My Pile: Holy Ground

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the canon of writings about compost to find a spiritual, even mystical appreciation of the process. For some, composting is nearly a religious act.

Biblical, even: “In the beginning, there was manure,” Stu Campbell sets forth in “Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting.”

“Soil is where geology and biology overlap,” Steve Jones writes in “The Darwin Archipelago.” “Adam’s name comes from adama – the Hebrew word for soil – and Eve from hava – living – an early statement of the tie between our existence and that of the ground we stand on (Homo and humus also share a root).”

“The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil,” I read further in “The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.” “It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.”

It’s Easter Sunday. Today I will worship not at a church but at the altar that is my backyard compost pile. And I will place within it a tithing of fresh green horse manure. Rich in nitrogen and ripe with voracious microscopic decomposers, it will kick-start the near dormant heap of dead brown leaves amassed last fall. Manure also provides plenty of phosphorous and potassium, both vital elements to the renewed growth of spring.

Yesterday, partly to free myself up for a blessed spring Sunday devoted to gardening chores, I drove my son’s grandmother from her senior-living facility nearby to a horse-rescue farm in the northwest corner of the state. A lifelong animal-rights supporter, she sponsors a broken-down race horse now in pastoral retirement. She wanted to see the old filly, hand deliver a further donation, and I was happy to drive her there. In part, because in the back of my car was a large plastic tub to fill with horse poop to haul back home to my compost pile.

If she had religion, Gigi’s patron saint would surely be St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican is a bit more equivocal on the point person for me and my pile.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

Saint Fiacre is said to be the patron saint of gardening, but it seems he had an aversion to women, which is why he’s also considered the patron saint of those afflicted by venereal disease. Hard to cast yourself with that lot.

I’ve heard Saint Phocas described as the heavenly protector of compost, as he was martyred by Roman soldiers after digging his own grave in his garden, so that his remains would be subsumed by the soil. Props to him, but I’ll pass…at least for the time being.

Instead I make this pilgrimage to the nonprofit manger in upstate Connecticut, a complex of stables and paddocks devoted to giving comfort and shelter to rescued thoroughbreds from the race track, retired carriage horses from Manhattan and the odd, abandoned Shetland pony. The shelter also gives young girls a chance to groom and ride the horses, which is nice. Other than that, its chief product is horse poop.

“It’s the one thing we have plenty of,” said the friendly blue-jeaned blonde who runs the place, directing me to a 10-foot tall mound of manure in a muddy enclose behind the barn.

It’s a sight for any backyard gardener to behold. Karol Capek captured the feeling well in The Gardener’s Year. The slim, almost psalmic volume, is worth quoting nearly chapter and verse: “There are times when the gardener wishes to cultivate, turn over, and compound all the noble soils, ingredients, and dungs. Alas! there would be no space left in his garden for flowers. At least, then, he improves the soil as well as he can; he hunts about at home for eggshells, burns bones after lunch, collects his nail-cuttings, sweeps soot from the chimney, takes sand from the sink, scrapes up in the street beautiful horse-droppings, and all these he carefully digs into the soil; for all these are lightening, warm, and nutritious substances.

“Everything that exists is either suitable for the soil or it is not. Only cowardly shame prevents the gardener from going into the street to collect what horses have left behind; but whenever he sees on the roadway a nice heap of dung, he sighs at the waste of God’s gifts.

When one pictures a mountain of manure in the farmyard – I know, there are various powders in tin boxes; you can buy whatever you like, all sorts of salts, extracts, slags, and powders; you can inoculate the soil with bacteria; you can till it in a white coat like an assistant at the university or in a chemist’s shop. A town gardener can do all that; but when you picture a brown and fat mountain of dung in a farmyard –.”

Alas! Grabbing a thin-tined rake set against the fence, I fill my beer-keg tub with a rank mixture of horse droppings, rotting straw and sawdust shavings. Good thing I’d remembered to bring along a heavy-duty plastic bag to cover the tub or it would have been that much longer a ride home with my former mother-in-law. As is, I could only fill the bucket about halfway to the brim before it got too heavy for me to lift.

Whoa, Nelly! A mother lode of rotting manure and muck from horse stalls at a horse rescue farm in upstate Connecticut.

Alms for my pile, direct from the source. Back home at dusk, I finish up my winter reading:

“The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death which occurs almost everywhere in nature. Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life,” I read in “The Rodale Guide to Composting.” As thick as a King James Bible, the guide was first printed in 1979, as the title page states, “on recycled paper, containing a high percentage of de-inked paper.” For organic gardeners, this seminal work is as close to the gospel truth as it gets. Even so, its authors remain admirably humbled by the unknowable essence of their subject:

“The entire composting process, awesome in its contributions to all plant and animal life, is probably impossible to contemplate in its full dimensions.”

The Guide draws on the research and inspiration of the American prophet of compost, J.I. Rodale, who was building on the pioneering research done in the 1840s by German scientist Justus von Liebig, and the work of British agronomist Sir Albert Howard in the early 1900s, who spent nearly 30 years in colonial India experimenting with organic gardening and farming.

In 1943, Sir Howard published “An Agriculture Testament,” based on his findings that the best compost consisted of three times as much plant matter as manure, with materials initially layered in sandwich fashion, and then turned during decomposition (known as the Indore method). The book renewed interest in organic methods of agriculture and earned him recognition as the modern-day father of organic farming and gardening, report the helpful researchers at the University of Illinois Extension.

I read further on the UI site that “the ancient Akkadian Empire in the Mesopotamian Valley referred to the use of manure in agriculture on clay tablets 1,000 years before Moses was born. There is evidence that Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel knew about compost. The Bible and Talmud both contain numerous references to the use of rotted manure straw, and organic references to compost are contained in tenth and twelfth century Arab writings, in medieval Church texts, and in Renaissance literature.”

If passing along these writings qualify me as a modern-day evangelist for the art and science and, yes, religion of composting, then so be it. I confess. And then I get to work on replenishing the sagging, sodden mound of gathered leaves that is my pile. First I carve a shallow trench along the top front, uncovering among the rotting leaves the moldy remains of my last insertion of food waste from the kitchen, releasing a plume of steaming vapors in the cold morning air. I add a few shovelfuls of the manure into the mix. Next I dig a deeper, wider hole along the back, pitching the excavated leaf litter to the front to mix in and aerate with the freshly deposited manure.

A trench along the front of my pile filled with leaves, manure and kitchen scraps. I’ll dig out a trench along the back, heaping old leaves on top of this new supply and bury the rest of the leaves and manure.

Into this new void goes a modest roundup of dry, crinkly leaves that have blown up through the winter against the chain-link fence that lines one side of my backyard. I follow with more manure, then add some wet, matted leaf mold scraped from the bottom backside of my pile. A week’s worth of fresh kitchen scraps follows, along the rest of the manure. I top it off by strip-mining the back side of my pile with the hay pitchfork. Pressed into a shawarma-like stack by a long winter, the leaves cleave off the ragged edge of my pile in tidy forkfuls.

In short order, I have buried twin chambers of hot manure and fermenting kitchen scraps deep within the dank, musty leaf mold and piled the heap high again with borrowings from its crumbly flanks, returning my pile to the pyramid-shape I favor for composting efficiency — and to have a backyard privy tall enough to pee behind.

If my pile and I had a religion, it would stem from the civilization that prospered long ago on the banks of the river Nile. “The ancient Egyptians saw the shape of the pyramids as a method of providing new life to the dead, because the pyramid represented the form of the physical body emerging from the earth and ascending towards the light of the sun,” I read on the About Religion website.

My pile is now fully primed for its resurrection by the warming powers of the spring sun. By mid-summer, the heap of dead leaves and organic detritus will be transformed into newly minted soil to be cast about the garden and lawn. Come the fall, it will begin again.

Until then, allow the last words on this virtuous cycle to Wendell Berry:

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure.

“Even in its functions that may seem, to mechanists, to be mechanical, the topsoil behaves complexly and wonderfully. A healthy topsoil, for instance, has at once the ability to hold water and to drain well. When we speak of the health of a watershed, these abilities are what we are talking about, and the word “health,” which we do use in speaking of watersheds, warns us that we are not speaking merely of mechanics. A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.

“It is apparently impossible to make an adequate description of topsoil in the sort of language that we have come to call ‘scientific.’ For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: it is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it ‘miraculous.’”


My Pile: Ticked Off About Deer

The best thing about my pile? The deer don’t touch it.

I share all else in my backyard with white-tail deer. Lots of them. Resilient, highly adaptable and just darn Bambi-cute, Odocoileus virginianus now makes itself at home in many a suburb, including my own.

My neighborhood street and its flanking swaths of lushly landscaped yards connect an access road that parallels the marshy drainage ditch along a major highway (I-95) to an upland ridge of granite ledge and hardwood trees that is too hard to build on and, thus, largely undeveloped.

Midway between those two refuges of privacy and protection is my property, a convenient way station for deer on their daily commute.

Being a corner lot, it’s not practical to fence it all off, so nightly, as sure as sin, I am visited by a stealthy band of hungry deer.

I don’t know exactly how many and how they are related, but I figure it’s a family group of a doe and yearlings traveling along with their mother. Because the furtive prey animals forage mostly at night, I hardly ever see deer in my backyard, but I know them for the damage the cause – the evidence they leave behind.

Not my garden, but you get the picture. (Actually, the deer in my yard are much fatter!)

Not my garden, but you get the picture. (Actually, the deer in my yard are much fatter!)

Sets of two-pronged cloven hoof-prints are familiar tracks across my yard, especially during mud season. The deer scat provides more clues to just how popular my salad bar of a garden is with these rangy ruminants, and how long and where they linger. Patches of green-brown pellets are scattered like buckshot next the yew shrubs and evergreens planted alongside the house, in the perennial beds along the side of the yard, or just plopped in the middle of the lawn.

I can’t be bothered with deterrents such as wrapping bushes in netting or installing strobe lights or sonic devices. Nor do I have a mind to spraying my yard, either by contracting a commercial service or by buying a batch of coyote urine or some such extract off the internet.

Sometimes the dog and I adjust our schedules and catch a deer or two or three loitering in the pre-dawn gloaming; he’ll give chase, their white tails high in retreat. Usually, the dog stops when he gets to the edge of our property, and the deer pause in the yard across the street to wag their own high tails at him.

Mostly, the dog just sniffs and snorts at the deer droppings he comes across in the lawn, which I let disintegrate where they fall. I also let stand the cow-patty-sized dung I see on occasion. I figure they are from a buck relieving himself, marking my yard as his territory.

I saw him last, I think, on Halloween night. My across-the-street neighbor, Claire, stopped by to say hello after the kids had finished their trick-or-treating. We were chatting on the porch when behind her an 8-point buck strolled up the middle of the street between our houses. We figured his nightly routine had been interrupted by the costumed kids and their parents parading up the street. He took the festivities in stride and ambled up the street on his way to the woods like he was auditioning for a TV commercial.

The other evidence of deer in my yard is everywhere. Everywhere except my pile.

I admit to some feeling of satisfaction that my pile is the one thing in my yard that I don’t have to share with deer. All else seems fair game.

The deer keep the perennial azaleas trimmed to the nub, and munch on the scraggly rhododendrons I was foolish enough to buy when first planting my garden some years ago. I’ve never seen a blossom, as the deer always get to them first.

Same with the tiger lilys and tulip bulbs I received as housewarming gifts. The deer pinch off the delicate flowers and leave behind the beheaded stems to remind me who is the top of the food chain in my yard. (Fortunately, the deer seem to have no taste for daffodils and crocuses, which now provide me with the first and most welcome blooms of the growing season.)

The row of hostas I planted along the back fence suffer the same fate. Each season the deer wait for them to grow dense, then chomp the verdant green leaves to stubs, seemingly at the same time each year, just as the hostas are about to bloom.

This litany of woe is familiar to most gardeners who share their habitat with deer, and like most, I’ve adapted, planting mostly ornamentals that the deer don’t have a taste for – at least until they get desperate from drought or extended snowfall. Sometimes I think the deer act a fox in a henhouse, and just mow down whatever they can, because they can. I see lots of chewed-off branches strewn across my yard.

Some summers the deer let me enjoy my black-eyed susans, phlox and hydrangeas; sometimes they don’t. Over the years I’ve buried hundreds of acorns, gathered during walks at parks or golf courses, and am pleased that a few have snuck their way past the deer and squirrels to grow tall enough to have a chance at a long life. I now have 10 or 12 saplings along the perimeter of my yard, from nearly as many kinds of oaks. They will make fine replacements for the swamp maples that I inherited and am trying to rid my yard of.

The deer pass by the bright yellow shocks of forsythia, the cleome that blossom the summer long and the cone flowers, joe pye and butterfly bushes that mark the peak of summer and attract so many hummingbirds and bees. Deer don’t have a taste for pachysandra, pampas grass or yucca, either, and all those are staples in my perennial beds.

The shade garden in the back corner of the yard, next to my pile. In a few weeks, the hostas will be deer dinner.

The shade garden in the back corner of the yard, next to my pile. The hostas make a fine salad for the deer.

Over the years I’ve added more and more ferns as well, and I now have six or seven types. Most I gather on walks in a tract of open space nearby that borders a municipal golf course. I hike it with a buddy and our two dogs. He scours the woods for wayward golf balls, while I collect a fiddlehead or two. I know it’s not exactly kosher to collect plant specimens from public land, but the ferns grow in colonies, and I see no lasting harm in separating a clump from brethren and transplanting it in my garden.

Our deer “problem” is pervasive and near epidemic proportions. The other morning while driving my son to school, we passed a large yard a couple neighborhoods down the road and counted a herd of 14 deer grazing on the grass. “Look at that, a new personal best,” I told him after slowing to make a quick count. “Add to it,” he replied, pointing out 5 more in the yard on his side of the car.” They were all does and yearlings, near as I could tell.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ll quote a local deer expert, Peter Knight, in an editorial to our local newspaper before a town meeting about what to do with Bambi.

Says Knight: “With no natural predators, the deer population has grown from an estimated 12 — yes, 12 — in all of New England in 1896 (following the years of land clearance for farming) to approximately 150,000 today. The latest survey conducted by the Wildlife Division of the Department of Environmental Protection in January 2009 estimated an average 62 deer per square mile in Fairfield County that covers 625 square miles. (Okay, we’ll do the math — 38,750 deer.)

Sixty-two deer a square mile is a lot of mouths to feed. As I live in the only one of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities that has banned all hunting, the upshot of this perennial debate about what to do with the deer “problem” is, invariably, “live and let live.”

Aside from having to counter-program my garden according to the whims and wills of all these passive-aggressive creatures, deer bring with them an even greater concern: Lyme disease.

When I purchased my house a decade ago, the yard was seriously overgrown and unkempt – a chief reason why I could afford to buy the rundown property in the first place.

From neighbors after the fact, I heard that the elderly widow who had lived in the house for 30 years had tried to keep up the garden her late husband had tended. But, the story goes, she contracted Lyme disease while gardening, which forced her to withdraw indoors.

The pernicious disease perhaps caused ailments that led to her being a shut-in for the last decade of her life. I don’t know, but one upshot was that her untended backyard became a haven for deer. When first grubbing out the back corner of my lot, near where my pile is today, I found a nesting place for deer tucked into the briar patch of tangly scrub and poison ivy vines. Not only did they feed in the yard, but they slept here.

Nowadays, the deer might not linger so long, but they still bring with them the ticks that serve as vectors for a game-changer of a disease for gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts.

The symptoms of Lyme disease were identified among a cluster of young patients in Lyme, Old Lyme and East Haddam in 1975 – Connecticut towns just 40 miles or so up the shoreline. A year later a biologist in the DEP identified the deer tick that carried the disease and a few years later the popular name for it was coined.

Dr. Mark Friedman, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine, calls Lyme disease “the great imitator, an insidious infectious disease that is very difficult to diagnose.”

In addition to the variety of common symptoms – fevers, aches and rheumatoid arthritis among them – Friedman blames Lyme ticks for current incidents of disfiguring Bell’s Palsy, and Lyme dementia, which can often be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. He also reports it has recently been discovered that the ticks can carry a disease called Babesiosis, which is similar to malaria.

While deer are not the only carriers of infected ticks, they are essential to the successful reproduction and completion of the life cycle of over 95 percent of ticks, Knight reports. They are also by far the largest distributors of ticks — just compare the acreage through which they roam with that of a mouse.

The ticks have a two-year life cycle. The adult ticks feeds on deer blood and as a result the female becomes fertile and finds a mate on the same deer. The tick drops off and lays 2-3,000 eggs that develop into larvae and then nymphs that feed on the blood of small animals such as mice or birds. These small animals are frequently infected with the Lyme disease bacteria and transmit it, through their blood, to the tick. Later in the second year, the nymphs molt to become adult ticks and the cycle repeats on the deer.

“It’s costing taxpayers in Connecticut $1 billion a year in health and landscaping costs,” he said about the uncontrolled deer population, in an article in our town’s local online news site.

I always try to take tick precautions when outdoors, whether tromping through the woods or in the backyard. Gathering up a pile of leaves and hauling a bagful slung over my shoulder is downright risky behavior, in terms of exposing yourself to ticks.

It’s a pain, but I make it a habit of stripping off my work clothes after a session in the garden or working the pile and toss them straight into the washing machine. A long-sleeved shirt, pants and gloves are de rigueur, though for me the garb is more to protect against poison ivy.

Still, I find ticks on me from time to time and have, on occasion, made a trip to the doctor or local clinic for a dose of antibiotics. Last summer, the dog pulled up lame; the vet confirmed that he’d contracted Lyme Disease too.

The point is, you can’t write about a compost pile without taking into account the impact deer have on the garden — and gardener. The best thing I can say about them is that they were here first, they are handsome, graceful animals, and they have the good sense to leave my pile alone.

My Pile: True Grit

It’s Palm Sunday, and the first day of spring. On through the week, the news media have been predicting a Nor’easter to arrive by tonight.

The forecasts, as they usually do, started with dire predictions of a foot or more of heavy, wet spring snow, prompting a run on milk, bottled water and batteries at the local stores. The latest computer models show the weather system staying offshore as it tracks northward up the gulf stream, with only a chance of an inch or two of snow starting later today. I told my son to finish his homework; he hasn’t a prayer of a snow day on Monday.

But with the prospect of snow and the distant storm already producing high surf on the nearby Sound, I have already laid in provisions for my pile, combed from the beach yesterday: A plastic half barrel of seaweed, mashed by the waves and heavy with wet sand.

It now sits beside my pile, along with two half-filled buckets of food scraps and a leftover black plastic bag of the sycamore fluff mulched up from the lawn a week ago. And hanging from a hook in the tool shed is a gift from a neighbor who walks his dog past my house: A double-wrapped plastic bag of cabbage peels and potato skins and other leftover makings from his St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Perhaps this stew will help get my pile’s Irish up.

I have more in store for my pile: While doing some spring-cleaning to start the morning, the vacuum cleaner clogged with a winter’s worth of domestic detritus – dog and cat fur, dirt and sand tracked in from outside, dander and dustballs flecked with the down feathers from a pillow fight.

I’ve read that most any vacuum-cleaner bag contains a cringe-worthy amount of detritus of our own making – sloughed-off skin and hair along with the remains of all the mites and motes that share the interior spaces of our lives. I rather like recycling all that stuff. Dust to dust, as the good book says, with a stop in between to be recycled by my pile. Instead of stuffing the dust bag in my kitchen garbage can, I take it outside to my pile.

Snow or no snow on the horizon, the first day of spring is a fine time to stir my pile with an infusion of fresh green organic energy and other recyclables.

Having turned the top of my pile last weekend and added a sizable amount of kitchen waste and the bulk of the sycamore fluff to its midst, this morning the craggly brown layer of leaves that cover the surface is damp; smoky wisps of water vapor tell me that my pile is cooking underneath. But still, I worry that adding so much sycamore seed fluff will hold back its decay.

Sure enough, as I turn out the top edges of my pile with the pitchfork, I unearth patches of matted orange-brown sycamore fluff, unchanged from the week before, seemingly immutable as Donald Trump’s hair.

After a winter’s worth of messing with my pile, I am now practiced at borrowing from the sagging center of the heap to build up the edges. I’m relieved to see the jangled stalks of salt marsh hay, buried just a week ago, are rotting nicely. And once more, the foodstuffs previously tucked into its midst have done their disappearing act, save an eggshell or two, and the curled skin of an avocado.

Before long, I’ve carved out a bathtub-sized crater from the center of my pile, and into the excavated space I tumble most of the plastic bag of sycamore seeds, heaping it with all of the assembled food scraps, and the remains of the vacuum bag. I stir it together with the pitchfork, and add a layer of seaweed, matted together in clumps and already pungent from sitting in the plastic tub overnight.

Adding a fulsome amount of food scraps and gleanings from the yard to my pile, on the first day of spring.

Adding a fulsome amount of food scraps and gleanings from the yard to my pile, on the first day of spring.

The front of my pile is a now raggedy stack of pressed leaves, like so much shawarma on a spit. I shave off slices of the compressed leaf litter and turn them up and onto the top of my pile, once again building it up higher than before.

Over the past few weeks I’ve borrowed about three feet from the front scree of my pile, and it, like the backside, now forms a nearly vertical wall. It’s about the shape of an old toaster, with some of the same function. I know, just behind that crumbly brown wall of dried pressed leaves is the very center of my pile, into which I’ve been mixing food wastes and other compostibles on through the winter. It’s now within easy reach, and will soon be exposed to the warming sun of spring as I begin to turn my pile upside-down and inside out.

After raking up some scattered leaves, I now stand on the hard-packed dirt that was once part of its original footprint from the fall and dump the rest of the plastic bucket of seaweed across the top, which finishes as a flourish of sand collected on the bottom.


I borrow leaves from the front slope of my pile to build up the top and create a nearly vertical wall made of dried, compressed leaves.

I borrow leaves from the front slope of my pile to build up the top and create a nearly vertical wall made of dried, compressed leaves.

A measure of sand is always welcome at my house, whether it’s clinging to skin or sandal or towel or brought back by the bucket full. Beachcombing is much like my perambulations around the garden and lawn and all the messing I do with my pile. It’s an outdoor pursuit that’s rewarding in a free-range sort of way.

Regular additions of such freeloaded sand benefits my pile and in turn my lawn and garden. Made up largely of inert particles of rock and other minerals like silica, beach sand helps keep the soil in my yard — which leans toward silty clay once you get past the root zone — airy and stable. Sand adds heft and no doubt plenty of trace elements and minerals to my pile, and I imagine the granular crystals help grind up the leaves, like so much microbot sandpaper. Sowing a shovel-full across the top of a freshly fluffed gathering of leaves in the fall weighs it down just enough to keep the winds from scattering the leaves back across the yard.

I don’t worry too much about overloading my pile and yard with the salt that I’m sure infuses the sand that I scoop from the beach, but several years ago I was pleased to make use of a local surplus of construction-grade sand, also free for the taking.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the town’s garbage drop-off and recycling center became the final dumping ground for many of the sandbags used by residents to keep floodwaters from their garages and basements.

With my pile such a capacious repository for kitchen waste, I visit the dump mostly to drop stuff off for recycling – newspapers, especially the colored slick ad inserts – milk jugs, plastic sport-drink bottles, beer cans and the odd bottle of wine. By weight, I would guess that dog poop collected from the yard is probably my biggest contribution (or his) to the local garbage stream, which is hauled to a nearby power plant for incineration.

By the following spring after Sandy, which destroyed a number of houses along the Connecticut coast and flooded by own crawlspace of a basement, the mound of burlap bags was still rotting away off to the side. So I loaded a half-dozen of the most intact sandbags into my car and added them, one at a time, to my pile over the course of the growing season. I also draped the empty sacks in front of my pile to sop up standing water, the rough burlap weave soon melding with the muck of mud season to disappear under my feet.

My pile and how I keep it is all about recycling. Seaweed and sand and another gleanings from the beach and elsewhere take a spin through the heap of leaves and kitchen scraps and then are flung back into circulation as compost across my yard. True grit, my pile.

My pile, poised to begin spring as a stout stack of decaying leaves from the fall, spiked in the middle by a winter's worth of fixin's.

My pile, poised to begin spring as a stout stack of decaying leaves from the fall, spiked in the middle by a winter’s worth of fixin’s.

My Pile: Heave and Haw

The ides of March fall this year foretell of nothing but the promised renewal of spring.

My pile is freshly fluffed and refueled with a winter’s worth of supplies from the larder. Rain came yesterday, soaking the new topping of whole leaves pulled up from within. For the next week or two my pile will sit tight, like a momma robin on her blue eggs.

My pile in mid-March. It has weathered the rigors of winter and is now poised to ripen and rot through the warming months of spring.

It’s a season in waiting, a time to prep the garden beds for spring planting and plot out new backyard projects. It’s weeks before any planting is to be done, much less grass cutting. The buds of the trees and flowering bushes are still nascent; squirrels scamper from their nests in the maple trees to sample the budding magenta flowers that tip out the top branches. The lupines are the latest sprouts in the garden beds, and I figure the fiddleheads are the next to unfold. The cardinals are picking off the last crinkled berries of the privet bushes; my 40-pound bag of bird seed is now gone, the feeder being overrun by a flock of rapacious grackles. Still, there’s work to be done outdoors, so I lace up my thickest-soled boots and head out to the shed for the straight-tined pitchfork, spade and spare bucket.

Another marker of the season, the effervescent green and frivolity of St. Patrick’s Day, is upon us. I’m already blessed to have, leprechaun like, small caches of black gold buried across my rapidly greening lawn.

Let me explain.

It’s pot-hole season, the time of year in these parts when the local road crews switch from spreading salt and sand and scraping snow off the streets to plugging the innumerable cracks and gaps and holes that suddenly materialize in the roadway, most often just beneath your tire.

The daily cycle of freeze and thaw here in New England now conspires to rework the skin of earth us colonials trod upon, paved and not.

My property is part of a former onion field, grubbed out and filled in from coastal marshland sculpted by the last ice age. Westport was once prized for its sweet onions. The crop was barged along the Sound to New York City in the 1800s and especially valued during the Civil War to supply union troops with fresh victuals. The market collapsed in the late 1800s due to blight and the rise of refrigerated produce.

The land is a silty, sandy mix of sedimentary clay atop glacier-scrubbed bedrock. Out of this subterranean matrix each spring comes an unending supply of what old-timers’ call the region’s most enduring crop – the Connecticut potato, the catch-all term for the fractured and rounded rock of all sizes, from pebble to Fred Flintstone, that emerge from the subsoil each spring.

Writing from his home ground in Europe a century ago, Karol Capek, in The Gardener’s Year, was equally perplexed: “After having finished grafting roses the gardener finds that he ought again to loosen the baked and compact soil in the beds. This he does about six times a year, and invariably he throws out of the ground an incredible amount of stones and other rubbish. Apparently stones grow from some kind of seed or eggs, or continually rise out of the mysterious interior of the earth; or perhaps the earth is sweating these stones somehow. ”

The science tells us that the freezing cold penetrates down into the soil saturated by the soaking fall rains. Stone is the better conductor of heat and cold than the surrounding soil, so the soil under the rock freezes faster than elsewhere. Since water expands about 10 percent when frozen, and the path of least resistance for a rock in soil is up, after many cycles of freeze and thaw, rocks will rise up through the mud to the surface.

The frost-heave phenomenon helps explain why New England has so many rock walls.

It’s harvest time. Each spring I get the troublesome stones out of the way by hunting and pecking around the lawn with a pitchfork, sharing space with the rounds of robins doing much the same for worms. As much as any compost pile, turfgrass needs deep drafts of air and water to thrive, to grow thick and crowd out weeds.

Over the years, I’ve found that if there’s a patch of my lawn that is bare or thinly grassed, chances are that just underneath the surface is a rock preventing the roots from reaching downward into the subsoil. As the heat of summer dries the soil, it also bakes the rocks just under the turf, which in turn cook the roots above them.

So I step on the pitchfork and drive it into the ground, not only to aerate the lawn but also to use as a divining rod, to hear the clang of metal striking rock. By the sound and vibration of the tines, I can tell what’s going through the first few inches of the turf, even the size of the rock.

As Dr. M. Jill Clapperton said, “When you are standing on the ground, you are really standing on the rooftop of another world.”

Aerating with the pitchfork turns up a clutch of 'Connecticut potatoes" buried just under the sod. I replace the clutch of rocks with a spade of leaf mold from my pile and replace the turf over this buried small pot of compost gold.

Aerating with the pitchfork turns up a clutch of “Connecticut potatoes” buried just under the sod. I fill in the resulting hole with a spade of leaf mold from my pile and replace the turf over this buried small pot of compost gold.

Most of the rocks, spud-sized, pluck up through the pelt that is my lawn without a fuss, often leaving their indentation intact, which I then fill with a shovel of leaf mold from my pile, packed hard with a stomp of my boot. I stretch the pelt of ripped grass turf back across the surface, tamp it all down again and know that I’ve just added materially to my yard by subtraction: In place of the dense piece of impermeable stone is a plug of raw organic material, surely a newfound surprise for earthworms and other hungry creatures that populate and enrich the soil.

The exercise is good for me, and one plunging synchronized footstep at a time, I get into the groove of rapid-fire hole punching. As I go, I multiply each footstep by 4, the number of tines, and calculate how many individual holes I’ve made, knowing that each will soon fill with a fresh filtration of organic material, if not from my pile then the first cutting of grass. In any event, my lawn, like my pile, needs to breathe.

I can make 20 or 30 steps at a time before getting winded, or worse, sloppy with fatigue. Some years back I went on too long and carelessly drove the end of the pitchfork into the toe of my boot, through the sole, into the ground. Shocked at the misstep, I gingerly pulled the tine back through the leather uppers of my boot, then sat down on a nearby rock to take off my boot and determine the damage. The pain was mixed with adreneline as I plucked the boot off and to find a puncture hole in toe of my sock, already wet with blood. I peeled the bloody sock away to find that, miraculously, the pitchfork tine had thrust neatly between my big toe and second, just nicking either side. All I’d suffered was a close call.

I’ve been much more careful to stay on my toes with the pitchfork ever since. More and more I go slower, stepping on the straight pitchfork to drive its row of four, 8-inch tines up to the hilt. Deep-tined aeration, they call it, and it punches dagger-like holes down through the impermeable layer of root-stopping clay and hardpan that often forms under the topsoil, five or six inches down.

The effort may look dorky in a labor-intensive, robotic sort of way, but before long I’ve aerated a good-sized patch of the yard, usually sticking to the low-lying spots and most-trafficked areas. Along the way I prod up buckets full of loose stones, which I add along the rock wall that borders one corner of my property. The smallest stones I use for backyard projects like filling in a new post hole or, if larger, augmenting one of the rock borders that line my garden beds. There is no end of uses for rocks here in Connecticut, nor any shortage of supply.

Sometimes, mud season turns up a bigger surprise. The spring of my second year at the house, while edging the border of a new perennial bed, I came across the jagged tip of granitic rock. I started digging away with enough vigor that the kids playing in the backyard with my young son that day came over to see what the fuss was all about.

There’s some Tom Sawyer in us all, and I handed the shovel to the oldest boy of the bunch and invited him to dig in. For the kids, it became a treasure hunt, a backyard mystery, and the chance to show some youthful muscle. Taken a perch on a sizable rock that I had unearthed the year before, I got to opine about how big this new find might be, or where it might have come from – maybe the granite mountains of New Hampshire and carried here by a glacier. Or maybe from the outcrop that rises behind the homes across the street and long ago tumbled down this way.

The other lesson is in the simple mechanics of moving heavy objects from one place to another, usually upward – first from its hole in the ground and then elsewhere. Here in Connecticut, that has long meant stacking them up to form a wall. I marvel at the ingenuity and work ethic of the first settlers and can hardly fathom how they constructed stone walls that have now stood for centuries, using only the tools of the day.

The urge to move rock must be in our blood, a Stone Age impulse. Once the kids had shoveled the dirt from around the rock, to find it about as big as a beach ball and too heavy to lift, they then had to find and use the tools – a crowbar and a couple of long 2 by 4s — as fulcrums and levers. It was an interesting exercise in applied engineering, backyard style, and somehow, they managed to hoist the rock from out the ground and tumble it to the side. It remains in its place years later, the cornerstone of the rock border of the shade garden next to my pile. It makes a convenient perch from which to ponder my pile — and to remember a day when I actually got a bunch of suburban kids excited about doing manual labor.

Other rocks that have bubbled up to the surface of my yard each spring require stronger backs. And a few years later, I had to tap a neighborhood buddy for help, with the promise of a beer or two for the effort. The photo below shows a large rock that my pitchfork pinged. It laid just underneath one of the barest patches of grass, and took a full afternoon to unearth and then roll into place as a sitting stone in the mint garden I keep by the back door. For this amount of back-filling, I used a wheelbarrow full of humus from my pile, and now that part of the yard is one of the thickest patches of lawn I have.

A buddy helps wedge a small boulder that has cropped up to the surface of my yard.

A buddy helps wedge out a small boulder that has cropped up to the surface of my yard.

Nowadays, my lawn is a rumpled quilt of dips and swales formed by all these pots of compost gold buried across my yard. Though I try to level out the hollows formed by replacing rock with leaf mold and compost, there’s always a certain amount of settling. But my lawn is immeasurably richer for it. The grass grows thick, and soaks up even the heaviest of rains. And I have more rocks than I know what to do with.


My Pile: Spring Forward

Last night, we got a timely nudge forward toward spring with the changing of clocks.

The yearly adjustment means little to my pile, which keeps to its own time. But the added hour of sunshine each day will give me that much more daylight after work to spend dithering about in the backyard, a fair share of which benefits my pile.

While my pile’s decomposition is largely driven by biological processes that take place within its midst, especially through the cold dark days of winter, it is solar power from above that fuels my pile’s annual sprint toward its transformation from a heap of dead and rotting remnants into a fresh batch of newly reconstituted, living soil.

At the moment, the seasonal tilt of the planet’s axis relative to the sun is tipping my pile in the right direction, warming it through and through. Soon, the whole heap, not just the top portions into which I’ve plugged a winter’s worth of compostibles, will be engaged in composting itself.

The weather is also cooperating. This past week the daytime temperatures have spiked into the 60s, even 70s, a record for the date. Judging from the extended forecast, there will be no late-winter snowfalls this year, but rather a couple of rain storms amid a long run of warm days and frost-free nights until spring officially arrives next weekend on Palm Sunday. We are rewriting the record books for seasonal warmth.

Spring has already sprung: The robins returned this week to stake out their patches of turf, stomping around and cocking an ear to the ground to root out fat, juicy earthworms for their coming hatchlings. The crocuses are up across the lawn and garden beds, displaying their cupped flowers of violet, white and yellow like so many tiny Easter eggs. The downward daffodil blooms are not far behind, and striving to keep pace are the forsythia bushes, another harbinger of spring, fast forcing themselves to bloom.

This Sunday morning is a fine time for me to plunge back into my pile. It’s been a couple weeks since I last stirred it with an infusion of kitchen scraps and coffee grounds and topped it with a covering of rotting salt marsh hay.

Hanging from a hook in the tool shed, safely off the floor from any intrepid rodents, is a groaning bag of kitchen waste and rabbit-hutch gleanings from the neighbors. My own bucket of food scraps and spent coffee grounds is full, and I have the three-bags-full of sycamore seedball fluff gathered a week ago to dispense with.

I wish I’d gotten around to the local Starbucks for a fresh load of coffee grounds to add to the mix, for I fret that adding so much dead brown detritus to my pile would best be counter-balanced by an equal supply of fresh green organics. But I’ve been lazy, though I did take the big plastic bucket to the beach this week with the dog in hopes of filling it with a supply of washed-up seaweed. Alas, the beach was bare. I’ll have to wait for the grass on my own lawn to begin growing to harvest fresh greens for my pile.

Still, with an insertion of compostibles from my kitchen and the neighbors’, along with the linty seed fluff (surely spiked with nutrients of its own making), what my pile needs now is a good tossing, to air it out and prepare it for the hot-house growth of spring and summer that will allow it to consume itself wholly and fully.

I begin by using the wide bow rake to scrape the salt marsh hay from atop the back of my pile toward the middle, exposing the dank leaf litter underneath. I grab the hay pitchfork to heap forkfuls of musty leaves to the sides and across the back, building up the edges of my pile and carving out a trench across the middle nearly two feet deep and twice as wide. Aside from a stray egg shell, inside I see no sign of the kitchen scraps that have nurtured my pile through the cold days of winter. Newly exposed, the inner reaches of my pile look like so much old rotting leaves, warm to the touch.

I scatter most of the first bag of sycamore seed fluff into the chasm, chuck the bucket of food scraps from my kitchen into the cottony brown fluff, and bury them by dragging the tangly salt marsh hay back over the top. Adding so much lint-like sycamore seed dander is a curiosity for me and my pile. It may act like saw dust and resist rot, or may be subsumed, ready-made, like shredded paper, which disappears in my pile like so much cotton candy on the tongue. But I have a pretty good idea that the combined forces of dried brown tree-seed fluff, rotting green organics and brittle hay will interact to form a fresh hot mix of decay just below the newly ruffled surface of my pile.

There is no scent of anaerobic rot from below, and that’s a good thing, though I know that today’s exercise has only scratched the surface. Out of reach of the thrusting tines of the pitchfork is the bottom half of my pile, which for now remains terra incognita. At least for now, above those undisclosed depths, the heap is suffused with air, and fresh compostibles, all tossled enough to soak up the rain that is predicted over the coming week.

The fluffy seed balls of the sycamore tree in my yard, spike by a fresh load of kitchen scraps, make good filler for my pile.

The fluffy seed balls of the sycamore tree in my yard, spike by a fresh load of kitchen scraps, make good filler for my pile.

I top off the trench with pitchforks full of gatherings from the back edge of my pile. Much of it is fairly soaked with the pees I take each morning when I let out the dog. I’m counting on the sterile urine to serve as the wondrous compost activator I’ve heard it to be. In any event, the cleanup effort of cleaving chunks of soggy old leaves from the back wall both builds up the top of my pile to chest high, and wipes the slate clean of my daily pit stops.

I have bags more of the sycamore dander, and my neighbors’ household wastes, to add to my pile, so I begin another trenchlike excavation along the front of my pile. First I tease out matted leaf litter from the top to build up a higher wall along the front, a palisade above the sloping front edge of my pile. This is the construction of my pile that I like best, preparing it architecturally for the deconstruction that awaits it. A few cockle shells and a tangled bit of monofilament fishing line are all I unearth, building up the front and sides of my pile to match the height along the back.

I empty the rest of the bag of sycamore fluff scarfed up by the mower last weekend into the cavity, toss in the neighbors’ bucket of food scraps and the green, alfalfa-like hay from their rabbit hutch, then give it all a good mixing with the pitchfork. The center fill of my pile is thus freshly primed with a new mix of fodder to rot away.

It’s the cover up that always gets you, and that comes next.

The front of my pile is a sloping scree of minced leaves that tumbled into place last fall when my neighbor Craig and I dragged plastic tarps full of mower-mulched leaves from his yard and cast them wholesale atop my pile. Over the winter, these gatherings have compressed into a cliff-face of compacted leaf litter, as tightly bound as a bale of hay and structurally rigid enough for me to carve a nearly vertically wall along the front.


I’ve added 50 or so pounds of food scraps and sycamore seed fluff to my pile and am burying it under pitchforks full of leaves borrowed from the front.

Turning the bended tines of the hay pitchfork backward, I cleave whole chunks from the sloping front of my pile and turn them up and over to fill the trench hole. Freed from the crush above it, each forkful of dried leaves taken from the bottom front of my pile and tossed across the top expands and unfurls; spring uncoiled.

My pile is renewed and recharged. I’ve dug deeply into it and added a fulsome supply of nutrient-rich organic wastes, both brown and green, along with big gulps of air. By borrowing from both front and back, it once again rises high, a thick stack of compost.

I step back from my pile to consider, to calculate. For all the world, my pile still looks like a tall mound of dried, crumpled leaves, shaved to near vertical walls front and bag. But within this cocoon of rotting leaves I know there is a seething riot of new life being created, waiting to emerge.