My Pile: Ruminations

Busy as I keep tending to my pile, garden and yard, there are always plenty of moments when I just sit, to rest and reflect.

There are any number of places in the backyard for taking a seat to ponder my pile, the flat lawn and  bushy gardens, and the rising trees that ring the house and property. My property is basically a square piece of flat land that slopes gently front to back, with a small box of a house set in the middle. Surrounding a moat of grass lawn that rings the house and flatstone patio is a  perimeter of mulched garden beds, thickly planted with perennial flowers and shrubs. Rising above them is an array of trees, mostly hardwood but some evergreen, ranging in size from 20 feet tall to more than 80.

A wider canopy of green on the horizon of the neighboring landscape frames the wide swath of sky above.  I view this stretch of open space as my property as well, the air rights that allow me to claim passing clouds, lingering sunsets, circling hawks and fluttering bats as my own.

In the gloaming of a deep summer evening, I sit and watch the flashing legions of fire flies that rise through the twilight, a light show rising into the ether. Sometimes it’s the chase of a visiting hummingbird flitting among the flower heads that keeps me still. If I sit quietly enough, a cautious dove will alight on the flagstone patio to coo over the tiny black seeds dropped in profusion by the gangly cleome that border the vegetable garden.  Not too long ago, I was startled by a red tailed hawk that swooped low over my backyard, a squirming squirrel clutched in its talons.

Though a scene of some industry, there are plenty of perches to take a pause on between backyard chores.

Though a scene of some industry, in my backyard there are plenty of perches to take a pause on between chores.

Other times I heed the sudden downdraft of a chill, ill wind on a muggy summer day, a head’s up  that I have only minutes to take in the branches swaying haphazardly in the gusty breeze, the flashes of lightning approaching from over the distant hill before fat drops of a dousing thunderstorm begin to plop down upon the ground, and bang off roof and driveway. Today I watch as braces of robins skydive into the dogwood to pluck the bright-red berries from bended branches.

I see and use my yard, like most gardeners do, as an outdoor living space, a series of interconnected rooms decorated with plants and hardscapes. Although I have a number of nice chairs on the back porch and patio, a comfy, cushioned wrought-iron lounge chair or two, and even a good sturdy picnic bench in the shade of the backyard, I most often take a perch on a stump or stone. I don’t know why, but I suspect these places make me feel more connected to the yard I keep in the most organic, down-to-earth way. Generally having a pair of clippers tucked in the back pocket of my cargo shorts or jeans or being otherwise grubby may have something to do with it as well.

Two squat logs that begin the twin wood walls that embrace my pile are frequent rest stops. So, too, are the largest rocks that anchor the borders of the flower and fern gardens in three corners of my yard. Each are about as high as a small footstool; I know how sturdy these small boulders are because I dug them out of the ground and rolled them into place. Depending on the day and time and task, any of them make a good perch spend a moment taking it all in. As the years go by and both the garden and I mature, these pauses grow longer, and more frequent.

The view I often find myself taking in is from the fat round chunk of maple, 20 inches tall and nearly as thick, that sits upright along the stockade fence that runs behind my pile. The log has a rotted knot hole big enough to stick my fist in. It’s no good for splitting into firewood but serves as another good rest spot to ruminate upon my pile and beyond it the lawn and garden it rises from and nurtures.

After all, ruminating is what my pile is all about.  From the Latin ruminat – “chewed over” or “to chew repeatedly for an extended period,” as in what cows do to cud, since the 16th century the word has also meant “to turn over in the mind” or “to reflect on over and over again, casually or slowly.”

What I reflect on today is an exotic new contribution that awaits being added to my pile. I’m looking at a bucket packed full of pellet-size poop from a small herd of llamas and alpacas that reside at a nearby nature center. They’re part of a collection of animals of a working demonstration farm. I’d stopped by to find out more about the organic vegetable garden they keep and to inquire about a Master Composter class they offer.

One thing leads to another, and that thing is the heavy bucket of llama “beans” that now sits before me. I find out more on a website kept by Blue Rock Station, a farm in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Ohio:

“Llama manure is… simply put… terrific stuff for your plants.  The llama “beans” as they are often called (as they resemble coffee beans, or rabbit poo, or whatever other “bean like” thing you care to imagine) break down slowly, releasing their nutrients into your plants. Other advantages include:

  • almost no smell (ideal for indoor plants)
  • extremely rich in Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium
  • will not “burn” your plants

The smooth green nuggets remind me most of vitamin capsules, only not filled with oily gel but dry. In fact, a member of a compost forum,, suggests soaking the llama beans to spur their decomposition, so I am happy to let the bucket sit for a week or so while I wait for the leaves to fall en masse. Showers are on the way, and I’ll keep the bucket uncovered to let the coming rain soak in. The llama manure doesn’t smell much more than the sniff of a horse stall.


A bucket of newly procured llama poop from a local nature center sits on deck beside my pile, waiting to be added to the rush of fall leaves.

I thought I’d be busy by this time with raking leaves and adding them wholesale to my pile. Looking through my compost journal, I know in years’ past by now sometimes I’ve already gathered heaps of fallen leaves, even spread wood chips across the culled flower beds. The cud for my pile is still clinging to the trees, the leaves still largely as green as the lush grass of autumn growing thick in my yard. Though I plan to mow the yard again this weekend, I have few other pressing chores, so for now I wait and watch and, yes, ruminate.


My Pile: Bounty of the Sea

On the first day of October I load the dog into the car, along with a tennis ball, two empty plastic tubs and a three-pronged hand rake.

Today marks the seasonal re-opening of the town’s beaches to dogs, from now on through March. So to the sea we go.

The dog likes nothing more than to chase a tennis ball across the soft wet sand into the shallow planes of saltwater at low tide. He stops to sniff out all the mysterious scents of the seashore and on occasion to bury his catch in a hole dug along the tidal flat.

I stop at the strandline to fill the buckets with seaweed to ferry home to my pile.

The timing is doubly good: After weeks of dry weather, a coming storm system is set to bring rain to the parched region. Bolstered by a harvest moon, the flood tides have washed up a deep, ragged etching of seaweed and other bounty of the sea.

After giving the dog his run along the beach, I fill the first bucket with a pungent mix of drying seaweed and broken stalks of seagrass. The sand-flecked scrapings are suffused with sea shells, the carapaces and claws of crabs and stray flight feathers, mostly the gray and white quills of seagulls. It weighs about 40 pounds, I figure as it bangs against my hip on the way back to the car. It is ripe enough that I know I will drive home with the windows wide open, the dog’s safety be damned.

Such a batch of seaweed and organic flotsam is a prized addition to my pile, especially at this time of year. I will spread it across the base, which has begun this season first with a rough and tangly layer of spent flower stems and uprooted vines and plants from the garden. I’ve since added a heaping of fresh-cut grass clippings, thick with the rich detritus from when I mowed over the compost cast across the yard.

My goal is to give my pile a rich, green base of highly biodegradable greens before I begin to raise it up out of the ground with load after load of gathered brown leaves. A compost heap too bottom-heavy with leaves risks becoming a dead zone. The leaves compress and entomb themselves, sealed off from air, water and other agents of change, among them me and my pitchfork.

Set on a veritable platter of rich, airy green material, the autumn leaves, I hope, will begin to decompose from below, and the resulting heat and biological activity will filter upward as I continue to layer my pile with fresh additions of all manner of rottable organic material on through the fall and winter months.

My pile's 'sea floor' -- a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

My pile’s ‘sea floor’ — a rich, briny mix of seaweed and seagrass, infused with sea shells, crab claws and cast-off feathers of seagulls.

The longer I live by the shore of the Long Island Sound, the more I come to respect its riches. And the more I realize that the Sound I know is a shadow of what it once was.

Its productivity was once legend.

In the foreward to Tom Andersen’s “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes “how Henry Hudson’s lieutenant Robert Juett described rivers choked with salmon (probably striped bass) and mullet … New Yorkers ate more oysters from the Sound than any other meat, including the East River oyster, now extinct, whose eleven-inch shell housed seven pounds of succulent flesh.

“Two hundred years after contact, the European invasion had little impact on the estuary’s extraordinary productivity. In the Eighteenth Century, enough lobsters still washed ashore each night from natural die-offs to fertilize the coastal farms of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.”

Andersen quotes from a journal account by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University in the early nineteenth century, on the efforts of Long Islanders to improve their agriculture: [T]he inhabitants … have set themselves to collect manure wherever it could be obtained. Not content with what they could make and find on their own farms and shores, they have sent their vessels up the Hudson and loaded them with the residium of potash manufactories; gleaned the streets of New York; and have imported various kinds of manure from New Haven, New London, and even from Hartford. In addition to all this, they have swept the Sound, and covered their fields with the immense shoals of whitefish with which in the beginning of summers its waters replenished. No manure is so cheap as this where the fish abound; no is so rich; and few are so lasting. Is effects on vegetation are prodigious. Lands which heretofore have scarcely yielded ten bushels of wheat by acre are said, when dressed with whitefish, to have yielded forty. The number caught is almost incredible. It is here said … that one hundred and fifty thousand have been taken in a single draft.”

Over the next century, the Sound’s natural resources were methodically plundered; first beaver and other riverine mammals for their pelts, then deer and larger prey, then seals, then whales, then passenger pigeons and turkeys, once so numerous and unguileful that hunters, Andersen writes, would park a wagon under a tree where turkeys roosted and shoot them all but take only those that dropped directly into the buckboard.

“By the 1920s, the terrapin, duck and lobster populations were in decline, and periodic algal blooms clouded the waters, once gin-clear. F. Scott Fitzgerald christened his contemporary Long Island Sound ‘that great wet barnyard,’ acknowledging its modern function as the primary waste receptacle for the enormous human population now crowding its shores.”

Since then, especially after a disastrous algae bloom in the late 1980s, the Sound has struggled to recover even the barest scraps of its once seemingly endless bounty.

“Long Island Sound’s flounder catch dropped from 40 million pounds in 1982 to one million pounds in 1987. The oyster catch sank from 3 million bushels annually to 15,000,” Andersen reports in his 2002 book, adding, “Most significantly, the Sound has become the Northeast’s sewer. Each day 1 billion gallons of treated sewage pour into the Sound, supplemented by another 18 million gallons of raw sewage…. The result is that Long Island Sound is undergoing an ecological crisis that threatens to turn it into a dead sea.”

Andersen paints a vivid picture of the Sound’s low point, the summer of 1987. An unprecedentedly large algae bloom led to a collapse of oxygen levels. “Hypoxia in the Sound’s center trough spread up and out toward the shoals, linking up with hypoxia in the harbors. Pockets of healthy water that could have provided refuge for fish and lobsters vanished. Blackfish breached the surface, gasping pitifully for air.

“In the newsroom of the New Rochelle newspaper I worked for, I took a call from a man who said he had been fishing at New Rochelle’s Hudson Park the evening before. He heard a curious noise in the dusk and, looking down to the rocks below the sea wall, saw lobsters crawling out of the water.”

Since those dark days, the Sound has recovered, somewhat. Though the lobster – once so plentiful that inmates in New England prisons rioted at being served an endless supply – will never return to the now cleaner but ever-warmer waters, the summer of 2015 saw the first sightings of whales in the Sound in generations; porpoises and seals are also making appearances, lured from the ocean waters off Cape Cod by growing numbers of baitfish, mostly the oil-rich menhaden. Oyster farms are a growth industry, recreational fishing is robust and tightly regulated; beach closings are less common.

“There’s all this life that wasn’t there before,” charter boat captain John McMurray tells environmental reporter Richard Schiffman in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Not Just Another Stinky Fish.”

That stinky fish is “menhaden, also known as bunker, or pogies,” Schiffman continues. To the fishermen he spoke to, “there are encouraging signs that the menhaden population along the Atlantic Coast is healthy after decades of intensive commercial exploitation.

“The name menhaden is a corruption of “munnawhatteaug,” which means fertilizer in Algonquian. Native Americans taught the pilgrims to plant them with their corn, enabling colonists to coax a crop from rocky New England soils, according to Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” Manhaden was used as a lubricant, replacing whale oil after the Civil War; today the most of the catch (the largest by weight in the East Coast fishery) is rendered into heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid fish oil, as well as used to produce fertilizers and high-protein feeds for livestock, reports Schiffman.

Fodder for the game fish sought by sport fisherman, menhaden play an even more fundamental role in preserving the health of the Long Island Sound; swimming in schools of hundreds of thousands. “Mouths agape as them feed, menhaden are living vacuum cleaners sucking up algae blooms that deplete inshore waters of oxygen and create biological deserts in the sea. A single adult menhaden can clean four to seven gallons of water in a minute.”

Just 15,000 years old, and formed by glaciers that scoured the land to the north and left it piled up in ridges to form Long Island, the Sound is a current event, at least in geologic time.

It is also one of the globe’s the most dynamic waterscapes, and may be able to recover further, if we let it. Flushed twice daily by the tides, it features “a greater range of seasonal temperatures than that of any other body of water in the world,” says Tom Andersen, with temperature as low as 32 degrees in winter and as high as 76 in August.

The dog days of summer aside, the dog swims year-round, whether it’s to paddle through the 70-degree surf on the first day of October or a plunge into the icy water of February. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, in terms of the bounty that once lapped upon the shores he trods.

And though its riches now pale in comparison to generations past, the Sound provides me and my pile with more than I can use. I wonder if other backyard gardeners or lcoal farmers reap the sea’s harvest like I do, or if the surplus seaweed raked from the region’s public beaches to keep beachgoers happy is recycled in any productive way.

The best fertilizer in the world,” says Bull in the Irish film The Field. Seems a shame to let all that seaweed rot on the beach when it could be put to use renovating nearby landscapes that have been degraded over the years by the careless hand of man just as much as the provident local sea.

I’m hopeful. As another close watcher of the Sound once wrote, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My pile typically begins each fall with a "sea floor" of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.

My pile typically begins each fall with a “sea floor” of seaweed, shells and crab carapaces culled from the strandline of the nearby beach.

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.

My Pile: Inner Workings (Part I)

I’ve set up my pile for winter as best I can. It’s got all the makings it needs – layer upon layer of dead plant stuff mixed with an array of juicier, biodegradable organic material — to fuel the composting process that will take place deep inside my pile through the short days and long cold nights ahead.

Today, the last Saturday before Christmas, is when autumn turns to winter. For much of recorded history, the winter solstice — the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year — was marked by celebration, a time for feasting on the fatted calves of summer and the fermented grape and grain of the harvest fall. A final blowout before the start of famine season.

As the day marks the reversal of the ebbing sun, it also signifies a new beginning, the reawakening of nature, rebirth. Pagans celebrated the Yule holiday, and sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Our modern “midwinter” holiday, with its Christmas trees and yulelogs, is a direct descendant of those customs, and I’m OK with that. But it can hardly improve on the idea behind the oldest known construct honoring the winter solstice: Newgrange, a neolithic structure in Ireland built around 3,200 BC. A large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones, with grass growing on top, the monument’s entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox‘ and floods the inner chamber. It’s called Ireland’s greatest national monument, and it’s all to celebrate this day. If my pile had the weight and significance of Stonehenge, it would be Newgrange — in 5,000 years.

I make the best use of this short day with a quick trip over to the beach with the dog and bring home a big bucket stuffed with the straw of salt marsh grass. I’ve gathered a pail full of kitchen scraps from the neighbors’ next door and set it beside my own smaller plastic canister of spent coffee grounds, chopped-up vegetables, broken egg shells and dinner-plate scrapings. Votive offerings were found in the inner chambers of Newgrange, and I will add these new offerings to my pile in kind.

Another neighbor, the older couple who lives on the western side of my property, had asked a few days ago if I could take the decorative pumpkins from their front stoop. They’ve long since served their symbolic purpose of the harvest season and Halloween, and it would be a waste to consign them to the trash when they could contribute their rotting plumpness to my pile. My son and I already have a supply of freshly roasted pumpkin seeds culled from our own porch set and tossed the rotting husks into the heap. Today I finish up the the season of giving thanks by smashing up the neighbors’ pumpkins and chunking them into my pile as well.

Pumpkins are a most welcome addition to my pile. A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds, the pumpkin has been cultivated for a thousand years or more, first by Native Americans in the Southwestern United States, but today is grown mostly in the Northeast, and mostly near big cities to cater to the Halloween market.

The practice of decorating and lighting hollowed-out pumpkins and setting them on doorsteps to ward off evil spirits stems from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack, a tradition brought to these shores by immigrants uprooted by the potato famine. Long Irish story short: Jack was a drunk who successfully battled his demons but couldn’t quite make it to heaven. The Devil tossed him a lit ember straight from Hell — a bone, given Jack’s past shenanigans — and Jack placed it in a hollowed-out turnip to help light the way on his endless wanderings.

In all, 1 billion pounds of pumpkins are harvested in the U.S. each year, says the PennState Extension. Though I’m heartened by the fact that the season’s other decorative ornament — the Christmas tree — is often recycled, the fate of millions and millions of these pumpkins is, like that of old Stingy Jack, less certain, which is why I like adding their orangeness to my pile late each fall. Pumpkins are high in fiber, vitamin A, and like most vegetables, more than 90 percent water. Despite their heft, or perhaps because of it, their remains disappear without a trace in my pile but add measurably to it.

Using the hay pitchfork, I hollow out the top of the pile, exposing a steamy layer of moldy leaves. The buckets of kitchen scraps disappear into the mix, and I use a spade to shovel in about half of the pumpkin shards. I cover the lot with pitchforks of salt marsh grass hay, teasing apart the stalks with the tines so that the stems cover the top of my pile. Onto this springy bed of straw go the rest of the pumpkins. The bright orange rinds and mushy strands of flat pale seeds disappear as I twist the pitchfork deep into the mix.

With the start of winter just days away, it's time to say goodbye to the signature symbol of both Halloween and Thanksgiving -- pumpkins.

With the start of winter just days away, it’s time to say goodbye to the signature symbol of both Halloween and Thanksgiving — pumpkins.

I cover the pumpkins with two bedsheets of damp maple leaves dragged over from my neighbors’ backyard. Once again, the cover-up is complete, and my pile is largely on its own, left to its own devices.

As Ken Thompson writes in “Compost” (DK, 2007), “A compost pile is a complete ecosystem, a world in miniature.”

The inner workings of my pile are largely a mystery to me. Even soil scientists are still profoundly uncertain about what exactly takes place, biologically, underneath our feet. Michael Pollan and other close watchers liken soil to a frontier more unknown that the deep oceans or outer space. The humus that my pile produces is in many respects terra incognita.

I consider composting more a craft project than lab experiment. I am happy to let my pile do its own thing, with a certain amount of input and creative direction. That said, both the art and the science of making compost is well-developed and readily available, whether it’s from a book shelf at the library or simple online search term.

The University of Illinois Extension website, Composting for the Homeowner, provides a compendium of useful tips and academic research that seems clear, credible and worth sharing. There are many other such academic “extensions” of knowledge online and elsewhere about compost, including a few store-bought books that stock my own shelves, ranging from the earnest how-to guide to more free-form ruminations from ‘70s commune types turned cottage-industry composters.

While my pile gently heats, I explore the research and literature about compost. The more I learn, the more I realize I’m less a deus ex machina than silly old wizard behind the curtain. The more I think I do for my pile, the more I realize it will do its own thing anyway.

To whit, the UI Extension tells me: Backyard composting speeds up the natural process of decomposition, providing optimum conditions so that organic matter can break down more quickly. As you dig, turn, layer and water your compost pile, you may feel as if you are doing the composting , but the bulk of the work is actually done by numerous types of decomposer organisms.”

I’ll let the Extension explain further:

“Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition that takes place in a pile. They are considered chemical decomposers, because they change the chemistry of organic wastes. The larger decomposers, or macroorganisms, in a compost pile include mites, centipedes, sow bugs, snails, millipedes, springtails, spiders, slugs, beetles, ants, flies, nematodes, flatworms, rotifers, and earthworms. They are considered to be physical decomposers because they grind, bite, suck, tear, and chew materials into smaller pieces.”

Here I thought I was the master of the domain that is my pile. Not true. I am only the minder.

Master composter Ken Singh, profiled in a Rodale’s Organic Life article, puts it well: “The microbes in our compost are the best employees I’ve ever had. They work tirelessly. They don’t complain. They never go on strike. By golly, I love ‘em! All the networks of fungi and microbes in soil are interconnected. We’re part of that, too. One day we’ll end up back in the soil ourselves.”

Charles Darwin knew that earthworms were the real movers & shakers.

Charles Darwin knew that earthworms were the real movers & shakers.

More from the Extension:

“Of all these organisms, aerobic bacteria are the most important decomposers. They are very abundant; there may be millions in a gram of soil or decaying organic matter. You would need 25,000 of them laid end to end on a ruler to make an inch. They are the most nutritionally diverse of all organisms and can eat nearly anything. Bacteria utilize carbon as a source of energy (to keep on eating) and nitrogen to build protein in their bodies (so they can grow and reproduce). They obtain energy by oxidizing organic material, especially the carbon fraction. This oxidation process heats up the compost pile from ambient air temperature. If proper conditions are present, the pile will heat up fairly rapidly (within days) due to bacteria consuming readily decomposable materials.”

My pile on a frosty morning in December. What's going on in there?!

My pile on a frosty morning in December. What’s going on in there?!

“While bacteria can eat a wide variety of organic compounds, they have difficulty escaping unfavorable environments due to their size and lack of complexity. Changes in oxygen, moisture, temperature, and acidity can make bacteria die or become inactive. Aerobic bacteria need oxygen levels greater than five percent. They are the preferred organisms, because they provide the most rapid and effective composting. They also excrete plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium. When oxygen levels fall below five percent, the aerobes die and decomposition slows by as much as 90 percent. Anaerobic microorganisms take over and, in the process, produce a lot of useless organic acids and amines (ammonia-like substances) which are smelly, contain unavailable nitrogen and, in some cases, are toxic to plants. In addition, anaerobes produce hydrogen sulfide (aroma-like rotten eggs), cadaverine, and putrescine (other sources of offensive odors).”

There is much more that the Extension has to say on this subject, but at this point in the season my place in the ecosystem that is my pile is clear: My pile needs me to help keep it on a slow burn as long as I can with a judicious, even artful blending of energy, air and water.

Otherwise, my pile is just a big mess of leaves cluttering up my backyard. And what good is that?

My Pile: Breathing Room

It’s a balmy Sunday in mid-December,  and although the neighbors are busy decking out their homes and yards with holiday lights and decorations, it’s unseasonably warm. With a record high of  near 70 degrees today, I leave my own lights in their boxes in the attic and plan to devote the day to sprucing up the backyard and taking care of outdoor chores.

There’s wood to chop for the fireplace. I roll a few whole logs from the stack of sawed-up maple drying next to my pile. I stand them on end to split into chunks and soon have set aside enough cordwood to burn well into the new year.

Some of the maple logs are too long for the fireplace, or too knotty to bother chopping. But they will make good new replacements for the rotting logs that contain my pile. The two parallel walls of thick old stacked logs also serve as stepping stones for me to clamber up, and several are now too crumbly to safely perch on.

Today I plan to give my pile a good poking, using an 8-ft. length of rebar I snagged a couple years ago from a neighbor’s scrap bin. Standing atop the log walls requires a bit of a balancing act to thrust the bendy section of rusty, ribbed steel down into the heap of leaves.

I roll two new logs into place, improving both the sturdiness of the log steps and giving me new perches to sit on at the feet of my pile. I also like the look, as along the way I’ve also added some rakings of fresh leaves to the top of my pile. There is always tidying up to do in a backyard garden, especially one as active as mine.

Some of the busyness involved in chopping wood and shoring up my pile. Plus, old pumpkins from the neighbors...

Some of the busyness involved in chopping wood and shoring up my pile. Plus, old pumpkins from the neighbors…

My pile is like a sandbox for grown-up play. It offers endless opportunities to make things up in a playful yet industrious way. It reminds me of the forts we baby-boom suburban kids once made in nearby woods or construction sites to fight imaginary cold-war battles.

Which brings me to the rebar I use to poke my pile.

The rusty stick of half-inch steel weighs just a couple pounds, but climbing atop the log walls and thrusting it a couple dozen times into the midst of my pile gives me a good, quick workout. As an aerating tool, it does a fine job of making my pile more porous, for both water and air.

My pile needs to breathe. It may be chockful of dead stuff but it is a living thing, and to sustain the life within it my pile needs air.

“What you are doing when you construct an aerobic (with air) compost heap is creating the right environment for the billions of microorganisms that make the compost happen. Their food is the materials that you put on the heap,” counsels Nicky Scott in “How to Make and Use Compost.”

“A happy heap will have a balance of air and waiter, just like a squeezed-out sponge; the whole surface area is coated in water but there are air spaces in between. If the pile is too dense, squeezing out all the air, then all the beneficial life forms in the compost heap are not going to survive and will be replaced by the ‘bad’ microbes — the anaerobic (without air) ones that are responsible for all the bad odours you get from putrefying substances. This is bad news for your compost and if you put this material on your plants it can be toxic to them. So creating air spaces in the compost is vital.”

Turning, or tumbling, a compost pile is the surefire way to add big gulps of air to the process, but my pile is too big and unwieldy at this point in its life cycle. Using a hand aerator is much like performing CPR — a remedy used after the fact as a short-term fix.

I try to give my pile good lungs from the start, mostly by building it in layers and using plenty of porous material along the way, mostly the hollow reeds of salt marsh grass gathered from the seashore but also armfuls of spent tomato vines and flower stalks from the cutting garden.

Some years the deer allow me to grow sunflowers along the fence bordering the vegetable garden, and come the fall their thick fibrous stalks make excellent ventilation shafts for my pile. The soft centers rot out — think of sugar cane — creating hollow tubes for both air and water to flow.


Sunflower stalks, or reedy stems from perennials make good interior highways for air, water and things that creep and crawl.

Sunflower stalks, or reedy stems from perennials make good interior highways for air, water and things that creep and crawl.

Some compost experts advise starting a heap by first sticking a length of perforated PVC pipe in the middle, or a rolled-up tube of wire mesh fence, to serve as a more permanent chimney. I may try that trick someday but for this season will stick with my sticks of sunflower augmented by slender steel.

Jousting with my pile is also instructive.

With a few hard thrusts, back and forth, the rod drives deep into the pile. The rebar ribs make it thrum and give me sensory feedback through the vibrations in my gloved hands.  The rod zings like a tuning fork through a section of dried leaves. It tings like sonar when the blunt end strikes an oyster shell caught up in a collection of seaweed from the beach. What’s that tough but squishy part? The Jack o Lantern tossed in after Halloween?

An old length of rebar makes a good aerator for my pile.

An old length of rebar makes a good aerator for my pile.

I press harder, leaning into the bar of rebar when it meets the resistance of a thick patch of tightly packed mulched leaves. I press on, and when the tip meets hard ground I feel the jarring end note all the way up to my elbows.

Sometimes when I tug the rod back up and out of its tight pathway, jousting with my pile, it wins, and the pole slips through my gloves. I grab tight and pull harder, fearing that one of these days I’m going to stick the shiv of metal right up under my chin.

I jerk the rod free and clear, using its slender wobble like a tightrope walker to keep from teetering off the log wall.

I make a dozen or more thrusts from each side and front and back, varying the angle of entry each time, making a pin cushion of my pile. In my mind’s eye I see each punch hole as a slender tube of air for water to navigate, a superhighway for countless unseen bugs and bacteria to mix and mingle. I’m creating breathing room for my pile.

The piece of rebar also makes a handy thermometer to gauge the temperature of my pile. It's hot to the teuch!

The piece of rebar also makes a handy thermometer to gauge the temperature of my pile. It’s hot to the touch!

The butt end of the rebar glistens with steam. I pull my glove off to confirm: The rod is warm to the touch.

I wonder if the heat is caused by the friction of all my aerobics, so I stick the piece of cooling steel back down into the heart of my pile. I wait a few beats, then draw the end back out to take the temperature of my pile. The bar is hot to the touch. I take it as a good sign that inside my pile is a churning, burning mix of earth, water and air.

It’s smoking hot, my pile.

My Pile: A Soak and a Poke

My pile now sits, Buddha-like, in the backyard.

Over the past two months, I’ve made a dozen or so roundups of leaves, topping each new load on my pile with layers of grass clippings, seaweed, kitchen scraps, rabbit litter, coffee grounds and whatever other ready-to-rot organic filler I come across.

After all those additions, each followed by a fresh exhalation of air, my pile has assumed its winter repose. Its bulk seems permanent, immutable save for the tendrils of steamy vapor that waft up from its mounded summit on cold mornings.

I know underneath its mantle of damp brown leaves and flecks of seaweed, my pile is stewing. Left to its own devices, it will slowly cook, a crockpot of compost, through the winter.

But as they say, a watched pot never boils, and I can’t resist tinkering with my pile’s inner workings to stoke the process of turning its raw ingredients into a finished product of a new living soil called humus.

Over the winter, I’ll continue with my regular deposits of kitchen scraps and such. I carve out a hole in the pile with a pitchfork, upend a container of slop into the mix, then backfill the hole with a plug of leaves raked up from a corner of the yard.

These contributions are helpful, mostly for housekeeping, but only scratch the surface of my pile. And fully turning my pile with a pitchfork will have to wait until the spring, after my pile has had the still time of winter to cook down into a heap that’s more manageable in size.

What my pile needs now right now are big gulps of water and air. Without these essential elements and agents, the chemical process that is decomposition will slowly grind to a halt.

“The amount of water in your compost pile is fairly critical, but you have plenty of leeway in which to work,” writes Stu Campbell in “Let It Rot! — the Gardener’s Guide to Composting” (Storey, 1998). “If the moisture content is much greater than 60 percent, you run the risk of having an anaerobic pile; if it is much less than 40 percent, organic matter will not decompose rapidly enough because the bacteria are deprived of the moisture they need to carry on their metabolism. Of course, you can’t monitor the percentages, so in general try to make sure the materials in your pile have the moisture content of a well-wrung sponge.”

“This is COOKING, not BAKING, and you have a lot of wiggle room,” Mike McGrath fairly shouts in his “Book of Compost” (Sterling Publishing, 2006). “Not bone dry, not soaking wet; in the middle is just right. And if the Goldilocks method doesn’t work for you, purchase a moisture meter — you can get these inexpensive electrical probe devices online and at most garden centers. They’re great to have around if you have a lot of houseplants…”

The rains this fall have been plentiful, and regular. I try to time my yard cleanups in advance of a coming storm; even a modest shower tamps down the leaves atop the pile so they don’t skitter back across the yard when the front blows through. “Rainwater is the best kind to put on compost. It picks up lots of oxygen, minerals and microorganisms as it falls through the air, giving your compost an added boost,” Stu Campbell counsels.

But even the heaviest rain soaks down into my pile only a matter of inches, absorbed by the nearest layer of seaweed and chopped leaf mulch and repelled by the first strata of whole leaves with their waxy coatings.

Through the fall I’ve taken care to add as much moist material to the beginnings of my pile as possible; grass clippings, damp leaves and musty seaweed, and I’ve dampened the lot from time to time with a spritz from the hose. But I know from the vapors rising out of the top that the steam engine that is my pile is boiling off the water it has stored up inside.

My pile is thirsty.

This morning, a Sunday, is dry and warm for December – about 40 degrees. Just warm enough for me to turn on the garden hose and unfurl its stiff coils across the lawn over to my pile.

My pile burns through the water in its midst, even on a cold December day. Time to water it before the winter freeze sets in.

My pile burns through the water in its midst, even on a cold December day. Time to water it before the winter freeze sets in.

I stick the nozzle of the hose into my pile, jabbing it in as deep as it will intrude.  It’s always a deep mystery where the water goes and what unseen path it follows through the matrix that is my pile. Every minute or so I stub the end of the running hose into another spot underneath the leaves.

I calculate flow rates in my head. If my hose pours out a gallon every 30 seconds, that means eight pounds of liquid will weigh down the pile. But what path is the water taking? What will absorb it?

Usually by the time I can come up with some sort of answer, a trickle of water is wetting my feet at the pile’s edge. My pile needs water, but seems impervious to it. You can lead a hose to a compost heap, but you can’t make my pile take a drink.

I extract the hose and plunge the tip into another section, then another. It’s like dabbing a turkey with a baster, no matter how deep I stick the hose into the voids of my pile, the coursing water seems to find its way out back onto the ground surrounding it. My pile is not the sponge I think it is.

What my pile needs now is air.

My Pile: Chip, Chip, Hooray

With the yard cleanup complete and my pile put to bed for the fall, it’s time for another favorite backyard project: Dressing my beds of perennials and the forsythia hedges with a layer of fresh wood chips.

Over the years, I’ve spread truckload after truckload of the remains of all manner of local trees and bushes, sawed into chunks and run through an industrialized chipper by a local landscaping crew, flagged down to dump their results in my driveway. If it’s not grass or patio or pavement, the ground I tend is covered by a layer of what toney landscapers call arborist mulch, where it decomposes according to its own composition and timeline.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Wood chips aren’t quite as virtuous as compost, ecologically, but they do have their benefits to the backyard gardener. A four-inch layer of chips spread among my perennial beds prevents weeds from sprouting. It soaks up rainfall and slowly releases it, drastically reducing the need to water the flowers, bushes and shrubs that ring the perimeter of my property and surround the house.

A blanket of freshly minced trees gives the ground underneath the forsythia hedgerow and around the trees a uniform, manicured appearance, though for a few weeks my yard has the look of the kid with the bright new sneakers at school. And for a time, especially after it’s wetted by the first rain, a freshly spread layer of chips gives my yard a Christmasy, pine-scented smell or, when I happen upon a load made of black birch, a hint of Wrigley’s peppermint gum.

Some of my neighbors landscape their properties with store-bought mulch, made from coconut husks or nut shells or ground-up bark processed from who knows where – often dyed an unnatural shade of red or coffee brown. I prefer to get my wood chips unvarnished and for free, from nearby, and to spread them myself. I also like knowing where the chips come from, as an unsourced load of chopped-up tree or brush could introduce some blight or bug into my landscape. I’m pretty sure one year I got a nasty case of poison ivy after spreading a load of chips infused with ground-up ivy vines.

Still, the virtues of mulch are plainly evident.

“The greenness and fertility of my garden are due to vast quantities of mulch, everything from compost to salt hay to seaweed,” Eleanor Perenyi extolled in her garden classic, “Green Thoughts” (Modern Library, 1981).

“To non-organic gardeners, mulch’s primary function is to keep down weeds and conserve moisture in summer; in winter they may use [it] to keep the soil from freezing and heaving around favored perennials. But to gardeners of my persuasion, mulch is much more: It is an organic substance whose benefits extend to the soil itself, improving its structure and enriching its fertility to the point where it needs nothing else. An organically mulched vegetable garden never requires tilling, digging or hoeing, and is scarcely weeded. [Mulch] doesn’t burn or cause sudden spurts of unhealthy growth as artificial fertilizers may – it is long-term in its effects.”

Perenyi was not much in favor of wood chips, seeing them as too expensive when purchased commercially, a “staple of every corporate planting,” and low in nitrogen, requiring the addition of a fertilizer to compensate [more recent research seems to refute that, as you’ll see below]. Still, she was wholly committed to using mulches that were to her liking, “even newspapers and old carpets.”

My qualms about adding so much wood chip mulch to my grounds are assuaged by some online browsing. My search for “composting wood chips” brings me to a collection of web pages produced by Washington State University and composed by an expert I soon recognize as the modern maven of mulch, Linda Chalker-Scott.

In a 2007 newsletter produced by Master Gardener,  Chalker-Scott, who is a Ph.D. , Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, and MasterGardener WSU editor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University Puyallup, explains:

In areas where trees are a dominant feature of the landscape, arborist wood chips represent one of the best mulch choices for trees and shrubs. A 1990 study evaluated the landscape mulch potential of 15 organic materials, including grass clippings, leaves, composts, yard wastes, bark, and wood chips. Wood chips were one of the best performers in terms of moisture retention, temperature moderation, weed control, and sustainability.

“In many urban areas, arborist wood chips are available for free, representing one of the most economically practical choices. Unlike the uniform nature of sawdust and bark mulches, wood chips include bark, wood, and often leaves. The chemical and physical diversity of these materials resists the tendency towards compaction seen in sawdust and bark. Additionally, the materials vary in their size and decomposition rate, creating a more diverse environment that is subsequently colonized by a diverse soil biota. A biologically diverse soil biota is more resistant to environmental disturbance and will in turn support a diverse and healthy plant population.

“Wood chips are considered to be slow decomposers, as their tissues are rich in lignin, suberin, tannins, and other decomposition-resistant, natural compounds. Thus, wood chips supply nutrients slowly to the system; at the same time they absorb significant amounts of water that is slowly released to the soil. It is not surprising that wood chips have been cited as superior mulches for enhanced plant productivity. Wood chips have been especially effective in helping establish trees and native plants in urban and disturbed environments. Arborist wood chips provide incredible weed control in ornamental landscapes. The mechanism(s) by which wood chips prevent weed growth are not fully understood, but probably include light reduction (preventing germination of some seeds and reducing photosynthetic ability of buried leaves), allelopathy (inhibiting seed germination), and reduced nitrogen levels at the soil-mulch interface (reducing seedling survival).

“While there are imported wood mulches available for purchase at nurseries and home improvement centers, they are not as cost-effective as locally produced wood chips, which are often free. In a society where using locally produced materials is increasingly popular as a measure of sustainability, arborist wood chips are a natural choice. Finally, the reuse of plant materials as mulches keeps them out of the landfill—a benefit with both economic and environmental attributes.”

In any event, over a season or so, the wood chips spread across the bare ground are broken down by rot and mold and earthworms to become a deep new layer of biomass that is easily tillable. True, sometimes a layer of chips gets permeated by a web-like tangle of fungus, and I’ve read that decomposing wood chips can suck available nitrogen from the soil underneath and turn the ground more acidic than some plants favor. What’s more, all that wood decomposing does add a measure of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

But on balance, a blanket of local, fresh-made chips spread around the walkways and untended areas saves energy all around. It lays the groundwork for healthier plants, especially when combined with compost, which I tuck around the perennials and spread across my vegetable garden and atop the densest patches of my plantings. It all makes my yard that much more of a biomass factory, though I marvel at how all that minced wood reduces to so little. I realize what I’m shoveling is mostly water and air, bound only for a moment of time into bite-size pieces of carbon.

Earlier this week, I turned out the dog for his morning relief just as a cherry-picker and a truck hauling a chipper lumbered past my driveway and stopped two houses down the street. They were there to remove a big old white pine overhanging a neighbor’s house. After watching the driver expertly back the truck and chipper up the narrow drive, I asked if he wanted to dump the chips in my driveway.

Good for him, good for me, as it’s a no-brainer to drive a truck 30 yards down the street rather than 30 minutes to some rural landfill or refuse yard. And sure enough, when I came home at the end of my work day, my driveway was covered with a pile of fresh-cut wood chips wide and deep enough to hide a car.


A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

By now, I’ve got the process down, if not to a science, then a sport. Come Saturday, I am ready to dish. I use a wheelbarrow, a hay pitchfork with four curved tines and an old wide shovel I use to plow snow off my driveway.

I get started by leaning the wheelbarrow sideways into the pile and filling it with chips dragged from the top of the pile with the pitchfork. As the pile reduces, I use the wide-mouth shovel to scoop up from the edges. I know just how many fork-fulls or scoops it takes to fill the wheelbarrow and have a good idea of how best to wield the wheelbarrow around the garden beds to keep from burying an azalea or phlox.

Besides, wood chips – especially this load of light, bright-yellow pine, flecked with minced green – is easy to work with.

I can work my way into a dump-truck-size pile in less than a day, replenishing all of my garden beds along the way. Fill a wheelbarrow, walk it over to a garden bed, tip, then repeat. Every five loads or so I stop to rake the few piles flat across the garden beds and around the buses. It’s my exercise, a chore I relish. A moveable feast of a compost pile.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Dr. Chalker-Scott’s research findings about compost can be found on a wonderfully informative website produced by the Washington State University Extension called Horticultural Myths, at More of her findings may be found at The Garden Professors blog,