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.

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