Some years ago I relocated from Los Angeles to Connecticut, landing a better gig with a golf magazine, and looking forward to a change of scenery. I plunged into marriage, then homeownership, buying a tidy little Cape in Westport with a sizable yard of trees and grass and not far from Long Island Sound.
At last, I had a compost pile that I could call my own. We had a son, and it was nice while it lasted. Then things fell apart, and I ended up buying a smaller, cottage-style house nearby for me and my 5-year-old boy.
It was an old widow’s home, with a seriously overgrown yard on a one-third acre lot studded with tall trees, including several different types of maple, two large sycamores, a pair of mulberry trees, a big white pine, a pretty tulip magnolia in front and an ancient, bedraggled willow tree in back. I knew I would buy it the moment I pulled into the driveway to meet the realtor. I was sold on the yard, a reclamation project that I knew would keep me preoccupied while rebuilding my own life.
I heard later from a neighbor that the woman of the house once enjoyed gardening, but after losing her husband and contracting Lyme disease, she gave up on maintaining the property. As she aged in place, a shut-in, the invasive vines and trash trees slowly took over, encroaching from the tree-lined edges of the yard, rolling over her garden borders until only a narrow moat of grass was all that separated her house from a suburban jungle.
When I moved in, the property was the neighborhood eyesore. I couldn’t wait to reclaim the yard from decades of neglect and make it my own.
Closing on the house in May, I spent the summer clearing the property of 20 years of unchecked growth, hauling away truckloads of brush. Spending so much time outdoors, I got to know my neighbors, who would stop by to appraise, and praise, my efforts at overhauling the blighted mess.
The property was so untended that when I was grubbing out the tangled mess of vines in the back corner of the yard, I came across tramplings and scat from deer that had overnighted there in seclusion, though my neighbors’ houses were less than 30 feet away on either side. I also had to encourage the fat and happy groundhog who lived under the back porch to take up residence elsewhere.
After a summer’s worth of sweat equity, the bones of the property were revealed, and they were good.
A corner lot yet not quite square, the yard had what English garden creator Vita Sackville-West called “minor crookedness.” Plotted from an onion farm that was developed in the postwar years into a modest neighborhood of capes and split-level ranches, the yard slopes from the road in front about a foot in grade, with the back corner the lowest point, tending toward the mucky. The neighborhood is less than a mile from Long Island Sound and just a few feet above the mean high tide line, which means that in wet times the water table rises up to nearly ground level.
A friend in the tree business tackled the trees that needed to come down – a pair of old mulberry trees that draped over two sides of the house, carpet-bombing the roof with purple berries; a slender maple tree fatally wrapped and warped by hairy tentacles of poison ivy that reached far up into the canopy; a bigger, rotted old maple that stood at the center of the new grass lawn I envisioned for toss-and-catch games with my young son.
I recall it being a handsome tree, but it was a swamp maple, considered a junk species by most arborists, and its roots spread far across the ground. Swamp maples sprout early in the spring. Their dense leaves block the sun in summer and come fall their weak, over-extended limbs often fall victim to storms, usually across power lines. Swamp maples are becoming the dominate tree species in the Northeast, unchecked by humans and aided and abetted by deer, turkey and squirrels, who chomp away at oak saplings and acorns and have no use for swamp maple.
Dominating the backyard was an old willow tree, a good three feet thick at the base. It had three main branches, each lopped off about 25 feet off the ground. Years of second growth had sprouted from the topped ends, giving the tree a ragged if still majestic crown. It was a dramatic sight, thickly cloaked in heavy strands of English ivy. I considered keeping it as I worked my way across the rest of the yard, rooting out truckfulls of brush, daydreaming of elaborate treehouse constructions to place atop its thick trunk and tripod arms.
Willow trees, too, are considered second-class citizens of the modern suburban landscape – fast-growing but unruly, messy and weak. They generally don’t age well. I suppose the old widow had the money to trim it but not the cash or will to take it down entirely.
Likewise, I resisted my tree guy’s entreaties to put it out of its misery. Cutting down the huge old willow would nearly double my tree-clearing bill; I got a deal on the maple because it made good firewood to be hauled away as logs, but the soft, spongy wood of the willow wasn’t good for anything. It would cost a small fortune to haul off, even if you could figure out a way to load it into a truck.
Chris, my tree guy, made the decision for me, and I came home from work one day to find it prostrate on the ground, in massive, chopped-up pieces.
It was those chunks of willow that I used to construct the new home base for my pile. I rolled them to the corner of the yard, upending two of the biggest pieces about eight feet apart. I hoisted two more logs atop them each, rejoining the pieces of the limbs so that two logs stood as one across the backside of my pile, about chest high.
I stacked two twinned smaller logs next to the first pillars, pleased to find them about six inches lower than the cuts of the anchor logs. For the third row I used two logs, each about six inches shorter in length than the stacked logs before, and finished with two squat logs of park-your-butt size, creating a wooden crib with twin barked sides that stepped from two feet high to about four feet.
The whole logs made a decent, if rustic enclosure. I nailed an 10-foot section of wire garden fence, caged from a neighbor, across the back end to complete the three-sided enclosure. I filled the crib with its first batch of leaves and dirt and debris left over from the cleanup of all the brush and tree limbs.
By the time the leaves of the trees left standing began to rain down upon my newly seeded lawn, that first flush of yard waste was well on its way to being cooked. I had a new patch of ground with plenty of green grass for my son to play on, freshly prepared garden beds to plant the coming spring, and a sturdy new home for my compost pile to call its own.
Five seasons later, the willow logs are now encrusted with fungus and molds and sprout mushrooms after rains. They look like old pilings, rotting away as they age in place. But they’ve done their job containing my pile, and adding to it. The log walls harbor billions of fungus spores and bacteria that launch themselves into each year’s new pile, just like my son once did.