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: Starting Over

On the last weekend day of summer, a bright, sunny Sunday, I head outside to prepare my pile and backyard for the coming bounty of the fall harvest season.

I stop first in the vegetable garden, tucked between the back patio and corner nook of the house. Bound by two corners of the house and two sidings of 6 by 6 inch wood beams, along which I’ve strung a short wire fence, the vegetable garden is ringed by a two-foot wide border garden of flowers and bisected on the inside by a cross-shaped walk of beach brick. I’ve added so much compost to the vegetable garden that it is now bursting at the seams. The brick pathway and stepping stones within the garden, as well as the flagstone walkway along the outside, are now much lower than the raised bed of garden soil.

Building up the soil is one of the chief aims of the backyard composter, and this season it appears I’ve raised the vegetable garden so that it is now a platter served up for the deer, who, sadly, seem to have beaten me to the last tomatoes of the season. Whether they lean in over the short wire fence or hop it outright I don’t know, but the deer have neatly pruned the once-sprawling tomato plants, chomped the cilantro and nipped the remaining cukes. They seem to have no taste for collard greens, fennel or dill. The basil, now bolting, has grown too bitter for both them and me. Time to harvest the gains and add the season’s leftovers to my pile.

First, I pluck a ripening Big Boy tomato from inside its cylindrical wire cage. It’s neatly marked with a four-square pattern of bite marks, just the size of the narrow, overbite incisors on the deer skull I found on a walk in some nearby woods last year and brought home to show my son. The skull now rests in a flower box planted with pansies outside the kitchen-sink window, a Georgia O’Keefe still life I like to ponder when washing the dishes.

You'd think the deer wouldn't find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

You’d think the deer wouldn’t find the garden through the cleome flowers; at right are the flagstone steps sinking into the turf.

I’ve scraped my pile to bare ground, save for a small pyramid of compost scraps off to the side. The log wall boundaries and improved fencing are now in place. Time to begin anew.

I pull the tomato vines and other past-due vegetable plants and herbs out of the ground and haul several armfuls over to my pile, adding to it after a stroll around the garden beds to dead-head the most-tattered of the perennial flowers. They’ve grown tall and straggly through the summer, and now hang heavy with their seed heads. The stoutest I leave standing; the golden finches love to pluck the echinacea seeds from their perches on waving stems, and the dove flock to the coreopsis and cleome, which cast their spring-loaded seed pods across the ground. They grow nearly as tall as the sunflower, and their woody stems will make good, fibrous airways for my pile as well.

Each season the press of leaves squeezes air out of the heap of organic gleanings that is my pile; I’m hoping this early harvest of tangly stalks and stems and dirt-encrusted roots will serve as an airy foundation, a box spring of coils to the soft mattress of leaves to come.

I stroll back over to the vegetable garden and grip the wrist-thick stalk of a sunflower plant that had sprouted among the beach bricks I use along the walkway. Last weekend, I harvested the foot-wide bloom, which was heavy with ripened seeds. Each year my son and the girls next door harvest the seeds for a favorite “snack-tivity” – we wash and then soak the seeds in salt brine and roast them in a pan. If they don’t end up looking and tasting exactly like the sunflower seeds you get in a plastic pouch at the store, at least the kids enjoy the idea of fun food coming from the Jack and the Beanstalk plant in the garden.

Tugging the six-foot-tall stem this way and that, I wrest the sunflower plant from the ground. The root ball is the size of a melon, and even after flicking away the stray pieces of brick and dirt, the plant weighs a good 10 or 15 pounds. It amazes me how much a plant can grow in a single season.

I trundle the stout sunflower over to my pile and set it in the middle of the rest of the prunings. It will be the tent pole that stakes the heart of my pile. As the stalk decays, it will also serve as the conduit for air and moisture, from top to bottom. Around the base of the sunflower stalk I nestled more leggy stems of the fennel that has grown wild in the back corner of the vegetable garden. The hollow stems and fleshy branches gone to seed give my pile the smell of licorice.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good 'tent pole' for my pile.

Grown thick and stout (and mostly hollow) through the summer, this sunflower stalk will make a good ‘tent pole’ for my pile. I later surround it with leggy stems of fennel, and fresh grass clippings from a neighbor.

The long, hot, dry end to summer has not been kind to the grass I sowed two weeks ago, though with stints of watering, the lawn overall has grown in nicely in all but the sunniest spots. Here and there a mushroom sprouts from the grass, which I take as a sign the compost I heaped upon it has spread its own fecundity down into the turf.

The grass will continue to grow on into November, and I’ll run the mower across the yard several times to mulch the autumn leaves and grass clippings to add to my pile. For the last mow of the season, I always try to leave a thick layer of chopped-up leaves and grass on the ground to break down over the long winter. By then, my pile will be overstuffed, as there’s always more than enough leaves and other brown material to go around.

Even with the moderate drought and hot dry days, the trees cling to their still-green leaves. As the nights grow cooler and daylight dwindles they will soon get the signal to put on their annual show of color, and then the annual gathering of leaves will begin.

In the meantime, I have more backyard chores to attend to, among them repairing the hole in my brick garden walk left by the sunflower plant torn from its clutch along the garden’s beach brick path. I’ve also been meaning to improve upon a set of flagstone steps I’d laid down several years ago along the outside perimeter of the vegetable garden, extending into the grass from the patio, four stepping stones in all.

Most evenings I stroll along this flower bed to strip the stems of cleome of their banana-shaped seed pods, to cast the seeds upon the flagstone patio for the mourning doves to flock to at sunrise. Each morning when I take the dog outside, we flush a flight of doves from the patio. Dove are very flabbable, and their wings beat noisily as they rise to take perch on the crown of the roof and nearby pine trees.

These tall, gangly flowers now lean far over the grass and the sunken flagstone steps. I decide to embark on a landscaping project to extend the patio along the flower bed and raising it to the same level. Next season, the seeds will fall upon this new stretch of patio for the dove to pluck at, and I’ll have fixed the sunken step problem. Even better, having deposited several loads of fresh compost on my neighbor’s newly renovated landscaping a couple weeks ago, I know he has a supply of flagstone that I can repurpose.

First I scrape away the sod along the flower bed, using some of it to fill a sunken spot of turf in the front yard. The rest I toss, turf-side down, onto my nascent pile. The sod, rich with worms and organic life, will make a fine base for the coming season’s heap of leaves.

To build up the base for the flagstone, I add several buckets of small stones I’d plucked from the yard this past spring, then spread a thin layer of remnant compost to the foundation. The compost is more ceremonial than anything, as it will compress into what I imagine as a conduit for earthworms traveling from the yard under the new flagstone walk to the garden. The stones I’m happy to find a collective purpose for other than to leave piled into a mound in the corner of the yard.

I enjoy how my pile and backyard functions as a closed-loop ecosystem — a stone is pulled from the ground, its vacated space filled with compost from my pile; the stone replaces spare turf to be recycled as compost, which will then fill new holes in the ground. I also enjoy enriching this backyard ecosystem from further afield (and office), especially when it means a trip to the seashore.

As fresh compost makes a poor base for a new flagstone walkway and would be a waste to put under the pavers in the beach-brick path within the garden, I head to the beach to fill a couple of large buckets with borrowed sand.

I pick the town’s smallest and rockiest public access, along a tidal creek. Besides its contributions of sand and seaweed for my pile and backyard, the local beach, called Burying Hill, also churns up a steady supply of polished beach brick.

Tumbled by the surf and sand into streamlined pieces of all shapes and sizes, the washed-up artifacts of fired clay make fine filler for the garden walkway. I like how the ocher hues contrast with the dirt. The bricks soak up water like a sponge yet drain like gravel. In the spring they absorb the warming sun; on frosty fall mornings the bricks are rimmed with a coating of ice from moisture sweated out overnight. They will last forever, more or less. Plus, they’re free for the taking – though I do have some guilt for excerising salvage rights over a more altruistic “leave things be.”

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

The look and feel and utility of beach brick makes it a prized find at the local beach.

My favorite find is a pale yellow-orange variety flecked with bits of shell and straw. Surely these pieces date from the pre-Industrial, colonial era, when brick was formed of hand-dug clay and any old beach sand, then padded with salt marsh grass.

Who knows how long or far each piece has been tumbled by each tide, how whole it was before being ground down to a pebble, or from what man-made thing it came from. Some of the brick I find is charred on one side — the chimney from an old settler’s cabin? Is it from some seaside patio of a swanky estate that got sucked into the sea? Or is it just detritus from a load of fill dumped at the water’s edge back when we valued our beaches differently?

Sand from the beach provides solid footing for the “dove-walk” extension of my patio along the flower beds that line the vegetable garden.

But I digress. And that’s the thing that beachcombing shares with gardening and composting — it invites stray thoughts as I fill a bucket of sand or seaweed or canvas bag slung over the shoulder with a load of brick.

I return home with two plastic buckets heavy with beach sand and a new supply of beach brick, which I add to fill up the hole in the garden walkway made by the sunflower that had taken root there this past spring.

I want to plant a fall crop of lettuce, arugula and kale in the beds now cleared of the tomato plants and strawberries. Heaped with a fresh supply of compost, they need turning. The spadefuls of dirt spill over into the beach brick. That might suit the sunflower seed that takes purchase there next spring, but not my tidy gardener’s eye.

The solution is to tease out the concrete pavers that gird the brick walkway and reset them several inches higher. I use trowel-fulls of beach sand to nudge up the pavers, and add a few shovelfuls of compost underneath the stepping stones to keep them level with plumped-up garden soil. The higher border will not only allow me to keep adding top-dressings of compost to the vegetable garden but also create space to add newfound bricks along the walkway. What started out some years ago as a garden walkway with a single layer of beach brick is now six inches deep with round, ocher bricks.

I tamp down the rest of the sand along the newly etched “dove walk” and spend a happy hour arranging the jig-saw puzzle of repurposed flagstone into place. That’s the neat thing about tending my pile and backyard garden. Though the changing seasons and small projects mark moments of change, progress is always along a path that’s moving forward, growing, evolving.




My Pile: Cutting the Cord

Each fall, I gather a new mass of stored carbon in the backyard. No, not my pile, though it is also assembled from similarly recycled organic bits begged and borrowed and roughly matches the compost heap in both weight and effort. It’s wood for my fireplace.

From a purely environmental standpoint, it’s hard for me to justify burning through a cord or so of firewood each winter. Even the best firewood is relatively inefficient as a heat source, and all that smoke going up the chimney is far from benign. In fact, let me be clear on that last point:

“The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM),” I read on the EPA website. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”

“Smoke may smell good, but it’s not good for you. Both short- and long-term exposures to particle pollution from wood smoke have been linked to a variety of health effects. Short-term exposures to particles (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Long-term exposures (months or years) have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis—and even premature death. Some studies also suggest that long-term PM 2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.”

Talk about throwing cold water on a warm and cozy winter’s fire… Even an article on, a website devoted to promoting wood heat, includes some major caveats: 

“Despite its considerable advantages, fuelwood is not a good solution for all households to the problems of high home heating costs and global warming. Fuelwood is not a suitable energy source in all locations, such as densely-populated urban areas, because its air emissions tend to be higher than other options, and the air is already burdened with pollution from industry and transportation. A winter’s supply of wood takes up a lot of space, and the price of firewood in urban areas is normally too high to achieve savings. Successful heating with wood also requires a level of physical fitness and the learning of a special set of skills. Clearly, wood heating is not for everyone,” I read in “The Argument In Favor Of Wood Heating.”

Still, there’s a case to be made for what environmental writer Marc Gunther  cites as “by far the most popular form of renewable energy used at home.”

“It’s a low-cost and low-carbon way to heat homes. It’s a ‘green’ technology that appeals to poor and working class people. And, because gathering and distributing wood is labor intensive,  it generates economic activity,” Gunther argues in “A Renewable Energy Technology that Gets No Respect.”

I moved into my two-bedroom cottage-style home a decade ago with my son, then 5. The main room had a small, narrow fireplace rimmed with ornate, cast-iron trim. It looked like it was designed to burn coal, and I considered it more of a decorative element than heat source. No doubt it hadn’t been used in decades, and in fact when I soon had to repair the Rube Goldberg fuel-oil furnace tucked into the closet-like crawl space tucked behind the chimney, I found that the furnace had been routed to vent exhaust up the flue.

It was only years later, after the furnace finally crapped out and I replaced it and the similarly ancient water heater with a much more efficient on-demand system, powered by natural gas, that I called in a chimney sweep to assess whether the fireplace could be used. My son had grown old enough for me to relax as a worry-wart dad, and I was pining to add some warmth and rustic charm to our living room. Besides, back-to-back stormy seasons, including Superstorm Sandy, had produced both a windfall of trees and a nagging fear of a loss of power over some cold, dark nights.

With a new cap and damper plus a plugged vent hole and sturdy new screen, my fireplace was back in business. The narrow but deep firebox with its cast-iron surround drew wonderfully and gave off blasts of heat that radiated across the living room. The long neglected fireplace has since become the true heart and hearth of our home.

Environmental qualms aside, the locavore in me likes the idea of burning wood gathered from nearby. There may be some cost savings, in terms of keeping the thermostat down, which appeals to my thrifty yankee spirit. The sensualist seeks the burn on the back of my legs, the pop and crackle in the air and the dance of flickering flames. I like everything about a fire, from constructing it just so to stoking and tending it through the night.

A fire is something special to gather around and keep company with; a magical presence in the room. A home fire sustains a gardener’s tinkering spirit the winter long. “To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world,” said Charles Dudley Warner. (A close friend of Mark Twain, Warner also had a way with words; he’s the fellow who also said “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” andPolitics makes strange bedfellows.” To have listened in on a fireside chat between those two!)

This affinity to fire may help explain why I smoked cigarettes for many years. It’s an addiction, I guess.

A cozy fire in the well used and loved fireplace.

Over the past five years, I haven’t had to pay for firewood, unless you count the cost of having several fallen or damaged maples taken down and chopped up by those I hire to scale trees with ropes and belts and chainsaws. Owning a chain saw is a manly aspiration I’ve always found reason not to fulfill.

Still, I very much like the idea of using every bit of a tree that has grown in my backyard, from adding its leaves and seeds to my pile, to spreading its chipped up limbs as mulch to the garden beds, to burning its sawed up and split logs in the fireplace. The wood ash that remains is sprinkled across the lawn and garden beds and my pile. The stumps, well, I just have to live with those until they rot back into the ground, like the bones of a bison fully consumed by a band of Plains Indians.

I’ve carted home cast-off logs of oak left by the utility crews working up and down the street. I’ve also helped myself to several loads of lumber from neighbors who have had treework done and have no need for firewood. In these parts, firewood is free for the taking, if you know where to source it and have the means to schlepp it home. My fireplace is more narrow than most, so I have to cherry pick logs of no more than 18 inches long, shorter than what most commercial firewood suppliers make.

Over the summer, I’ve assembled a stack of wood that stretches across the back of the tool shed and as high as I can sling them. Burning two or three fires a week, I figure I consume a little more than a cord of wood a season, starting around the first frost of the year in mid to late October and lasting until the final frost, sometime in late April, or when I run out of logs, which happened this past spring, a few chilly nights too soon.

I’ve long been intrigued by the word “cord,” used to define the size of a stack of firewood. Like peck or rod or even foot, it harkons back to an age about which we now have only a passing familiarity. Cord is generally meant to define a “racked and well stowed” wood pile that is four feet wide, four feet deep and eight feet long. It’s based on the use of a string or rope to define it. Whose string exactly is long lost to history, but I rather like how this man-made unit has stood the test of time. If you want a more precise measurement, figure on a volume of 128 cubic feet, says Wikipedia, or for a comparison, it’s calculated that a cord of seasoned oak, with its 22.1 million British thermal units (BTUs), has the heating equivalent of 159 gallons of fuel oil.

Now is the time to cleave these whole logs into slivered pieces and to stack them in sturdy rows against the shed and beside my pile. It’s a process, an exercise that’s near a sport, that I thoroughly enjoy. And though it took me a good long while before I could get myself to hand off the big-boy axe to my teenage son, chopping wood has also become a family enterprise. Together, we make a good team, taking turns with the maul, splitting wedge and axe to turn a whole log into fractionalized pieces in a few, well-measured strokes. This good ol-fashioned manual labor strikes my son as thoroughly exotic. It’s also a contest between old man and young buck; you can almost see the testosterone cursing up from the steel bit and wood handle into his sinewy young arms. I like being a father who has taught his son how to chop wood. Better yet, he still has all is toes.

I also like splitting the work. As Henry Ford said, “Cut your own wood and it warms you twice.”

Splitting and stacking firewood for the winter while my pile the drop of autumn leaves.

In addition to learning how best to chop wood — figuring out the grain and the knots and gauging the force of the blow needed — there’s some woods wisdom to be gleaned from carving up a log. These past few seasons, ash has been in abundant supply, courtesy of the emerald ash borer. An ash log is light and straight-grained and splits like a dream; there’s a reason it’s long been favored by baseball sluggers and why I give the ash to my son. I can talk baseball while he splits wood like a hall-of-famer.

“Although ash may produce slightly lower BTU’s than oak or sugar maple, it’s a popular firewood choice for many people,” I read on “Ash is known for splitting very easy and having a low moisture content. This allows the tree to be safely used immediately after harvesting.”

Beech is a breeze to split, and burns bright and fast. The largest log I hauled home was a stout log of beech, two feet in diameter, which cleaved off into more than 40 pieces of firewood; two full evening’s worth. Birch is also nicely spittable, and we can tell when we’ve got a piece of black birch by the Wrigley spearmint gum aroma of its bark. I have a hard time telling my oaks apart, but when we split a piece of white oak, the grain looks just like the kitchen floor of a new McMansion.

Cutting wood benefits my pile, indirectly. When chopping a scavenged log, most of the time the bark cleaves from the wood. Some I use for kindling, but much of it I lay down as flat sections behind my pile, which backs up against what amounts to a drainage ditch for the low back end of the property.

The bark makes a sturdy, if temporary, flooring for me to stand on when I work my pile. The curved outer hide is a no-slip surface for my work shoes. The domed paneling laid end to end allows for the run-off to pass underneath, and as it rots in place I imagine the row upon row of small vaulted ceilings gives comfort to all manner of creatures. I tread softly upon them, for fear of squishing a rare native salamander or newt.

The stack of firewood is my pile’s doppelganger. They’re both pit stops for assembled loads of energy-rich carbon cycling through the circuit of life. One is on the fast track and will soon go up in smoke. Poof. Crash and burn.

My pile is taking the long way around the carbon cycle, a trip with a more lasting reward. Its stores of carbon and other turbocharged organic amendments and minerals are first going to ground, where they will dissipate over time before making their way back skyward, rising toward the sun, whether as a blade of grass, burp of an earthworm or, once more, first as a soaring tree then, burning bright, a crackling fire. After all, “ashes to ashes” covers a lot of ground.


My Pile: Empty Nest

I come home from work midweek and change into my outdoor clothes, still shorts and a ratty old t-shirt. The summer heat lingers, even as the days grow shorter.

Storm clouds gather as I head outside for my usual “compost hour” of unwinding and reconnecting with the yard that is my small patch of outside world after a day spent inside in front of a computer terminal. It’s still a surprise to see my pile now reduced to a remnant of its once-overstuffed self.

I’m an empty-nester, at least for the next few weeks. Still, there are other backyard tasks to tackle, like spreading a 10-pound bag of seed across the barest patches of my lawn.

I use a small hand-crank spreader, which flings the tiny seeds outward like sprinkles of rain. I grab a few handfuls to cast extra helpings of seed directly on the thinnest spots, avoiding the thickest patches of clover. Aside from tending my small plot of vegetables and herbs, it’s the closest I get to feel like a farmer.  I speculate on just how many new seeds I’m introducing to my yard; it must be in the hundreds of thousands.

I finish in the gloaming by roughly raking over swaths of the yard to scratch in the seeds with the compost covering the ground, scooting aside the sycamore leaves that are already beginning to dapple the ground. The lawn has received the lion’s share of compost this year, and I am eager for the old grass to revive and this new crop of seeds to find purchase.

At best, only a fraction of all these seeds will thrive, but I take some comfort in knowing that I’m adding to the diversity of the turfgrass that grows in my yard. I overseed each year, always buying perennial mixes, all kinds of rye, fescue and bluegrass, usually grown in Oregon. The tiny oblong seeds are indistinguishable to me, but the label lists such evocative names as Evening Shade, Brooklawn, Sierra and Frontier. There are 10,000 grass species in the world, and countless more slight variations from genetic tinkering. I like the fact that my small backyard has more than its fair share of such truly global transplants.

I crank out thousands upon thousands grass seeds to cast about the lawn.

I crank out thousands upon thousands grass seeds to cast about the lawn.

Waiting for the rain to arrive and break a long, hot, dry spell, I’ve spent the past several days wandering across the yard, picking out a surprising number of sticks, stones and shells that have cropped up as the compost bakes in the sun and crumbles into the turf. It’s like beachcombing, only in reverse. Using wood chips as a mulch for many of the garden beds and pathways, I’m not surprised that my pile harbors so many flecks of wood. The more surprising finds — the shells, the odd horseshoe crab tail or seagull quill, pieces of plastic, especially — are from the washed-up seaweed I heap upon my pile each fall and spring.

The largest shells I toss into the vegetable garden to bolster next year’s tomatoes; I pitch the slivers and chunks of wood chips into the perennial garden beds.

Those who tend and till the soil are accidental archaeologists, as Karel Capek elucidates in “The Gardener’s Year”: “The garden – or cultivated soil, also called humus, or mould – consists mainly of special ingredients, such as earth, manure, leafmould, peat, stones, pieces of glass, mugs, broken dishes, nails, wire, bones, Hussite arrows, silver paper from slabs of chocolate, bricks, old coins, old pipes, plate-glass, tiny mirrors, old labels, tins, bits of string, buttons, soles, dog droppings, coal, pot-handles, washbasins, dishcloths, bottles, sleepers, milkcans, buckles, horseshoes, jam tins, insulating material, scraps of newspapers, and innumerable other components which the astonished gardener digs up at every stirring of his beds. One day, perhaps, from underneath his  tulips he will unearth an American stove, Attila’s tomb, or the Sibyline Books; in a cultivated soil anything may be found.”

Although I worry about the mower spitting out a shard of wood or seashell into an ankle or worse, I rather like the fact that the yard is a repository for such odds and ends, originating from so many places other than my own property.

At night, the thunderstorms bring an overdue soaking, and set the new seed on its way to germinating as the lawn greens up through the fall.

The overnight rains release me from the need to water, at least for a day or two, and I spend the next evenings preparing my pile for the coming season.

My pile is now a dirt floor between two sets of upright logs, the right side still akimbo. I’d wrested several logs out of place to gain ready access to my pile, and now I need to reset them in place so that they can contain the coming deluge of leaves and seaweed and grass clippings.

One log, the skinniest of the lot, is rotted, so I set it on the dolly and trundle it over to my ever-growing refuse pile of tree branches and pulled groundcover. I reset the other logs, using small flat rocks to secure them in place so that I can safely walk across their tops to dump bedsheets full of leaves as my pile grows.

The log wall now has a gap, which I bridge with the handmade screen of small-gauge wire netting stapled to two sections of wood gleaned from my son’s long-dismantled play set. I fashioned it some years ago to screen compost but I haven’t used it for several years, finding the process too laborious. Even the roughest gleanings from my pile soon break down into bits and pieces, whether by rake or mower or hard rain.

I set the wire contraption on its end on the inside of the two flanking upright logs to create a side door for my pile. As my pile grows this fall, the leaves will press against it. I hope to be able to lift it out of the way when I need to work my pile on through the coming season. It’s a small bit of home improvement that I wish I’d thought of years ago.

My pile now has a side door, fashioned by repurposing the wire screen I no longer use to sift compost.

My pile now has a side door, fashioned by repurposing the wire screen I rarely use to sift compost.

Next I take the maddox from the shed and gouge out the surface roots of the two nearby maple trees. Each summer they infiltrate the bottom of my pile, and each fall I do my best to trim them back. I don’t begrudge them their efforts to tap into the rich supply of nutrients that annually swells beneath their canopies, but the network of tangly roots have an annoying habit of snagging the pitchfork I scrape across the ground to tidy up the edges of my pile. It’s a battle I will never win as long as the maples rise up over, and under, my pile, but each year I chop away at the invading roots to keep them at bay.

The renovations complete, my pile is now an empty vessel, ready to receive its annual bounty of a season’s growth. Like a chef planning a harvest menu, I begin to plot out the courses that I will soon heap upon it. There are two garbage cans brimming with a month’s worth of compostibles, the tangle of spent vines and stalks from the vegetable garden, and seaweed waiting to be gleaned from the nearby shoreline.

But first, the leaves must fall. For now I can only watch and wait.

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

My Pile: Labor Days

I need all three days of the Labor Day holiday to put my pile to work. It’s the biggest compost heap I’ve ever raised, and harvesting it to spread across my lawn and around my garden plantings will be a happy but sizable weekend chore.

My lawn – a motley mix of poa annua, perennial ryegrass, some bluegrass and fescues, lots of clover and all manner of plucky weeds – takes a beating each year. It’s heavily trafficked by me and my garden wanderings, by the dog chasing after and fielding tennis balls, by kid traffic and deer grazing. The sod must also compete with the superficial roots of the trees that surround and shade it.

Some modern garden writers knock the idea of a grass lawn, but in a most rewarding way, my backyard is used much like a ball field or golf course, and every couple of summers I follow the lead of the greenkeepers and turf-growing pros that tend those green wards by aerating my lawn with a rented plug aerator.

I start Saturday morning with a trip to Home Depot. Configured like a walk-behind lawnmower, the gas-powered machine features a cylinder of four sets of hollow steel tubes that rotate when the self-propelled drive is engaged. In front is large rubber wheel filled with water that, along with a set of detachable lead weights, help drive the hollow boring tubes into the ground. As they rotate, the tubes poke into the soil, with each revolution extruding a fresh plug of soil, each about the size of a finger.

Muscling the gas-powered beast back and forth across the yard is a workout, and I have my hands full steering it. But in the time it takes to run a mower across the lawn, the spiked cylinder punches thousands of four-inch-deep holes into the turf. Littering the ground are that many plugs of soil, each a cross section attesting to the health of turf and the earth that supports it. Most of the finger-sized cores are topped with a snippet of green grass above a crumbly layer of brown thatch; below is a tangle of roots still clutching a small cylinder of soil.

Within weeks the grass rebounds, spreading its roots deep into the newly made and freshly plugged holes. What’s more, the softer and thicker lawn is better equipped to soak up all the rain it can take, which in this vicinity is more than 50 inches a year. At times, especially after a fall Nor-easter, or with this year’s spring melt, the groundwater nearly rises to the surface of my property, with the lowest part of my yard covered by standing water that takes a day or two to drain away.

Soil plugs, and the holes they came from, pepper the lawn after aerating.

Soil plugs, and the holes they came from, pepper the lawn after aerating.

Most lawns get compacted by foot traffic, creating all sorts of problems in keeping grass healthy; aerating helps break up the soil for air and moisture to seep in. The thousands of holes will soon be filled with fresh-made compost, mixed with the aerated plugs when they break down, along with the grass clippings and leaf litter that have been accumulating over the past few mowings.

I’ve rented the machine for four hours, which gives me just enough time not only to aerate my third-acre of turf, but also the smaller lawns of two of my neighbors. They help keep my pile supplied with leaves, and grass clippings and other things throughout the year, so it is good to be able to return a favor.

My arms have hardly recovered by the time I get back from the return desk at Home Depot and get to work dispatching my pile. I scoop up heapings of compost wholesale with the hay pitchfork. Holding a loaded pitchfork over the wheelbarrow, I toss and shimmy each shovelful so that it filters through the wide curve tines into the barrow. I don’t bother to screen it other than to reach into the wheelbarrow every now and then to pick out a stray wood chip or sea shell that clangs against the metal or catches my eye.

The simple act of tossing the compost into the wheelbarrow breaks most of the clumps apart, though every so often I also stop to pluck away a not-quite-cooked fragment of compressed leaves. I toss it into the back corner, and after a few loads I’ve built a mini pile that I’ll keep in reserve to seed next season’s batch. Each clump of old leaves is a veritable Dagwood of bacteria, mold and microbes to activate the coming crush of fall leaves.

It takes a dozen or so scoops with the wide-tined pitchfork to fill the wheelbarrow, and an equal number of flings with the spade to disperse the compost in arcing swaths across the yard. It’s not heavy lifting, as each load probably weighs about 40 or 50 pounds. But it is repetitive, and I fall into an easy if tiring rhythm.

Digging into my pile, after 10 months of nurturing a simple yet complex mixture of organic indredients to fruition as humus, the best soil amendment there is.

Digging into my pile, after 10 months of nurturing a simple yet complex mixture of organic indredients to fruition as humus, the best soil amendment there is.

I can cover about a 25 ft. by 25 ft. stretch of ground with each load, and after a couple hours, most of my yard is covered by a scruffy patchwork of compost. A neighbor walks by with his young son on a tricycle, looks across the rough, coffee-dark mess littering the yard and asks, “what happened to your lawn?” I explain that it’s just temporary, and take a few minutes to rake in some of the heaviest patches.

If screened and sifted finished humus is the smooth variety of peanut butter, then my pile is very much the chunky style. But I will further rake and then mow over all that I’ve spread across the yard, and the berm of compost I lay down along the perimeter of the long, narrow bed of perennials will soon mesh and melt into the deep mulch of rotting wood chips.

As I excavate my way into the midst of my pile, unearthing richly dark, cold-pressed humus — the really good stuff — I begin making trips with the filled-to-the-brim wheelbarrow to each of my three neighbors, who have contributed to the fulsomeness of this year’s heap. My neighbors Craig and Sylvia have recently renovated the front walkway to their home, creating garden areas lined by granite pavers. The garden beds so far are empty, with dirt floors some six inches below the top of the pavers. They are perfect vessels for load after load of compost to mix in time with the hard-packed base earth.

My neighbors the Giaumes have started an in-ground herb and vegetable patch beside their house this year for the first time. On a bare patch of ground nearby, I dump four loads of compost into a long pile, for the wife to mix into the new and now weedy beds.

My neighbors across the street, Jean Luc and Claire, have long tended their garden areas, and for them I spoon out barrows of humus as top-dressing.

My pile yields a prodigious amount of compost to spread wholesale across the lawn and garden beds.

My pile yields a prodigious amount of compost to spread wholesale across the lawn and garden beds.

By lunchtime, I’ve covered all the sections of my lawn that I plan to overseed, hauled 10 loads over to the neighbors and still have a third of my pile left. I’ve lost track of how many wheelbarrow loads I’ve spread, but it’s at least 40. After every few wheelbarrows, I stop to rake in the thickest spreadings; the tines of the rake further tease the clumps apart, and most of the compost disappears down through the blades of grass. A ton or so of wet, crumbly bits and pieces of humus — newly minted living soil — is but a small deposit when spread thinly across a patch of scrappy turf.

Spreading finished compost by the wheelbarrow across my lawn and garden beds.

Spreading finished compost by the wheelbarrow across my lawn and garden beds.

I dig my way around and into this year’s batch of compost. It has distilled into a fairly uniform mix of crumbly dirt and bits of leaves. Shoveling through it is like flipping through a scrapbook of organic memories; I come across a tangled length of monofilament attached to a rusty hook; a petrified husk of an avocado shell. My pile coughs up a furball of matted dog and cat duff from the vacuum bag I’d added to the mix last winter. I fill more wheelbarrows and dump loads across the garden beds, flinging it straight from the wheelbarrow with a twist one way and then another.

Toward the end of the day, I’ve worked through the bulk of my pile. I figure I’ve spread about two cubic yards so far, or about as much to fill the bed of a big pickup to the gunwales. All that remains of my pile is a rough mixture of clumpy old matted leaves, a few seashells and a stray corn cob or two. Over the next couple weeks, as I do more fall transplanting and find more garden chores to do, I know I’ll sift through my mini pile further until its shrunken to a few shovelfuls.

On Sunday, I take a break from my pile. I need a day off, and use it to go for a hike with my son and neighborhood kids. It’s yet another sunny day, and I want to let the compost dry in the sun. I want the  tiny critters lurking within it to have time to find refuge by burrowing down into the turf before I mow the yard to finish up my weekend’s work.

I haul the mower out of the shed after a late breakfast on Monday and give the lawn a quick mow to further shred the last scraps of the compost top dressing. The hot dry spell has yet to break, and I decide to wait until mid-week, when thunderstorms are forecast, to spread a 10 pound bag of new grass seed across my yard, an annual replenishment of perennial rye, fescues and blue grass. The fruit of turf-grass farms in the Pacific Northwest, if some of it sprouts and takes root, my yard will have that much more genetic variation. Abetted by some slick aspirational marketing and the best biology Big Ag can buy, grass is a world-class colonizer. It also may be in man’s nature to cast seed upon the ground.

But there is a time for everything, and on a hot Labor Day afternoon I head to the beach my son and the neighbors. I can’t help but notice the ragged lines of seaweed washed up at the high-tide mark, and look forward to returning in a few weeks’ time, after the beach-goers have gone, to harvest the first batch of rotting green seaweed to add to the dead dusty leaves that begin my next pile.

We end Labor Day Monday with a backyard barbecue. My neighbor Don comes over. He looks across the back lawn to the empty space where my pile has resided for the past 10 months and asks, “where did the compost go?”

Something's missing from my backyard -- a ton or so of fresh compost ... but not really.

Something’s missing from my backyard — a ton or so of fresh compost … but not really.