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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s