My Pile: Field Trip

I wake up early on a hot, dry Saturday morning in early August to tend to the garden. Later in the day, when my adolescent son finally wakes, we’ll head into New York City with our bikes to spend the afternoon exploring the city.

Old men don’t need their beauty sleep, so I set to some gardening chores before hauling the bikes out of the backyard shed.

One way to think of my backyard is vertically, perhaps a notion on my mind as I look forward to cycling through the canyons of downtown Manhattan. Seen this way, there are four separate layers to my landscape: the ground, which includes the lawn, groundcover and mulch beds; the annual and perennial bushes, flowers and vegetables that grow chest high each summer; the larger shrubs and small trees, like the dogwoods, lilac, rose of Sharon, butterfly bushes, forsythia, crabapple and collection of young hardwoods I’m raising, including a variety of oak and a strapping young hickory; and the mature canopy trees – sycamore, oak, pine, willow and maple, among them.

My property, all third of an acre of it, is positively stacked. Each season it grows taller and thicker, which calls for some measure of cultivation.

I pass by my pile to pull out the extension clipper and saw I keep in the tool shed. I stretch the flexible, two-part Fiberglass pole to reach some sucker limbs of the crabapple that grows, almost unseen, behind a patch of gangly privet bushes along the side of my yard that I’ve let grow wild and are now nearly 20 feet tall.

Next I prune a sycamore that sprouted in the pachysandra bed alongside the west side of the house. I know the old-saw saying of never let a tree grow next to a house, but I am an indulgent gardener, and I’ve been amazed to see how fast the sycamore has grown in just a handful of years. It now rises 10 feet above my second-floor attic, and spreads wide enough to cast the entire west side of the house in shade. The benefit of a cooler house offsets any concern I have of the tree’s roots causing problems with my foundation. My house sits on cinderblock and has a dirt floor under the crawl space. If a root wants any part of that creepy-crawly space, have at it.

To keep the sycamore from scraping up against the side of the house and roof, I trim the house-side of it espalier-style. Though now only half a tree in some respects, it’s handsome and robust. I’ll let it go another year or two and then decide its fate.

The tree this intrepid young sycamore hails from lords over the front corner of my yard in a majestic if messy way. This sycamore is the largest living thing in the yard, if not neighborhood, and I spend more time picking up after it than all the other trees on my property. It sheds leaves pretty much throughout the summer, and each year I stretch the pruning pole upward to nip off the branches that hang low with new growth and heavy seed balls.

Those sycamore balls begin to drop in the fall, bright green and as hard as a hockey puck. I used to gather them up by the bucket full to use as baseball practice with my son. As they ripen, the seed balls turn brown and soft with fluffy seeds. My son delighted in seeing them explode into puffs off his bat … until a dusty seedling caught in his eye, and then he was done with them. They plague me nearly as much as the maple winglets, sprouting everywhere they land, including the gravel driveway.

The sycamore has another peculiar trait that adds one more chore: After the first heat wave each summer, the sycamore bark peels away from the trunk like a bad sunburn. Whole chunks flake from the tree’s top to bottom, littering the lawn beneath the tree with brittle patches of bark.

A pile of sycamore bark. Most of it gets mulched by the mower, and some I add to my pile.

A mess of sycamore bark. Most of it gets mulched by the mower, and some I add to my pile.

I’ve read that sycamore leaves are among the best to compost, so I tolerate the tree more than I should. I also like the look of the tree’s massive trunk and limbs, dappled in shades of cream, yellow and brown. Most of the sycamore bark I simply mow over, but a couple times during the dog days of August there are enough to rake and pile onto my plastic tarp. I drag it caddy-corner across the yard to deposit next to the heap of cut limbs and other such prunings that I haul off to the town’s yard-waste refuse center.

My pile sits untended, but if I thought today was a day away from compost, boy, was I wrong!

Wheeling our bikes up and out of Grand Central, we cycle down 42nd Street to the West Side bikeway to head south along the Hudson. Our destination is Governor’s Island, where I’d read that a Civil War re-enactment will take place. My son isn’t much of a reader, so I figure this bit of living history will stand in for some needed summer enrichment. Plus, I get a kick out of taking the free ferry ride from South Ferry Terminal to the obscure old military installation, now closed, in New York Harbor.

Of course, he wasn’t buying even this hint of “homework” on a summer Saturday. Coursing through the canyons of Wall Street, filled on a weekend with tourists instead of suits, we finally make it onto the island just as the Civil War cannons and muskets fire their last salvos.

As we pedal to the southern side of the small island, we come across a section of old barracks that have found new life as Earth Matter, a hippiesh, communal operation dedicated to … compost.

I’m delighted to stumble across such an outpost, and my son is thrilled with the sight of chickens free-ranging about. We park our bikes and enter the fenced-in compound, past hand-painted signs that announce “free compost!”

The community compost operations on Governor's Island in New York Harbor.

The community compost operations on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor.

As we wander about the rustic, barnyard-like operation, almost literally in the shadow of the world’s foremost concrete jungle, we learn more: Earth Matter was founded in 2009, I read in a flyer, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the art, science, and application of composting in and around New York City. Its mission: to address the dual problems of resource recovery and healthy soils with a single solution: promoting the local composting of organic waste into a healthy soil amendment.

I’ve stumbled across Ground Zero of urban composting. We stroll past long windrows of compost, each one planted with a sign that gives its date of creation. I envy the small front-end loader parked beside the nearest compost pile.

We wander past a demonstration area that has a row of different types of composting setups and contraptions, from tumblers to worm bins to a variety of fenced-in enclosures. Call it a dis-assembly line.

We stop at a small pile set up next to a screen made of small-gauge wire. A young volunteer, with a collegiate scruff of beard, offers a shovel to me, and a small paper bag that you most often see used for coffee. “Sift your own compost, and take home a bag!”

I take him up on the offer, and while I scoop a couple shovel-fuls of what looks like dried wood mulch, he gives me his spiel. “Did you know that compost heaps heat up to 1,500 degrees as it cures?”

I set the shovel down. “Are you sure about 1,500 degrees? That’s pretty hot – like melting steel hot…”

“1,500 degrees,” he repeats.

“Not more like 150 degrees?” I counter.

“Nope. 1,500,” he says with certainty.

I package my few ounces of kiln-fired compost and thank the young man. I admire his passion, if not his facts.

A view of the different types of composting systems on display at Earth Matter.

A view of the different types of composting systems on display at Earth Matter.

Back home, I find out more from the group’s website:

Earth Matter NY seeks to reduce the organic waste misdirected into the garbage stream by encouraging neighbor participation and leadership in composting.

We see that:

  • There is one soil, one air, and one water, all commonly held and stewarded by one people, the nurturance of which is critical to a verdant world.
  • Organic waste should not be part of modern landfills because the waste of any process is food for other processes.
  • Transportation of waste far beyond the source unnecessarily despoils the soil, air, and water.
  • Society needs to alter the way waste is treated as part of an integrated, long term solution to food, climate, and energy issues.
  • The power to manifest global social change lies within each of us. The challenge to take action rests on our shoulders.

We endeavor to:

  • Compost organic waste locally on behalf of our friends.
  • Educate, encourage, and support ongoing community composting efforts.
  • Utilize best practices for the improvement of soil health.
  • Promote water conservation practices to reduce the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) burden on municipal sewer systems.

My son and I may have missed out on the Civil War, but this serendipitous encounter is truly living history and a learning experience of its own.

 

My Pile: Off the Charts

Arriving home from work this evening, I check the mailbox and find a business envelope, with a return address of University of Connecticut, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Inside is a sheaf of single pages, results of each of my three soil samples. At the bottom of the first page, in pencil, is a handwritten note.

“Hi,
We did run your 3 samples as requested. Our standard nutrient test is not meant for compost, as the nutrients are all above our mineral soil limits on the analytical equipment….”

I check the tabular results for the compost sample. On the left of the page are four rows labeled Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Potassium. Stretching across the page are three columns, titled “Below Optimum,” “Optimum” and “Above Optimum.” The colored bars for all four key minerals extend into the last column, with Phosphorus stretching the farthest.

My pile is off the charts!

Another page is labeled “Modified Morgan Extractable,” and on it I see that my pile has 38.2% organic matter — which makes me wonder what the other 62% consists of.

I compare the results for my pile with those for the vegetable garden and perennial bed, which I keep covered with annual spreadings of wood chips. One number stands out: The Nitrate-Nitrogen level for my compost pile is 150.1 PPM, vs. the mulched bed’s 19.1.

I scan the back of the page, where the handwritten note continues:

“As to your mulch question – I wouldn’t worry about it. The benefits of mulch far outweigh any problems with nitrogen deficiencies. Wood mulches, in particular, decompose so slowly that nitrogen deficiencies would not typically be seen here. If you added a finer, more rapidly decomposing source of high carbon organic matter, like sawdust, you could see nitrogen deficiency around quick growing annual plants, like peppers and zinnias. I use shredded bark mulches in all my perennial beds and usually fertilize once in May. I have no seen any nitrogen deficiencies. Hope these tests answer some of your questions.”
Dawn P

The pH readings are 7.0 for the compost sample, 6.6 for the mulched perennial bed, 5.5 for the vegetable garden.

Another page is a handout titled, “Interpretation of Soil Test Results.” It informs me that “soil pH is a measurement of a soil’s acidity. The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, with a pH of 7 being neutral. Values below 7 are considered acidic while those above indicate alkaline conditions. The pH of a soil not only affects the availability of necessary plant nutrients but also the solubility of potentially toxic elements such as aluminum and lead.

Most garden plants prefer a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Notable exceptions include acid-loving blueberries and ericaceous plants like rhododendrons, azaleas and mountain laurel. These plants prefer a pH of 4.5 to 5.3. The majority of Connecticut soils tend to be acidic with pH values ranging from 4.8 to 5.5 due to the geology and climate of the region.”

I’m pleased, if not downright proud, of the results across the board. My pile turns out to be extraordinary rich in nutrients, and I imagine as it continues to mature will increase its percentage of organic material. The vegetable garden, with its base of native soil, remains true to its slightly acidic nature, which I will address soon by adding a thick top dressing of compost. And I’m relieved that years of covering my perennial beds with wood chips and chopped leaves haven’t turned it acidic. I have a science-based answer to why my flowers thrive so well — and perhaps why the rhododendrons haven’t.

And I’m happy to have received such personalized attention from a government bureaucracy. Thanks, Dawn!

I celebrate with a quick mow of the yard. I’m rushing daylight and laboring under a steamy August night, so mow only the stretch of lawn where the grass and clover are most lush — which happens to be the precise area I spread a season’s worth of compost two summers ago. I mow around the perimeter of the front lawn, along the street where the windblown weeds take root quickest, but leave the interior to grow whole under the hot summer sun.

Still, I gather two hopper fulls of fresh-cut grass clippings, which I heap along the front of my pile. I have a stuffed container of kitchen scraps to dispense with, as well as my neighbor’s ash can. They left town for their annual summer trip to the mother’s home country of Hungary early in the week, and I find the heavy can half full of food scraps, rotting in a pool of rank liquid. It’s been that hot of late, and the food waste has simmered into a ratatouille of rot — compost tea, some call it.

I’m nearing the point of dispersing my pile through the garden, around the perennials and across the patch of straggly lawn that didn’t receive the last batch of compost, so I start my digging and turning in the left-rear corner of my square-cut heap of nearly finished compost. The heap has shrunk over time, and it now rests a foot or so away from the log wall that once contained it. I stab the pitchfork into the edge of my pile, the tines piercing into the dirt floor, to draw the piecemeal leaf mold along the bottom outward, back up against the two and tallest logs at the back of my pile.

I scrape away, building up a back berm of freshly unearthed compost. It is moist and smells richly of forest floor. I sprinkle a thin layer of grass clippings across the top, and dig away to excavate a trench in which to bury my soggy week’s worth of kitchen trimmings. I bury the mess with scalpings of sun-baked leaf mold from the top and sides of my pile, and burrow further back and down until I reach a vein of leaves cocooned since last fall. If this isn’t the very bottom part of my pile, it’s very close. I turned out the old virgin leaves and cover them with a thin layer of fresh grass clippings, a May-December marriage if ever there was one.

Burrowing into the bottom of my pile to turn out the old and bury the new.

Burrowing into the bottom of my pile to turn out the old and bury the new.

As I burrow my way back and down and up and in to this corner of my pile it collapses onto itself. It knows when it’s goose is cooked, and I fold another layer of grass clippings across the top, finishing the near-done humus with a basting of fresh, wet grass trimmings.

This back corner of my pile rises high, bolstered by pitchforks of sodlike leaf mold that have tumble down along the flanks. I’m choosing this  redoubt as my last stand — with my pile it’s LILO, last in, last out. I’ll harvest my pile from the opposite corner first, and give this blend of the latest kitchen scraps, grass clippings and the rawest of leaf mold as much time as it needs to ripen as compost. It’s this section that will likely form the base of next year’s pile.

With more grass clippings and the neighbors’ soggy tin can of food waste to dispense, I work my way along the backside of my pile, digging a knee-high trench to turn out the old and bury the new. I tidy up along the edges to return my pile to the rounded heap of nearly finished compost that it is, only shape-sifted a few cubic feet into a fresh semblance of its former self.

I finish in the gloaming of evening and step back to consider my pile, now at its most fulsome and accomplished state of being.

My Pile: Shredded

I spend an anxious week eagerly awaiting the results of my soil test samples sent off to the UConn lab. It’s like waiting on a pregnancy test. Am I fertile? What if something’s wrong with my pile?

Not that there’s anything I can do about it. I know all that’s gone into my pile, and know of its seemingly infinite capacity to absorb, transmute and transform the riot of raw materials into a finished product that is at itself not fully understood by scientists but invariably useful and productive to gardeners and farmers of every kind.

As the quote of the day on the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory website cites from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

Today, a Saturday and the first day of August, dawns bright and clear after a week of hot, muggy weather that was finally broken by a gully washer of a thunderstorm.

The rains gave the yard and gardens and my pile a soaking down through the root zone and then back up until the low parts of the lawn were squishy under my shoes. I threw a tennis ball for the dog this morning, and his paws unleashed sprays of water; the tennis ball itself spun out its own galaxy of droplets.

The heat wave stifled the grass, and for the first weekend in a month or so I don’t have to mow. Still my soggy pile of nearly finished compost could use a good turning. I have a clutch of mildewing grass clippings dropped off by a neighbor a few days ago. And I have a bucket full of summer kitchen scraps to dispense with more urgency than normal. While making coffee few mornings ago I was buzzed by a small squadron of fruit flies, hovering above the kitchen sink.

Fruit flies are more an annoyance than a danger, but still a presence that no kitchen composter wants to tolerate. After clapping as many as I could mid-air, and squashing a few more with my thumb against the east-facing window above the sink, I checked the Hooch bucket that sits on a glass-topped table to the side of the kitchen counter. No sign of an infestation, which after further inspection I realize comes from some spilled beer in the paper-lined bin I keep under the sink to stash my recyclable cans, jars and bottles.

The bucket of kitchen scraps this week includes a handful of long-expired vitamins and capsules of fish-oil supplements.

Before I take the Hooch bucket outside, I open the fridge to take one last sweep through the vegetable bin. I find nothing past its due date, but then spot the collection of vitamin and supplement bottles that have long resided in the tray on the inside of the door. There’s a bottle of multi vitamins and two of fish oil supplements, dating from a long-ago new year’s resolution some years ago. All are more than half-full. I check the expiration dates and and am shocked to see that they are years out of date. I debate whether they should go in the Hooch bucket or the trash can, then check online for advice. While I know certain prescription drugs are now creating all kinds of hazards, up and down the food chain when flushed down the toilet or sent to a landfill, I can find no authoritative counsel on whether vitamins pose the same risk.

I find some concern about the risk, especially to small children, of coming into contact with excessive amounts of iron, but after reading on one garden forum the comment, “hey, the pills contain minerals that are naturally occurring anyway,” I decide to chuck them into the Hooch bucket. The fish oil capsules will surely melt safely away, and I figure a handful of multivitamins ingested by a compost pile of my size, which will soon be spread across a third-acre of grass and garden, is an acceptable way of recycling such nutrients.

I take the Hooch bucket outside and place it next to a plastic bag of shredded paper from the office. What began several months ago around tax time as an impromptu gesture has now been added to my job description: Whenever the small bin of the finance department’s paper shredder fills up, “the compost guy” gets the call to empty it.

It’s a task that I am happy to have taken on. For one, the shredded strips of crinkled white paper have mixed well with the copious amounts of green grass clippings I’ve added to my crumbly brown heap of leaves and other rotting mixings. The dry, crinkly white shreds soak up the watery slop of kitchen waste — watermelon rinds and other fruit trimmings that are quick to putrify in the summer heat. For another, I see my recycling at the office as a fairly easy way to practice what I preach in my own backyard at the place I spend most of my waking hours.

And there’s this: I spent more than 25 years as a practicing journalist and until recently was always an avid consumer of printed magazines and newspapers. I am at least partially responsible for the destruction of a large forest’s worth of paper over my lifetime. To recycle even a tiny portion of that highly processed product in my backyard is a way to atone.

Here’s what the Cornell School of Horticulture has to say about it, on their Home Gardening website:

“Several paper products – especially newspaper and cardboard – are useful in the garden and landscape. While it provides no nutrients, paper is organic material, made primarily of wood fibers. It decomposes slowly but provides structure when used in a compost pile.

Shredded newspapers or telephone books are good paper choices for composting or digging into soil directly. They decompose well when mixed with high nitrogen products such as manure. Shredded newspaper may also be used under other mulches in the landscape, where it is broken down by earthworms.

Shredded computer or other office paper and glossy magazine-style paper decomposes slowly and may contain dioxins. There are enough concerns about the dioxin in bleached and glossy paper that it would be wise not to use them in the garden.”

Of course, I take the glossy ad inserts, junk mail and the like to the local recycling center, as well as the newspaper I don’t use as kindling to start my fireplace in the winters. Years and years ago, while living in New York City, I helped a buddy fill up his parents’ Volvo with a half-year’s supply of New York Times. Our orders, in exchange for spending a long weekend at his parents summer cottage on the North Fork of Long Island, was to spread the newspapers wholesale across a section of their garden. We carpeted the weedy ground with sections laid tight together, circling close around any perennials.

This was a practice they’d done for years, and worked well. In another part of the garden, “all the news that’s fit to print” had smothered the growth as it slowly degraded from newsprint to papier mache.

I grant the Cornell Horticultural experts their concerns about adding shredded office paper to a compost pile, given the potential risk of dioxins. But the consensus among avid composters is that adding shredded paper is on balance a good thing for the environment and backyard heaps, provided you have a good supply of greens to keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio in balance. Plus, I have to trust the earthworms and their microbial allies that inhabit my pile to digest trace amounts of toxins and render them more harmless. It’s a good feeling, mine and the worms’, and I’m going with it.

At this point in the summer, my pile is easy to work with, and through. I dig a trench along the back side that becomes a hole that allows me for the first time since last November to reach the core of my pile, the very bottom of the center.

Using the straight-tined pitchfork, I tease out some surprisingly whole leaves and turn them out onto the top of my pile. I cover with a few scraps of rotting grass leaves. Into the hole at the center of my pile go the kitchen scraps and the shredded paper, mixed with crusty leaves scraped from the sides and along the bottom edges of my pile.

My pile will have no trouble digesting this shredded office paper, mixed with grass clippings and kitchen scraps tucked deep inside its core.

My pile will have no trouble digesting this shredded office paper, mixed with grass clippings and kitchen scraps tucked deep inside its core.

My goal is to mix and bury the new material with as much of the undigested parts of my pile. With the calendar now turned to August and 10 months into this season’s batch of compost, I figure my pile is only about four or six weeks from being dispensed with. The shredded paper, evidently much loved by earthworms, has until now always disappeared without a trace.

By now my pile is mostly a uniform mix of almost finished compost, crumbly enough to begin parceling out piecemeal, first as a late-season covering in the vegetable garden, then across the lawn and garden beds.