My Pile: Wandering in Place

I am sure there’s a systematic way to add to, aerate and otherwise mix my pile in the most efficient and productive way possible, a process whose inputs and variables could be modeled by a computer program, spit out and followed. Commercial composters take such a scientific and mechanized approach to their operations.

My backyard pile is much more artisanal, handmade in small batches, sampled throughout the year but mostly harvested en masse by late summer. The recipe for this homemade humus varies from year to year, as does its specific cooking time. Some parts mature early, and most springs I can usually harvest a wheelbarrow or two of fresh-hot compost to tuck along the rows of sprouting vegetables in the garden or new transplants in the perennial beds, or to fill the holes left by rocks I pluck from the lawn through mud season.

Creating each new vintage of compost is part art, part science. Mostly it’s about mixing air, water and sundry organic ingredients by turning my pile inside-out, in place, with a minimum of fuss and to the maximum effect. It’s a sport-like hobby, a pastime that engages me both mentally and physically.

The guidebooks and online sources describe a bewildering array of compost setups and contraptions, from the homemade to the high-tech. Google a few search terms and you’ll see that there is a composting solution for every need. It would be easier if I had room for a two-bin type compost heap; I’m envious of the setups using two or three side-by-side bins made of removable wood-slat bins that turns composting into more of an assembly-line process. As is, working my pile in place is a constrained, somewhat convoluted act, like changing your clothes in the backseat of a small car.

Structurally, the best description I can find for my pile is that it’s known as a “log cabin” compost heap. I rather like that. There is a Lincoln Log aspect to my pile, harking back to a baby-boomer childhood spent playing around suburban construction sites and building forts in the woodlots yet to be filled in by new housing. There is a bit of the rail-splitter in every American.

Despite adding volumes of compostibles to my "log cabin" pile throughout the winter, as the spring season begins, it is a condensed, compressed stack of organics in need of a good "airing out."

Despite adding volumes of compostibles to my “log cabin” pile throughout the winter, as the spring season begins, it is a condensed, compressed stack of organics in need of a good airing out.

The literature defines my backyard composting as following the Indore process, first developed a century ago in India by Sir Albert Howard, with a prototypical American twist, which Rodale describes as the University of California method. It’s fitting, as my composting has its roots in California, and I happen to be a UC Berkeley alum.

“The composting method developed at the University of California in the early 1950s is probably the best known and the most clearly articulated of the rapid-return or quick methods,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “It is similar to earlier methods recommended by modifiers of the Indore method, to those practices in mechanical digester units in Europe and America, and to those described and advocated by Harold B. Gotaas of the World Health Organization in his 1935 book ‘Composting.’ Whereas the Indore method may be described as falling on the cool end of the compost spectrum, the California method aims for more heat and faster decomposition.”

“Turning is essential to the California method, for it provides aeration and prevents the development of anaerobic conditions. The more frequent the turning, the more rapidly the method works. If you have a single bin, turning the pile requires you to remove the front of the bin and fork out the contents, beginning with the top layer and keeping track of the original location of the material. When you return the contents, make sure that the material from the outer layers (top and sides) of the pile ends up in the interior of the new pile. The material should be fluffed as it is forked, and it should be so thoroughly mixed that the original layers are indistinguishable. In the course of the composting process, every particle of the pile should at one time or another have been exposed to the interior heat of the pile.”

Even more apropos is Rodale’s evocative, if tautological, description of the “wandering compost pile,” which seems to describe my pile well:

“For continuously composting household, yard and garden waste while maintaining optimum pile size, a ‘wandering compost pile’ is effective. Starting with minimum dimensions of 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep, this type of heap ‘wanders’ as fresh ingredients, such as kitchen refuse (minus meat or animal fat), are tossed onto the sloping front face and finished compost is sliced from the back. By screening the finished compost as it is removed and using the larger particles to cover additions to the front of the pile, newly added materials are seeded with the necessary microrganisms.”

There’s a good bit of manual labor involved in working a compost heap the size of my pile and its particular composition. Actually, the “how-to” reminds me of the old-fashioned flywheels that you see pulling taffy in a candy shop on a seaside boardwalk. First I spread my pile open and out, adding air and space, then fold back in fresh heapings of green and brown from the edges. I think this taffy-pulling bioturbation of my pile is the best way to go about it, as is the log cabin I keep it in.

Last time I turned my pile, to add the unplanned load of horse manure, I excavated twin channels across the top of my pile, scooping the rotting remains of the heap up and outward. I added in the manure and kitchen scraps, then back-filled with dried leaves shaved from the sloping sides.

Weighed down by a few inches of heavy spring snow that fell that night and melted the next day, the dome of my pile from a week ago has now settled in on itself, sagging beneath the tops of the bracing log walls. It’s a good sign of the foment within, and a pattern I’ve followed on pretty much a weekly basis since amassing this heap of fallen leaves and gathered seaweed and hay and other compostibles from the last days of summer on through the end of autumn.

At its peak last last year, my pile swelled to a height higher than my head and sprawled over the log walls that sought to contain it, spilling over the wire fence along the back and down a cascading slope onto the lawn at its front. Each time I watered it, or rain or snow fell upon it, my pile shrunk within itself, subsiding under its sheer weight and succumbing to the forces of gravity and similarly unseen forces of natural decay and entropy. And each time I tucked a fresh batch of kitchen scraps and other organic recyclables into the midst of my pile, I heaped more leaves upon it, gathered from its flanks or the yard, building it up again, as high as my eye. My pile would now be 20 feet tall, if it didn’t always, and inexorably, settle into less.

Over this time, I’ve narrowed my pile’s footprint by nearly half, pulling a wide swath of leaves that once bulged against the back wire fence up onto the top and cleaving three feet or more of compressed leaf litter from the once-sloping front. My pile is now a squat, vertical stack. True, I’ve prodded and poked and probed my pile through and through with the steel rebar rod, perforating it to allow air and water to penetrate its inner recesses. But up to this moment, I have only stirred the top portion of my pile, infusing it with fresh compostibles on through the winter. I have yet to get to the bottom of it, where fresh air and water are needed most to spur on the decomposition process.

Today, the first Sunday of April, it’s time for my pile to get a move on.

After setting out the day’s additions — a week’s worth of kitchen scraps, a fresh bucket of rotting seaweed and salt marsh hay and the last scraps of sycamore fluff hoovered from the winter lawn — I pry into the bottom front of my pile with the straight-tined pitchfork. I tease out clumps of matted leaves, some dry, some wet, from the grip of gravity, heaping shovelfuls up onto the back of the heap.

My pile, in the process of taking a big step forward at the start of spring.

My pile, in the process of taking a big step forward at the start of spring.

Before long I have created an overhang of pressed leaves and tattered seagrass, which I pluck off with the curved tines of the hay pitchfork and add to the top of my pile as high as it will repose. After shaving this scraggly brow, I have a new, near vertical face of old leaves, which I undermine once more, using the hay pitchfork to pull more leaf litter from the bottom toward my feet to form a berm, about shin-high along the front. Within this gathering are just glimpses of anything more than old leaves — stray bits of white shredded paper, a few egg shells and flecks of seashells.

The newly created overhang of leaves along the front of my pile quivers. I step back to take a quick cell-phone video of the gentle avalanche that results:

I’m pleased to see, newly exposed, a rich, dark, moist mass of leaf mold. It’s like I’ve bitten into a creme-filled chocolate. I tease out the mix with the pitchfork. I’d considered trying to harvest a few shovelfuls to spread across my vegetable garden, having read recently that tomato plants thrive under such unfinished compost. But after some digging, the batch still seemed too raw, and besides, I’m still at least a month away from the last frost and planting time.

So I spread the steamy leaf mold atop the berm of drier material along the new front of my pile, and heap shovelfuls across the top. It will infuse these rawer parts of my pile with a rich riot of decomposers.

Such busywork creates a trench along the front portion of my pile, all the way down to bare dirt. I scrape into the crevasse some dried leaves from the corners and creases of my pile, then add the sycamore seed fluff, the kitchen scraps and mix thoroughly, topping it off with a layer of seaweed flecked with salt marsh hay.

I backfill the trench I've made in my pile with a fresh batch of seaweed and bury it deeply with leaf mold scraped from the top.

I backfill the trench I’ve made in my pile with a fresh batch of seaweed and bury it deeply with leaf mold scraped from the top.

I fill in the hole by causing another avalanche from the midst of my pile, and scrape more leaves from the top. The log walls make good markers, and a reckon I’ve tossed and turned nearly the front half of my pile, from top to bottom.

Backfilling in this way shrinks the top of my pile enough to prompt me to walk around the back side to cleave a half row of compost from behind to restore the heap to shoulder high. I now have a shelf of rotting leaf litter along the rear, and I see that just behind the wall of leaves is a rich vein of humus-like compost. Facing south and exposed to the warming sun, it is thick with earthworms and within easy reach.

The next time I mess with my pile, I reckon it will be to add these raw leaves along the back with grass clippings from the season’s first mow. I also make note to mine the newly revealed backside for a pre-season top dressing of raw compost for the tomatoes, not to mention the rhubarb. It’s a comfort to have an itinerary for my wandering pile.

I borrow from the backside of my pile to build up the top.

I borrow from the backside of my pile to build up the top.

I finished my hour’s work by tidying up the front of my pile with a rake, restoring it, at least in look, to the heap of leaves it always appears to be. A good portion of the hard-pressed bottom of my pile has now become the fluffed-up top. With April showers on the way, my pile will soak up all the rain it receives and settle back into itself. But by taking two steps forward and once step back, my pile is newly suffused with air and freshly mixed organic material. It’s primed for productive decay, a healthy rot, thoroughly dead but rife with life, and all the other remarkable paradoxes that constitute and define my pile.

And so my log cabin of a pile wanders in place through the seasons. “Wandering in place” is also an apt description of me in my backyard, as it is for most gardeners.


My Pile: April Fool

Every bloomin’ April First, the joke’s on me, as I’m reminded of the foolishness that remains my absolute low point as a compost-minded backyard gardener.

The chief reason I bought my small home on a corner lot in Westport a decade ago this spring was the tulip magnolia tree in the front yard. After noticing the real estate listing in the local paper, I arranged to meet a real estate agent at the house the first Sunday in April. I made up my mind to buy the place as soon as I pulled into the rutted driveway and saw the magnificent tulip magnolia in full bloom. Talk about curb appeal!

The house and rest of the property was a mess. But this specimen of a tree stood out, even though it besieged by tangly vines and surrounded by spiky barberry bushes and sucker saplings from its own spreading roots. About 30 feet tall and with a canopy almost as wide, it was covered by fist-sized cups of white flowers tinged with magenta.

Peering through the scrub bushes and stringy saplings that rose from its roots, I could see that the tree’s bones were very good. The tree’s lowest branches started about waist-high and spread in handy increments nearly horizontally; a perfect tree for my five-year-old son to climb. Underneath its canopy was a smattering of crocuses, poking up through the weeds that spread across what I could tell was once an oval island of tended garden surrounded by grass.

Placed as it was in the front corner of my yard, and that part of the property being on a slight bend in the road, it was the prettiest tree in the whole neighborhood. Approaching my house from either direction, rounding a slight bend, it was though you were driving straight toward the tree and its blossoming beauty. It was a head-turner, that magnificent magnolia, if only for that week or two each spring.

After moving in I pruned the tree of its sucker branches and cleared the ground around it of the wild wisteria and Chinese bitterroot vines that sought to overtake it. My son and the neighborhood kids he soon befriended loved to climb the tree’s smooth-bark trunk and perch on its low-spreading main branches.

For that spring and the next, the tulip magnolia made for great fun and wonderful photo ops, especially in the brief blooming moment, often just at Easter.

A playdate in the tulip magnolia, in its final years.

A playdate in the tulip magnolia, in its final years.

For a backyard composter, a tulip magnolia is no great shakes. I raked up the fallen petals each spring; the silky pieces melted into my pile like breath strips on your tongue. The seed pods that all those flowers produced were less welcome, as were the waxy coated leaves that rained down each fall. Some compost books consider them more of a nuisance, as they take too long to decompose, but into the mix they went as well.

To restore the garden island the tree grew on and also to give the kids a softer landing in case they were ever to fall from its limbs, I added a layer of wood-chip mulch around its base, spreading it out to the tree’s drip line. I proudly counted how many wheelbarrow loads the ground beneath the tree could absorb, mentally tallying both Safe Daddy points and the kudos for sustainable gardening methods.

The tree thrived, as did the kids.

An autumn or two on, a neighbor took down a towering spruce tree that posed a threat to his house. I drove by just as the tree crew was chipping up the last of the branches and blowing them into a plywood-sided box in the back of the two-ton dump truck. I told them they could deposit the load of chips in my driveway up the street.

It was like getting a hundred Christmas trees, all ground into a poultice of mulched needles, bark and sappy chips. The mound was already steaming when I spread load after load of minced spruce across the garden island on which my tulip magnolia ruled. My greatest fear was that I would bury the crocuses and daffodils too deeply and they wouldn’t be able to find their way up to the sun come the spring.

The following April the magnolia bloomed magnificently. The spring bulbs did well, too.

The third spring surprised me – less blooms crowned the tulip magnolia. I chalked it up to the vagaries of a tough winter.

By the fourth spring, the tree bloomed only sparsely, and produced small, wilted leaves. Neighbors walking by would stop to chat, commenting and offering advice. I watered deeply. That summer, I hammered a score of tree fertilizer spikes into the ground all around the tree.

Then one afternoon the fellow who had done all the tree work for me when first I moved in happened by. I’d been impressed by how he handled the massive hulk of the dead old willow tree in the backyard, saved my roof from the overhanging mulberry trees, showed no mercy for the swamp maples and other “junk” trees. Men who climb tall trees with ropes and snarling chain saws for a living command a certain level of respect from earthbound gardeners like me.

He stopped his truck in the street, rolled down his window and in the kindest way possible gave me the news that he clearly thought I should have known all along: Magnolias didn’t like their surface roots to be covered by mulch. The heat from the decomposition cooks them and could kill the tree.

I thought back to the previous fall, sticking my hand in the deep layer of mulch under the tree to feel its warmth. After so many years of neglect, however benign, I thought I was giving the tulip magnolia a warm blanket of freshly made compostible wood chips from which to draw nutrients.

As soon as he drove off, I grabbed my wheelbarrow and shovel and removed dozens of barrows fulls of old mulch from around the tree, spreading it elsewhere in the yard as best I could. I drove more fertilizer spikes into the ground, as penitence. But by then it was too late.

In its final spring, the tulip magnolia mustered just a few, misshapen blooms and a smattering of leaves, most of which shimmered to the ground during a hot spell in July.

I took the tree down that August, climbing up the bare branches myself with a borrowed chain saw. Its demise, played out over the better part of four years, was slow-motion, every-day proof of my foolishness and ignorance as a gardener. Simply put, I’d loved the tree to death, killing it with what I thought was the kindness of layer upon layer of a steaming hot wood chips.

All gardeners live with failure and most hope to learn from their mistakes, self-inflicted or otherwise. These days, I spread wood chips much more sparingly across my perennial beds, and steer clear of mulch from fir or pine trees.

I replaced the tulip tree with a weeping willow. A curiously old-fashioned choice, I admit, in a modern garden. But I didn’t have the heart to plant a new flowering tree in place of the tulip magnolia. And I knew from the towering willow that had died of old age in the backyard long before I bought the place that it would thrive despite me. Native to China, it’s considered an invasive, but I’ve read that it was first brought to American by a Connecticut trader in the 18th century. It’s a local import that has thrived.

I found the willow in the remnant section of the local nursery. Its roots had grown through the drainage holes of its black plastic container and spread deep into the gravel patch the bucket rested on. I needed help from a nursery laborer to wrest it from its spot and took it home at a bargain price of $20 or so, its wispy branches fluttering out of the back hatch of my SUV.

Five years on, the rescued willow is now already nearly as tall as the tulip magnolia it succeeded. I’ve loped off the upper branches to widen its canopy and to keep if from getting too close to the utility wires strung along the street. Its setting in the corner of my yard leaves it far from any drain pipes. Anyway, I’m pretty sure its thirsty roots have tapped into a long-buried spring that flows from the granite ledge across the street and under the road nearest the tree.

The willow, from two summers ago, fast-growing and just now starting to "weep."

The willow, from two summers ago, just then starting to “weep.” It’s now twice as big and full. Two years before that, I’d brought it home in the back of my SUV.

The willow may lack the tulip magnolia’s magnificent presence each spring, but its loping, dangling yellow branches are striking in their own way, early to bud in the spring and late to let go of its slender, oblong leaves in the fall. And like the massive old willow that once graced the backyard where my pile now sits, it is a hardy living thing that I know will survive whatever foolishness I will inflict upon it.

Rather like my pile.