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.

My Pile: The Big Dig

It’s May Day, and my pile is now fully six months old. In November, it rose, phoenix like, from the remnants of last year’s heap of compost, which had been whittled down through the late summer and fall to a small starter mound of rich, dark humus and scrambly stalks and stems harvested from the vegetable garden.

My pile soon swelled with the onslaught of fallen leaves, supplemented by layers of sandy, sinewy seaweed and salt marsh hay beachcombed from the nearby shore and with grass clippings from a lawn revived by the balmy, sun-dappled days of autumn. As the season turned and I finished the yard cleanup before the cold set in, the heap of mostly dry chopped leaves received the spent growth of perennials culled from the garden beds, dried needles of pine and fir, and regular infusions of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, shredded paper and other organic compostibles. It drank eagerly from the business end of a garden hose, and exhaled a steady stream of vapors from its midst.

For two months, my pile carried a burden of thick insulating snow, before thawing with the strengthening sun of early spring. Despite receiving hundreds of pounds fresh fodder along the way, from a barrel of horse manure to bag catchers full of sycamore seedballs scarfed up from the dormant winter lawn, as well as my efforts to toss and turn it, my pile has steadily settled in upon itself. I’ve trimmed its edges; tidied up the corners and poked and prodded its innards. By volume, it’s shrunken by nearly a third, and by look is now more composed stack than overstuffed heap. From a distance it still seems a big mess of decomposing leaves.

As much as the first half-life of my pile is dominated by dead brown leaves, the ever-quickening race to its fruition as finished compost will be now driven by mass infusions of hot green grass clippings.

Today, a Sunday, is the day I mow the ever-thickening lawn and add its surplus trimmings of minced green blades of grass to my pile. True, over the past three weeks I’ve stuffed it with my neighbor’s artificially enriched clippings, as well as a batch of more naturally nitrogen-spiked grass, courtesy of the resident deer and dog’s urea. But those contributions are just appetizers for the main course of fresh greens. Today marks a literal tectonic shift for my pile, in shape and composition.

Even with the newly sharpened blade set on high, the Toro’s catcher fills quickly. I mulch back into the lawn most of the clippings, yet stop a half-dozen times when the mower chokes to detach the hopper from the mower and dump the moist, fragrant clippings at the base of my pile.

 

The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

As usual, I set out my other fixings – a week’s worth kitchen scraps from next door and of my own, as well as two small plastic bags of shredded paper from the office. I figure the crinkled white strips, laboriously processed from wood pulp, would make a fine counterbalance to the finely chopped blades of lush green grass. Add too much grass to a compost pile without mixing it with drier, brown materials and a compost heap that’s humming along into a stinky, anaerobic mess.

“Not all grass clippings should be removed from the lawn; when left after mowing, their nutrients enrich the lawn itself, without the application of chemical fertilizers,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “However, most lawns do not need as much enrichment as a full growing season’s clippings will provide. Collecting grass clippings also helps reduce weed growth by removing weed seeds from the lawn.

“Freshly gathered green clippings are exceedingly rich in nitrogen and will heat up on their own if pulled into a pile. But, because of their high water content, they will also pack down and become slimy. This can be avoided by adding grass clippings in thin layers, alternating with leaves, garbage, manure and other materials, thus preventing them from clumping together.

“Clippings that have been allowed to dry out will have lost much of their nitrogen content but are still valuable as an energy source and to absorb excess moisture….Grass clippings and leaves can be turned into finished compost in 2 weeks if the heap is chopped and turned every 3 days.”

So here I stand, pitchfork in hand, to at long last begin to unearth the hard-pressed beginnings of my pile from back when. I stick the pitchfork, upside down, into the front edge of my pile to pull a wedge of moist, matted leaves from underneath. My previous working of the pile have helped create a nearly vertical wall, which I undercut by pulling chunks forward to form a front line of decayed, crumbly leaves. It’s the first light of day these leaves have seen since the fall. Each forkful writhes with squiggly worms and glistens with flecks of mica from the beach. Any trace of the seaweed they traveled in on is long gone.

I dig as far under the front wall of compost as I dare, until it threatens to collapse forward under its own weight. I toss a layer of grass clippings into the newly made trench, then cover with several pitchforks full of dried brown leaves gleaned from the corners of the log walls. They appear as fresh as the day they tumbled down from the top of my pile last fall.

I cleave a few more pitchforks of dark, rotted leaf mold from the bottom center of my pile, then stand back to watch the front face of the pile tumble down upon itself. I spread the avalanche out across the new front of my pile to create what amounts to a moraine.

As I excavate further into the center of my pile, I unearth a pocket of pristine leaf litter. Bone dry and compressed into a tightly wadded stack, the leaves lie underneath the digging I have done through the winter. Bound by the weight of all that is above it, the clutch of leaves has repelled any intrusion of water or rot, and now resists even the tines of the pitchfork. I tease the leaves apart bit by bit, and spread them across the newly created trench and cover them with a combination of grass clippings, white shredded paper and moist gatherings from the sides of my pile. Released from their state of suspended animation, they will now fully join the fungible, seething mess of rot and transmutation that is my pile.

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Digging out the deepest layers of leaf mold to pull them out to the front of my pile, I uncover a pocket of dry, hard-pressed leaves untouched by the rot that surrounds it.

I dig further into my pile, nearing the heart of it. Again it collapses, and I add more grass, as well as the kitchen scraps, deeply, mostly to play hide-and-seek with my mysterious rodent interloper. Its furtive trail has gone cold, and I can only hope that the mass of grass clippings added to the mix, easily a hundred pounds or more, will mask any scent of food waste to scavenge.

Essentially, I’m stepping my wandering pile forward, according to my plan of turning it inside out and upside down, largely in place. Its front has moved forward about two feet, hard by the edge of the lawn, and is a crumbly mix of nearly finished compost. I make note of using it as a top-dressing for when I plant the vegetable garden, once the risk of frost is past.

I portion out the rest of the grass and shredded paper, tucking it deep within a third trench. I can no longer reach down to ground, but I’m close, and far enough into the center of the pile to come across the barely discernible remains of my earliest insertions of kitchen recyclables and such. I spot a broken egg shell and the skin of an avocado, still adorned with the supermarket stick-on label. The pitchfork snags a seashell, then a wadded up section of soggy newspaper, the bottom of the rabbit hutch from before the snows of late January, I figure. I tease it apart with the tines of the pitchfork and bury it anew with the last of the grass clippings.

To cover the rest of the clippings, I scrape the hard-tine rake across the top of my pile, pulling the outer layer of sun-baked leaves forward, releasing volumes of vaporish steam from the rot taking place just below the surface. I cover it all with fat forkfuls of more raw compost from along the back side, tangly with the rotting stems of the salt marsh hay that insulated my pile through the winter. In short order my pile is newly restored to its customary height. Its front half, at least, is newly suffused with fresh mixed greens and rotting brown.

Next time I mow, I’ll repeat this process, working from the back of my pile, then I will dig inward from each flanking side. It will take me another month or so to get to the very bottom of my pile, the small mound of humus reserved from last season that served as the activator for rot and decay to come. But from today to harvest, my pile will be a most active compost heap, suffused with high-octane grass clippings. Keeping it aerated now becomes my chore, and it will be good hard exercise as I work to expose the compressed leaves deep within my pile and tease them apart to allow my pile’s “Friends of Distinction”*  – the worms, the creepy-crawlers, the mold-makers and microbes – to finish the job.

* The allusion seems fitting to me, for this group recorded a ’60s hit — “Grazing in the Grass” — that makes a great soundtrack for backyard composters:

Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it
What a trip just watchin’ as the world goes past
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
There are so many good things to see
While grazin’ in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
Flowers with colours for takin’
Everything outta sight in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
The sun beaming down between the leaves
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
And the bir-ir-ir-irds dartin’ in and out of the trees
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)

Everything here is so clear, you can see it
And everything here is so real, you can feel it
And it’s real, so real, so real, so real, so real, so real
Can you dig it
Whooo-oooh

I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby
I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby