My Pile: Heave and Haw

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Pile: Spring Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pile: Winter Windfall

I mowed the lawn today, the first Sunday of March. Though a bright, blue-sky day, it’s hardly in the mid-40s by mid afternoon. With the soil temperatures even lower, the grass is still dormant; in fact, it is brown and brittle. The sight of bare ground is at least a change from last winter, when snow covered the ground until nearly April.

Why mow, and why now? The sycamore tree that lords over the northwest corner of my yard has been shedding spiky seed balls all through the winter. Once as hard as golf balls, the seed pods that adorn the branches overhead by the thousands are now ripening. Cottony brown fluff drifts across the yard on the gentlest of breezes; firmer winds knock the balls down to the ground, where they disintegrate into so much dander.

You have to give the tree credit for being so fecund – old-timers know the sycamore as the buttonball tree for its prodigious supply of so much spawn – but on a suburban lawnscape, the scattered mess is a nuisance. The downspouts of my gutters are filled with fluff, as are the storm drains along the street. Last weekend I fired up the leaf blower to preemptively whisk the seedballs and dander from the gravel driveway; otherwise I’m sure I’d have to spend the spring pulling sprouts or, worse, contemplate using weed killer.

The fluffy seeds are so thick across the lawn that my across-the-street neighbor commented on it the other day; in fact it was he who suggested I haul out the mower and scarf it all up with the leaf catcher. Aside from the scandalous unsightliness of so much windblown detritus, I worry whether the covering of seeds will choke off growth of the grass. And I wonder whether this windfall of organic plant matter, once gathered, could benefit my pile.

So I haul the Toro from the saltbox shed and set it in a patch of sunlight in front of my pile to warm the engine block. I last used the mower in late November to mulch the final leaves of fall, and wonder if it will start up. I check the gas tank to find it half-full, and worry whether the gas has gone bad.  But the engine starts up after a few tugs on the starter cord, and off I go.

Coursing over the brittle brown grass, I fill three tall leaf bags full of fluff and set them against the side of the tool shed, hard by my pile. I have no plans to mess with my pile weekend, but at least for now my lawn is relatively clear of the messy amount of fluff.

I haul out the mower for a late-winter gathering of the seedballs that fall across the lawn in the shadow of the sycamore tree.

I haul out the mower for a late-winter gathering of the seedballs that have fallen across the lawn in the shadow of the sycamore tree.

Intrigued by such a display of fecundity, I read up on Plantanus occidentalis, and find that the seed balls are called achenes, which means “dry, hairy fruit.” Each ball contains hundreds of seeds emanating from a round kernel the size of a pea. Each seedhead has a tail, which ripens into silken strands. It’s actually a marvel of design. I also find, on www.eattheweeds.com, that the seeds are eaten by some birds, “including the purple finch, goldfinch, chickadees, and dark-eyed junco. The seeds are also eaten by muskrats, beavers, and squirrels.” I’ve never seen anything, feathered or furred, exhibit the slightest appetite for sycamore seeds, but this year’s windfall may explain why the finches and chickadees have been noticeably absent from my bird-feeder this winter.

On www.homeguides.sfgate.com, I read that “While sycamore seed balls can be a nuisance to clear away, they can also be put to a variety of practical uses,” from craft projects to, yes, compost:

“Since sycamore seed balls are organic plant matter, they will decompose naturally over time. Rather than bagging them and throwing them away with the garbage, compost the seed balls so that their nutrients can be recycled to create rich new soil. Sycamore seed balls take longer to break down than everyday kitchen scraps, so place them in a large outdoor compost bin where they can decompose gradually.”

The sycamore tree that lords over the corner of my yard is still adorned with countless seed balls.

The sycamore tree that lords over the corner of my yard is still adorned with countless seed balls.

Of course, the easiest solution would be for me to send off the bags of seed fluff to the yard waste dump with the collection of wind-blown branches and limbs I’ve collected over the winter. But that’s not why I tend to my pile.

The tricky part will be in incorporating this fine mess within my pile in a way that heats the seeds sufficiently to prevent them from germinating. As is, I’ve gathering up only a fraction of all the seed balls; countless more seeds now lie atop the garden beds and lawn. I look up through the sycamore arching branches to see as many, if not more, seed balls wait to fall across my yard.

Some years, the sycamore produces only a smattering of seed balls; who knows what vagueries of the tree itself and the climatic prompts it responds to have combined to produce such a windfall, but there it is. Keeping all this “brown” filler onsite and adding it to my pile will be my challenge as the season changes and my pile resumes its march toward fruition.

My Pile: Armchair Composting

Winter is slowly loosening its grip upon the landscape and my pile — but here in coastal southern New England the onset of spring remains a distant prospect. In a futile bid to break a bad case of cabin fever, I tried to take a walk on the beach with the dog yesterday but was turned back by a biting, bone-chilling wind.

The lure of resuming outdoor pleasures is growing stronger by the day, spurred on by the fact that spring training is now under way down south for the boys of summer and the envious sights on weekend TV of pro golfers playing away across verdant fairways in warmer climes.

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but for the moment it is: I awoke this morning to find the backyard dusted by a thin covering of snow. Letting the dog out, I trudge across the crusty stubble of grass to check on my pile. Tendrils of steam rise through damp patches of salt marsh straw. The inner warmth of my pile is sloughing off the coating of snow, a most welcome sign.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

My pile shrugs off a dusting of snow on an early March morning.

But still, it is a slow march toward spring, which in these parts always includes a slog through mud season as the frozen ground slowly thaws and turns to mush. At the moment, there is little of productive use to do with my pile, or anywhere else in the backyard lawn and garden. There is no seaweed to glean from the beach; no green yard waste to dispatch; not even much kitchen scraps to bother with. If there is a downtime for my pile, a period in its yearly cycle when the heap is best left to its own devices, this is it.

“January to the end of March,” lamented Vita Sackville-West. ” I wish we had a name for that intermediate season which includes St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and All Fools’ Day, April 1st. It is neither one thing nor the other, neither winter nor spring. Could we call it wint-pring, which has a good Anglo-Saxon sound about it, and accept it, like marriage, for better or worse?”

No wonder the concept of taking a spring “break” — a fling from wint-pring — is so tantalizing for those of us still sidelined by winter. In years past, Florida has been our escape, whether it’s a week on the beach near the grandparents’ condo or a visit to the fantastical attractions of an amusement park in Orlando.

Alas, this year my son and I will ride out the remaining days of winter at home. I head inside to spend a Saturday afternoon with further readings from my shelf of garden books and some online browsing. Many avid gardeners while away this interrugnum by perusing seed catalogs and such. I long for a more active escape.

Call it armchair composting, a virtual trip to where the sun is always shining upon ground more fertile and fecund than anything back home. I grab my copy of Dirt, by William Bryant Logan, a “mystic biologist” who has written the Cuttings garden column in The New York Times.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

He’s also described on the jacket as the Writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, which no doubt contributed to the book’s subtitle, “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.”

Setting out the case for replenishing the global supply of quality topsoil in part by through recycling efforts, Logan writes: “Like every other gardener, I wanted to find the magic soil, the dirt of Eden. The eighteenth-century Agriculturalist Arthur Young called the vale in southern England between Farnham and Alton ‘the finest ten miles in England.’ I wanted to find the finest ten acres in America.”

I turn to the chapter, “The Compost Man,” and soon find myself happily transported to the Disney World of compost.

Logan’s quest for the best dirt on earth takes him to Florida, where he meets one Clark Gregory:

“He slung a gallon Ziploc bag into my lap. ‘Smell that,’ he said.

It looked dark and it felt squishy. ‘What is it?’ I asked. After all, I’d just met the guy.

‘Scallop viscera compost,’ he replied.

Ah….Well, I was asking for it, so I opened the bag and took a very slight whiff. Then I breathed in deeply. It smelled sweet and earthy, with a little tang of citrus somewhere. If I’d been a wine taster, I could probably have described it fully, but it was more than ok. It was very pleasant.

‘Ninety six tons of scallop viscera, twelve hundred yards of shredded pine bark from a log builder, twenty-four tons of orange peel, and nine tons of shredded water hyacinth,’ said Gregory.

What? I asked.

‘That’s what it’s made out of,’ he said.”

Gregory escorts Logan to a municipal landfill and composting operation in Brevard County. There, Logan meets up with Ollie King, who takes him up on top of his Scat tractor and starts to work the five-hundred-foot-long rows of compost in the making.

“’I like working the compost,’” he says.

A whitish cloud of steam rises behind us as we churn up the eight-foot-high rows. He turns neatly at the end of each row and guns the big Scat down the next one. Occasionally, we hit a patch that is less well cooked and a stink of dead meat rises.

Afterward, as we walk down the chocolate-brown rows together, Ollie says of the smell I’ve mentioned, ‘That’s nothing,’ He looks around in the heap, combing through the remains of conch, crabs, whelks and barnacle-covered cans, the wasted ‘by-catch’ of a commercial scallop-dredging operation. He sniffs at a red crab claw that now has the texture of wet cardboard, then discards it. He sniffs a whelk, makes a face, and hands it to me.

‘There!’ he says simply.

This is not the smell of ammonia or sulphur. It is beyond odor.

I asked him, ‘I know that you can compost many things, but aren’t there things that just have to be thrown away?’

‘There’s no such place as away,’ he replied curtly.

‘Look,’ I insisted. ‘Compost is compost, but aren’t some things just waste?

He answered, ‘It isn’t waste until it’s wasted.’

I’m also intrigued by the chapter, “Saint Phocas As Fertilizer,” which is about the patron saint of the garden, who instructed the Romans who killed him to compost him in his garden.

Here’s more dirt on “Dirt,” from youtube.com:

If I had a bucket list of compost destinations, high on the list would be Cedar Grove Composting outside of Seattle, Washington. I found mention of the operation on the delightfully named website, www.compostjunkie.com, managed by Dave Dittmar, who professes to be “addicted to compost.”

I learn that Cedar Grove is one of the largest commercial composting companies in the United States, processing over 350,000 tons of yard waste and green waste annually at five facilities that is then sold for use in soil amending, water conservation, erosion control, farming, and post construction soil enhancement. It is also used as the base to create high-end mulches, designed soil blends, green roof mixes and other growing media. Cedar Grove offers a full line of compost-based soil amendments available for purchase by the truckload or sustainable organic products for consumers by the bag, according to their website.

An aerial view of one of Dedar Grove's composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

An aerial view of one of Cedar Grove’s composting facilities outside of Seattle, Washington.

“Working collaboratively with waste haulers, city and county government, businesses and citizens, it represents one of the best models of green and sustainable industry in the country,” reports Dittmar.

I’m fascinated to learn that there are more “compost junkies” out there than I ever realized: I read on Cedar Grove’s website that their facility in Everett has “had more visitors than any other composting facility in North America, with over 5,000 people from 17 countries touring our operation.”

Below is a visitor’s photo of his son playing in Cedar Grove compost. And I thought I was immersed in my pile…

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.

A young boy playing in Cedar Grove compost.

 

 

 

My Pile: Tools of the Trade

A strong low-pressure system roared up from the Southeast overnight, dousing the region with a cold, drenching rain. Howling winds whipsawed the trees in my backyard, their bare branches backlit by flashes of lightning. Thunderstorms in these parts in February are rare, or were.

Across town, roads were blocked by fallen trees, and many neighborhoods lost power. Nowadays, each passing storm extracts its toll on a century’s worth of suburban tree growth, and the trees that do fall victim are often the ones poised to do the most damage — those along streets lined with utility wires. Some are demasted, their top-heavy trunks snapped clean off, while others are upended whole, root ball and all.

Seeing a tall tree arching far overhead, the mind wants to picture a matching tap root extending as far and wide underground, but it often amazes me how perilous the purchase of an old tree is, a three-foot-wide trunk supported by the sketchiest of root structures. If a tree falls in the forest, no one hears it, but when it falls across a road and a power line, everybody hears the utility crews the next day, sawing it up and carting it away, and reconnecting the power cables.

The trees in my yard are mostly unscathed, but not before getting a haphazard pruning that has sheared off a copious amount of small branches and limbs. That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. The trees in my yard rely on these windstorms to shed the new growth they can’t support, culling the old rotting branches they can, and must, live without.

By morning, a bright and sunny Saturday, the storm has passed, and the warming powers of the late-winter sun draw me outside, mostly to pick up sticks from across the yard. I grab the leaf rake from the shed and pull the small green tarp from off the wood pile. About 3 ft wide by 4 feet long, the heavy-gauge plastic is ringed by grommets through which a small rope passes. The rope allows me to bind up the tarp and use it as a sled.

Arborists consider the sycamore a junk tree, and woodcutters have no use for it. I have two on either side of my property. Sporting pretty, dappled bark and firmly rooted in the ground, the sycamore is an attractive tree, but it’s particularly messy. The largest hovers over my neighbor’s driveway, and this morning I stray over the fence to rake up the twigs, bark, branches and copious amounts of fluffy brown seedballs that have rained down through the storm. My neighbors are in Florida for the month, snowbirds waiting out the worst of the New England winter. I swipe the broken twigs from the top of their car and off the windshield and pile the tangly tree debris on the tarp.

I drag the sled past my pile to the heap of branches and prunings I keep under the pine tree in the corner of my yard, close by the street. Some of the sticks I break into pieces and burn in the backyard firepit, but most of these trimmings get carted off to the town’s yard refuse center a couple times a year.

The trees in my backyard shed branches throughout the year. Some is burned as kindling, but most get hauled off to the yard-waste dump.

The trees in my backyard shed branches throughout the year. Some are burned as kindling, but most get hauled off to the yard-waste dump.

The small tarp and its cottony cousin — the old tattered bedsheet I use to gather up fall leaves — are just part of the collection of tools and implements I’ve assembled over the years to tend my backyard and compost heap. Most of the tools hang on hooks on either side of the double doors, within easy reach.

There are many kinds of rakes, but I’m partial to the old-school metal-tined variety, which is particularly good for teasing out leaves from underneath bushes. The flat-tined bow rake is for heavier tasks, including re-arranging the salt marsh grass hay atop of my pile.

A good spade is an essential garden tool, of course, and so is the wide-mouth scoop shovel, which I use mostly for moving snow and wood chips. The edges of the aluminum flange are worn razor-thin and peel up at the end corners, the result of countless scrapings over ice and asphalt. Every couple of years I pound the curled-up edges flat with a claw hammer.

I like the fact that in some parts of England a pitchfork is known as a prong, and in parts of Ireland, a sprong. I rely on two types, one with five rounded, curving tines. Sometimes called a manure fork or a hay pitchfork, it’s designed for moving clumpy, bulky stuff like straw or wood chips, or compost. It’s ideal for grabbing and turning masses of leaves, though sometimes not without a struggle.

My heap of composting leaves being denser than most haystacks or the bedding of a horse stall, the pitchfork sometimes gets stuck with a clutch of impaled leaf mold. the mix. A pitchfork isn’t designed to work in reverse, and tugging it out of a clutch of mashed-up leaves has caused the pronged metal head to detach from the wood handle. A wooden golf tee hammered into the joint serves as a shim. The strength of that splice pretty much matches the load my own joints can bear in twisting or turning my pile. Better it fail than my back.

It’s the workhorse tool for my pile, and I rely on it to dig through my pile and distribute gobs of leaves and such until the finished compost sifts through the tines. When I have to trade the manure fork for the spade to sort through my pile, I know the compost is done.

Some of the tools I use to tend to my pile. The pitchforks are the go-to implements.

The tools I use to tend to my pile.

Some of my tools are store-bought, but the ones I prize are garage-sale finds, made in sturdier times and well used. The latter describes the two other pitchforks I own. Both have four flat tines. This type is often called a garden fork, and I use it to tease out the most compressed leaves from the sides of my pile, or to twist and turn the tines into a hole in its midst to mix things up.

I keep them both outside the shed and within reach of my pile, and as a result the wood handles are deeply weathered, the iron rusted. I also use the garden fork as a spade, to tease out the roots of a perennial for transplanting. In spring and fall I also use the garden fork to aerate patches of the lawn, stepping on the crossbar to plunge the tines up to the hilt. Each step creates four, 9-inch deep holes that jab through the hard-packed subsurface crust that often forms underneath turfgrass roots. Stepping on the garden fork a couple dozen times punctures a patch of lawn, allowing rainwater and air to permeate down through a rich column of microbial activity to the water table below. It’s good exercise, and such deep-tine aerating is the secret, I believe to healthy turfgrass, especially in high-traffic areas like my backyard. The myriad micro-holes, which are surely soon filled with the old grass clippings, chopped leaves and humus that I scatter across the ground, must be like so many pixie sticks for grazing worms.

This sort of poor man’s lawn aeration leads each spring to a bounty harvest of my backyard’s most reliable, the Connecticut potato. That’s what locals call the small rounded stones thrust up by the freeze and thaw cycle through the silty, sandy subsoil deposited by glaciers that gouged their way southward across this land 10,000 years ago.  I gather wheelbarrows full each spring, and fill in the voids the larger stones leave with spade fulls of compost from my pile. The steel tines of both garden forks are now slightly crooked, bent from probing for and plucking out scores of these stones.

Having given my pile a top-level turn when I stuffed it full of fresh compostibles a week ago, I have no big plans to take a deep dive today. But I can’t resist prodding my pile with the manure pitchfork. I plunge the bended tines through the crusty outer layer of leaves, teasing the mix up and out of its repose. This fluffing up will allow my pile to take shallow gulps of air, at least, and to be able to soak up more rain, which is on the way. A few thrusts of the rebar rod also help to infuse the inner reaches of my pile with deeper drafts of air.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” said Michaelango.

The ribbed iron bar pokes through the compressed leaves to reach the ting of hard ground. I remove my glove to check the temperature of the metal probe. It’s warm to the touch. The poke holes will be conduits for air and water and the unseen creatures that are reshaping my pile from withi to turn a mass of dead leaves and other organics into finished humus, renaissance sculptors if ever there were.

The lineup of composting tools, ready for spring.

The lineup of composting tools, ready for spring.

 

 

My Pile: Carbon Farming

My pile is a homegrown solution to a global problem — climate change caused by man-made increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

True, the vapors ever-rising from its midst are proof that my pile passes a lot of gas of its own making.

My pile is, after all, a hot mess of carbon-laden leaves spiked with nitrogen-rich combustibles. Its main purpose in life (and death) is to break down complex molecules into more elemental, reusable parts, as quickly and robustly as my meddling efforts make possible. A byproduct of that energetic process is greenhouse gases, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide and no doubt some methane as well.

A classic view of my pile in action, this on a frosty fall morning.

A classic view of my pile in action, this on a frosty fall morning.

Ever-increasing levels of those noxious fumes are now playing havoc with what has been a very human-friendly climate these past few millennia, give or take an ice age or two, or even this long slog of a snowbound winter.

But here’s some research from an EPA report from 2010 that supports the value of a compost pile as a way to lock up some of that excess carbon dioxide or otherwise offset its potentially ghastly effects on our environment. Living as I do in a fully four-season climate, hard by the intricate meeting of saltwater and shore, the weather forecast is a constant reminder of how delicate the balance is between comfort and crisis, near term and long.

I’ve extracted a few relevant bits from the footnote-laden report, but the conclusion to me is that my pile saves more energy and stashes away more carbon than it gives off in excess greenhouse gases.

“This guidance document describes the development of composting emission factors for EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM). Included are estimates of the net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from composting of yard trimmings and food scraps, as well as mixed organics.

…. During this decomposition, approximately 80 percent of the initial organic matter is emitted as CO2. The remainder of the organic compounds eventually stabilize and become resistant to further rapid microbial decomposition (i.e., recalcitrant).

…. Significant evidence exists that compost contains stable compounds, such as humus, and that the carbon stored in that humus should be considered passive when added to the soil because it breaks down much more slowly than crop residues.

…. Although EPA understands that generally compost is applied for its soil amendment properties rather than for pest control, compost has been effective in reducing the need for harmful or toxic pesticides and fungicides.

…. Manufacturing those agricultural products requires energy. To the extent that compost may replace or reduce the need for these substances, composting may result in reduced energy‐related GHG emissions.”

On a modest backyard scale, my pile is a farm factory. Its end product (more like a beginning) is humus, loaded with stable carbon molecules and other nice-to-have nutrients. These reconstituted elements are bound up in a loamy matrix of organics, teeming with life. This rich mix of newly made earth has a multiplier effect when spread across the land, leading to other eco-friendly results with lasting benefits, like more plant growth (photosynthesis = oxygen ), less water use and reduced need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

In “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson writes of reclaiming her worn-out suburban lawn through the use of leaf mold and compost, then uses the experience to tell the larger story of “How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.”

She reports: Carbon Farming. That’s the new thing.”

… Sometimes they called themselves microbe farmers, aware of the billions of tiny creatures that they couldn’t see but that scientists told them were at work in the soil. Sometimes they called themselves carbon farmers, knowing that it was the carbon that was making their soils richer, moister and darker. Some had been following the work of scientists who said that this kind of farming accelerated the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and could slow and maybe even turn back global warming.”

I am a compost farmer as much as I am a suburban dad who keeps a nice lawn for the kids to play on and a garden with fresh organic vegetables to put on the table.

My pile is my back 40, and its yearly crop of rich dark compost, teeming with life and recycled nutrients, chief among them repurposed carbon, is what makes my garden and lawn so prolific in the six months of the year when our world is green and growing.

My pile, a hot mess of carbon processing...

My pile, a hot mess of carbon processing. It’s a backyard factory that produces rich new earth.

Ohlson provides more of a global view, from the ground up:

Plants remove carbon dioxide from the air and, combined with sunlight, convert it to carbon sugars that the plant uses for energy. Not all the carbon is consumed by the plants. Some is stored in the soil as humus … a stable network of carbon molecules that can remain in the soil for centuries. There in the soil, the carbon confers many benefits. It makes the soil more fertile. It gives the soil a cakelike texture, structured with tiny air pockets. Soils rich in carbon buffer against both drought and flood soil is also rich with microorganisms – an amazing 6 billion in a tablespoon – that can disarm toxins and pollutants that soak into the soil through the rain.”

Ohlson makes the case that composting on a scale both large and small is one of the most effective, scalable ways to reduce the amount of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere.

Other scientist writers, such as David R. Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, and Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, have made similarly convincing arguments that when a civilization’s soil goes bust, that culture is toast.

“Ohio has lost 50 percent of its soil carbon in the last 200 years. But in areas of the world where cultivation has been going on for millennia, soil carbon depletion is much higher – up to 80 percent or more. Altogether, the world’s soils have lost up to 80 billion tons of carbon…. Even now, land misuse accounts for 30 percent of the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere,” writes Ohlson.

“With good soil practices, we could reverse global warming.”

To shift from thinking globally to acting locally, so about how much does a backyard compost pile contribute to carbon sequestration? The best account I can find is an article on The Global Citizen website by Donella H. Meadows, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute.

In “How Much Greenhouse Gas Does Your Garden Cut,” she relates relates some number-crunching done by Dr. Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin, for his brother David’s .4 acre organic garden — a plot about the size of my backyard.

Over 10 years of composting and other sustainable gardening practices, David and his wife, Judy, have increased the the percentage of organic matter in their communal garden in Maine from 1 percent to 7.7 percent.

That impressive boost translates to an increase of 2.2 pounds of carbon in every square foot of their garden. Add it all up and, according to Jon Foley’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, his brother has removed over 38,000 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere — 19 tons — over the past 10 years.

“The average American releases 6 to 6.5 tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” Foley reports, “So you have offset about three years of an average American’s emissions.”

My pile and backyard garden are surely of a more modest scale than the Foleys’ communal efforts, but composting surely reduces my carbon footprint in similar ways, and that’s a good step in the right direction.

 

My Pile: The Big Thaw

The warm spell continues, producing a weekend of springlike conditions. My pile is fast shedding its winter cloak of snow, and today, a Sunday, I will take advantage of the February thaw to prime my compost heap with a bounty of fresh compostibles.

The middle of my pile has sunken into itself. The backside wire fence strains to contain the stack of freeze-dried leaves squashed up against it. A swath of drifted snow turned rotted ice nestles along the backside of my pile, soaked further by a winter’s worth of pee. Patches of snow hold out in the crevasses of the log walls like retreating glaciers, and the north-facing front remains a frozen mat of crusty, frozen leaves.

It dawns on me that the reason my pile has looked so diminished of late is that I’m standing on a foot of packed snow that surrounds it, looking down on it from that much higher. Subtract that misstep and my pile has suddenly grown much in volume.

My pile is primed for spring. A winter's worth of cached green energy will soon help fuel its inner fires.

My pile is primed for spring. A winter’s worth of cached green energy will soon help fuel its inner fires.

Soon it will grow more. I have several bags of kitchen scraps in cold storage in the shed, and I know my neighbor’s compost bins are chockful as well. I also have a lidded ash can crammed with more coffee grounds from the closest Starbucks, a plump plastic bag full of shredded office paper and two plastic bins of salt marsh hay scooped up yesterday from the local beach. In all, I have 50 pounds or so of a variety of high-octane “greens” to stuff into my near-dormant pile, a haul that will surely help nurture it along through the waning days of winter.

Hemmed in by the weather these last few weeks, I’ve dipped into the cyberworld of composting, googling “Winter Composting” to stay attuned to my pile, if only virtually.

Near the top of the list is a helpful overview from organic gardening.com. The internet is one big compost pile itself, the digital humus of humanity. True, there are parts of the worldwide web that are toxically anaerobic, and stink about as much. But there is much fertile, active stuff worth digging through.

In “Cold Weather Compost,” Genevieve Slocum writes: “Even in winter, a compost pile is alive, an ecosystem in flux.”Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition activity in a compost pile,” explains Dave Wilson, research agronomist at the Rodale Institute. The microbial action in decomposition is exothermic, which means that heat is a by-product of the chemical process of breaking down the material.

The microbes’ metabolism slows down as the temperature dips, which explains why food keeps in a refrigerator or freezer. In winter, your goal is to create an ideal habitat for microbes. Think of it as “micro-husbandry.”

Among the tips is this: “Help chilly, sluggish microbes by doing some of the work for them—chop or shred both browns and greens before adding them to the pile. Tamara Listiak of the Texas A & M Cooperative Extension recommends shredding the material into pieces smaller than 2 inches. The pile heats up uniformly, and the small particles form a kind of mat that shields the pile’s warm core from outside temperature extremes, she explains.”

With so much chopped fodder for my pile on hand, I have plans to dig even deeper. With the front and back of my pile frozen thick and the center caved in on itself, I decide the best approach to the first pre-spring “turn” of my pile is to excavate the core. Standing atop the log walls, I use the hay pitchfork to spear clumps of the dankest, fulminating parts of my pile, and pull them out toward the edges, tossing and turning the collection as I go. It’s like strip mining in reverse, carving out chunks of leaf mold and composted kitchen greens from within my pile and stacking them up, out or to the side as efficiently as possible.

Poking across into the center of my pile through the tangle of seagrass stems at its top, I spot a fuzzy yellow green tennis ball, giving me the real reason for my dog’s nuzzling around my pile all winter; he’d lost a ball in snow long ago and like an old bone hadn’t been forgotten.

I toss it across the backyard and the dog is delighted to retrieve it, catching a high bounce off the still frozen ground. It turns out my pile really is made of memories

I dig down through my pile, turning up and over the detritus from the deposits from a month ago, before the snow started falling nearly a month ago. Most has already been consumed by the digestive process of my pile. The pitchfork tines hook on a scrap of coffee filter here, poke a half eggshell there. I turn up a small plastic container cup, like the kind you get cream cheese in, likely tossed into the container the neighbors keep. It was already packed with a humus-like loam, which I fleck out with a tap against the log wall.

I burrow as far as my hay pitchfork and straining back will allow, clearing out a bathtub-sized space in the center of my pile. At the bottom is a tangled mess of wet, pressed leaves. It’s cool to the touch, but I’m pleased to see a clutch of fat red earthworms glued stiff to the underside of a clump of bound leaves. Holdouts or pioneers, I don’t know, but they will soon be richly rewarded with their perseverance through the rigors of winter. With the new addition of shredded paper and coffee grounds to my pile, it will be a good year for earthworms, I think.

I fill the hole first with fluffy gobs of the julienned strips of crinkly white paper, then add half of the kitchen slop and rabbit poop, two buckets’ worth. I mix a bit with the pitchfork, then backfill with forkfuls of frozen chunks of leaves from the backside.

The pit mine of my pile is filled with fresh green fixin's and freeze-dried leaves from along the backside.

The pit mine of my pile is filled with fresh green fixin’s and freeze-dried leaves from along the backside.

I dump the rest of the shredded paper atop the deep layer of leaf mold, sprinkle in the coffee grounds and mix in the remaining kitchen scraps. I bury this second layer of greens with a crown of clumpy frozen leaves from along the backside of the fence.I have enough coffee grounds to be generous, and take several scoops with a garden trowel to sprinkle the pressed granules directly over  decaying leaves that surround the stems of the azalea bushes in the perennial garden.

As a finishing touch to my pile, I add a heap of the salt marsh hay across the top. I figure this will be the “last straw” for my pile. The topping of rotted stems and flecks of seaweed and bits of shells will help insulate my pile through the remaining days of winter. But it breaks down slowly, require more time to decompose fully. The next time I toss and turn my pile, I will fold the straw into the mix, allowing it to serve as tangly fodder for the heap on through early spring.

It short order, my pile is restored, pumped up and primed for action. Newly enriched by the stored-up green fixin’s and such, I expect my pile to soon heat up with a serious case of spring fever.

In time, I will further turn and shape and feed my pile and give it a full airing as spring finally arrives, but this first “shock and thaw” will reignite its inner fevers.