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 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.
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.
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.