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.



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