next door.  In fact, spotting an old eggshell fragment tumbling down from the newly exposed back wall reminds me to collect my own half-full bucket of waste from the kitchen and that of the neighbors, and add them behind a deeply edged steppe about halfway up the shaggy heap.

It’s been a long while since I plunged, full tilt, into my pile, and I surprise myself with how far into the back of my pile I can go, and how much fresh fodder I can mix within its reconstituted rear sloping wall. I do like finishing a project in full, especially one that seems to me as much performance art and science project as manual labor.

As I poke and pull my way back up to the top of the heap, I finally run out of clippings and needles. The backside of my pile, long a stratified stack in various states of petrification that I’ve been chiseling away at for weeks, has been replaced by a sifted mix of old organics and lusty new contributions, with plenty of breathing room in which to rot away.

I clean up around the edges, front and rear, grooming my pile back into a rough-hewn pyramid shape with steeply sloping faces of crumbly rotting leaves in every hue of brown, flecked with grass, turning from green to yellow. The front presents an attractive facade as handsome as any compost heap could be. And I’ve stuffed the trunk full of junk.

As they say, “L.A. face, Oakland booty,” my pile.

The backside of my pile has been dismantled, infused with a tumbled mix of rotting browns and greens, and reassembled into an fulsome heap of fast-maturing compost.

The backside of my pile has been dismantled, infused with a tumbled mix of rotting browns and greens, and reassembled into an fulsome heap of fast-maturing compost.

I consider dousing this recharged heap of compost with the hose; it could use a drink. The bloom of bacteria and the other microbes that this latest twerking of my pile will set off are a thirsty lot, and they will throw off a lot of steamy exhaust. But I’d rather keep my pile on the dry side. Too much water could choke off the feeding frenzy, turning my pile into a stinky, sulphurus dead zone. Besides rain is one the way, the morning TV forecaster also predicted, to buzz-kill any outdoor plans for the weekend.

I am happy to let my pile sit and soak and party on, inside and out, to varying degrees according to its constituent parts for the next week or so. How I approach it and what I find within next time I mess with my pile will be as much as a discovery and adventure as today. I know I’m on borrowed time with my pile and have only a few short months left before it will all be gone.

My Pile: Cover Crop

My pile continues to surprise me. Yesterday I stuffed it anew with fresh grass clippings and food waste from kitchen, as well as a risky batch of near-rancid seaweed from the beach.

I turned its inner reaches to aerate it as best I could, resculpting the tumbled outer walls to pile snatches of dry brown leaves from the edges and backside  to the top, as you’d add an armful of kindling to stoke a smoldering fire. Tucked deep inside the fulminating heap are six months worth of compostibles, hundreds of pounds of nitrogen-rich greens and grinds and a grab-bag of dead and decaying organic shreds and scraps, clippings and cullings, and other windfalls to be recycled into new living soil.

My pile began as a sprawling mess of loose leaves that spilled over the log walls and pressed against the wire fence that sought to contain it. Every few days I scoop out its middle, add more glugs of stuff and gulps of air to my pile and fluff it back up. Now, when I look at my pile, I see a 20-foot tall pyramid of compost pressed down by time and gravity and rot into a stout stack four feet tall and twice as wide, front to back and side to side.

The word “sarcophagus” derives from the ancient Greek words for “flesh-eating” and “stone,” and came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was thought to decompose the flesh of corpses within it. That’s what my pile is, a crypt that encloses, and decomposes, the remains within.

Yesterday I gave up on my pile. Like a tomb-robber, I sought to raid the riches it secretes. I know it’s in there; but it’s just out of reach. The sarcophagus that is my pile seems more Chernobyl-like, an impermeable shell. Behind that containment wall is not yet “afterlife,” but matter measured more by half-life. Apparently the buried remnants are not yet decayed enough to use as I’d hoped, as finished compost to add to the just-planted vegetable garden.

That was then. This morning I visit the backside of my pile and discover that a cleft in the backside wall has calved off and spilt itself in a cascade of mint-conditioned compost for the garden, right at my feet. The tomb has cracked open, just a bit, to provide me an offering that is as unexpected as it is welcome. I can only surmise that after all my digging under and around the rear edges and bottom row, I’d stopped just short of uncovering a pocket of cooked compost hidden just behind the thin wall of pressed leaves it contained.

Overnight, my pile has breathed and coughed up a supply of ready-made compost, in just about the exact proportion as what I need for top dressing among my rows of newly planted vegetables and herbs. Humus, like hope, springs eternal.

I scraped away the raw backside of my pile, and divulged a pocket of near-finished compost for me to add to the vegetable garden.

Unbidden, my pile has divulged a cascade of near-finished compost for me to add to as top-dressing for the vegetable garden.

After scaring away a robin and two grackles that have come to feast on the unearthed deposit, I bend over to examine the scree more closely. It’s pockmarked with seashells, so it must be from a pocket of seaweed I’d added to my pile last fall. I also spot a flat mosaic of eggshell, its crushed fragments still connected by the membrane. I toss it back atop my pile, along with a shard of avocado husk, still clinging to its stick-on sku label. I pluck a shiv of tree branch and a wood chip or two and toss them aside. A fragment of horseshoe crab shell goes back into my pile as well, along with the dozens of red worms that cling to the loamy earth tucked inside its carapace.

The clutched layers of rotted leaves strewn across the ground are likewise rife with red worms. The stoutest chunks I toss atop the pile, but there’s enough thick, dark, crumbly proto compost let loose by the avalanche to scrape up with the pitchfork and fill the wheelbarrow. Tossing the lot into and against the metal walls of the well is enough to fracture clumps into shards. I finish by scooping up the crumbly rest with the garden spade, and trundle the heavy load of moist, dark organic matter — new soil — across the yard and through the wired gate fence to my vegetable garden.

Famed garden writer Vita Sackville-West mused about the ideal recipe for top-dressing and potting soil: “Goose guano and the soil thrown up my moles both had their advocates” in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. “Today, the John Innes compost is recommended: two parts sterilized and sifted loam, three parts peat, two parts sand, to which you may add an ounce of hoof and horn per bushel, and some crushed charcoal.”

I shovel my own special recipe of compost, sans hoof and horn powder, in and among the recently planted tomatoes and basil, and along the rows of sprouting lettuce, arugula and kale, which I’ll soon have to thin. I lift up the elephantine leaves of the rhubarb to spoon more compost underneath, close to the ruby-red stalks, which look just like celery.

I tuck more compost around the self-seeding flowers that are growing tall enough for me to recognize form weeds and leave be: the cleome, coreopsis and coneflowers. I keep a mental map of other recent plantings in mind as I shovel more compost across the bare ground. A neighbor has brought by a bag of potatoes from her cupboard, pockmarked with pale sprouts emerging from the eye buds. I’ve planted a few cut-up wedges in the loamiest part of my garden and will add the rest of the bag of wrinkled, sprouting potatoes to my pile.

I’ve taken the soggy egg carton from the window sill in the kitchen and transplanted the tender shoots of corn, peppers and cukes sprouting in the 12 little cubicles. I’ve also poked holes in the loamy soil nearest the fence poles with my finger and placed a seed a piece from the crinkled pods of runner beans and sunflower seeds culled from last season’s harvest.

Another neighbor came by to share a bag of gladiola bulbs, given to her by her daughter for Mother’s Day. She didn’t have space for all the bulbs, and I take several handfuls to bury with the trowel in the corners of the vegetable garden, figuring the deer would snack on any I plant outside the garden fence. These patches I cover with the last few shovelfuls of compost and hope for the plants to emerge from underneath in due time. Top-dressing a garden bed provides cover from weeds, while allowing these more vigorous plantings to sprout. Other benefits are more long lasting.

“In gardening, many products are called organic matter,” I read on Cornell’s School of Horticulture‘s gardening resources website. “Often such products are composted, rather than used directly, and the compost is used in the garden. Compost can be made at home from kitchen, garden, and yard wastes, or it can be produced by an industry or local municipality.

“Organic matter is used in the garden and landscape for many reasons, beginning with its effect on soil structure. Organic matter helps soil particles bind together into aggregates, or clumps, which makes it easy to dig or penetrate. We often call this quality tilth. In this way, adding organic matter helps all poor soils, whether they are too sandy or made of too much clay. A soil with good tilth also has good nutrient-holding and water-holding ability.

“In addition, organic matter improves soil by stimulating or feeding the life of the soil. It provides nutrients to bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other organisms in the soil, which in turn recycle the nutrients into forms that are readily available for plants to absorb through their roots.

“Organic matter also helps to prevent soil and wind erosion by binding sandy soil particles together. Organic matter also prevents caking, cracking, and water run-off that occurs when clay soil dries out. Experienced gardeners often consider soil building or soil re-placement, i.e. bringing in and incorporating organic matter, nearly half the work of gardening.”

A top-dressing of fresh humus looks tidier, too, almost a crop of its own, but there are some caveats to amending garden soil with raw compost. More from Cornell: “When immature compost is added to the garden, its bacteria compete with plants for nitrogen in the soil. The result is unhealthy plants with symptoms such as yellow leaves or stunted growth. If compost is still hot, smells like ammonia, or you can still recognize the original form of organic matter, then it is not ready to use. When in doubt, let compost mature longer.

“Compost made from food (fruits and vegetable scraps, fish residues, coffee grounds, brewery and bakery wastes) is typically richer in nutrients, but may have high salt content. Soluble salts are actually chemically charged particles (ions), usually from dissolved fertilizer and irrigation water, but may come from the composted material itself. While not a human health concern, concentrated soluble salts can cause problems in plant growth.”

Points well taken. I finish by unspooling the garden hose to douse my garden and compost. The tender plants can use  a drink and watering in the compost will allow it and those living things it contains to meld with the soil it’s landed upon. It may also dilute any excess of soluble salts, especially from this particular batch of seaweed-enriched compost.


Richly alive and loaded with nutrients, this top-dressing of fresh compost will be a boon to the vegetables and herbs rising in the garden.

Richly alive with bacteria and microbes and loaded with nutrients, this top-dressing of fresh compost will be a boon to the vegetables and herbs rising in the garden.

Over the years I’ve added many inches of new earth to these raised beds by trucking wheelbarrows full of compost from my pile, so much so that I’ve had to raise the pavers and untreated lengths of lumber that give it structure. A square piece of ground that fills in a corner of my house, the little fenced-in plot was once a unused and unloved patch of weeds; the ugly backside of the property. It is now a highly productive private nook that grows dense with fruits and berries and greens to pick for much of the summer.

There’s a direct link between my pile and this garden, and after covering it once again this spring with a crop of fresh compost, I walk the empty wheelbarrow back to its resting place behind the shed next to my pile. There is more to come from my pile, that’s for sure. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.



My Pile: Lord of the Flies

My pile remains a work in progress. I dig into it today, the second Sunday of May, with the need to dispense with the regular compostibles and add those nourishments to its rotting bulk, but also with the hope of harvesting a measure of more finished compost as top dressing for the newly planted vegetable garden.

It didn’t turn out the way I expected, and that has me and my pile thoroughly bugged.

I start with the hay pitchfork, pulling a row of ashen-white clumps of fermenting grass clippings a week old, mixed with the rotting leaves of last fall, forward along the sagging front, which has been soaked by recent rains. Behind this new bulwark is a smoking trench of smoldering organic stew. The herbal exhaust released by my diggings is pungent, earthy and gives me a whiff of a memory of the barley-drying room of a distillery I once toured among the peaty moors of Scotland. The sweet ferment is just on the edge of intoxicating and revolting.

My pile is rather like a moonshiner’s still, a backyard distillery for making terra vitae. I plunge the pitchfork deeply into the mix, giving gulps of oxygen and creating space for the next mix of freshly rotting ingredients and gathered snatches of old leaves from the edges of the heap.

I have a week’s worth of scraps from the kitchen, my neighbor’s grass clippings, a few days old now and soaked by rain. I’ve also brought home a bucket of seaweed from the beach. The recent rains that have saturated my pile and garden came with a storm that also piled up thick mats of seaweed at the high-water mark. It seemed a shame to let it go to waste, so I put the plastic barrel and three-pronged hand rake in the back of the SUV and swing by the beach for some compost beachcombing.

It’s a scavenging trip I may regret. The seaweed has baked into a crusty film covering a green slime of jello-like consistency that is flecked with wriggly, white rice-husks of beach-fly larvae. It’s downright revolting. I considered aborting my mission, but scrape up a half-bucket full and haul the barrel back to the car. The extravagance of the seething riot of life and rot was compelling, though making the short drive home without gagging on the putrid stench was touch and go. Both the dog and I leaned out the windows for fresh air.

I admit to stretching the capacity of my pile to absorb such magnificent rot. I add the putrefying seaweed to bottom of the newly excavated pit, tossing in the food scraps from the kitchen and mixing it with the decaying grass clippings and  leaf mold. I bury it all further with layers of fresh grass clippings from my neighbor and heapings of dried leaves excavated from the back side of my pile. I wager that the larvae will be cooked and consumed before hatching and emerging to plague me.

“One of the most important problems in composting is controlling flies,” I read in Compost Fundamentals, a website maintained by Washington State University’s Whatcom County Extension. It seems a good time to consider the issue, for the prospect of tending a backyard compost heap only to have it serve as a breeding ground for nasty nuisances like flies is no doubt a top concern of any composter. Here’s more from the ag experts from Washington State:

“Fly breeding can be controlled in composting operations during the fly season, with little more effort than is normally necessary for good sanitary composting….However, much of the material is infested with eggs and larvae in various stages of development, sometimes even at the pupal stage, before arriving at the compost site. Therefore, material must be prepared immediately for composting and placed in compost systems where high temperatures and environmental conditions are unsatisfactory for continued emergence of flies.

“The predominant species of flies encountered in composting will vary with the area and with the type of material. The variety of materials available for composting offers satisfactory breeding conditions for many different species, but generally speaking, the compost operator does not have to worry about the particular species, since the most satisfactory control measures in composting apply equally well to different species.

“Some procedures, particularly grinding, turning, and systematic cleanliness, which are useful in providing compost of good quality and in destroying parasites and pathogens, are also effective for controlling flies. Initial shredding or grinding to produce material more readily attacked by bacteria also destroys a large number of the larvae and pupae in the raw material. Also, the texture of material shredded to a maximum size of 2 inches is not as suitable for fly breeding.

“Studies at the University of California on mixed garbage and refuse demonstrated that after raw material containing considerable numbers of eggs and larvae had been ground and placed on the pile, no fly breeding took place using normal composting procedures of turning every 2 to 3 days. Apparently, the destruction of the larvae by grinding, mixing, and the structural changes caused by grinding, results in garbage that is no longer attractive to flies. Heat quickly generated in compost piles effectively stops flies breeding in refuse containing a considerable proportion of garbage.”

That’s my plan, at least, and I’m sticking to it. Some avid composters even seek out fly maggots to add to their compost. A google search turns up a Flickr account of images from Glenn Cantor, a self-described “skeptical optimist” from Princeton, N.J., who uses soldier maggots to make what he describes as the richest compost.

These soldier fly maggots are said to be quite beneficial additions to a healthy compost pile.

These soldier fly maggots are said to be quite beneficial additions to a healthy compost pile.

He writes: “At first, I was disgusted to discover myriads of maggots in the worm bin that I use for composting our leftover vegetables and fruit. But then I learned that these are considered beneficial insects. They’re called black soldier flies and they are super composters. They can break down a watermelon rind into black, lush soil in only a few days. Some people even buy them to add to their compost or to raise for chickens or pet reptiles. They seem to get along well with the red worms, and they eat so many bacteria that my worm bin doesn’t smell at all anymore.”

I have to hand it to Glenn for advocating for maggots, and serving as a hand model. I wouldn’t touch those creatures with a 10-foot pole; the working end of my pitchfork is as close as I want to get.

All squirmishness aside, my pile does have its share of creatures that take flight in and around it. Most are benign and short-lived, and not interested in flesh, like the hover flies that dance on shafts of summer sun. The adults flitting about feed on flower nectar, but I further read that the larvae eat aphids and the larvae of scale insects, so that’s a good thing.

My pile is not moist enough to encourage many mosquitoes, doesn’t have any meat or feces in it to attract house flies, and the food waste is buried deep enough to deter most fruit flies. Wasps, hornets, yellowjackets and other backyard abominations I deal with personally and with extreme prejudice. Ticks I fear most of all, especially since my pile has log walls and no doubt a resident population of hosts. Though I’ve seen no hide nor hair of my rodent intruder of a month or so ago, I am sure my pile is habited by various mice and moles and voles, which I’ve read are the most common vector hosts for lyme disease. Perhaps I can thank my cat and the local raptors for keeping them in check.

Likewise, I’ve always felt that the finished compost  I heap on my lawn and garden in leiu of store-bought pesticides encourages the cool insects to prosper — dragonflies, fireflies, butterflies and ladybugs, among them, are all well represented in my backyard and prized. The honey bees and bumble bees I worry about more and more, and do what I can to attract them. And this summer I await the curious drones of the cicada locust, which I hear are making appearance in these parts after 17 years underground.

Back to my pile, which I chisel away at by taking moist forkfuls from along the top of the back edge and along the bottom edges to bury the squirming seaweed, food scraps and grass clippings as deeply as I can.  My pile is now less a round mound than pyramid, the backside steadily mined for the deposits of dried, dessicated leaves untouched by me or any rot from within.

I'd hoped to harvest some near-finished compost from the backside of my pile, but it doesn't seem ready to give up its riches.

I’d hoped to harvest some near-finished compost from the backside of my pile, but it doesn’t seem ready to give up its riches.

I had hoped to dig deeply into the back edge of my pile to reach a pocket of more finished compost to extract and add as top dressing to my vegetable garden. But I am stymied by what seems to be an impermeable wall of raw brown organics not yet ready for distribution.

It’s not often I give up on my pile, but it seems to be too much work to dig into fully enough for the time I have to give it today.

I clean out the kitchen buckets and put away the tools, planning to leave my backyard still of a pile for another day, when I can fully plunge into the backside the next time I mow and need to bury within it a fresh load of grass clippings. It will also need turning and aerating to keep both the grass clippings from turning into a stinking mess of anaerobic rot, and the flies at bay.

The garden will have to wait for its top dressing. As Orson Welles once proclaimed for a California vintner, my pile will serve no compost before its time.

My Pile: Green Machine

A backyard is by its nature a passive, back-of-mind kind of place. But sometimes it demands attention, like this week, which is unfolding with the full bloom of spring.

After days of drizzly rain, the sun now dominates a cloudless sky, kickstarting the greenest of growth across the landscape. The leaves on the maple trees have burst out, the garden ferns have unfolded and the grass is thickening and surging upward.

They say you can almost see some types of grasses, like bamboo or switchgrass, grow in real time. The same seems true of my own lawn, and over the past few days the grass has grown so quickly and lushly that I fear waiting until the weekend to cut it. Besides, there’s more rain in the forecast.

So after getting home from work I haul the mower out of the shed and fire it up. It’s a pleasant chore on a pleasant evening. It’s not like having to mow the lawn on a sweltering August day, sweating through the baking sun and buzz of mosquitoes.

The dog’s delighted when I trundle the lawnmower out of the shed. His sport is to drop the tennis ball just outside the path of my mower, entreating me to retrieve it and toss it yonder for him to fetch. It’s a sport for both of us; I try to bend down to grab the ball without pausing or forcing the mower offline. When he drops the ball in front of me he waits for my reaction – if it’s in the path of the coming lawnmower blades a hand gesture from me is all he needs to dart in and grab the ball without slowing me down. In all the years of us playing this game, I’ve only mowed over a couple tennis balls.

Aside from learning how to throw a ball, ride a bike, swim, and perhaps read, I’ve been mowing as long as any other thing I’ve done in my life. I jumped at the chance to show my dad I was big enough to take over mowing duties for him as a kid, and as I grew older made spending money by taking care of some neighbors’ lawns each summer. By the time I left high school, I mowed four or five lawns. Mowing a lawn was my first job, and it probably will be my last.

Mowing is a simple, rewarding task that I enjoy doing. It’s fair way to get some sun and some exercise, especially if you never bother to fix the belt that once self-propelled the rear wheels. The unit is now just dead weight, if not a hand brake. Just the same, I wheel the trusty red Toro around the yard like a matador, raising the front wheels just so to skim an exposed root or pass over and along a rock border so I don’t have to edge with the hand shears or electric trimmer — or bust the whirring blade.

I don’t know what may be on, say, Forrest Gump’s mind when he’s atop his riding mower, but I’m right there with him. Walking behind a mower invariably leads me down interesting paths of thought. It’s a rolling Buddhist prayer wheel of a meditative act, a squared off labyrinth that leads to a vanishing point — the final strip of ankle-high grass that gives way to a uniform plane of green etched by the tracks of the mower wheels. I always feel better about myself after I’ve finished mowing the lawn.

Mowing is another form of hand-crafting, like watering with the hose or weeding with the tip of a digger or hoe. I can’t imagine hiring out for such tasks, though can understand why others do, because of time or inclination. To each his own.

Many gardeners fret about giving over precious backyard space to turf, but my lawn is as well-trod as center field at Fenway — by the dog and me playing our constant game of catch or, ever-rarer these days, a session of Frisbee with my son. Close-cropped grass makes all the difference; the ball bounces high and true, our footfalls are firm, and no doubt the robins have better luck procuring worms for their chicks in the nests of nearby bushes.

The aesthetics of a just-mowed lawn are pleasing, too. A freshly mowed lawn looks bigger. It’s also a fine counterpoint to the helter-skelter growth of the perennial beds. And as this being the second cut of the season, the rest of the lawn has caught up to the eye-jarring tufts of hot-spot grass, and my linear passes around and up and down the lawn produces a uniform spread of manicured green — except a trio of circular patches I leave to thrive as micro-meadows.

Two of the sculpted spaces are thick with clover, for the bees; the other is a curious patch of fescue fast going to seed, for me. My lawn is a motley mix of sun- and shade grasses, and most are thrusting up slender spikes of grain. The poa annua is by far the most profligate, but here and there are more curious strains, and I plan to let this particular patch of fetching grass mature and harvest the seeds. I let most of the rest of the plantings in my backyard come to fruition, and it seems only fair to allow this little bit of turf to do the same.

Aside from mowing around a patchwork of micro-meadows of uncut turf, sometimes I try to re-create the artful designs of those who mow major league outfields. I like the geometry of this particular form of American landscape art, and my lawn is a backyard fascimile of the fields of dreams I see on sports TV, or from the small oval window of transcontinental jet flying over the swath of the American Heartland divided by quarter section and ruled by massive combines, tractors and center-pivot irrigation. I’ll mow on the diagonal one week, back and forth the next or in concentric squares the next. The best visual effect is the on-off sheen of the mowed turf, which comes from the rotation of the whirring motor that flattens the grass blades to shimmer in the sun, or not, according to the path taken, up or back. My efforts are very much bush league; mostly I concentrate on not cutting off a toe or knicking a shin with a thrown rock, or chewing up a tennis ball or scalping a prize planting along a garden edge. The border of the lawn, the fringe of anything, is where you run into the most trouble.

Even with the blade set on the second-highest setting and “grasscycling” wide swaths with the grass-catcher once full, I gather four bags full of clippings to park at the base of my pile.

Fresh fodder for my pile -- the gathering of grass clippings from a fast-growing lawn.

Fresh fodder for my pile — the gathering of grass clippings from a fast-growing lawn.

Over the past week, since stuffing it full of plucked spring weeds and unwanted sproutings from the garden, and being soaked by rain, my pile has settled in on itself, like it always does. My goal with this latest batch of moist green clippings, which are already heating up and fragrant with ferment, is to play hide and seek.

I want to tuck all the grass into my pile and seek out snatches of dried leaves from its fringes to mix within. First I fluff up the top to take in the first few handfuls of clippings, releasing a pungent aroma of the over-wintering cilantro I’d culled from the garden a week ago. Next I dig into the back of my pile with the pitchfork to tease out pockets of virgin contributions from the fall — smatterings of white shredded paper and rotted stems of salt marsh hay gathered from the beach last fall, a chunk of sunflower stalk, and tightly compacted layers of last year’s leaves, as dry as the day I swept them up. It’s a time capsule, my pile, and now I’m mixing past and present, fresh green and old brown, to create something all together new.

The back of my pile remains a stout wall that can withstand my borrowings from underneath. In my mind’s eye, my pile is ever-more like a bowl of chowder served in a crusty round loaf of bread. For months now I’ve added a stew of food waste from the kitchen, coffee grounds and seaweed and more to the middle part of my pile, which is rotting into a melange of composting leaf mold. Now I am mining the outer crust and base for its raw material, untouched by my compost mixology.

I borrow snatches of pressed dried leaves from the bottom of my pile to mix with the grass clippings, effectively turning my pile inside out and upside down.

I borrow snatches of pressed dried leaves from the bottom of my pile to mix with the grass clippings, effectively turning my pile inside out and upside down.

I’m turning my pile upside down and inside out as I excavate. I’m getting ever closer to the moist, dark inner reaches of more finished compost, which I hope to add to my vegetable garden when I plant it this weekend.

I finish by tossing the last grabs of grass clippings across the top of my pile and bury them by cleaning up around the perimeter. I step back to consider my pile, newly restored and resupplied with fresh green fodder when my neighbor comes over with a wheelbarrow full of clippings of his own.

My pile will take it all in. It’s a green machine, a backyard biofactory getting ever closer to turning out its finished product of new living soil.