My Pile: Brush Off

Returning home to coastal Connecticut from drought-stricken Southern California, I’m struck once again by how lush and verdant this well-watered corner of southern New England is, especially in mid-June, the height of the growing season.

That happy fact brings my outdoors on a lengthy evening mid-week to tackle a related and recurrent backyard chore: pruning the bountiful growth of the shrubs, bushes and small trees that populate the property. Properly spaced and prudently tended, these plantings make up the bones of the classic suburban landscape. Among other attributes, they create a beautiful, shady backdrop for the flowering annuals and perennial plantings, provide screening from the street and neighbors and offer a wealth of food and shelter for all kinds of backyard birds and critters.

Left unchecked, this under story of big bushes and small trees would in a few short years overtake the property, turning it back into the state I found it 10 years ago: An uncivilized briar patch of brambles and brush and vines, all scrambling to crowd each other out.

The dynamic — some would say romantic — tension between chaos and cultivation in the garden was perhaps best expressed by Vita Sackville-West. As Sarah Raven writes in “Sissinghurst,” her biography of her mother-and-law and the garden she created from the ruins of an Elizabethan estate in the south of England, “Vita loved her borders to be packed. She hated the sight of too much mulch, criticizing Edwardian rose gardens with their ‘savagely pruned roses of uniform height, with bare ground in between, liberally disfigured by mulches of unsightly and unsavoury manure’.

“An enchanting garden like Sissinghurst is, I would say, at its most beautiful at precisely the point where its informality is about to tip over into chaos. I am with Vita and her desire for sprezzatura — a studied nonchalance, a balance of formality of structure with informality of planting.”

So tonight I browse across the yard with clippers in hand to help guide the growth of yard’s shrubs and bushes, pruning, tidying up the property and freeing up time for the coming weekend, Father’s Day.

Like parenting, pruning generally follows fairly well-established guidelines, in terms of where to cut, how much and when. I start tonight’s session with one of the more straightforward pruning tasks: Cutting the old-wood stems from the hydrangeas that bloom big and bold each summer. The bases of the plants — I have three in the perennial garden — are thick with fat green leaves emerging from the bloom buds. But rising from each plant are dozens of old-wood stems from last season, a thicket of stout, two-foot tall hollow shafts that end sharply with cuts from when I dead-headed the big blue flowers last fall.

Just the other day my son proudly showed off the scars he’d collected over the years; one a lasting scrape on his kneecap from falling off his bike, and another a puncture wound on his calf from trying to jump over a neighbor’s oversized hydrangea while playing some game of tag with with an older boy, which I’m reminded of as I snip off the dagger-like pickets of old wood.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor's hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

A view of the side of the backyard, looking over the neighbor’s hydrangea to the forsythia hedge along the street. In the shade of the maple tree is a growing pile of brush to be hauled off to the town yard-refuse dump.

Tending a backyard, a garden or a compost pile is very much a paternalistic exercise. My goal to raise a yard that is sturdy, strong and resilient; one that is a product of its environment, yet individual, a unique creation that I can be proud of having nurtured along and to seasonal fruition, one that is not a danger to itself of others.

Though I prune with some impunity, to tidy things up around the edges, or remove a limb hanging over the house or power line, the backyard is shaped in its own image. It’s still thick with invasives that planted or took root long ago and that through pluck and perseverance, have become tolerated, even accepted, permanent residents of the local landscape. “It’s my nature, and I’ll do what I want,” the backyard continually reminds me, if not insists. I’ve grown to admire the scarlet show of the burning bush in autumn, and the edgy show of its angular branches in winter. The white blooms of the privet in spring are fragrant; the birds feast on their purple berries as they ripen over the winter. The yew and japonica alongside the house, likely planted by the first homeowners 50 years ago, have grown thick and massive. Each time I prune their tops and side branches that scrape against the shingles I have to take care not to disturb the two or three bird nests hidden within them.

These naturalized citizens of the backyard are especially profligate in their growth, in branching out toward the sun, in sending up suckers from the trunk, in seeding, by self and with help from birds. Regular weeding and pruning keeps them in check, and through the year I gather armful after armful of stemmy dead twigs and sweeping new branches. Hard to say what I pick up more after: My 15-year-old son or the plants, bushes and trees of the backyard.

Even the native shrubs and foreign ornamentals I prize as specimens need their growth guided by saw and shear. The rose of sharon I planted as sprigs near 10 years ago require reining in each spring, or else will flop over with the weight and drama of their late-summer blooms. Same with the fragrant lilac that grows outside the back door.

Early each spring I snip the flowering tops to capture their aromas in a vase indoors, but still it grows scraggly. A thunder shower passed earlier in the week, causing a main branch of the old lilac to droop over the limestone step of the stoop that leads to the kitchen door. I lop off the limb and trim the suckers at the base and add the lot to the brush pile I keep in the back corner of the yard, tucked under a maple tree beside the street.

Made up of all the branches and yard trimmings I drag to the curb for disposal, twice a year or so the messy sprawl grows to rival my pile in size. The tall trees that lord over the property shed bark, twigs and limbs with every storm, and after each I sweep the yard clean of the wind-blown debris. Today’s brief squall also brought down a thigh-thick stump of a branch from a maple beside the driveway. I could have sawed it down before, but left the snag aloft. It was riddled with holes made by the woodpeckers that picked at it for grubs. I drag it off to the brush pile as well.

I’ve thought keeping this refuse on site, perhaps by creating a second compost pile to serve as a starter for the next year. But backyard space is limited, as is my time to spend harvesting and recycling all the more readily compostible organic matter that my suburban yard produces each year. I could use the leafy branches whole as the bottom layer of next year’s pile, but know I’d be picking the woody stems out of my pile all through the next season, cursing as they tangle themselves in the tines of the pitchfork. I suppose I could chip the sticks and branches by purchasing or renting a shredder, though that’s a commitment and expense I’ve never been able to justify.

(I’m fascinated to learn that some English gardeners save the clippings from English yew (Taxus baccata) to donate them to companies that produce Taxol, an anti-cancer drug. “The potent medical effects of Taxol weren’t discovered in the West until the 1970s, though native American Indians had been using the bark of Pacific yews (Taxus brevifolia) for generations to treat ailments as diverse as rheumatism, scurvy, and lung and bowel complaints,” writes Sarah Raven.

Would that I could. I do whittle away at the brush pile through the fall and winter by breaking some of the the limbs and dead wood over my knee and burning them in the small firepit in the corner of the back patio. We make a special bonfire each January with the crackly remains of the Christmas tree. I add the ashes to my pile or cast them across the yard.

But when the stack of limbs gets big enough to cause me worry about it becoming an eyesore, I borrow the neighbor’s pull-behind trailer, a ramshackle contraption of plywood and rust, and haul the tangly mess off to the town yard refuse center behind my SUV. I make couple trips a year, usually one after this pruning of spring growth and another, in the fall, to tidy up the yard after a season of fulsome growth. Then there’s the occasional Nor’easter, a limb-snapping early snowfall or other weather calamity that requires a special cleanup. Nature culls as much from my backyard as I do.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.

The brush and tree trimmings I drag to the side of the road and haul off to the town yard-refuse dump.


But, yes, I prune. It’s a discipline, and disciplinary. After ordering my son off the trampoline in the backyard and inside to study for his final exam of the school year — which, coincidentally, involves writing an essay on Lord of the Flies, I tackle my biggest pruning project of the day, and the year: The long row of forsythia bushes that extend from each side of my driveway and along the street. (The main difference between gardening and parenting? The limbs you seek to prune don’t talk back…)

The hedgerows serve to give my yard privacy, especially in summer, when the green screen is thick enough to snag wayward frisbees and tennis balls. In winter, the hedgerow harbors flocks of sparrows, which use the bare branches as jumping off points for the nearby bird feeder. And in spring, its bare branches burst with electric-yellow flowers. But what was then a fairly uniform mass of plant has grown into a spiky riot of green shoots that angles every which way. It’s like the hair on a cartoon figure plugged into an electrical socket.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

Trimming the forsythia hedge that shields the backyard from the street. In the distance is the brush pile I keep in the corner of the property.

The untrammeled growth juts out into the street, blocks the street sign and thrusts upward into the lower branches of a young oak that I planted as an acorn in the wood chips on the lawn side of the hedge. I trim the forsythia with a pair of shears, selectively picking limbs to trim by hand. It requires extra effort, but I like the exercise for my hands and arms, and it keeps the hedge prim and proper in a natural, free form sort of way, not scalped roughshod by a mechanical trimmer.

I strive for a light touch to pruning, favoring a more natural, almost jungly yardscape. My backyard is no poodleized version of a topiary garden. Like my 15-year-old son, I keep most of the plantings on a long leash, and allow them to grow on the wild side, while trying to maintain some sense of order. Put another way, my backyard ideology is a mash-up of Father Knows Best and any of dimwit dad sitcoms you now see on TV. It’s a nature vs. nurture struggle for control that has played out over the centuries:

“The image of man’s dominion over nature is deeply rooted in Western thought,” I read in a paper by Eleanora Montuschi, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Order of man, order of nature: Francis Bacon’s idea of a ‘dominion’ over nature.”

“It first appears, in different forms, in the Book of Genesis. It also reappears as one of the leading images of the emerging ‘new science’ in the 16th century…. Over the ages, Western thought has been variously concerned with the image of the ideal garden. At the same time, it has been rather eclectic in its illustration of what constitutes such an ideal. If we look, for example, at the planning and construction of gardens in the 17th and then 18th/19th centuries, we will soon and vividly appreciate these differences in conception.

“Starting from the 17th century, gardens were then designed as geometrical spaces. Plants and bushes were cut into triangular, spherical, conical, and pyramidical forms. Sometimes they were shaped as animals or human beings. In other words, nature was altered by imposing specific forms over her spontaneous ways of expression.

“Instead, in the 18th and nineteenth centuries, gardens were conceived in view of complying with nature. Nature was to be allowed to express herself in her own forms: she was at most to be ‘perfected’. An idea (or ideal) of cooperation between man and nature replaced the idea of human calculated planning and imposition of an external order on nature. Man was to improve on, not to transform, nature – that is, he was simply to respect whatever form nature might happen spontaneously to suggest.

“According to the former ideal, man is encouraged to think of himself as a conqueror of nature, as someone who succeeds in imposing an order over natural wilderness. According to the latter ideal, man appears rather as an ‘executor’ of a pre-given natural order, an order which at most needs to be brought to completion.”

That about sums up the duality of gardening and parenting: striking the balance between being a control freak to maintain order and letting things develop with a gentler guiding hand.

Nature, like a child, will always find a way to express itself, fully in “her own forms” and in keeping with the soil in which its offspring is nurtured and under the sun that shines upon them. The day I asked my son, “Do you want me to tell you what to do, or do you want me to let you make your own mistakes?” and he answered, “I’ll make my own mistakes,” was the day I realized I could no longer much “prune” him. And everything (I don’t recall what, exactly, mistake we were talking about) turned out fine.

Pruning, like raising a child, is about guiding growth in the right way, with a fair amount of culling in a never-ending pursuit for some sense of order and control. It’s also about knowing what not to cut. A plant doesn’t talk back to you when you prune it, which appeals to the parent-gardener in us all. An ill-treated plant will let you know when you’ve done it wrong. I still miss the thriving butterfly bush that I incautiously pruned at the wrong time of year; the next season it sprouted just a few meager branches, and this year refused to come back at all. Sometimes Father doesn’t know best. Earlier this spring I dug out the stump and added it to the brush pile.

Pruning, and parenting, is about letting go, and recognizing that not everything will fit into a neat package, or my pile. The truth is messy, a writing professor once told me, as is raising a child or tending a garden. The tangled stack of brush I leave at the side of the curb is ample evidence of that.

But both child and garden tend to work out as long as you keep serious problems from taking root, prune when necessary to help guide growth, ensure sufficient food and water — and always add as much compost as you can.

My Pile: Packed

Tomorrow I fly to Los Angeles for a long weekend to take part in the celebrations of my goddaughter’s college graduation and the high school graduation of her younger sister. The eldest girl was just a baby when I moved to Connecticut nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve tried to stay as close to the family as possible, given the continent that now lies between us.

Four days of intermittent rain has given way to sunshine, and getting home from work I debate letting the grass grow until I get back. It will be a jungle by then, and rain is forecast to start the coming week, but I’m inclined to put off mowing. It hardly needs it, as I don’t mind a shaggy yard or setting the mower on high. Besides, I have yet to pack, lock in care for the dog and cat and otherwise prepare to be gone from my house for the next few days.

Tidying up my cubicle prior to taking off from work, I’ve brought brought home a black plastic bag of shredded office paper that I keep under the desk. It’s now full, and I head out to the tool shed to set it inside, planning to add it to my pile with the grass clippings I gather upon my return.

Hanging from the handle of the tool shed door is a groaning plastic bag full of rotting food. I look inside to see half a watermelon gone bad, a dozen puckered-up Red Delicious apples and assorted other moldy fruit. I remember that a friend who lives down the street is moving, and had mentioned he needed to clean out is fridge.

I can’t find a spare bucket or bin with a lid, as my back-fence neighbor does, to stash the stuff. For a moment I consider adding the donated fridge leftovers to the compost bucket my back-fence neighbors keep and which I take off their hands, but pawning off such a cornucopia of spoiling fruit, even temporarily, is an odd bit of regifting, even for me.

My pile’s far enough along that I could simply dig a fence-post type hole to bury the rotting fruit, but then I spot the heap of grass clippings along the backside. My across-the-street neighbor has mowed his lawn and given me his clippings.

My backyard is neighborly. In the foreground is Craig, who loads me with fresh grass clippings; Don cleans out his fridge and gives me the leftovers, and I share my garden bounty with the family next door and in return get their kitchen scraps and rabbit hutch gleanings.

A view from my pile of a neighborly backyard. In the foreground is Craig, who loads me with fresh grass clippings; Don, on the patio, gives me leftovers from his fridge and feasts; and in the garden are Chylla and her daughter Katlina, with whom I share my garden bounty and in return get their family’s kitchen scraps and other compostibles.

So I decide to give my lawn a quick mow, figuring I’ve got just enough daylight to collect a bag of clippings and make an impromptu insertion to my pile with my collected recyclables before I go away.

If not a true pet — I often treat it like one — my pile and the care and feeding and tending I lavish upon it and the suburban backyard that supports it, certainly makes it my pet hobby.

The dog, as usual, torments both the mower and me, setting his tennis ball in its path. It’s a game of chicken we’ve played for years, and now I’ve mostly trained him to set the slathery ball in the just-cut grass for me to retrieve without pausing, to toss it again.

I stop twice to empty the grass catcher of its load of clippings and tree dander, adding the loads to the collection of grass left by my neighbor with the lawn on steroids and leaving behind a thick trail of clippings. After about 40 minutes of fast-paced mowing, the lawn is once more clean-cut.

I have about an hour left of daylight to work my pile. After excavating and then filling the back and front with the past two loads of grass clippings and kitchen recyclables, I consider tackling one of the sides. But that would require more effort. So I quickly carve out a wide hole in the top, sprinkling grass clippings as I excavate the rich moist leaf litter outward to the sides. Like a miner following a vein, I tunnel deeper in two spots toward either side, teasing out the compacted leaves of winter.

The bottom corners of my pile hide reservoirs of dried leaves to mix with the freshly cut grass.

The bottom corners of my pile hide reservoirs of dried leaves to mix with the freshly cut grass.

Stopping about two, three feet down, I toss in the stemmy cilantro that grows like weeds throughout my kitchen garden, then add my friend’s fridge clean-out, not bothering even to chop up the foot-long wedge of past-prime watermelon. I scrap a layer of wholish leaves from various spots around the outer perimeter of the pile, depositing them on top of the kitchen slop, add another layer of fresh grass clippings, then spread a blanket of the bright-white shredded office paper. I repeat, upending my own kitchen bucket, and mix it with more old leaves and new clippings, and top it off with the rest of the paper shreds.

To back fill, I borrow wholesale from the bottom front and back of my pile, loping off the steppes front and back to layer the clippings and waste. Having aired out over the past couple weeks, this crumbly mix of leaf mold makes a fine, breathable lid over my pile.

My pile is now packed for the long weekend, even if I am not yet. It now almost teeters in its verticality. I’ve taken my pile as far as it can go front and back; next I will work my way into the dark center from the sides.

My pile, packed high with the latest stuffing of compostibles.

My pile, packed high with the latest stuffing of compostibles.



My Pile: Air Today, Gone Tomorrow

Sure enough, like washing your car or forgetting your umbrella, hand watering the garden plantings the other day was all it took to prompt a series of early-summer rain squalls to pour much, and much-needed, water upon the backyard and my pile.

This evening after work I tip-toe across the sodden lawn to check in on my pile. Mowing will have to wait until the grass dries out, and with backyard cookouts postponed, the kitchen bucket has been slow to fill with its summertime surplus of watermelon rinds and silky corn husks.

My pile looks like an upturned bowl of brown mush. Though the recent rain has likely soaked down only a few inches through the sodden outer layer, I know that much of what lies underneath is saturated with moisture from another source: Grass clippings. I read in Compost Fundamentals, that grass clippings are more than 80 percent water, and, more worrisome, that a compost heap that is more than 70 percent water can quickly devolve into a stinking, anaerobic mess.

My pile is drowning in grass.

“Aeration is necessary in high temperature aerobic composting for rapid odor-free decomposition,” I further read in Compost Fundamentals, a website managed by the Washington State University Extension. “Aeration is also useful in reducing high initial moisture content in composting materials, which reduces the pore space available for air as well as reducing the structural strength of the material. This permits greater compaction and less interstitial or void space for air in the pile.

“If foul odors of anaerobic and putrefactive conditions exist when the pile is disturbed either by turning or by digging into it for inspection purposes, turn the pile daily until odors disappear. No matter how anaerobic a pile may become, it will recover under a schedule of daily turning that reduces moisture and provides aeration.”

I’ve tossed and tumbled the influx of fresh clippings with clutches of old and dry leaves, but even so, the clippings tend to compact into a suffocating layer, prompting a riot of hothouse bacterial growth that sucks up all the available oxygen.

Tonight my pile needs bailing out. I consider plunging into it with the pitchfork, but that project is too ambitious for the time I have on hand. I decide on a more surgical approach, and have just the tool for it: A seven-foot length of metal rebar I use to give my pile needed gulps of air, more like an emergency tracheotomy than a full-scale resuscitation.

“Some prefer to manage a hot or thermophilic pile for several weeks, then stop turning the pile letting mesophilic organisms take over, which encourages fungi and actinomycetes development. Fungi and actinomycetes are the best decomposers of woody matter, such as sawdust or branches. Actinomycetes gives compost the earthy smell—like that of the forest floor.”

That’s pretty much my goal for tending a backyard compost heap — to have it exist as a fragment, a fragrance, even, of the natural process of decomposition, only speeded up by human hand.

So I grab the rod of iron rebar from its resting place against the back fence and gingerly make my way up atop the log containment walls to give my pile a good poke deep inside.

The length of rebar is my divining rod. Like hand-watering, aerating my pile with the ribbed metal rod gives me a kind of kinetic, x-ray insight. With each successive thrust through the top layering of matted leaves, I not only create passageways for fresh air, but also get fresh feedback about what’s going on inside and out of sight. It’s another tactile, probative, way of staying in touch with my pile.


The rod of iron rebar I use to poke my pile is about 7 feet long, and makes a handy tool for aerating it through and through.

The rod of iron rebar I use to poke my pile is about 7 feet long, and makes a handy tool for aerating it through and through.

“To compost well, you must ‘think like a microbe’ and create the best environment to support microbial activity,” I learn from Florida’s Online Composting Center, managed by the University of Florida. “Microbes have similar environmental needs as people: water, air, comfortable temperatures, and food. Because they reproduce so quickly under ideal conditions, microbes may deplete the available oxygen through their activity. Therefore, it is important to aerate your compost.

“You can aerate your compost by turning it. This directly incorporates oxygen into the pile. You can aerate by adding bulky items. Bulky items provide air channels so that oxygen can flow into and through the compost. Bulky items also keep the pile from settling and compacting, which could restrict oxygen flow. Bulky items include oak leaves, pine needles, chipped twigs, and straw. You can aerate by probing the pile with a piece of rebar or an aeration tool. Simply probe the devise in several places in the pile. This will create passageways for air to enter the pile.”

Though I’ve dug out both front and back walls of rotting leaf mold to add cavalcades of fresh green manure to its sloping sides and on top, the epicenter remains out of reach with the pitchfork. Probing my pile with the rebar is like sticking a knife into a loaf of bread baking in the oven. I can tell that my pile is well on the way of becoming a uniform heap of ripening compost, though the rod meets more resistance is it pokes through to the untouched core, the undiscovered country.

The tip of the rod emerges from the mix steaming hot, and surely these thrusts give it much needed air. My probing takes only a minute, the exertion balanced by the trickier task of not slipping off the slick tops of the log walls. As much as it needed the recent rain, I know my pile also needs big gulps of air, and after a couple dozen thrusts from above and at ground level, it’s now riddled with slender shafts of space through which to breathe.

One of the blessings of my pile is that it’s as low maintenance as I want it, or need it, to be. It places few demands on my time, asks nothing of me, and accepts only and all of what I care to give it. And best, the thing it needs most is what’s most valuable and free and easy of all to give: Air.

My Pile: Soaking It All In

A dry spell, classified as a moderate drought by the local weather service, draws me outside after a day at work in my office cubicle. I relish chasing the daylight with an evening walkabout in the backyard. My evening perambulations allow me to track how the various living things I tend to are developing from day to day.

It’s the time of year for such idle pursuits. I see the need to water the new tomato plants and salad seedlings in the vegetable garden and the tender transplants I’ve made among the perennial beds. My pile looks a bit thirsty, too.

Often this time of year, without much of a garden agenda and few pressing yardscape duties, I simply take a seat on one of the sizable rocks set along the perennial beds, or plop down on the shortest logs at the front end of my pile, and take in the remains of the day. One of the charms of southern New England in June is just how long the days are; sunset tonight is well after 8 pm. Better yet, with the lack of rain comes the bonus of enjoying the backyard at twilight without needing to mow the lawn yet again — or having to swat away any mosquitoes.

A favorite perch is a a bench set along the front of the tool shed. Made of a slab of burl wood a neighbor had retrieved from the dump, it was once perhaps a coffee table. It was stacked against the side of his house for several years before I borrowed it, setting in on two logs of paper birch. It makes a nice shady spot from which to consider my backyard. Across 10 feet of wood chips is my pile, directly in front is the vegetable garden, which is set in a corner cutout of my house, next to the patio that leads to the kitchen.


Pet projects: The dog and my pile, and plenty of places to sit and observe them both.

The dog, ever frisky, implores me play catch, sticking a tennis ball in my crotch. Aside from the panoramic view, the bench puts me in position to toss balls in two directions across the lawn, both of a distance that’s just right for my throwing arm and for the chasing dog to snag one-hoppers with an acrobatic leap.

In this well-watered section of southern New England, kept cooler still by the nearby Long Island Sound, normally I wouldn’t consider having to water my garden plantings and brittle brown spots of the grass lawn until the dog days of summer.

The storms that sweep up the Atlantic Seaboard or rake eastward from Thunder Alley of the Plain States deliver frequent dousings of water, whether (or weather) in the form of snowflakes, misty showers or full-on gully washers. Not to make gardeners in drier climes envious, but my backyard gets some 50 inches of precipitation a year, parceled out pretty evenly on a monthly basis, or about an inch of water a week.

Or not, as these past couple weeks has shown. The young plants are tender, and though a stretch of showers are predicted to arrive later in the week, I fret that if I don’t soon water the seedlings in the vegetable garden and the recent transplants among the perennial beds, all my care toward getting them going to this point in the season will be wasted. I take particular responsibility for an oakling that sprouted in the vegetable patch that I’ve moved to a spot in the wood-chip mulch  along the back fence. A soaking of water is the least I can do to help the oak succeed in putting down new roots, in its new home, one that I hope it will have for the next century — if it can last through the next few days.

Taking my leave from the backyard bench, I unspool the hose from its perch against the house and stretch its loopy coils out alongside the vegetable garden.

I enjoy hand-watering, the feel of a thumb growing numb with the gush of water, chilled by the buried pipes that deliver it from a reservoir 20 miles upstream. I’ve never considered going through the expense and hassle of an in-ground irrigation system.

Watering with the hose gives me control, a say in what grows. And in addition to being stingy, the strike of stream gives me direct feedback. I trace the spray of gushing around the perimeter of the oakling, trying to envision how the fluid will work its way into the ground that surrounds its fragile young roots. Am I helping give them purchase? Or drowning them?

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along with a hose.

The design of my backyard garden beds makes it easy to hand water, selectively hitting each plant in need as I stroll along the border with a hose.

I spritz the vegetable garden, feathering the water spray in my best imitation of a gentle, soaking rain. I also keep three old 5-gallon paint buckets near the back door, and fill them as well. For the dog, as well as spot watering, hauling a bucket or two in a spare moment over to the ferns I’ve resettled or a clump of perennials recently split from old root stock.

I stretch the hose over to the back corner of the yard and water the shade garden. Hard by my pile, it’s the lowest point on the property, to and through which all the water drains. I fancy it as my wetlands and have planted it as such, with an array of ferns and hostas and even a skunk cabbage brought home years ago from a nearby marsh that was being developed into new homes. The corner is always last on my route with the hose and I admit to spoiling it with extra water like a favored child.

I stick the hose into my pile, first along one of the log walls, then the other. I can’t see where and how the water flows into the mix, but figure the two flanking sides of my pile have been disturbed the least over the winter and early spring, and are likely still mostly a mix of leaves and proto compost pulled from the center during past excavations. Surely these sections can use a soaking of water, if only to help them catch up to the steaming mix of grass clippings and kitchen waste that are cooking away in the cauldron that is the center of my pile. I give the hose just a minute in either spot, vainly trying to calculate flow rates and minutes per gallon and such, then extract the hose to thumb the dried leaves across the top with a quick, cooling rinse.

“The average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor uses,” I read on the EPA’s WaterSense website. “More than half of that outdoor water is used for watering lawns and gardens.”

And, yes, I do feel rather foolish about watering a pile of old rotting leaves, but so be it. I’ve also pondered the amount of space and resources given over to lawns, and weighed all that a nicely green patch of turfgrass gives to me and my pile against its cost. I like grass, but when it comes to watering it, I am all about tough love.

“Lawns consume massive amounts of water, I read on “In a study published in Environmental Management in 2005, researchers estimated there are 40 million acres of turf grass in the U.S., covering 1.9 percent of the land. If all that is kept well watered, it could use 60 million acre-feet of water a year (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot). That’s more water than is used to grow all the corn, rice, alfalfa in the country, as well as to irrigate every orchard and vineyard.

“The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one third of all water from public sources, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons a day, goes toward landscaping—most of it on grass. In addition, some experts estimate that as much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems.”

How best to irrigate a suburban property while minimizing the waste of water is a tricky subject. The answer depends. Adrian Higgins, a garden writer for The Washington Post, tackles it in a thoughtful way:

“When the weather turns dry, readers urge me to commend arid-zone gardening, with tap-rooted succulents and wildflowers that endure drought. The problem, however, is that Washington isn’t Colorado or California. We get blizzards and tropical storms and plain old spring gully washers that soak the clay soil and dictate a range of plants that grow lush but need a fair amount of soil moisture. We don’t typically suffer the water deficiencies found in the Southwest, though we can in some years.

But access to water, and a valid need to water the type of plants we must grow here, doesn’t mean we should squander it. Driveways and sidewalks don’t need sprinkling, though this reality is clearly lost on many.

Automatic vs. hand watering

Automatic irrigation systems can work effectively, but there is something about them that I find distasteful. You wonder if they have been installed to remove the owner from actually having to fuss with the vegetation. They also work against plants, including trees that decline in constantly soggy conditions. And as a gardener friend pointed out, a sprinkler head in May might do its job. By July, a burly perennial like a big hosta may have smothered the thing, luxuriating while its neighbors are gasping.

Hand watering takes time but permits you to see what needs water the most. A wand attachment delivers a lot of water, but softly. A hose-end sprayer is a disaster. Having a riot of color in your flower beds is one thing; turning a water cannon on the poor things is quite another. The water delivers force but not volume, so the flowers are beaten up while remaining dry.

Experienced gardeners just put their thumbs over the end of an open hose to deliver water near and far, sparingly or by the gallon, but in a controlled and relatively gentle fashion.

What needs a soak?

Diligent watering is nowhere more important than in the vegetable garden. Plants grown for their fruit will be grudging and sick if drought stressed. Peppers and tomatoes develop a disease called blossom end rot if yanked by dryness. Deep, amended garden beds that are mulched need to be soaked only twice a week to support healthy plants, though seedlings and transplants will need watering more often.”


Toppin off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

Topping off my pile with a brief soak of water on a June evening.

During the dry days of late summer, I will set out a rainbow-arc sprinkler to keep the lawn from becoming thoroughly brown and crunchy dry. I enjoy the art of adjusting the sprinkler so the individual streams wave back and forth, reaching the edge of the lawn just so. A lawn that is lush enough to appeal both the eye and bare foot is worthwhile. Plus, when my son was younger, he and the neighborhood kids delighted in running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day, the bravest among them sticking their face or butt directly on top of it.

I don’t recall who got the idea, but at some point we set the arcing sprinkler directly under the trampoline so that its spray shot up through the black webbing. The kids loved bouncing on top their splash pad, and I let the water soak deep into the ground and drift into and along the hosta beds behind the trampoline.

Hand-watering vs. an in-ground sprinkler system? I see it as akin to the argument of using a rake versus a leaf blower. I own the infernal contraption and use it for certain tasks, like blowing grass clippings off the gravel driveway or leaves from the street into a pile.

I’m no Luddite, and see the value and ingenuity of, say, using up a high-tech drip system in a more arid garden — and the impracticality of setting up the requisite network of pipes and valves in this hardscrabble yet well-watered clime. Mostly I prefer the simple, hand-crafted mode of gardening, and using a rake, water hose or rainbow sprinkler when I can. It’s more peaceful, more sustainable. The backyard, and my pile, is a refuge from the remote and abstract technology and material consumption that now define our lives, and my manual labor in the garden keeps me in touch with a more natural, hand’s-on state of being.


My Pile: In Clover

Memorial Day Weekend has passed, and though this side of the planet still tilts toward spring, the calendar says June and the vibe says summer. The onset of hot, sunny days and warm humid nights, along with a parade-spoiling thunderstorm that drenched the backyard with an inch of needed rain, have conspired to send the lawn into overdrive.

The early-flowering bulbs, azaleas, bleeding hearts and rhododendrons have prospered and peaked. Until the summer flowers blossom with their showy displays of pink and white and magenta and blue and orange, the color of my backyard is leafy green, and that’s money for my pile.

Though it begins each season as a massive heap of old brown leaves, albeit amended with frequent additions of fresh compostibles, my pile finishes by gorging on grass. It’s only fitting as by volume, not to mention square feet, the steady harvest of clipped turfgrass and ground-covering kin every spring, summer and fall represents my backyard’s biggest source of organic recyclables, its green manure.


The lawn is the biggest source of organic recyclables for my pile each summer. I’ve let several “micro meadows” grow, including this patch of grass and clover.


Say our Wiki friends: “In a 2005 NASA-sponsored study, it was estimated that the area covered by lawns in the United States to be about 128,000 square kilometres (49,000 sq mi), making it the nation’s largest irrigated crop by area. Lawn care is thus a major business in the United States; maintenance, construction and management of lawns of various kinds being the focus of much of the modern horticulture industry. Estimates of the amount spent on professional lawn care services vary, but a Harris Survey in 2002 put the total approximately $1,200 per household using such services.”

That’s a lot of green, and all of my share stays in my back pocket, my pile and my backyard.

In her book, “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” (1994) Virginia Scott Jenkins traces the historic desire, transplanted from the landed gentry of Europe, for Americans to feature squares of tapis vert, or “green carpet,” as part of their greenscapes. Though borrowed from abroad, the notion is now as American as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, I read in “Blades of Glory,” which reports both grew English-style lawns on their colonial estates, kept close cropped by resident sheep, horses and cows and, no doubt, the labor of slaves.

The article, published by The Week, quotes Jenkins as stating that “‘Front lawns didn’t really trickle down to the common man ‘until the development of suburban housing after the Civil War.’ With World War II’s end and Americans’ mass exodus from cities, lawns became emblems of American leisure and prosperity.” The invention of the lawn mower, first as a hand-powered rotary sickle blade, then gas-powered engine, further fueled the trend.

The Week trots out the arguments in favor of the American lawn: “A well-kept lawn is an outdoor refuge, a place for touch football and summer parties, ‘a carpet all alive,’ said the poet William Wordsworth. Writer Katherine S. White called the lawn ‘a soft mattress for a creeping baby’ that adds ‘restful green perspectives’ to the landscape. Realtors claim a nice lawn adds as much as 11 percent to the value of a home. Beyond curb appeal, tidy lawns are the connective tissue of neighborhoods, providing a common element that links our residences to one another and to nature. And researchers have recently discovered that chemicals released by a freshly mowed lawn make people feel happy and relaxed.”

The article also points out how much the lawn has become “a burden for generations of homeowners. Today, about 80 percent of all American homes have lawns. Great sacrifices of time, energy, money, and natural resources go into mowing, trimming, edging, and feeding all that grass.

“Lawn care is a $40-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Because much of the country is not hospitable to turfgrasses—none of which are native species—we use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually just to keep lawns thriving, bright green, and bug-free. Fertilizers contain high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which run off into drains during rainstorms, contaminating drinking water, leaching into rivers and streams, and causing ecological havoc. Pesticides and herbicides, too, which are used by homeowners in ever-increasing quantities, find their way into the air and soil.

“Then there’s the carbon footprint of the lawn. Americans spend more than 3 billion hours a year pushing or riding gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment that gives off toxic exhaust and greenhouse gases. A gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 11 cars. These facts have triggered a backlash against the country’s love affair with large, immaculate swaths of green grass. ‘We have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns,’ said author and activist Michael Pollan.”

I admit to a growing obsession with the look and feel and texture of my lawn, and the need for motorized help to keep it in check. Jenkins herself argues that “American front lawns are a symbol of man’s control of, or superiority over, his environment.” I am thoroughly American in that regard, though question how much superiority I have over its control, especially with a balky old push mower and without the aid, in most years, of any store-bought fertilizers or herbicides.

But I do see the lawn as a boon for my pile, the true object of my backyard affections. Another factoid from the web: The average half-acre lawn in New England – about the size of my property — produces over 3 tons of grass clippings a year. Like I said, that’s a lot of green, and it’s too good to go to waste.

According to Chris Starbuck, a horticulturalist at the University of Missouri Extension, grass clippings contain about 4 percent nitrogen, 2 percent potassium and 1 percent phosphorus. Returned to the lawn, clippings provide up to 25 percent of your lawn’s total fertilizer needs. While decomposing, they also serve indirectly as a food source for the bacteria in the soil, which are doing many beneficial things (such as decomposing thatch) for a healthy turf environment. Grasscyling can also reduce mowing time by nearly 40 percent, vs. bagging, saving fuel and additional money on trash bags as well as reducing or eliminating fertilizer (which themselves are incredibly energy and resource intensive to produce), Starbuck adds.

As voluminous and valuable a crop of cut grass is to recycle through my pile, it is not even close to being the most recycled product in America. Know what is?


According to the National Asphalt Paving Association, as early as 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Highway Administration identified asphalt pavement as America’s No. 1 recycled product in a report to Congress. It continues to be reclaimed and reused at a greater rate than any other product in the U.S.

This fact came to light as I came home early today, the hump day Wednesday after the Memorial Day Holiday Weekend, to find the street along my property in the process of being stripped of its old and crumbly veneer of asphalt by a huge mechanical contraption that grinds the pavement into pebbly chunks and sluices them up a conveyor belt into a waiting dump truck sidled alongside. If the street crews are busy black-topping the nation’s roads late in the day, it truly must be summer.

I’ve let the lawn go through the long Memorial Day Weekend, in favor of parades to attend to and beaches to picnic on. Now the bill has come due. The grass is tall and thick enough to swallow the tennis balls I toss to the dog and hide his morning poo, which is my marker for high time to mow.

I’d planned a long overdue session in the yard but with the din of the repaving I head inside to wait for the machines to make their way further down the street. It’s hard to decompress in gardening mode while a lumbering machine is beeping and belching and spewing asphalt on the other side of the forsythia hedge.

I am intrigued to find on NAPA’s website that “A wide range of waste materials are now incorporated into asphalt pavements, including ground tire rubber, glass, foundry sand, slag, and even pig manure, but the most widely used are reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) and recycled asphalt shingles (RAS). The use of recycled materials in asphalt pavements saves hundreds of millions of cubic yards of landfill space each year.

“Asphalt pavement is not only America’s most recycled and reused material, it now is being recycled and reused at a rate over 99 percent. Use of environmentally friendly warm-mix asphalt grew by more than 148 percent from 2009 to 2010, a trend that is expected to continue. Recycling of asphalt pavements and asphalt shingles in 2010 alone conserved 20.5 million barrels of asphalt binder. According to the latest survey data by NAPA, during the 2013 construction season more than 67.8 million tons of RAP and nearly 1.65 million tons of RAS were put to use in new pavements in the U.S., saving taxpayers more than $2 billion.

“Using reclaimed materials also reduces demands on aggregate resources. Warm-mix asphalt technologies allow asphalt pavements to be produced at lower temperatures, which means reduced energy demands, as well as lower emissions during production and paving.”

Still, Joni Mitchell’s siren song had it about right. We’ve paved paradise: According to Yahoo Answers, “The United States, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times. However we visualize it, the U.S. area devoted to roads and parking lots covers an estimated 16 million hectares (61,000 square miles), an expanse approaching the size of the 21 million hectares that U.S. farmers planted in wheat last year.”

A Yahoo answerer, a “johnslaut,” adds, “Once paved, land is not easily reclaimed. As environmentalist Rupert Cutler once noted, ‘Asphalt is the land’s last crop.’”

With the noising street machine steaming down the street, I close my browser to finish strip-mining Google for such thoughts and head back outside. I have my own harvesting to do. Grass is my wheat, my backyard bounty, my green pavement. In this growing season, the culling of grass must be done on almost a weekly basis.

The lawn is dotted with white button balls of clover flowers, and it almost seems a shame to decapitate them. But many escape the mower’s swath and more will soon sprout anew to nourish both my soil with their nitrogen-fixing roots and the bees that buzz across it with their energy-rich nectar. I’m in clover, and so is my pile. Lucky for both of us.

Sadly, though, the bees are nowhere to be seen this spring. I read why on the Hartford Courant: “Connecticut beekeepers reported losing nearly half of their honeybees during the summer and winter of 2015-16, according to a new report, a die-off rate even higher than the national average of 44 percent. The national survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that the 2015-16 season was the second consecutive year when summer bee losses rivaled winter die-offs.”

“State and national experts call the continuing losses of honeybees — which are essential for pollinating crops humans depend on — a major concern and unsustainable in the long run.

“‘The fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming,’ said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. Most scientists studying the problems of honeybee die-offs agree that these extraordinary death rates are the result of a combination of poor bee nutrition due to loss of habitat, disease, and pesticides.”

A member of the leguminous pea family Fabacea, clover or trefoil — or Trifolium — to botanists — is cultivated around the world as nutritious fodder for livestock, as a source for mild and sweetly flavored clover honey, and as a cover crop that naturally fertilizes the soil. Anyone with a bit of the Irish in them, like me, love their shamrocks, and as a kid I happily hunted for four-leaf clovers. I have mostly white clover in my backyard, though there is some more gangly red clover here and there.

Why is this green manure so valuable? The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grow in symbiotic partnership with clover roots convert atmospheric nitrogen that nourishes the plants and others around it. When clover dies, the fixed nitrogen is released, fertilizing the soil to the tune of up to 200 pounds per acre, according to the Wikipedia page about clover. The effects are long-lasting, too: When used as a cover crop, upwards of half of the nitrogen produced by the rhizobia bacteria in the root nodules remains. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

I leave the three micro meadows of uncut grass and clover intact, mowing around them, and create several new islands elsewhere in the yard. These patches of natural artifice make the cut grass that surrounds them look even more manicured. It may be the native Nebraskan in me, but I like the look of amber waves of grain, especially in the early morning or dusk, when highlighted by the sunlight passing through the stems bowed heavy by their ripening seeds. I will cut the untrammeled patches in mid-summer more as field hay than turfgrass, after ripping a fistful or two of grass seed from the stems to hand seed in the fall. But for now they stand as quirky symbols, exclamation points, really, of pastoral nature left to be — not to mention the pots of golden soil buried underneath.


A patch of uncut grass next to a young hickory that was five feet tall and growing in the backyard bramble I cleared 12 years ago to create the lawn. Live and let live, I say.

I let the bag fill up but continue mowing, churning most of the clippings back into the lawn. Still, I stop three times to empty the stuffed grass-catcher at the base of my pile. It is thick with mulched maple seeds and sycamore seed fluff; the backyard is a battleground in the sometimes uncivil war between tree and turf, and right now the lawn is winning. To my pile, go the spoils.

After collecting the neighbor’s kitchen trimmings, plus my own Hooch bucket, I dig into the back of my pile, forming first a trench by excavating steaming clumps of last week’s insertion of dried spruce needles and grass. The burnt-orange needles are tinged with white mold and red hot to the touch; it is living rust, and upturned on the new berm will be exposed to much-needed air.

With the pitchfork I gouge out leaf duff from the pockets in both back corners to top dress the feverish mix with clutches of cool dry leaves and crumbly shakings. I toss in lengthwise three flower stalks culled from the rhubarb in the vegetable garden. My pile needs all the air I can give it with the pitchfork, and once buried these hollow stems will serve as shafts for air within it at least for a day or two.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

Next into the trench go the two buckets of kitchen scraps, which I bury with further scrapings from across the back face of my pile, more dry fodder to mix with the next heaping of grass clippings at my feet. I grab a handful to toss across the pile; the fermenting clippings are already so hot it’s like sticking my hands into a pot of boiling water.

I’m careful to spread the subsequent layers of new green and old brown as thinly as I can, tossing and turning as I go. My pile is its own aggregate mix, at least the top part, equal parts new and old, hot and cold, moist and dry, dank and airy.

I work my way around the front of my pile to trench out another berm along the top, turning upward and outward everything within reach of my pitchfork, matching the trench created and now filled along the back. Looking at my pile from the side, today’s excavation and back-filling would take the shape of a long “W.”

I borrow more brown fodder from the base and corners to bury the rest of the clippings of grass and clover. It’s strip mining in reverse, helping my pile do in a matter or weeks what it takes eons for the bigger heap that is the earth to produce: Not coal or oil or tar sands, but the rich dark crumbly new resource called humus. Through my pile and fair bit of sweat and toil, much of it will soon be recycled straight back into the lawn, nourishing both its life and my own.

I’m proud of my lawn — weeds and other warts, clover and all — and will defend its rightful, restorative place in my backyard and as an integral part of the American landscape — and dream. Still, as Little Richard once said, “The grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut.”