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.



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