My Pile: Fire Works

I return home from work early this afternoon. It’s a getaway Friday, before the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I’m hoping to take a long overdue walk at the beach after work, in advance of the next night’s big fireworks display at the local beach, which each year attracts thousands of people.

First, I head out to the shed to grab the plastic barrel. Though the long hot days of summer have slowed the growth of grass in my yard, they’ve also warmed the shallow waters of the nearby Sound, leaving the local beaches awash with seaweed. I know from years past that the town tidies up the beach before the fireworks by dragging a mechanical sifter across the sand. I hoped I’m too late to do some beachcombing of my own.

The lawn is awash in blooms of white clover flowers, which I’m happy to leave uncut for the bees to sup upon. I don’t know how much more fresh hot “greens” my pile needs, but I like the idea of finishing off my pile as I started it – with “the best fertilizer there is” – seaweed from the beach.

As Mike McGrath writes in the “Book of Compost,” “Seaweed contains trace elements, micro-nutrients and plant growth compounds you’ll never find in any chemical fertilizer – or even in most organic ones. Research performed at Clemson University found that seaweed contained at least 70 trace elements vital to plant growth – in just the tiny amounts plants like best.

The plant-growth compounds in seaweed can speed up flowering and fruit production and help plants better resist stress—especially the stress of cold weather … . Seaweed can really boost yields as well—one study found that seaweed-fed plants produced a third more tomatoes than non-seaweeded plants; and in another study, seaweed increased strawberry yields an astounding 133 percent. Yow!

After my stroll along the sand I haul the barrel out to the high-water line and scoop up a load of rotting, pungent seaweed. I top off the barrel with a heaping of old seagrass stems, chopped by the surf into tangles of short, hollow straws. Once buried deep in my pile, the pixie-sticks of seagrass will also help aerate the innards and regulate the final decomposition of the compost.

“You want some heat,” advises Stu Campbell in “Let It Rot,” who adds, “heating can be tricky if it gets out of control. Earthworms are killed at 130 F, and they will not stick around and endanger themselves for very long in temperatures that even approach that figure. Azobacteria, the precious microorganisms that transform nitrogen gas into a form that plants can use, are killed at temperatures above 160 F. Excessive heat is far more dangerous than no heat at all.”

As I plan to use this year’s batch of humus to invigorate my lawn, I want all the nitrogen I can beg, borrow or steal. That’s one reason I’ve let the clover grow in patches across the lawn; their leguminous roots help lock up nitrogen. I can tell my grass could use more nitrogen – the patch of thick green grass below the hanging bird feeder tells me that. A winter’s worth of bird droppings has been well-received. And though my lawn could stand for mowing, I decide to wait, after seeing more bees than before hovering about the clover flowers that are springing up across the lawn. Besides, it’s more fun to walk the sea shore than the backyard behind a mower.

Returning home from the beach with plenty of daylight left, I find that my across-the-street neighbor, Craig, has mowed his lawn and heaped the grass clippings at the base of my pile. I set about my evening chores to mix in the grass and the seaweed, along with a week’s worth of kitchen scraps, into my pile. Having excavated the left side of my pile a week ago, today it’s time for the flip side.

As I prepare to dig into the right side of my pile, my neighbor Chylla comes by with a special request that makes the job easier. After several years of talking about creating a garden in her own yard, she has finally done it. She walks me to the side of her house, where she has dug up the ground along where the fireplace chimney, painted white, rises from the foundation. A small pile of unearthed shard of clay pots includes a set of horse shoes, crusted with rust. No doubt the play set had been set aside many years ago, and then lost to weeds and time.

She has already planted free seed tidy rows of baby swiss chard and spinach, and nearby are various pots containing herbs — I see sage and rosemary — which she wants to plant in the freshly dug ground.  It will make a fine kitchen and herb garden, but what it needs now is a generous helping of compost.

Wheelbarrows of raw compost from my pile make a welcome addition to my neighbor's new garden.

Wheelbarrows of raw compost from my pile make a welcome addition to my neighbor’s new garden.

It’s only fair: For years my pile has thrived on the voluminous scraps from her home-cooked kitchen, as well as raked leaves from her bare-swept front yard. In return, she has an open invitation to gather fresh pickings from the garden, and does so on a daily basis. But until now, aside from a few plant containers and clay pots to fill, she’s never had a place in which to share compost from my pile.

And that, I have in spades. Returning to my pile, I haul out the wheelbarrow and set in front of heap and plunge into the right front corner with the manure fork, turning out cavalcades of dark, rich proto-humus. My pile is more like dirt than leaves, and as with the wheelbarrow of compost I’ve already added to my own ripening vegetable garden, I’m happy to have reason to move the near-finished compost once.

I dig into the front right side of my pile, teasing out mature compost with the straight tine manure fork. The compost crumbles, and I use the spade to fill up with wheelbarrow. The only screening I do is to flick a few clumps of pressed leaves onto the top of the heap. I trundle the first load to the yard next door and spoon out compost across the new garden beds, and return twice more to leave my neighbor with her new garden beds chock-full of compost to work into the soil.

The borrowings from my pile have carved out a tunnel into the right front corner, revealing the dark inner core. To gain ready access to the cliff-face of compost along the rest of the right side of my pile I turn out the log wall, twisting and teeter-tottering them to the ground.

I've toppled the log walls that contain my pile to gain access to the right side.

I’ve toppled the log walls that contain my pile to gain access to raw brown material — mostly leaves from last fall — on the right side.

To slow walk my pile from one side to the other, I pull clumps of decaying leaf mold from the center of the pile up against the left side, creating space to heap more unearthed compost from the bottom right side, mixing in fresh scraps of grass clippings and pulled weeds. I use the short-tined pitchfork to tease out forkfuls of autumn leaves flecked with sand from the many loads of seaweed deposited last fall.

This is the cold-pressed part of my compost heap, which over the past six months has slowly decomposed under the press of leaves and mixings above it. I toss the cool, danks forkfuls of leaf litter across the growing mound on the left side of my pile, briefly exposing them to fresh air and sun for the first time since November before burying them anew under further heapings of more mature compost gleaned from the front and back sides. Much of my pile is now a rich mix of crumbly leaf mold and grass clippings. The few whole leaves that remain from last fall will soon succumb to the decay now going on at a fever pitch within the tossed sections of my pile.

All this work on my pile attracts the attention of my neighbor Craig, who wanders over to watch as I tuck his grass clippings deep within my pile. He volunteers to retrieve the remote thermometer sensor he keeps in the dashboard cubby of his car. He owns a foam-installation business, and uses the pistol-shaped device to measure radiant heat.

I dig out a small bore hole in the front face of my pile, and he clocks it with his temperature gun, the digital readings flicking 119, 123, 114, 124. Cool! I dig a little deeper and a 128 pops up. I fear for the safety of the earthworms but take some measure of pride in creating a hot-house of a heap.

My pile is chugging along quite nicely. Here I've clocked it at a toasty 124 degrees.

My pile is chugging along quite nicely. Here I’ve clocked it at a toasty 124 degrees.

I return to my excavations, and in short order my pile is reconstituted. The left side, newly infused with a rich mixture of grass clippings, seaweed and kitchen scraps, rises tall. The right side is a shear cliff-face of dark, rich leaf mold, which has been steadily decaying since last fall, a cold press of compost, which I’ll dig into after the next time I mow. Once exposed to fresh air and mixed with grass clippings, it will go on the fast-track of disintegration, joining the rest of the heap as crumbly compost, well on the way to fruition as humus. New soil, from old life.

As my pile burns through this combustible mix, soon I’ll trade in the pitchfork for a shovel, and my pile will be no more.

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.”

So wrote Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”



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