My Pile: Nature vs. Nurture

The first hard freeze of winter has set in. I consider my pile from behind the frosted glass panes of the kitchen door, squinting through the low morning sun for a sign of steam vapor rising from its top. What combustible forces, if any, still go on within? How far into my pile has the cold seeped in? What protection does the heap’s insulating cloak of leaves and seagrass straw provide? Have I given my pile the resources it needs to keep from shutting down completely?

A good long winter’s slumber is just fine for groundhogs; aside from the birds that flock to the backyard feeder, all else in my yard has closed up shop for the winter, as it should. But part of the sport of nurturing a compost pile is in keeping its inner fires stoked to ward off the stasis of winter dormancy for as long as possible. A compost pile in hiberation is boring. It just sits there.

A pile of dried leaves and additions of rotting greens teems with the unseen creatures and natural processes that make humus happen.

Or so it seems. Some years ago, as I was beginning to take backyard composter more seriously, I went to the local garden store to shop for my pile. I’d read a little about “activators” that kick-start a pile’s decomposition, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t missing some essential ingredient, an edge.

On the shelf I saw a squat bag of a powdery product called Bio-Excelerator, that promised “to offer the complete solution to generating rich, fertile humus – Nature’s best soil conditioner.” The package looked and hefted like a bag of flour; the backside label boasted that inside were “the most effective microorganisms coupled with the proper energy sources and pH balancers to assure you composting success…”

I checked the side of the bag for a list of ingredients and instead found copy that claimed inside were “…billions of microbes especially cultured for composting. In addition to containing moderate and high-heat active microbes, special varieties are included that can speed the decomposition of difficult-to-compost organic matter. All are combined with special proprietary energy sources containing kelp and dried blood to ensure a rapid decomposition … also contains special natural organic calcium compounds to neutralize the organic acids produced during composting.”

Like a bottle of daily vitamins, it seemed to me, only more mysterious, in a secret sauce sort of way. So I plunked down $11.99 plus tax. I shook the white powder onto my pile like so much pixie dust. It figured it couldn’t hurt, and just might help.

That was before I’d begun my winter reading of composting and gardening books and blogs, and learned that my pile could do just as well left to its own devices.

Each random handful of dirt in my yard contains millions of bacteria; countless spores of mold and fungi settle each day on my pile. All play their roles in reducing the rawness and wholeness of my pile into more elemental, digested parts.

In “Let It Rot — the Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell writes, “Composting will be a whole lot simpler for you if you acknowledge the fact that the right bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes already exist within your compost pile. The potential for excellent decomposition is right there. Let Mother Nature worry about adjusting the various populations within the micro-community. That’s her job, and she does it well.”

Co-authors Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin explore the case for adding activators in “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide” (Storey Publishing 2008): “Even the slowest of heaps includes colonies of adapted microbes, but why not have more? This is the idea behind microbial compost activators, which are typically dry powders that contain compost-ready fungi and bacteria.

“It can be argued that using microbial activators is like selling ice to the good people of Iceland. Why would they need more ice? And if they did need ice, why not use some of their own? You probably already possess the best microbial activator you can use, which is homemade compost. Your own compost (especially almost-finished compost) contains an overflowing buffet of microorganisms that have proliferated in the unique setting of your own yard. They have a proven ability to work your one-of-a-kind compostable waste stream. They haven’t been imprisoned in a package, so they are ready for action. Need we say more?”

Actually, Mike McGrath, in his “Book of Compost” (Sterling, 2006) does have more to say: “…Turns out [compost activators] DO have value, but not when used according to the directions on most of the packages….”

“Saved your purchased ‘starter/activators’ till the very end. New research has found that many composts could use a little kick AFTER they’re finished. That’s right — after! Lots of beneficial creatures are killed by the heat of the composting process itself, and many others simply reach the end of their natural life span around that time. So, after a batch of compost is finished, mix the recommended amount of activator directly into the finished batch. Let it sit for 24 hours so the organisms can colonize the entire batch of compost, and then use it. That way, you’ll be sure to be adding the maximum amount of beneficial life to your soils.”

Food for thought. But for now I’ll stick to my new year’s resolution to leave my pile to its own devices, my good-natured meddling aside.



My Pile: Inner Workings (Part II)

The first Sunday of the new year. I let the dog out and follow him into the backyard. Each step makes a crunchy imprint across the frozen grass.

I take stock of my pile with a morning pee of my own over the wire mesh that girdles the backside. A tendril of steam rises through the damp stalks of seagrass cross-hatched across the top. A tea kettle on slow boil, my pile.

On the outside, my pile begins the new year complete, composed. A heap in full. It almost seems a shame to meddle with it.

But mess with it I will, for I have a holiday’s worth of gleanings from my kitchen and from the neighbors to contribute. I have more fresh supplies in store for my pile, from the yard and beyond. A bucket of seaweed, churned to mulch by the gathering high tides of winter, awaits, as does a white plastic bag of coffee grounds procured from behind the counter of the local java shop.

Plus, it’s a mild winter day with a mix of rain and sleet on the way. I could use some exercise and an outdoor diversion, a break between the football games on TV. My pile is my own private hot-stove league.

I do indoor chores while the sun slowly warms. I scoop the cold ash and charcoal bits from the fireplace into a brown shopping bag and set it aside.

I’m also long overdue to clean the half-filled 20-gallon glass aquarium in the den that’s home to Bubbles, the pet red-eared slider turtle. Soon the turtle is paddling about in his tank of fresh clean water, and I have a bucket full of murky green turtle effluent to add to my pile. Better that end purpose than flushing the slop down the kitchen sink.  Laced with nitrogen, urea and who knows what other nutrients that make up a Chinatown turtle’s night soil will be like adding jet fuel to my pile.

I assemble the rest of my stocks and implements alongside the left log wall, then scrape the frazzled toupee of seagrass hay to the side with a heavy gravel rake. Next I plunge the wide-tined hay pitch fork into the spongy wet leaves. I drag forkfuls back toward me to create a trench, releasing a faint whiff of the beach at low tide.

Excavating a space in my pile for an insertion of fresh green material.

I dig deeper into the time warp that is my pile, down through the stratified layers of past heapings, releasing whaffs of steam along the way. Two feet down, the tines of my pitchfork jab into a mat of flattened leaves like a fork sticking a phone book.

I stick my hand into the hole. The wall of leaves is cool to the touch. It seems my pile is combustible only in spots. The cold of winter is winning out over the hot flush of organic fusion.

But to each his own, say the smart folks at the University of Illinois Extension, on their Science of Composting website. My pile’s inner workings are sorting themselves out in their own time and way:

There are different types of aerobic bacteria that work in composting piles. Their populations will vary according to the pile temperature. Psychrophilic bacteria work in the lowest temperature range. They are most active at 55° F and will work in the pile if the initial pile temperature is less than 70º F. They give off a small amount of heat in comparison to other types of bacteria. The heat they produce is enough however, to help build the pile temperature to the point where another set of bacteria, mesophilic bacteria, start to take over.

Mesophilic bacteria rapidly decompose organic matter, producing acids, carbon dioxide and heat. Their working temperature range is generally between 70º to 100º F. When the pile temperature rises above 100º F, the mesophilic bacteria begin to die off or move to the outer part of the heap. They are replaced by heat-loving thermophilic bacteria.

Thermophilic bacteria thrive at temperatures ranging from 113º to 160º F. Thermophilic bacteria continue the decomposition process, raising the pile temperature 130º to 160º F, where it usually stabilizes. Unless a pile is constantly fed new materials and turned at strategic times, the high range temperatures typically last no more than three to five days. Thermophilic bacteria use up too much of the degradable materials to sustain their population for any length of time. As the thermophilic bacteria decline and the temperature of the pile gradually cools off, the mesophilic bacteria again become dominant. The mesophilic bacteria consume remaining organic material with the help of other organisms.

Into the maw of my pile goes the neighbors' bucket of kitchen scraps.

Into the maw of my pile goes the neighbors’ bucket of kitchen scraps.

Over the next two months, I’ll gouge out similar holes in a half a dozen places, hoping to spike my pile with enough hot spots to keep the biological processes churning through the cold months. Some hot, some cold.

What my pile does through the winter mystifies me, the obvious efforts of all these aerobic bacteria notwithstanding. Keith Reid, in “Improving Your Soil” supplies the most helpful explanation I’ve come across. As he writes:

“The usual textbook method of classifying the critters in the soil by species is not useful to most readers. It is more relevant to understand what these organisms do, so here, we have categorized the huge diversity of life in the soil by their functions.” Here’s the skinny from his book:

The Shredders
When fresh organic material is added to the soil, the shredders begin breaking it down into smaller pieces. As the shredders chew, they expose surface area that smallerorganisms can then access and also start to break down the tougher materials. The best-known shredders are earthworms. As they burrow through the soil, they eat organic materials that are broken down in their gut, mixed with mucus and excreted. The finely ground material left behind creates a rich buffet for smaller creatures.

The Decomposers
In addition to the shredders, fungi play a key role in breaking down big pieces of organic debris. Unlike shredders, however, fungi work from the inside out. Fungal hyphae can grow into decaying leaves, stems and even wood, excreting enzymes that destroy the bonds between cell walls, then digesting and converting lignin and cellulose into simple sugars the fungi can use.

The Digesters
Once the organic matter has been broken down into smaller pieces, bacteria and actinomycetes go to work. Through their sheer numbers, these organisms are able to access most of the easily digested materials in the soil and incorporate them into their bodies, with the sole purpose of making more bacteria. In the process, they release nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other nutrients that have been bound up in the organic matter.

The Grazers
Bacterial and fungal growth attracts a whole population of tiny animals that feed on them in much the same way that cattle or sheep graze a pasture. These include protozoa, such as the amoeba and paramecium. Large numbers of mites and nematodes also fill this role. Not all of the nutrients consumed by the grazers are used for their own growth, and the waste they release hastens the cycling of nutrients into a form that plants can use.

The Hunters
Just as in aboveground ecosystems, there are specialized predators in the soil. This group includes many species of nematodes, mites and small insects. Aside from keeping the population of grazing animals in check, these predators continue the cycling of nutrients through the soil ecosystem.

The Fixers
One group of microbes plays a crucial role in the soil environment by taking nitrogen out of the air and “fixing” it in a form plants can use. Most nitrogen fixation is carried out by bacteria that live symbiotically with legumes, but a few species of bacteria and blue-green algae fix nitrogen without being associated with higher plants.”

Sums up Reid: “The reality is that an active soil life unlocks nutrients in the soil, making them more available to plants, but it does so only if those nutrients are present in the first place.”

Which is where I come into play.

I dump the bucket of kitchen slop into the bottom of the hole, twisting it into the bottom of the hole to fluff things up. In goes the neighbors’ bucket and bag of coffee grounds, like soup into a hollowed-out loaf of bread. Stir again. The fresh additions disappear into the matrix of brown leaves.

I spread dollops of seaweed across the excavated hole, then cover it with a loose collection of leaves gathered from my neighbor’s yard –my way of a thank-you for them hosting me for Christmas dinner. I drain the turtle stew into the mix; who knows what bacteria will sup up that nourishment.

I finish by drawing the blanket of rotting seagrass stems back across the top with the rake, and sprinkle with a dusting of wood ash and charcoal bits from the fireplace. Once again, my pile is whole, its inner workings cloaked.


My Pile: Marking Territory

My pile has many mutually beneficial purposes. It serves me well. I heap it with produce and praise, shower it with attention … and pee.

As Charlton Heston once explained to Dear Abby, in response to the lady who feared her husband’s habit of urinating on their lawn was inappropriate: “So it may be, but the fact remains that all men pee outdoors,” said Moses himself.

It’s the gospel truth. One of the reasons I keep my pile as tall as I do is to take a leak behind it without fear of pissing off any passing neighbors. Most mornings I let the dog out; he pees on the front of my pile, and I take the backside. After a cup of coffee and his morning bowl of chow, we may hit it again.

The backside of my pile, set in the corner of the yard. Keeping it chest high makes it big enough to continue to cook through the winter — and for me to step behind it for a private pit stop.

I’d probably piss outside even if I didn’t keep a compost pile. I’ve spent enough years in rain-deprived Southern California to value each toilet flush; I’ve paid enough utility bills to know to conserve my supply of water for more important uses, like watering the tomatoes in July.

I also drink a lot of coffee and beer, and when home try to spend as much time outdoors as indoors, often tromping around in muddy work shoes. Go back inside to take a leak? No, I piss on my pile. It’s a convenient and somewhat furtive release, in a Huck Finnish, behind-the-woodshed kind of way.

To excuse myself further, let’s hear more from Dear Abby & Co. on the subject:

DEAR ABBY: After reading the letter about the woman (“The Whiz-zard’s Wife”) whose husband urinates in the yard, I had to write. It’s what I went through with my ex-husband for 13 years! I pleaded with him to stop, but his answer was that no one could see him because it was dark.

My present husband (now of eight years) did the same thing. He’d be closer to the bathroom in our house and still go out back to urinate in our yard after dark two or three times a week. When I gave him my opinion about it, he’d ignore it.

When we moved to our new home, we had a wooden fence built. I decided to teach him a lesson. When he continued to urinate in the back yard, I decided to do the same. He was shocked! He told me I had better not do it again. I told him that as long as he continued his behavior, I would do the same.

Abby, he has not urinated in our back yard since. Sometimes when they won’t listen, you have to SHOW ’em.

DEAR HAPPY WIFE: Congratulations for having curbed your husband’s spraying. I was intrigued to discover that some men consider it a form of conservation! Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Marking our territory is only one reason for this age-old tradition.

Boys have long enjoyed distance, accuracy and creative urinary competitions: knocking leaves off the trees in the fall, drawing pictures in the winter snow, protecting young fir trees from hungry deer in the spring, and dousing campfires in the summer months are just a few highlights.

Some may deride this as small-minded male nonsense, but on a global scale, this ritual has significant benefits to our environment. The flush water we save is substantial. At 2.5 gallons per flush, a man urinating outside just once a day will conserve almost 1,000 gallons of water a year. If one-fourth of the men in the United States saved one flush per day, we’d save more than 4.5 billion cubic feet of water per year.

If you consider all the rainfall that’s channeled into storm sewers from our streets and parking lots, we’re returning valuable moisture to the soil by urinating on our lawns.

Giving the backside of my pile a dousing, I do some calculating: A couple-two-three leaks a day, a pint each, maybe…It adds up to more gallons of golden showers a year than I’d like to admit to. But all that urine is good for my pile: It turns out that this body waste that’s (usually) flushed down the toilet can actually be recycled into a number of useful products, says one online resource,

“Comprised of water, calcium, chloride, potassium, sodium, magnesium, urea, creatinine, nitrogen, uric acid, ammonium, sulphates and phosphates, urine’s beneficial ingredients can be separated from its waste, and used to make fertilizer, medicine, brain cells and, yes, gunpowder.”

The key ingredient is phosphorous, which was discovered in the 1660s by German alchemist Hennig Brand, who was trying to turn urine into gold. Instead, he turned 1,500 gallons of urine, likely collected from beer-drinking German soldiers, into what became a new kind of liquid gold. Under high heat, the phosphate in urine loses its oxygen and becomes phosphorus.

An essential element for life, phosphorous is the sixth most abundant element in any living organism. It not only glows in the dark, but can also be highly poisonous and combustible (white phosphorus is used in many destructive weapons, such as napalm), I read on Gizmodo, an account which adds: “Some environmentalists believe that we will have a severe phosphorus shortage in twenty to forty years. That said, human urine could hold the key to solving the crisis. According to Mother Jones magazine, ‘There’s enough phosphorus in your annual output of urine to provide P for more than half of all the grain you consume in a year.'”

Early each spring, my lawn is pockmarked with bright green patches as the grass begins to grow again, from both the dog and passing deer. I know from the splotches that there are frequent doses of energy, in the form of nitrogen, urea and other organic (and sterile) materials to be directed in a more targeted way. Why not my pile?

According to Nicky Scott, author of “How to Make and Use Compost — The Ultimate Guide,” urine is “the cheapest and best activator to speed up the composting process. It adds nitrogen and water to woody, dry, carbon-rich material.”

Rodale’s Organic Life agrees: “If you aren’t using your urine in your garden and on your compost pile, you are, pardon my French, pissing away a free, valuable resource and missing out an easy way to help close the gaping hole in your household nutrient cycle,” Jean Nick writes in “How to Use Your Pee for the Planet.” Using urine in the garden can help you cut your water use (less flushing) while also cleaning up the environment downstream (no water-polluting fertilizer runoff).”

Nick adds: “Recent scientific studies have shown urine is a safe and very effective fertilizer for cabbage, beets, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and pretty much anything else you want to grow. Urine boasts a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 10:1:4, plus more modest amounts of the trace elements plants need to thrive. The nutrients in pee are highly available to plants, too—an extra plus.”

So I like having a good excuse to pee outdoors and the privacy that my pile offers in taking that relief. I also take comfort in the fact that my own end product turns out to be so vital to the new beginnings that my pile is all about. A comfort station, indeed, the compost heap I keep…