My Pile: The Ant and the Grasshopper

I turn another page on the calendar tacked up on the back of my kitchen door and step onto the back porch with morning cup of coffee in hand to let the dog out. As is his custom, he sprints straight across the yard, past my pile, to patrol the back corner of the yard. Often, squirrels use the stockade fence that runs along the back property line behind my pile as a perch and a highway, and Miller is eternally vigilant in keeping them off his territory.

I take a seat on a porch chair to eye a cicada that’s fastened to the top of the front right leg. The thrum of cidadas lately is loud enough to drown out the sound of traffic on the highway that passes a quarter-mile or so from my house. The sight of the bulbous insect, with its iridescent wings and truly bug eyes, reminds me of boyhood summers in the Midwest, when we’d capture the flying beasts and tie kite strings around their legs to fly them in tight circles above our heads.

I leave the cicada to its perch, and plot out a busy week ahead. The Labor Day holiday comes late this year, at the end of the first week of September. I’ve set aside the three-day weekend for dispatching my pile, and I have work to do beforehand.

In this day and age, tending to a yard is a very much a lifestyle choice. Most people in this affluent, bedroom-commuter community outsource their gardening duties, to lawn-service companies with big, equipment-laden trucks or handymen driving old pickups. Others limit their chores to planting annuals or keeping pool and patio landscapes tidy. Actual manual labor is rare, and a benign disconnect from backyard nature, reinforced by central AC, is the rule. The fear of contracting Lyme disease, a bad case of poison ivy, or some malady like West Nile virus or Zika, is real; so are the many other options for recreation and release, from the virtual reality of video games, smart phones and TV to paddleboards, golf and Zumba class at the gym.

The backyard is my habitat of choice; it’s where I like to spend my free time. I see the stewardship of my property as not a chore but an escape, an indulgence. The work I put into it saves me a lot of money over the course of a year, and also yields all kinds of other rewards.

But still, there is work to be done, and this week is the time to do it. Sitting next to the lolly-gagging cicada, I plot out a daily schedule of projects to take care of before the Labor Day holiday.

The weather forecast calls for another week of hot dry weather. I read online that our region has set a record of 60 straight days of 80 degrees or hotter daily temperatures, with a prediction of an unprecedented string of 90-degree days to start the month of September. I’m comforted by the fact that my boss is out of town for the week, giving me the chance to take off work early each day. What’s more, my son is away on a vacation with his mother, leaving me plenty of free time to putter about.

On Monday afternoon while the sprinkler waters both the lawn and the section of garden bed where I transplanted the ferns and hydrangeas, I pull pachysandra from along the perimeter of my house. If left unchecked, the ground cover will snake its way up under the wood shingles. It rips up easily, and I drag three small tarps worth over to the refuse pile I keep in the corner of the yard by the road.

It’s messy work and I’m drenched with sweat by the time I work my way around the three sides of my house where the pachysandra grows. To cover the newly exposed roots of the pachysandra, I sling shovel fulls of compost from my pile up against the house. A flashing of compost against the newly exposed foundation looks tidy, and the new lining of fluffy humus will make it that much easier to pluck out the racings of next year’s growth.

With the work tools and such out and some daylight to spare, I tackle another garden project I’ve been contemplating. Some years ago I bought a Montauk daisy and planted it in a small garden bed along the street, tucked between the driveway and a maple tree, behind which the border of forsythia grows.

Each spring the plant grows thick, only to be pruned by the roving bands of deer that use the shady street and my yard as a nightly pub-garden prowl. It’s also stressed by competing with the roots of the nearby maple. I have yet to see the plant blossom with its signature daisy white flowers.

Just beyond my backdoor is a garden patch that has been overtaken by lilies of the valley. They are lovely and fragrant in the spring, but by mid-summer have gone wilted and tawdry. Hard by the flagstone patio, the plantings are in direct sun for much of the day. I dig out the lilies, which already cover other, more shady spots of my mulched garden beds around the yard, and in its place put the Montauk daisy. Perhaps its proximity to my backdoor will keep the deer away and allow it to blossom. It may be wishful thinking, but worth my while to try on a late-summer evening.

Like the pachysandra, the lilies of the valley have tightly bound, interconnected root systems, and if dug into deeply enough come out of the ground whole cloth. I shake as much soil as I can from each section, but digging them out leaves a hole in the ground, which of course I fill with loads of fresh compost  mixed into the tired old soil. The daisy’s root system was a stunted spiral, as if still constricted by its pot; it should thrive in its new privileged place just outside the back door.

The yard in late summer. The grass needs watering, the pachysandra pruning, and perennials transplanted to more favorable places.

The yard in late summer. The grass needs watering, the pachysandra pruning, and perennials transplanted to more favorable places.

Wednesday, the first thing I do after getting home from the office is wash down two Advil with a cold beer. My chore today requires a certain amount of heavy lifting: Last weekend, while watching my son and the neighborhood kids bounce on the trampoline, I notice that their feet nearly strike the ground underneath it.

My son and his friends have grown up on the trampoline. Years ago I set a basketball post next to it, and my boy’s backyard sport is jumping high and slam-dunking. On hot days, I set the rainbow sprinkler underneath it; the sprays poke through the netting and make great cooling fun for all.

I decide to dig out a foot-deep depression from below the center of the trampoline, to create more clearance. Even at its best – and ringed by a tall safety net, a trampoline presents certain dangers to springy children; the last thing I want to see is one of them hitting bottom and hurting themselves.

After getting help from one of the girls next door to drag the trampoline into the yard, I set about digging through the soft dirt underneath it. The sheltered soil is rich and easy to shovel. Within an hour’s time I’ve filled five wheelbarrows with dark, rich topsoil. I spread three loads around the garden bed where I’ve done my recent transplanting. Another two I dump next to my pile. I’ll spoon shovelfuls of the dirt onto my pile as I build it with loads of fall leaves.

Digging out from under the trampoline makes it safer, and gives me a load of quality topsoil.

Digging out from under the trampoline makes it safer, and gives me a load of quality topsoil.

Adding topsoil to my coming pile is sort of like bringing coals to Newcastle, but the weight of the dirt will help compact the airy leaves, and the billions of microbial critters within each shovelful will help kickstart the composting process.

Before long, I’ve scooped out a depression about 10 feet in diameter. It looks just like an old buffalo wallow I once came across on my grandfather’s farm; he’d kept the area untilled as a remnant of the prairie his farm once was. Sure enough, after dragging the trampoline back over the shallow pit, the dog took up residence in his cool new cubby hole. I’m too sore and tired to get in the car to drive to the beach, so opt for a long shower instead.

On Thursday I tackle another needed, if picayune task: While dumping the fresh dirt in heaps into my garden beds, I noticed how much of it was covered with a season’s worth of seedlings – the sproutings of young maples, sycamores and grape vines, from seeds blown or fallen from the overhanging trees and vines from my and the neighboring yards. They’ve found ready purchase in the largest of my perennial beds, which last fall I’d loaded with the lion’s share of my pile.

The year before I’d devoted my pile to the lawn; last year instead of aerating, I decided to give the compost to the flower beds, forsaking my annual resupply of wood chips. The garden is thick with flowers, but the compost proved fertile ground for unwanted plants as well. This fall I’ll cover it again with wood chips and give my pile over to replenishing the turfgrass. But before I do I need to handpick the stubbornly resilient seedlings, or else they’ll just poke their way through the mulch and begin the process of turning my cultivated gardens into overgrown wild spaces. Lesson learned: compost is not so good as a cover to prevent weeds. In fact, it has been a nursery bed for opportunistic, and mostly invasive, plant growth. I should have figured…

I work my way through the thick growth of the perennial blooms that now fill my garden beds, stooping to pluck out the spindly sprouts of weedlings, tossing them out onto the lawn to wither on the sun-packed grass lawn. It’s a hot, humid night, and I take frequent breaks to go inside to change out a sweat-soaked baseball cap and to wash my hands. I know from past experience that some of the sproutings I pick are young shoots of poison ivy.

As I labor, my neighbor comes by for her nightly harvest of fresh pickings from the vegetable garden. She also informs me that her pail of kitchen scraps is full. Happy to break from the drudgery of weeding, I follow her back to her home to retrieve both her small bin of kitchen recyclables but also a spare metal garbage can from her pack-rat husband’s stores of spare refuse bins.

I have a supply of shredded office paper in the shed, plus my own nearly full Hooch bucket of coffee grounds and vegetable peels. As with the first garbage bucket, I first add a foot-thick layer of shredded sycamore bark and white office paper, plus a smattering of compost from my pile. The neighbor’s bucket of kitchen recyclables goes in next, topped by more shredded paper. I add my own kitchen supplies, and finish with more paper and compost, filling the old-school metal can about two-thirds high.

I've added fresh soil to bulk up a garden bed; next is a close-crop mowing before aerating the yard.

I’ve added fresh soil to bulk up a garden bed; next is a close-crop mowing before aerating the yard.

I set the can next to the first one. They’re like IEDs, packed with a combustible mix of natural-born energy.

Friday, I haul out the lawnmower and set the blade down a notch. Even though it’s now set just on the middle setting, the mower scalps the parched grass, sending out plumes of brittle dust from under the carriage. The grass hardly needed mowing, but I want to crop it as low as possible before layering the lawn with compost. I’ll rake the top dressing in, mow again, and then reseed.

I finish my week’s worth of yard work to the hum of cicadas and the buzz of the few pesky mosquitoes that have survived the end-of-summer dry spell. I have been the ant industriously laboring to prepare for the coming change of season. As the First Book of Proverbs admonishes,  “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.”

Or as the grasshopper in the Walt Disney cartoon sings,

Oh I owe the world a living….
You ants were right the time you said
You’ve got to work for all you get.

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