My Pile: Soaking It All In

A dry spell, classified as a moderate drought by the local weather service, draws me outside after a day at work in my office cubicle. I relish chasing the daylight with an evening walkabout in the backyard. My evening perambulations allow me to track how the various living things I tend to are developing from day to day.

It’s the time of year for such idle pursuits. I see the need to water the new tomato plants and salad seedlings in the vegetable garden and the tender transplants I’ve made among the perennial beds. My pile looks a bit thirsty, too.

Often this time of year, without much of a garden agenda and few pressing yardscape duties, I simply take a seat on one of the sizable rocks set along the perennial beds, or plop down on the shortest logs at the front end of my pile, and take in the remains of the day. One of the charms of southern New England in June is just how long the days are; sunset tonight is well after 8 pm. Better yet, with the lack of rain comes the bonus of enjoying the backyard at twilight without needing to mow the lawn yet again — or having to swat away any mosquitoes.

A favorite perch is a a bench set along the front of the tool shed. Made of a slab of burl wood a neighbor had retrieved from the dump, it was once perhaps a coffee table. It was stacked against the side of his house for several years before I borrowed it, setting in on two logs of paper birch. It makes a nice shady spot from which to consider my backyard. Across 10 feet of wood chips is my pile, directly in front is the vegetable garden, which is set in a corner cutout of my house, next to the patio that leads to the kitchen.

 

Pet projects: The dog and my pile, and plenty of places to sit and observe them both.

The dog, ever frisky, implores me play catch, sticking a tennis ball in my crotch. Aside from the panoramic view, the bench puts me in position to toss balls in two directions across the lawn, both of a distance that’s just right for my throwing arm and for the chasing dog to snag one-hoppers with an acrobatic leap.

In this well-watered section of southern New England, kept cooler still by the nearby Long Island Sound, normally I wouldn’t consider having to water my garden plantings and brittle brown spots of the grass lawn until the dog days of summer.

The storms that sweep up the Atlantic Seaboard or rake eastward from Thunder Alley of the Plain States deliver frequent dousings of water, whether (or weather) in the form of snowflakes, misty showers or full-on gully washers. Not to make gardeners in drier climes envious, but my backyard gets some 50 inches of precipitation a year, parceled out pretty evenly on a monthly basis, or about an inch of water a week.

Or not, as these past couple weeks has shown. The young plants are tender, and though a stretch of showers are predicted to arrive later in the week, I fret that if I don’t soon water the seedlings in the vegetable garden and the recent transplants among the perennial beds, all my care toward getting them going to this point in the season will be wasted. I take particular responsibility for an oakling that sprouted in the vegetable patch that I’ve moved to a spot in the wood-chip mulch  along the back fence. A soaking of water is the least I can do to help the oak succeed in putting down new roots, in its new home, one that I hope it will have for the next century — if it can last through the next few days.

Taking my leave from the backyard bench, I unspool the hose from its perch against the house and stretch its loopy coils out alongside the vegetable garden.

I enjoy hand-watering, the feel of a thumb growing numb with the gush of water, chilled by the buried pipes that deliver it from a reservoir 20 miles upstream. I’ve never considered going through the expense and hassle of an in-ground irrigation system.

Watering with the hose gives me control, a say in what grows. And in addition to being stingy, the strike of stream gives me direct feedback. I trace the spray of gushing around the perimeter of the oakling, trying to envision how the fluid will work its way into the ground that surrounds its fragile young roots. Am I helping give them purchase? Or drowning them?

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along with a hose.

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along the border with a hose.

I spritz the vegetable garden, feathering the water spray in my best imitation of a gentle, soaking rain. I also keep three old 5-gallon paint buckets near the back door, and fill them as well. For the dog, as well as spot watering, hauling a bucket or two in a spare moment over to the ferns I’ve resettled or a clump of perennials recently split from old root stock.

I stretch the hose over to the back corner of the yard and water the shade garden. Hard by my pile, it’s the lowest point on the property, to and through which all the water drains. I fancy it as my wetlands and have planted it as such, with an array of ferns and hostas and even a skunk cabbage brought home years ago from a nearby marsh that was being developed into new homes. The corner is always last on my route with the hose and I admit to spoiling it with extra water like a favored child.

I stick the hose into my pile, first along one of the log walls, then the other. I can’t see where and how the water flows into the mix, but figure the two flanking sides of my pile have been disturbed the least over the winter and early spring, and are likely still mostly a mix of leaves and proto compost pulled from the center during past excavations. Surely these sections can use a soaking of water, if only to help them catch up to the steaming mix of grass clippings and kitchen waste that are cooking away in the cauldron that is the center of my pile. I give the hose just a minute in either spot, vainly trying to calculate flow rates and minutes per gallon and such, then extract the hose to thumb the dried leaves across the top with a quick, cooling rinse.

“The average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor uses,” I read on the EPA’s WaterSense website. “More than half of that outdoor water is used for watering lawns and gardens.”

And, yes, I do feel rather foolish about watering a pile of old rotting leaves, but so be it. I’ve also pondered the amount of space and resources given over to lawns, and weighed all that a nicely green patch of turfgrass gives to me and my pile against its cost. I like grass, but when it comes to watering it, I am all about tough love.

“Lawns consume massive amounts of water, I read on scienceline.org. “In a study published in Environmental Management in 2005, researchers estimated there are 40 million acres of turf grass in the U.S., covering 1.9 percent of the land. If all that is kept well watered, it could use 60 million acre-feet of water a year (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot). That’s more water than is used to grow all the corn, rice, alfalfa in the country, as well as to irrigate every orchard and vineyard.

“The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one third of all water from public sources, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons a day, goes toward landscaping—most of it on grass. In addition, some experts estimate that as much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems.”

How best to irrigate a suburban property while minimizing the waste of water is a tricky subject. The answer depends. Adrian Higgins, a garden writer for The Washington Post, tackles it in a thoughtful way:

“When the weather turns dry, readers urge me to commend arid-zone gardening, with tap-rooted succulents and wildflowers that endure drought. The problem, however, is that Washington isn’t Colorado or California. We get blizzards and tropical storms and plain old spring gully washers that soak the clay soil and dictate a range of plants that grow lush but need a fair amount of soil moisture. We don’t typically suffer the water deficiencies found in the Southwest, though we can in some years.

But access to water, and a valid need to water the type of plants we must grow here, doesn’t mean we should squander it. Driveways and sidewalks don’t need sprinkling, though this reality is clearly lost on many.

Automatic vs. hand watering

Automatic irrigation systems can work effectively, but there is something about them that I find distasteful. You wonder if they have been installed to remove the owner from actually having to fuss with the vegetation. They also work against plants, including trees that decline in constantly soggy conditions. And as a gardener friend pointed out, a sprinkler head in May might do its job. By July, a burly perennial like a big hosta may have smothered the thing, luxuriating while its neighbors are gasping.

Hand watering takes time but permits you to see what needs water the most. A wand attachment delivers a lot of water, but softly. A hose-end sprayer is a disaster. Having a riot of color in your flower beds is one thing; turning a water cannon on the poor things is quite another. The water delivers force but not volume, so the flowers are beaten up while remaining dry.

Experienced gardeners just put their thumbs over the end of an open hose to deliver water near and far, sparingly or by the gallon, but in a controlled and relatively gentle fashion.

What needs a soak?

Diligent watering is nowhere more important than in the vegetable garden. Plants grown for their fruit will be grudging and sick if drought stressed. Peppers and tomatoes develop a disease called blossom end rot if yanked by dryness. Deep, amended garden beds that are mulched need to be soaked only twice a week to support healthy plants, though seedlings and transplants will need watering more often.”

 

Toppin off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

Topping off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

During the dry days of late summer, I will set out a rainbow-arc sprinkler to keep the lawn from becoming thoroughly brown and crunchy dry. I enjoy the art of adjusting the sprinkler so the individual streams wave back and forth, reaching the edge of the lawn just so. A lawn that is lush enough to appeal both the eye and bare foot is worthwhile. Plus, when my son was younger, he and the neighborhood kids delighted in running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day, the bravest among them sticking their face or butt directly on top of it.

I don’t recall who got the idea, but at some point we set the arcing sprinkler directly under the trampoline so that its spray shot up through the black webbing. The kids loved bouncing on top their splash pad, and I let the water soak deep into the ground and drift into and along the hosta beds behind the trampoline.

Hand-watering vs. an in-ground sprinkler system? I see it as akin to the argument of using a rake versus a leaf blower. I own the infernal contraption and use it for certain tasks, like blowing grass clippings off the gravel driveway or leaves from the street into a pile.

I’m no Luddite, and see the value and ingenuity of, say, using up a high-tech drip system in a more arid garden — and the impracticality of setting up the requisite network of pipes and valves in this hardscrabble yet well-watered clime. Mostly I prefer the simple, hand-crafted mode of gardening, and using a rake, water hose or rainbow sprinkler when I can. It’s more peaceful, more sustainable. The backyard, and my pile, is a refuge from the remote and abstract technology and material consumption that now define our lives, and my manual labor in the garden keeps me in touch with a more natural, hand’s-on state of being.

 

My Pile: In Clover

Memorial Day Weekend has passed, and though this side of the planet still tilts toward spring, the calendar says June and the vibe says summer. The onset of hot, sunny days and warm humid nights, along with a parade-spoiling thunderstorm that drenched the backyard with an inch of needed rain, have conspired to send the lawn into overdrive.

The early-flowering bulbs, azaleas, bleeding hearts and rhododendrons have prospered and peaked. Until the summer flowers blossom with their showy displays of pink and white and magenta and blue and orange, the color of my backyard is leafy green, and that’s money for my pile.

Though it begins each season as a massive heap of old brown leaves, albeit amended with frequent additions of fresh compostibles, my pile finishes by gorging on grass. It’s only fitting as by volume, not to mention square feet, the steady harvest of clipped turfgrass and ground-covering kin every spring, summer and fall represents my backyard’s biggest source of organic recyclables, its green manure.

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The lawn is the biggest source of organic recyclables for my pile each summer. I’ve let several “micro meadows” grow, including this patch of grass and clover.

 

Say our Wiki friends: “In a 2005 NASA-sponsored study, it was estimated that the area covered by lawns in the United States to be about 128,000 square kilometres (49,000 sq mi), making it the nation’s largest irrigated crop by area. Lawn care is thus a major business in the United States; maintenance, construction and management of lawns of various kinds being the focus of much of the modern horticulture industry. Estimates of the amount spent on professional lawn care services vary, but a Harris Survey in 2002 put the total approximately $1,200 per household using such services.”

That’s a lot of green, and all of my share stays in my back pocket, my pile and my backyard.

In her book, “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” (1994) Virginia Scott Jenkins traces the historic desire, transplanted from the landed gentry of Europe, for Americans to feature squares of tapis vert, or “green carpet,” as part of their greenscapes. Though borrowed from abroad, the notion is now as American as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, I read in “Blades of Glory,” which reports both grew English-style lawns on their colonial estates, kept close cropped by resident sheep, horses and cows and, no doubt, the labor of slaves.

The article, published by The Week, quotes Jenkins as stating that “‘Front lawns didn’t really trickle down to the common man ‘until the development of suburban housing after the Civil War.’ With World War II’s end and Americans’ mass exodus from cities, lawns became emblems of American leisure and prosperity.” The invention of the lawn mower, first as a hand-powered rotary sickle blade, then gas-powered engine, further fueled the trend.

The Week trots out the arguments in favor of the American lawn: “A well-kept lawn is an outdoor refuge, a place for touch football and summer parties, ‘a carpet all alive,’ said the poet William Wordsworth. Writer Katherine S. White called the lawn ‘a soft mattress for a creeping baby’ that adds ‘restful green perspectives’ to the landscape. Realtors claim a nice lawn adds as much as 11 percent to the value of a home. Beyond curb appeal, tidy lawns are the connective tissue of neighborhoods, providing a common element that links our residences to one another and to nature. And researchers have recently discovered that chemicals released by a freshly mowed lawn make people feel happy and relaxed.”

The article also points out how much the lawn has become “a burden for generations of homeowners. Today, about 80 percent of all American homes have lawns. Great sacrifices of time, energy, money, and natural resources go into mowing, trimming, edging, and feeding all that grass.

“Lawn care is a $40-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Because much of the country is not hospitable to turfgrasses—none of which are native species—we use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually just to keep lawns thriving, bright green, and bug-free. Fertilizers contain high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which run off into drains during rainstorms, contaminating drinking water, leaching into rivers and streams, and causing ecological havoc. Pesticides and herbicides, too, which are used by homeowners in ever-increasing quantities, find their way into the air and soil.

“Then there’s the carbon footprint of the lawn. Americans spend more than 3 billion hours a year pushing or riding gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment that gives off toxic exhaust and greenhouse gases. A gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 11 cars. These facts have triggered a backlash against the country’s love affair with large, immaculate swaths of green grass. ‘We have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns,’ said author and activist Michael Pollan.”

I admit to a growing obsession with the look and feel and texture of my lawn, and the need for motorized help to keep it in check. Jenkins herself argues that “American front lawns are a symbol of man’s control of, or superiority over, his environment.” I am thoroughly American in that regard, though question how much superiority I have over its control, especially with a balky old push mower and without the aid, in most years, of any store-bought fertilizers or herbicides.

But I do see the lawn as a boon for my pile, the true object of my backyard affections. Another factoid from the web: The average half-acre lawn in New England – about the size of my property — produces over 3 tons of grass clippings a year. Like I said, that’s a lot of green, and it’s too good to go to waste.

According to Chris Starbuck, a horticulturalist at the University of Missouri Extension, grass clippings contain about 4 percent nitrogen, 2 percent potassium and 1 percent phosphorus. Returned to the lawn, clippings provide up to 25 percent of your lawn’s total fertilizer needs. While decomposing, they also serve indirectly as a food source for the bacteria in the soil, which are doing many beneficial things (such as decomposing thatch) for a healthy turf environment. Grasscyling can also reduce mowing time by nearly 40 percent, vs. bagging, saving fuel and additional money on trash bags as well as reducing or eliminating fertilizer (which themselves are incredibly energy and resource intensive to produce), Starbuck adds.

As voluminous and valuable a crop of cut grass is to recycle through my pile, it is not even close to being the most recycled product in America. Know what is?

Asphalt.

According to the National Asphalt Paving Association, as early as 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Highway Administration identified asphalt pavement as America’s No. 1 recycled product in a report to Congress. It continues to be reclaimed and reused at a greater rate than any other product in the U.S.

This fact came to light as I came home early today, the hump day Wednesday after the Memorial Day Holiday Weekend, to find the street along my property in the process of being stripped of its old and crumbly veneer of asphalt by a huge mechanical contraption that grinds the pavement into pebbly chunks and sluices them up a conveyor belt into a waiting dump truck sidled alongside. If the street crews are busy black-topping the nation’s roads late in the day, it truly must be summer.

I’ve let the lawn go through the long Memorial Day Weekend, in favor of parades to attend to and beaches to picnic on. Now the bill has come due. The grass is tall and thick enough to swallow the tennis balls I toss to the dog and hide his morning poo, which is my marker for high time to mow.

I’d planned a long overdue session in the yard but with the din of the repaving I head inside to wait for the machines to make their way further down the street. It’s hard to decompress in gardening mode while a lumbering machine is beeping and belching and spewing asphalt on the other side of the forsythia hedge.

I am intrigued to find on NAPA’s website that “A wide range of waste materials are now incorporated into asphalt pavements, including ground tire rubber, glass, foundry sand, slag, and even pig manure, but the most widely used are reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) and recycled asphalt shingles (RAS). The use of recycled materials in asphalt pavements saves hundreds of millions of cubic yards of landfill space each year.

“Asphalt pavement is not only America’s most recycled and reused material, it now is being recycled and reused at a rate over 99 percent. Use of environmentally friendly warm-mix asphalt grew by more than 148 percent from 2009 to 2010, a trend that is expected to continue. Recycling of asphalt pavements and asphalt shingles in 2010 alone conserved 20.5 million barrels of asphalt binder. According to the latest survey data by NAPA, during the 2013 construction season more than 67.8 million tons of RAP and nearly 1.65 million tons of RAS were put to use in new pavements in the U.S., saving taxpayers more than $2 billion.

“Using reclaimed materials also reduces demands on aggregate resources. Warm-mix asphalt technologies allow asphalt pavements to be produced at lower temperatures, which means reduced energy demands, as well as lower emissions during production and paving.”

Still, Joni Mitchell’s siren song had it about right. We’ve paved paradise: According to Yahoo Answers, “The United States, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times. However we visualize it, the U.S. area devoted to roads and parking lots covers an estimated 16 million hectares (61,000 square miles), an expanse approaching the size of the 21 million hectares that U.S. farmers planted in wheat last year.”

A Yahoo answerer, a “johnslaut,” adds, “Once paved, land is not easily reclaimed. As environmentalist Rupert Cutler once noted, ‘Asphalt is the land’s last crop.’”

With the noising street machine steaming down the street, I close my browser to finish strip-mining Google for such thoughts and head back outside. I have my own harvesting to do. Grass is my wheat, my backyard bounty, my green pavement. In this growing season, the culling of grass must be done on almost a weekly basis.

The lawn is dotted with white button balls of clover flowers, and it almost seems a shame to decapitate them. But many escape the mower’s swath and more will soon sprout anew to nourish both my soil with their nitrogen-fixing roots and the bees that buzz across it with their energy-rich nectar. I’m in clover, and so is my pile. Lucky for both of us.

Sadly, though, the bees are nowhere to be seen this spring. I read why on the Hartford Courant: “Connecticut beekeepers reported losing nearly half of their honeybees during the summer and winter of 2015-16, according to a new report, a die-off rate even higher than the national average of 44 percent. The national survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that the 2015-16 season was the second consecutive year when summer bee losses rivaled winter die-offs.”

“State and national experts call the continuing losses of honeybees — which are essential for pollinating crops humans depend on — a major concern and unsustainable in the long run.

“‘The fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming,’ said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. Most scientists studying the problems of honeybee die-offs agree that these extraordinary death rates are the result of a combination of poor bee nutrition due to loss of habitat, disease, and pesticides.”

A member of the leguminous pea family Fabacea, clover or trefoil — or Trifolium — to botanists — is cultivated around the world as nutritious fodder for livestock, as a source for mild and sweetly flavored clover honey, and as a cover crop that naturally fertilizes the soil. Anyone with a bit of the Irish in them, like me, love their shamrocks, and as a kid I happily hunted for four-leaf clovers. I have mostly white clover in my backyard, though there is some more gangly red clover here and there.

Why is this green manure so valuable? The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grow in symbiotic partnership with clover roots convert atmospheric nitrogen that nourishes the plants and others around it. When clover dies, the fixed nitrogen is released, fertilizing the soil to the tune of up to 200 pounds per acre, according to the Wikipedia page about clover. The effects are long-lasting, too: When used as a cover crop, upwards of half of the nitrogen produced by the rhizobia bacteria in the root nodules remains. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

I leave the three micro meadows of uncut grass and clover intact, mowing around them, and create several new islands elsewhere in the yard. These patches of natural artifice make the cut grass that surrounds them look even more manicured. It may be the native Nebraskan in me, but I like the look of amber waves of grain, especially in the early morning or dusk, when highlighted by the sunlight passing through the stems bowed heavy by their ripening seeds. I will cut the untrammeled patches in mid-summer more as field hay than turfgrass, after ripping a fistful or two of grass seed from the stems to hand seed in the fall. But for now they stand as quirky symbols, exclamation points, really, of pastoral nature left to be — not to mention the pots of golden soil buried underneath.

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A patch of uncut grass next to a young hickory that was five feet tall and growing in the backyard bramble I cleared 12 years ago to create the lawn. Live and let live, I say.

I let the bag fill up but continue mowing, churning most of the clippings back into the lawn. Still, I stop three times to empty the stuffed grass-catcher at the base of my pile. It is thick with mulched maple seeds and sycamore seed fluff; the backyard is a battleground in the sometimes uncivil war between tree and turf, and right now the lawn is winning. To my pile, go the spoils.

After collecting the neighbor’s kitchen trimmings, plus my own Hooch bucket, I dig into the back of my pile, forming first a trench by excavating steaming clumps of last week’s insertion of dried spruce needles and grass. The burnt-orange needles are tinged with white mold and red hot to the touch; it is living rust, and upturned on the new berm will be exposed to much-needed air.

With the pitchfork I gouge out leaf duff from the pockets in both back corners to top dress the feverish mix with clutches of cool dry leaves and crumbly shakings. I toss in lengthwise three flower stalks culled from the rhubarb in the vegetable garden. My pile needs all the air I can give it with the pitchfork, and once buried these hollow stems will serve as shafts for air within it at least for a day or two.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

Next into the trench go the two buckets of kitchen scraps, which I bury with further scrapings from across the back face of my pile, more dry fodder to mix with the next heaping of grass clippings at my feet. I grab a handful to toss across the pile; the fermenting clippings are already so hot it’s like sticking my hands into a pot of boiling water.

I’m careful to spread the subsequent layers of new green and old brown as thinly as I can, tossing and turning as I go. My pile is its own aggregate mix, at least the top part, equal parts new and old, hot and cold, moist and dry, dank and airy.

I work my way around the front of my pile to trench out another berm along the top, turning upward and outward everything within reach of my pitchfork, matching the trench created and now filled along the back. Looking at my pile from the side, today’s excavation and back-filling would take the shape of a long “W.”

I borrow more brown fodder from the base and corners to bury the rest of the clippings of grass and clover. It’s strip mining in reverse, helping my pile do in a matter or weeks what it takes eons for the bigger heap that is the earth to produce: Not coal or oil or tar sands, but the rich dark crumbly new resource called humus. Through my pile and fair bit of sweat and toil, much of it will soon be recycled straight back into the lawn, nourishing both its life and my own.

I’m proud of my lawn — weeds and other warts, clover and all — and will defend its rightful, restorative place in my backyard and as an integral part of the American landscape — and dream. Still, as Little Richard once said, “The grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut.”