My Pile: Good Bones

The first weekend day of fall begins like yet another morning from the summer just past – warm, dry and sunny.

Though the weather may be stuck in a holding pattern –a pleasant one at that – there are chores to be done in the backyard, garden and compost pile.

The dog likes nothing better than the sight of me on the back porch lacing up my work shoes. I feel the same way.

My main Saturday chore is to mow the lawn. After aerating and overseeding three weeks ago, I’ve since watered plenty in the absence of any significant amount of rain. The grass has grown long and tangly, and at last a storm is forecast to head up the Atlantic Seaboard by mid-week.

While I wait for the morning dew to dry, I busy myself finishing up some procrastinated gardening chores, which in my Connecticut backyard means moving rocks. Over the course of season of aerating, weeding, transplanting and pruning, I’ve unearthed a load of new stones to repurpose and also exposed some needed hardscape repairs.

First I reset and enlarge the rock pathway along the side of my house that leads to the water hose and garbage can. Nothing against gardeners who busy themselves with annual plantings, but I tend to focus on the “bones” of my property. Like any gardener or otherwise domesticated housekeeper, taking out the trash or watering the plants is a most utilitarian area, which deserves upkeep and the occasional facelift. Now’s the time to do it before the leaves fall, my pile fills up and the ground freezes rock-solid.

Having already cleared the approach of encroaching pachysandra, I haul a few pieces of flat scheist from the stack of unearthed rubble rock I keep in a corner of the yard. I figure the flat, grainy stone chunks cleaved off eons ago from the glacial-scrubbed ridge that stretches behind the homes across the street. Or they may be from loose fill trucked in in the early 1950s to build up this marshy lowland onion field into a building lot on an old valley road. Whatever their provenance, they have a new setting as I plant them in a mix of sand, compost and topsoil. I’ll now have a clear and easy path to take when I haul out the garbage on a dark winter’s night.

Compost helps fill in around the stone steps leading to the water hose and garbage can, as well as the track the dog has made through the pachysandra.

Compost helps fill in around the stone steps leading to the water hose and garbage can, as well as the track the dog has made through the pachysandra.

Another garden task, one that I hope will pay dividends over the long haul: Along one side of my property is a swath of privet bushes, long grown tall as small trees. I’ve kept them largely untended as a screen to my side neighbor’s house, which is just a few feet beyond the fence that divides our properties. An introduces species of an semi-evergreen shrub found throughout Asia, privet has long become an American landscape fixture, defining Southhamption estate and suburban backyard alike. I admire how it has set down such deep American roots.

Each summer the privets’ fast-growing limbs hang heavy with white flowers, which in turn produce heavy boughs of purple berries late in the winter that the early-arriving robins gorge on while they’re waiting for the yard to thaw and give rise to the earthworms they seek most of all. The berries the birds don’t pick ultimately drop down into the thick bed of rotting wood chips and compost mulch.

Just as well; I read that with certain types of privet, the berries are mildly toxic to humans, though the Chinese have long used privet bark and leaves in herbal medicine as cures for everything from chapped lips to chronic bowl problems. The fast-growing branches I prune each year make privet a great green security fence; the flexible, reedy twigs are also used as cords for lashing in other cultures, which is why I don’t turn the branchy clippings into my pile but instead haul them off to the local yard-refuse center for recycling.

In any event, each year I get a crop of vigorous weedlings of the profilgate privet, which I pluck out of the ground with a dandelion digger and transplant along the back side of my property.

Soon after moving in a decade ago, I had a wooden stockade fence set in place along the rough, shady line of trees and bushes that separate the edge of my backyard and the neighbor’s house, just two or three paces beyond. Knowing that the wooden fence will last only a few more years before rotting away in the damp shade, at its base I’ve begun to create what I hope will be a new, living screen of privet.

It’s the sort of silly little backyard project that I think most avid gardeners will recognize: A good-faith effort to make use of a garden material in abundant supply – in my case, spindly little privet sproutings – in hopes that over the years the effort will pay off in a useful  garden fixture – a dense screen of living green.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve dug up as many small privet plants as I can find that have sprouted in the mulch of the perennial flower garden, to transplant the bare-root striplings alongside their earlier kin in the deep bed of wood chips I’ve long piled up against the fenceline. I water the spindly little invasives into bare spots up and down the budding hedgerow. Privet being as hardy as it is unappetizing to deer, I know most will take root and survive –but whether they grow thick enough to become a living replacement for the rotting stockade fence will probably be for the next homeowner to decide.

The puny privet hedge taking root in the wood-chip mulch and shade along the stockade fence that bounds the backyard and my pile.

And that’s the thing about tending a suburban property. Yes, I own the house and its grounds, or at least share ownership with the mortgage lender. But I am fully aware that I am only a temporary caretaker, at least in the timeframe that nature keeps.

My backyard, and at the heart of it, my compost pile, is a hobby farm of very modest proportions – not much more than a third of an acre. I’ve designed and keep up the yard according to my wants and whims, to be a playground and refuge for me and my son, a robust habitat for native flora and fauna, a family footprint of carbon and other essentials that is sustainable and livable.

My goal is to give my yard the best bones I can, for the larger and greater sense, I’m just a short-term tenant of my property, which I intend to leave in better shape than I found it. Another homeowner could, and probably will, change the property as much as I have – the stones I set in place are steps that are fleeting even for me. I can only hope that the hardwoods that I’ve nurtured, the oak and beech and hickory, will grow tall enough before I leave to be lasting replacements for the swamp maples and other trash trees I inherited.

The backyard I tend is a long way from achieving any sort of Permaculture status, but what my pile has contributed to it over the past decade, the tonnage of new compost, rich in carbon and nutrients it’s added, will pay dividends for decades.

Setting stone pathways, pruning bushes, raking leaves and mowing the lawn may seem like jobs to outsource and then cut a check for. The price of being a homeowner, I guess.

But not me. I can’t wait to haul the mower out of the shed. Even better, when I pull the grass catcher from its hinge, to remove the duct tape I’d used a month ago to seal it, I find the slanted bag half full.

Inside are the dusty remains of my mowing in the compost over the lawn a week ago. I can’t think of a better addition to my nascent pile than a batch of highly sifted mature compost and dried grass clippings. I empty the bag atop the tangled limbs of tomatoes and spent stalks of herbs and flowers, shoring up the stout sunflower stem that rises from the very base of my brand-new pile.

I tear off the ragged strips of duct tape from the mower’s open end, set the blade up a notch and fire up the Toro. I start under the sycamore tree, which has already dropped a dappling of leaves, and quickly fill the grass catcher. I pour the mix of chopped leaves and fresh blades of grass over my pile.

I'm starting my pile off with a base of chopped up grass clippings and leaves.

I’m starting my pile off with a base of chopped up grass clippings and leaves.

In all, I add three more catchers’ worth of fricasseed leaves and grass to the base of my pile, and leave as least as much to the yard. The verdant patches of green make great, pocket-sized playing fields for my son and dog, the neighbors and me. But the thick grass lawn also yields its own surplus crop of nutrient-rich material that I am happy to harvest. You don’t have to own a 40-ft. wide combine to feel like a farmer. Sometimes a 2-ft. wide Toro will do.

It’s a good start to my pile, and to the fall.

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