My Pile: The Grass Is Always Greener…

Happy to be back home after a week-long trip to Memphis. I’ll take coastal southern New England in mid-July any day over the sweltering summers of the Deep South…

After a few long work days catching up at the office, I start the weekend with a Friday evening mow of the lawn.

It’s been just over a week since I last mowed, but the grass is as thick as I’ve ever seen it. It’s been a good turf-growing season so far, with well-spaced rains and no long heat waves. I have yet to hook up the rainbow sprinkler to the hose, and have put no fertilizer on the lawn other than the spreading of last season’s finished compost last fall. Even so, the grass is ankle deep and a lush dark green.

And best of all, the crabgrass this year is sparse, and what sprigs I spot on my wanderings about the yard are easy to pinch out of the ground. There’s no space left for the weeds to sprout in the bare ground, so they grow suspended above the mat of grass.

My experiment with creating micro meadows of clover in my lawn has paid off with an ankle-high swarm of bees. They alight on the white flower balls and sway on their slender stems while supping the sweet clover nectar.

A few years ago, when the bee blight became a national story, the waxing and waning of local populations played out in my own backyard. One summer the honey bees were gone, save for a few lumbering bumble bees that nest in the rotting wood of the small lean-to shed in my vegetable garden and hover above the garden.

Maybe the native bees had someplace better to go. Maybe they’ve were hijacked and trucked across country to serve as migrant labor in the almond groves of California. Maybe they were dead in their whiteboard hives and tree trunk colonies, brought down what seems like a variety of human-induced causes.

I’m happy to see the bees back in force, for lately I have another backyard delight to worry about: fireflies.

“Blink and you’ll miss them this summer. Around the world, people are reporting that local firefly populations are shrinking or even disappearing,” reports John R. Platt in a recent article on

“You can wipe fireflies out really easily,” says firefly researcher Ben Pfeiffer, founder of, a website about the decline of the insects, also called lightning bugs. “It’s not hard. You’ve got a one-acre plot, and you put a house there. Good-bye, fireflies. They’ll never be there again.

“The loss of fireflies, which are beetles, can have multiple effects on their ecosystems. For one thing, some firefly species—there are at least 170 in the U.S.—play a role in pollination. They’re not as essential as bees, but they help pollinate milkweed, goldenrod, wild sunflowers, and other species.

“More important, however, firefly larvae are voracious predators that live in the ground and eat slugs, snails, worms, aphids, and other problem critters that would otherwise grow out of control. “I call them nature’s pest control,” Pfeiffer said. (On the other side of the dinner table, fireflies are important food sources for species such as bats and spiders.)

“The insects play a role in human health as well. Two of the enzymes fireflies use to create their bioluminescent flashes—luciferin and luciferase—are used to track the growth of cancer tumors, among other things. Fireflies have also been used to help detect bacteria in food products.

“The exact extent of the decline is unknown, but early indications suggest that lightning bug populations have shrunk in many places and disappeared from others. “Everyone is reporting declines,” said Eric Lee-Mäder, codirector of the pollinator program for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“The causes, however, appear to be clearer: a combination of habitat degradation and loss, light pollution, destruction of water tables, and pesticides, Pfeiffer said.”

Bees and fireflies are the winged hands that help feed us, making possible the propagation of species through what’s now seeming like a worldwide neural network that’s beginning to misfire.

Like my Toro. I decide to plow through one of the tangly islands of clover to deadhead the blossom balls, now turned a dingy brown. The nitrogen rich clover will make good fodder for both my pile and when it’s grass-cycled back into the lawn. Choking on the thick wet clover, the mower seizes up, sending out blasts of white oily smoke.

As I let the engine cool, I dump the groaning grass catcher at the front of my pile atop my neighbor’s regular contribution. From the looks of his gleanings and a glance across the street, I notice that his lawn has thinned out and turned a paler shade of green, having burned through its springtime fertilization.

To my relief, the two-stroke engine fires back up, and I resume my snail’s pace of a walk behind the mower. I go slowly enough to flush all but the most myopic bees before my path, with the blade set high enough, I hope, to spare the fire flies preparing to take flight with the night. I skirt a micro meadow and am pleased to see it crowded with refugees bees, and leave unmowed a long stripe in the center of the lawn to create a new landing strip for the bees to alight on.

Still, the grass catcher quickly fills back up, and the whirring blades spit out tufts of finely chopped clippings from underneath the chassis. Hotter weather is forecast in the days ahead, so I’ll let the sun shrivel the clippings into slivers that melt back into the turf.

My backyard after a mid-summer mow. I've kept one patch of clover in the middle of the lawn.

My backyard after a mid-summer mow. I’ve kept scattered patches of clover in the middle of the lawn.

As Mike McGrath writes in The Book of Compost, “If you use a mulching mower … you’re already providing about half the food your lawn needs. Those grass clippings are powerful sources of nitrogen — the primary food for turf. If they were bagged and sold as fertilizer, those mulched clippings would rate an impressive 10-1-1 nutrient count on the label. That’s right — they’re 10 percent nitrogen! And that’s about as good as a natural fertilizer gets.”

Taking pity on my Toro, I stop twice more to empty the grass catcher, in the process creating a dauntingly large heap of fresh hot greens beside my pile.

Mowing at such a laborious pace gives me time to plot out the coming overhaul of my pile, a chore I relish. My pile needs a good tossing, and I could use the exercise. Plus, I have a yard’s worth of grass clippings, as well as a half-full plastic bag of shredded paper from the office, plus some past-due produce from the fridge to dispense with.

I plunge into my pile by turning the wide-tined pitchfork over and using the curved tines to pierce through the back bottom wall of pressed leaves to draw and disperse the clumps a couple feet backward into a new berm. As I build this backstop of moist, dark gleanings from the bottom of my pile, I spread a thin layer of grass clippings atop the berm and along the newly exposed earthen floor.

I dig further into the midst of my pile, creating a trough into which I pour the shredded paper, more grass and the Hooch bucket of kitchen slop. I cover these additions with scrapings of the dried-out leaves from across the top of the heap, then step back to watch the backside of my pile topple down upon itself. Steam rises from the newly exposed inner reaches of my pile through slanted shafts of the morning sun. It’s a rewarding sight, proof that my pile has enough oxygen for the aerobic bacteria and other micro denizens deep within it to continue to munch away.

I dig deeper still, building a new backside to my pile as steep as the crumbly matrix of leaf mold and whatnot will allow, layering it as I go with the fresh-cut grass. Before long, I’ve cored out a hole that reaches nearly to the center of my pile. I step back to take a break and give me and my pile breather.

Steam vapor rises from the void. In this hole goes the maple seedlings that bedevil my gardening.

Steam vapor rises from the void. In this hole goes the maple seedlings that bedevil my gardening.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I. It’s then I get what I consider a bright idea: I’ll gather up the heap of maple seeds rotting away in the other back corner of my yard near the street and bury them in the middle of my pile.

Since sweeping them off the driveway and along the street, the mass of maple whirligigs has been left to mold away next to the base of a large maple. Lately, I’ve been kicking myself for not having blown more of the winged seeds off the chipped wood mulch that rings the perimeter of my yard. Over the past month or so, hundreds of the seeds have sprouted across the mulch beds, creating a chia bed of maple seedlings that I’ll either have to pluck by hand or smother with a new supply of chips this fall. Left unchecked, they would soon throw lethal shade over the variety of young oaks that I’ve have grown from acorns tucked underneath the wood chips over the past decade.

The maple seedlings go untouched by the fauna on my suburban plot because most fall from an alien species, the Norway maple. “It throws such deep shade that it outcompetes native vegetation and is moving toward monoculture in many woodlots,” writes Douglas W. Tallamy in his seminal “Bringing Nature Home — How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.”

Writes Tallamy: “The message in this book is a simple one. By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity hat has been one of this country’s richest assets. I have argued that native plants support and produce more insects than alien plants and therefore more numbers of species of other animals. People who accept this logic from the perspective of creating functioning ecosystems in our growing suburbs may also be alarmed by the apparent disconnect between the typical goal of the gardener, to grow beautiful undamaged plants, and my suggesiton to use gardens to produce lots of insects. Yikes! Am I crazy? Maybe just a little, but not because I want suburbia to do a better job supporting the natural world.”

Tallamy would, quite naturally, take exception to the square footage that I devote to growing grass, though I’d like to think he’d give me a pass on the the micro-meadows I tend on behalf of the bees and fireflies.

Dispatching the moldy mound of maple seeds en masse into my pile gives me a small measure of payback as well. I fill a plastic tub of the featherweight seeds and dump them into the hole in the back of my pile, then mix in a supply of grass clippings. What seeds might still be viable will soon be cooked and broken down; No doubt the seeds are packed with nutrients to be returned to my yard. I cover them by dragging the top of the pile over them and tidying up the ground along the rear edge of my pile.

In a half-hour’s time, I’ve worked up a good sweat – and worked my way through nearly half my pile – and about half of the grass clippings piled along the front. So after scraping them aside, I plunge into the front, to mix and turn to the front half of my pile. Using the tip of the pitchfork tine, I tease apart what clumps of whole leaves I come across, and cover with the rest of the grass clippings.

I short order I’ve reassembled my pile. It looks the same as before, only it’s reconstituted as a freshly mixed tossed salad of old browns and new greens, well on its way to becoming black gold.

I step inside as the evening gives way to twilight, leaving the backyard to the fireflies that rise from the lawn to twinkle in the gloaming. My work is done for the day, and for the week. My pile has all it needs to continue doing what it does best on its own: Composting.


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