My Pile: Starting Over

On the last weekend day of summer, a bright, sunny Sunday, I head outside to prepare my pile and backyard for the coming bounty of the fall harvest season.

I stop first in the vegetable garden, tucked between the back patio and corner nook of the house. Bound by two corners of the house and two sidings of 6 by 6 inch wood beams, along which I’ve strung a short wire fence, the vegetable garden is ringed by a two-foot wide border garden of flowers and bisected on the inside by a cross-shaped walk of beach brick. I’ve added so much compost to the vegetable garden that it is now bursting at the seams. The brick pathway and stepping stones within the garden, as well as the flagstone walkway along the outside, are now much lower than the raised bed of garden soil.

Building up the soil is one of the chief aims of the backyard composter, and this season it appears I’ve raised the vegetable garden so that it is now a platter served up for the deer, who, sadly, seem to have beaten me to the last tomatoes of the season. Whether they lean in over the short wire fence or hop it outright I don’t know, but the deer have neatly pruned the once-sprawling tomato plants, chomped the cilantro and nipped the remaining cukes. They seem to have no taste for collard greens, fennel or dill. The basil, now bolting, has grown too bitter for both them and me. Time to harvest the gains and add the season’s leftovers to my pile.

First, I pluck a ripening Big Boy tomato from inside its cylindrical wire cage. It’s neatly marked with a four-square pattern of bite marks, just the size of the narrow, overbite incisors on the deer skull I found on a walk in some nearby woods last year and brought home to show my son. The skull now rests in a flower box planted with pansies outside the kitchen-sink window, a Georgia O’Keefe still life I like to ponder when washing the dishes.

You'd think the deer wouldn't find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

You’d think the deer wouldn’t find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

I’ve scraped my pile to bare ground, save for a small pyramid of compost scraps off to the side. The log wall boundaries and improved fencing are now in place. Time to begin anew.

I pull the tomato vines and other past-due vegetable plants and herbs out of the ground and haul several armfuls over to my pile, adding to it after a stroll around the garden beds to dead-head the most-tattered of the perennial flowers. They’ve grown tall and straggly through the summer, and now hang heavy with their seed heads. The stoutest I leave standing; the golden finches love to pluck the echinacea seeds from their perches on waving stems, and the dove flock to the coreopsis and cleome, which cast their spring-loaded seed pods across the ground. They grow nearly as tall as the sunflower, and their woody stems will make good, fibrous airways for my pile as well.

Each season the press of leaves squeezes air out of the heap of organic gleanings that is my pile; I’m hoping this early harvest of tangly stalks and stems and dirt-encrusted roots will serve as an airy foundation, a box spring of coils to the soft mattress of leaves to come.

I stroll back over to the vegetable garden and grip the wrist-thick stalk of a sunflower plant that had sprouted among the beach bricks I use along the walkway. Last weekend, I harvested the foot-wide bloom, which was heavy with ripened seeds. Each year my son and the girls next door harvest the seeds for a favorite “snack-tivity” – we wash and then soak the seeds in salt brine and roast them in a pan. If they don’t end up looking and tasting exactly like the sunflower seeds you get in a plastic pouch at the store, at least the kids enjoy the idea of fun food coming from the Jack and the Beanstalk plant in the garden.

Tugging the six-foot-tall stem this way and that, I wrest the sunflower plant from the ground. The root ball is the size of a melon, and even after flicking away the stray pieces of brick and dirt, the plant weighs a good 10 or 15 pounds. It amazes me how much a plant can grow in a single season.

I trundle the stout sunflower over to my pile and set it in the middle of the rest of the prunings. It will be the tent pole that stakes the heart of my pile. As the stalk decays, it will also serve as the conduit for air and moisture, from top to bottom. Around the base of the sunflower stalk I nestled more leggy stems of the fennel that has grown wild in the back corner of the vegetable garden. The hollow stems and fleshy branches gone to seed give my pile the smell of licorice.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good 'tent pole' for my pile.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good ‘tent pole’ for my pile. I later surround it with leggy stems of fennel, and fresh grass clippings from a neighbor.

The long, hot, dry end to summer has not been kind to the grass I sowed two weeks ago, though with stints of watering, the lawn overall has grown in nicely in all but the sunniest spots. Here and there a mushroom sprouts from the grass, which I take as a sign the compost I heaped upon it has spread its own fecundity down into the turf.

The grass will continue to grow on into November, and I’ll run the mower across the yard several times to mulch the autumn leaves and grass clippings to add to my pile. For the last mow of the season, I always try to leave a thick layer of chopped-up leaves and grass on the ground to break down over the long winter. By then, my pile will be overstuffed, as there’s always more than enough leaves and other brown material to go around.

Even with the moderate drought and hot dry days, the trees cling to their still-green leaves. As the nights grow cooler and daylight dwindles they will soon get the signal to put on their annual show of color, and then the annual gathering of leaves will begin.

In the meantime, I have more backyard chores to attend to, among them repairing the hole in my brick garden walk left by the sunflower plant torn from its clutch along the garden’s beach brick path. I’ve also been meaning to improve upon a set of flagstone steps I’d laid down several years ago along the outside perimeter of the vegetable garden, extending into the grass from the patio, four stepping stones in all.

Most evenings I stroll along this flower bed to strip the stems of cleome of their banana-shaped seed pods, to cast the seeds upon the flagstone patio for the mourning doves to flock to at sunrise. Each morning when I take the dog outside, we flush a flight of doves from the patio. Dove are very flabbable, and their wings beat noisily as they rise to take perch on the crown of the roof and nearby pine trees.

These tall, gangly flowers now lean far over the grass and the sunken flagstone steps. I decide to embark on a landscaping project to extend the patio along the flower bed and raising it to the same level. Next season, the seeds will fall upon this new stretch of patio for the dove to pluck at, and I’ll have fixed the sunken step problem. Even better, having deposited several loads of fresh compost on my neighbor’s newly renovated landscaping a couple weeks ago, I know he has a supply of flagstone that I can repurpose.

First I scrape away the sod along the flower bed, using some of it to fill a sunken spot of turf in the front yard. The rest I toss, turf-side down, onto my nascent pile. The sod, rich with worms and organic life, will make a fine base for the coming season’s heap of leaves.

To build up the base for the flagstone, I add several buckets of small stones I’d plucked from the yard this past spring, then spread a thin layer of remnant compost to the foundation. The compost is more ceremonial than anything, as it will compress into what I imagine as a conduit for earthworms traveling from the yard under the new flagstone walk to the garden. The stones I’m happy to find a collective purpose for other than to leave piled into a mound in the corner of the yard.

I enjoy how my pile and backyard functions as a closed-loop ecosystem — a stone is pulled from the ground, its vacated space filled with compost from my pile; the stone replaces spare turf to be recycled as compost, which will then fill new holes in the ground. I also enjoy enriching this backyard ecosystem from further afield (and office), especially when it means a trip to the seashore.

As fresh compost makes a poor base for a new flagstone walkway and would be a waste to put under the pavers in the beach-brick path within the garden, I head to the beach to fill a couple of large buckets with borrowed sand.

I pick the town’s smallest and rockiest public access, along a tidal creek. Besides its contributions of sand and seaweed for my pile and backyard, the local beach, called Burying Hill, also churns up a steady supply of polished beach brick.

Tumbled by the surf and sand into streamlined pieces of all shapes and sizes, the washed-up artifacts of fired clay make fine filler for the garden walkway. I like how the ocher hues contrast with the dirt. The bricks soak up water like a sponge yet drain like gravel. In the spring they absorb the warming sun; on frosty fall mornings the bricks are rimmed with a coating of ice from moisture sweated out overnight. They will last forever, more or less. Plus, they’re free for the taking – though I do have some guilt for excerising salvage rights over a more altruistic “leave things be.”

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

My favorite find is a pale yellow-orange variety flecked with bits of shell and straw. Surely these pieces date from the pre-Industrial, colonial era, when brick was formed of hand-dug clay and any old beach sand, then padded with salt marsh grass.

Who knows how long or far each piece has been tumbled by each tide, how whole it was before being ground down to a pebble, or from what man-made thing it came from. Some of the brick I find is charred on one side — the chimney from an old settler’s cabin? Is it from some seaside patio of a swanky estate that got sucked into the sea? Or is it just detritus from a load of fill dumped at the water’s edge back when we valued our beaches differently?

Sand from the beach provides solid footing for the “dove-walk” extension of my patio along the flower beds that line the vegetable garden.

But I digress. And that’s the thing that beachcombing shares with gardening and composting — it invites stray thoughts as I fill a bucket of sand or seaweed or canvas bag slung over the shoulder with a load of brick.

I return home with two plastic buckets heavy with beach sand and a new supply of beach brick, which I add to fill up the hole in the garden walkway made by the sunflower that had taken root there this past spring.

I want to plant a fall crop of lettuce, arugula and kale in the beds now cleared of the tomato plants and strawberries. Heaped with a fresh supply of compost, they need turning. The spadefuls of dirt spill over into the beach brick. That might suit the sunflower seed that takes purchase there next spring, but not my tidy gardener’s eye.

The solution is to tease out the concrete pavers that gird the brick walkway and reset them several inches higher. I use trowel-fulls of beach sand to nudge up the pavers, and add a few shovelfuls of compost underneath the stepping stones to keep them level with plumped-up garden soil. The higher border will not only allow me to keep adding top-dressings of compost to the vegetable garden but also create space to add newfound bricks along the walkway. What started out some years ago as a garden walkway with a single layer of beach brick is now six inches deep with round, ocher bricks.

I tamp down the rest of the sand along the newly etched “dove walk” and spend a happy hour arranging the jig-saw puzzle of repurposed flagstone into place. That’s the neat thing about tending my pile and backyard garden. Though the changing seasons and small projects mark moments of change, progress is always along a path that’s moving forward, growing, evolving.




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