My Pile: Going to Seed

It’s a fine time of year to be a gardener in these parts, the southwestern corner of Connecticut, along the shores of Long Island Sound. The landscape is alive with lush green growth. The oaks and maples and other hardwoods are beginning to leaf out, casting their pollen far and wide, coating cars and nostrils alike. The showy blooms of flowering shrubs and trees, the pink and white dogwood chief among them, dazzle along the roadsides, in enough profusion to prompt an annual festival. The local garden clubs and historical society host hidden garden tours and plant sales.

I tend to my yard on a cool, damp Saturday, nipping and tucking the perennial azaleas, rhodys and butterfly bushes, spot-weeding the garden beds and lawn. With the grass bright green but slow to grow, I’m not overly tasked, and can wander across the yard plotting future transplants among the perennial beds and pondering what to plant this year in the vegetable garden.

Usually I stroll along with a dandelion digger in hand, gazing about the ground in a sweeping, non-focused manner, like a beachcomber. When a weed catches my eye, I stoop to flick as much of the taproot as I can get from the soil, leaving the plant to shrivel in the heat of the sun before the seeds mature. One of my earliest memories is of heading out to the backyard with a paper grocery bag and digger; it was my first chore — and job. My mother promised me the lordly amount of one dollar to fill up the bag with dandelions. I’m pretty sure I made money off the same dandelions all summer long.

Hand-weeding is a meditation on foot, a touchpoint that appeals to both the hunter and gatherer in me. It’s a fair amount of exercise, the bending and squatting, and over time my perambulations have allowed me to avoid using chemical treatments. I admit to keeping a spray bottle of Ortho Weed-B-Gon on hand to spritz any poison ivy that’s taken root, or the worst of the perennial weeds that creep up on both me and the lawn. Wild strawberry, chickweed and creeping charlie are all part and parcel of my lawn, but sometimes spread so malignantly, if not maliciously, they must be terminated with extreme prejudice.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, by tradition the date by which it’s safe to plant the season’s annuals without fear of having them succumb to frost. I’ve already seeded several rows of lettuce and kale in the garden, which are sprouting nicely in the cool spring weather. But with days of cold rain in the forecast, I decide to wait until next weekend to head to the local nursery to bring home the flats of tomatoes and herbs that grow to fill my vegetable garden each summer.

To prepare for planting, I clear the small patch of weeds and self-seeded herbs — the cilantro is profligate this spring — filling a small plastic tarp that I drag over to my pile to add to the materials I’ve already gathered. My kitchen bucket of food scraps and soggy coffee filters is nearly full, as is the lidded ash can my backyard neighbors keep outside their back door for me to collect weekly.

Across the street my neighbors weed the tidy flower bed beside their front door. Each spring, they plant trays and trays of begonias, petunias, alyssum and other hothouse annuals, but first must clear the way of the springtime weeds and grasses that perennially jump the Belgian brick block from their lawn. They’ve filled two blue recycling bins with ripped-up weeds, and I stroll across the way to offer to take the dirty mess off their hands. The bins are heavy with the culled clumps of fast-growing, opportunistic plants, most still clutching a dense filigree of dirt in their veiny roots.

A collection of soily spring weeds and self-starters culled from the garden, mostly fragrant cilantro, are added to my pile.

A collection of soily spring weeds and self-starters culled from the garden, mostly fragrant cilantro, are added to my pile.

It can be a gamble to add spring weeds to a compost heap. They’re prodigious in producing massive amounts of seed in short order, which keep developing even after being uprooted. And once mature, the hard-coated seeds can last for years in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to ripen and propagate anew, like locusts.

Garlic mustard is particularly pernicious. A native of Europe, this noxious weed now blankets Eastern lawns and woodlands. In its first year it grows as a stubby rosette, producing ankle-high stems loaded with slender capsules of seeds — up to 600 a plant, I read in a New York Times article by Dave Taft, “Garlic Mustard: Evil, Invasive, Delicious.”

True, some foragers collect the leaves to add to spring salads; I typically gather up handful of plucked sprouts and drop them straight through the iron grate of the storm drain along the side of the road. The seeds, Taft reports, can “linger for five or more years, awaiting suitable conditions.” Though my fingers do smell faintly of garlic, I read further that the leaves contain traces of cyanide, adding to its toxic standing in my yard.

But I’m confident my pile will cook and consume most of the weedlings I uproot on my wanderings, which makes this load of heavyweight organic green matter a welcome addition to my pile. Weeds are spring-loaded with nutrients snatched from the soil, and to recycle their ill-gotten gains through my pile and return them as fresh, weed-defeating humus, is only fitting — just desserts, as it were, for composting duties.

As I’m digging a hole in the steaming center of my pile to bury, in layers, the messy weeds, along with the kitchen scraps, another neighbor comes by while walking his dog, a female pit bull that is vigorously friendly with my own mutt.

The weeds, already loaded with seedheads but also heavy with roots loaded with dirt and nutrients, are buried deep in my pile.

The weeds, already loaded with seedheads but also heavy with roots loaded with dirt and nutrients, are buried deep in my pile.

My property, being a double lot on a corner, stands out among the postage stamp yards of most of my neighbors for the size of its grassy space on which to roam. Having a sociable dog who’s often out and about in the yard with me makes our yard a popular waystation, part dog park, part playground. The trampoline is also open to the neighborhood kids, and it’s not uncommon for me to come home from work to find a mom or nanny sitting on the picnic table next to the trampoline watching the kids jump and tumble around, getting tired for bedtime. Fortunately, over the years there’s been only one broken arm among the young bouncy set, and, to my relief, no lawsuits. And any squabbles among the dogs usually involve a tussle over a tennis ball and are soon broken up.

As the pit bull sported with my dog, my neighbor watched me work my pile. He said he had his own pile of leaves raked up into a pile in the corner of his backyard, and added that he kept a bucket half-buried in the ground nearby into which he put some kitchen scraps. But he’d never combined the two elements and so was interested in my efforts.

Set alongside the tool shed and trampoline, my pile has grown in size and stature over the years and is now a fairly prominent hardscape feature in the backyard. I like showing it off, though having someone watch as I disgorge buckets of kitchen scraps and pitchforks of weeds into the backyard heap makes me a bit self-conscious, like having someone watch you clean out the fridge. My pile has long been more of a Private Idaho than public performance art. But I enjoy delivering what amounts to a compost tutorial, a podcast for one.

Whether to humor me or bide his time while his dog got tuckered out, the neighbor stayed through to see me top off my pile with gleanings of old leaf litter from the front and back sides, restoring the ying-yang balance of old browns and fresh greens. Will he return home and commit to turning his own pile of leaves into a real-life compost heap? Or will he tell his wife over dinner about the eccentric down the street who stuffs his rotting garbage in a backyard dump of a landfill as if it’s something to brag about?

Hard to say. My pile will remain on display, in all its humble glory, at least for another couple months, when it once again will disappear by being dispersed across my lawn and garden beds. But for now, it rises anew, suffused with the green growth of spring.

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