My Pile: Empty Nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

My Pile: Labor Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pile: The Ant and the Grasshopper

I turn another page on the calendar tacked up on the back of my kitchen door and step onto the back porch with morning cup of coffee in hand to let the dog out. As is his custom, he sprints straight across the yard, past my pile, to patrol the back corner of the yard. Often, squirrels use the stockade fence that runs along the back property line behind my pile as a perch and a highway, and Miller is eternally vigilant in keeping them off his territory.

I take a seat on a porch chair to eye a cicada that’s fastened to the top of the front right leg. The thrum of cidadas lately is loud enough to drown out the sound of traffic on the highway that passes a quarter-mile or so from my house. The sight of the bulbous insect, with its iridescent wings and truly bug eyes, reminds me of boyhood summers in the Midwest, when we’d capture the flying beasts and tie kite strings around their legs to fly them in tight circles above our heads.

I leave the cicada to its perch, and plot out a busy week ahead. The Labor Day holiday comes late this year, at the end of the first week of September. I’ve set aside the three-day weekend for dispatching my pile, and I have work to do beforehand.

In this day and age, tending to a yard is a very much a lifestyle choice. Most people in this affluent, bedroom-commuter community outsource their gardening duties, to lawn-service companies with big, equipment-laden trucks or handymen driving old pickups. Others limit their chores to planting annuals or keeping pool and patio landscapes tidy. Actual manual labor is rare, and a benign disconnect from backyard nature, reinforced by central AC, is the rule. The fear of contracting Lyme disease, a bad case of poison ivy, or some malady like West Nile virus or Zika, is real; so are the many other options for recreation and release, from the virtual reality of video games, smart phones and TV to paddleboards, golf and Zumba class at the gym.

The backyard is my habitat of choice; it’s where I like to spend my free time. I see the stewardship of my property as not a chore but an escape, an indulgence. The work I put into it saves me a lot of money over the course of a year, and also yields all kinds of other rewards.

But still, there is work to be done, and this week is the time to do it. Sitting next to the lolly-gagging cicada, I plot out a daily schedule of projects to take care of before the Labor Day holiday.

The weather forecast calls for another week of hot dry weather. I read online that our region has set a record of 60 straight days of 80 degrees or hotter daily temperatures, with a prediction of an unprecedented string of 90-degree days to start the month of September. I’m comforted by the fact that my boss is out of town for the week, giving me the chance to take off work early each day. What’s more, my son is away on a vacation with his mother, leaving me plenty of free time to putter about.

On Monday afternoon while the sprinkler waters both the lawn and the section of garden bed where I transplanted the ferns and hydrangeas, I pull pachysandra from along the perimeter of my house. If left unchecked, the ground cover will snake its way up under the wood shingles. It rips up easily, and I drag three small tarps worth over to the refuse pile I keep in the corner of the yard by the road.

It’s messy work and I’m drenched with sweat by the time I work my way around the three sides of my house where the pachysandra grows. To cover the newly exposed roots of the pachysandra, I sling shovel fulls of compost from my pile up against the house. A flashing of compost against the newly exposed foundation looks tidy, and the new lining of fluffy humus will make it that much easier to pluck out the racings of next year’s growth.

With the work tools and such out and some daylight to spare, I tackle another garden project I’ve been contemplating. Some years ago I bought a Montauk daisy and planted it in a small garden bed along the street, tucked between the driveway and a maple tree, behind which the border of forsythia grows.

Each spring the plant grows thick, only to be pruned by the roving bands of deer that use the shady street and my yard as a nightly pub-garden prowl. It’s also stressed by competing with the roots of the nearby maple. I have yet to see the plant blossom with its signature daisy white flowers.

Just beyond my backdoor is a garden patch that has been overtaken by lilies of the valley. They are lovely and fragrant in the spring, but by mid-summer have gone wilted and tawdry. Hard by the flagstone patio, the plantings are in direct sun for much of the day. I dig out the lilies, which already cover other, more shady spots of my mulched garden beds around the yard, and in its place put the Montauk daisy. Perhaps its proximity to my backdoor will keep the deer away and allow it to blossom. It may be wishful thinking, but worth my while to try on a late-summer evening.

Like the pachysandra, the lilies of the valley have tightly bound, interconnected root systems, and if dug into deeply enough come out of the ground whole cloth. I shake as much soil as I can from each section, but digging them out leaves a hole in the ground, which of course I fill with loads of fresh compost  mixed into the tired old soil. The daisy’s root system was a stunted spiral, as if still constricted by its pot; it should thrive in its new privileged place just outside the back door.

The yard in late summer. The grass needs watering, the pachysandra pruning, and perennials transplanted to more favorable places.

The yard in late summer. The grass needs watering, the pachysandra pruning, and perennials transplanted to more favorable places.

Wednesday, the first thing I do after getting home from the office is wash down two Advil with a cold beer. My chore today requires a certain amount of heavy lifting: Last weekend, while watching my son and the neighborhood kids bounce on the trampoline, I notice that their feet nearly strike the ground underneath it.

My son and his friends have grown up on the trampoline. Years ago I set a basketball post next to it, and my boy’s backyard sport is jumping high and slam-dunking. On hot days, I set the rainbow sprinkler underneath it; the sprays poke through the netting and make great cooling fun for all.

I decide to dig out a foot-deep depression from below the center of the trampoline, to create more clearance. Even at its best – and ringed by a tall safety net, a trampoline presents certain dangers to springy children; the last thing I want to see is one of them hitting bottom and hurting themselves.

After getting help from one of the girls next door to drag the trampoline into the yard, I set about digging through the soft dirt underneath it. The sheltered soil is rich and easy to shovel. Within an hour’s time I’ve filled five wheelbarrows with dark, rich topsoil. I spread three loads around the garden bed where I’ve done my recent transplanting. Another two I dump next to my pile. I’ll spoon shovelfuls of the dirt onto my pile as I build it with loads of fall leaves.

Digging out from under the trampoline makes it safer, and gives me a load of quality topsoil.

Digging out from under the trampoline makes it safer, and gives me a load of quality topsoil.

Adding topsoil to my coming pile is sort of like bringing coals to Newcastle, but the weight of the dirt will help compact the airy leaves, and the billions of microbial critters within each shovelful will help kickstart the composting process.

Before long, I’ve scooped out a depression about 10 feet in diameter. It looks just like an old buffalo wallow I once came across on my grandfather’s farm; he’d kept the area untilled as a remnant of the prairie his farm once was. Sure enough, after dragging the trampoline back over the shallow pit, the dog took up residence in his cool new cubby hole. I’m too sore and tired to get in the car to drive to the beach, so opt for a long shower instead.

On Thursday I tackle another needed, if picayune task: While dumping the fresh dirt in heaps into my garden beds, I noticed how much of it was covered with a season’s worth of seedlings – the sproutings of young maples, sycamores and grape vines, from seeds blown or fallen from the overhanging trees and vines from my and the neighboring yards. They’ve found ready purchase in the largest of my perennial beds, which last fall I’d loaded with the lion’s share of my pile.

The year before I’d devoted my pile to the lawn; last year instead of aerating, I decided to give the compost to the flower beds, forsaking my annual resupply of wood chips. The garden is thick with flowers, but the compost proved fertile ground for unwanted plants as well. This fall I’ll cover it again with wood chips and give my pile over to replenishing the turfgrass. But before I do I need to handpick the stubbornly resilient seedlings, or else they’ll just poke their way through the mulch and begin the process of turning my cultivated gardens into overgrown wild spaces. Lesson learned: compost is not so good as a cover to prevent weeds. In fact, it has been a nursery bed for opportunistic, and mostly invasive, plant growth. I should have figured…

I work my way through the thick growth of the perennial blooms that now fill my garden beds, stooping to pluck out the spindly sprouts of weedlings, tossing them out onto the lawn to wither on the sun-packed grass lawn. It’s a hot, humid night, and I take frequent breaks to go inside to change out a sweat-soaked baseball cap and to wash my hands. I know from past experience that some of the sproutings I pick are young shoots of poison ivy.

As I labor, my neighbor comes by for her nightly harvest of fresh pickings from the vegetable garden. She also informs me that her pail of kitchen scraps is full. Happy to break from the drudgery of weeding, I follow her back to her home to retrieve both her small bin of kitchen recyclables but also a spare metal garbage can from her pack-rat husband’s stores of spare refuse bins.

I have a supply of shredded office paper in the shed, plus my own nearly full Hooch bucket of coffee grounds and vegetable peels. As with the first garbage bucket, I first add a foot-thick layer of shredded sycamore bark and white office paper, plus a smattering of compost from my pile. The neighbor’s bucket of kitchen recyclables goes in next, topped by more shredded paper. I add my own kitchen supplies, and finish with more paper and compost, filling the old-school metal can about two-thirds high.

I've added fresh soil to bulk up a garden bed; next is a close-crop mowing before aerating the yard.

I’ve added fresh soil to bulk up a garden bed; next is a close-crop mowing before aerating the yard.

I set the can next to the first one. They’re like IEDs, packed with a combustible mix of natural-born energy.

Friday, I haul out the lawnmower and set the blade down a notch. Even though it’s now set just on the middle setting, the mower scalps the parched grass, sending out plumes of brittle dust from under the carriage. The grass hardly needed mowing, but I want to crop it as low as possible before layering the lawn with compost. I’ll rake the top dressing in, mow again, and then reseed.

I finish my week’s worth of yard work to the hum of cicadas and the buzz of the few pesky mosquitoes that have survived the end-of-summer dry spell. I have been the ant industriously laboring to prepare for the coming change of season. As the First Book of Proverbs admonishes,  “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.”

Or as the grasshopper in the Walt Disney cartoon sings,

Oh I owe the world a living….
You ants were right the time you said
You’ve got to work for all you get.

My Pile: Bottom’s Up

The last day of August, a Sunday, and yet another fine summer day to spend doting on my pile and other backyard gardening duties. This summer has been as delightful here along the coast of southwestern Connecticut as the winter was bad. The weather has been hot and dry, with just enough dousings from summer thunderstorms to stave off outright drought.

After setting the rainbow sprinkler to arc across the sunniest part of my flower bed, I head over to my pile.

It sits in patient, ancient repose, Sphinx like, its flanks covered by weathered, crumbly detritus. I’d gleaned from one side five wheelbarrows of raw compost for my vegetable garden, and from the other four for the recent transplanting among the flower beds. The rest of my pile will soon be broadcast across my lawn, following the aeration I plan to do over the upcoming Labor Day Weekend.

It’s been several weeks since I stopped inserting fresh materials into my pile. I’ve filled one garbage can with sandwiched layers of kitchen scraps, shredded paper and additions of raw compost, and have mowed the lawn twice with strips of duct tape that seal off the bag catcher to mulch the clippings back into the turf.

Today my goal is to get to the bottom of my pile, at long last. I want to see if it’s fully cooked and ready to be served. I’ve tried before, but my pile always collapses on and into itself before I can reach its epicenter, the part of it I first laid down last November.

Finding the very beginning of my pile is like tracing the precise source of a river. I may never be able to pinpoint the wellspring, for after 10 months of poking and prodding, my pile has morphed and moved in place. Through the winter and spring I excavated holes across its top, reaching deep with the pitchfork. Did I touch the core? Perhaps.

After working the right side of my pile last week, I know there are few places within it that I haven’t fully turned over and outward. I decide to dig into the left side, using the pitchfork to tease out tightly compacted dark earth from the bottom; it looks like the bricks of peat I’ve seen being cleaved from Scottish bogs.

The inner core of my pile yields a clutch of raw leaves, undisturbed since last fall.

The inner core of my pile yields a clutch of raw leaves, undisturbed since last fall.

The chunks of compost crumble easily, with a texture of spent coffee grounds. A few sea shells drop through the matrix. I pierce a shred of tightly bound Sunday insert newsprint, from the bottom of my neighbor’s Angora rabbit’s hutch, tossed into a hole in my pile sometime late last winter.

I dig into and under my pile, excavating a wide cavity below an overhanging ledge of compost that trembles with each thrust of the pitchfork. I uncover a clutch of maple leaves, glistening wet but otherwise pristine. I lift them up out of the burrow and set them aside just before my pile collapses back onto itself.

For the better part of a year, I’ve been a good steward of my pile. I’ve tossed and turned every part of it, or near enough. I’ve mulled it over, lavished it with copious amounts of offerings. Soon I will not only get to the very bottom of it but cast my pile wholesale across my yard and garden beds.

Sometimes, the end result turns out not to be as important or interesting as the process of getting there. I can’t quantify exactly how much my pile will add back into the biomass that is the suburban property I keep, but I know all that it has given me to date — a year’s worth of mental musing and physical effort — and a ton or so of the best soil amendment on earth.

I will miss my pile, this particular edition of it. But it’s time to let it go, to return it from whence it came. Besides, seeing the brown leaves that are now falling across my lawn of late summer, I know my pile will soon rise, phoenix like, again.

My Pile: Nip and Tuck

A bright and breezy Sunday morning in late August brings with it the first hint of fall in the air. There’s a crispness to the air, and looking out across the backyard toward my pile, I see a single maple leaf, tinged with gold, flutter to the ground.

That’s all I need to get started with one of the most pleasurable annual rituals of backyard gardening – transplanting perennials.

This year, I’ve had my eye on a patch of ferns that has overtaken a sunny part of the perennial bed. They’ve thrived since I moved a few sprigs from elsewhere in the garden several years ago, mostly to insert some spring greenery to the garden bed that doesn’t appeal to the deer. I’ve since trimmed back some overhanging privet bushes and crabapple tree along the fence that had provided shade – and copious amounts of fruit that the birds love. The ferns are now sunburned and a tangly mess, and I am eyeing several other, more shady spots in the garden for them to go.

Just down the way from the fern patch are two hydrangeas that I planted a decade ago, when I was first landscaping the yard. Over the years the plants have grown large and fused into one. Above them, a $10 pin oak I salvaged from the fall clearance sale at Home Depot has now grown thick and tall.

I decide to transplant one of the Hydrangeas to the sunny spot. It’s the outdoor equivalent of moving the furniture around. It costs nothing, and gives the yard a new look.

Plus, for a backyard composter, nothing compares to digging a hole in a garden bed, filling it a tender plant plucked from the earth or pot and then tucking it in with heapings of fresh compost.

For a new planting, compost is both an insurance policy and a deposit guaranteed to pay dividends. As long as I add water, virtually every transplant thrives. Compost is such a surefire potting-soil mix, I even have the confidence to begin the fall transplant season in August. There’s still the risk of a stretch of late-season heat, but with some extra watering, the plants will have plenty of time to properly root themselves before the frost and freeze of winter sets in.

I first fill the wheelbarrow with compost, scraped from the side of my pile. As with the supplement to the vegetable garden last week, I don’t bother to sift or screen. I fill half the wheelbarrow with the pitchfork, then shovel up the moist, loose compost that shags out between the tines.

Freeing a well-established plant from the ground calls for a tender hand. The ferns roots spread out shallow along the ground. Using the straight-tined pitchfork, I circle around the edge of the root mat, loosening its grip so that I can pull the roots up like a thick carpet. I toss it en masse onto the wheelbarrow, shaking some soil from the roots and untangling the piece into five separate, smaller clumps of shaggy fern.

Ferns culled from a now-sunnier spot in my perennial beds will do well in this rock-lined shade garden.

Ferns culled from a now-sunnier spot in my perennial beds will do well in this rock-lined shade garden.

Three plantings will go along a small rock wall that contains a small shade garden. Two Japanese maple trees, transplanted eight or nine years ago from coffee cans given to me by my neighbor Jean Luc, bookend the small bed. They are now 15 feet tall and now form a purplish screen between the street and yard. Between then is a rhododendron that blooms small fuschia flowers early each spring. A profusion of bleeding hearts fill the rest of the bed; their branches of dangly pink and white are another springtime show. The ferns will fit right in.

I plop the three ferns into their newly made holes, and surround their roots and stalks with shovelfuls of compost, emptying the rest of the wheelbarrow around the slender trunks of the Japanese maples, the rhody and the largest root balls of the bleeding hearts, which I’ve recently dead-headed.

The hydrangea, as big around as a Barcalounger, requires a gentler approach to extracting from the ground. After loosening the soil around it with the straight-tined pitchfork, I reach under the root ball to trace the largest roots by hand, following the tentacled threads with my fingers to pull them out in as long and full as I can. Usually one side of a plant’s root ball releases first. I pull the main stem to the side and straddle it between my legs to pull the plant out of the ground.

It’s too heavy for me to lift into the wheelbarrow, so I drag the hydrangea on the small plastic tarp to its new home. I widen and deepen the hole left by the smattering of ferns, and drop the hydrangea into it, twisting the stubby base of stems so it sits upright, with its fading bloom balls facing outward toward the yard.

I pour compost around the hydrangea and press the crumbly moist mix into the disturbed soil around it with my foot, creating a circular trench that I fill with water that soaks deep into the ground.

This big hydrangea will do well in this spot; later this summer I'll fill in the empty spaces with more transplanted perennials.

This big hydrangea will do well in this spot; later this summer I’ll fill in the empty spaces with more transplanted perennials.

The hydrangea blends right in with the rest of the perennials. I add a second wheelbarrow full of compost here and there nearby. I can afford to be generous with compost this year, and there’s no better use for it than as a security blanket for these perennials, uprooted or not.

My Pile: Harvest Time

It’s now the third week of August, a dry spell that has seen only one good rain over the past three weeks. I’ve spot-watered the vegetable garden and a few of the perennials in the beds that line the grass lawn that surrounds the house. I have yet to water the grass this summer, aside from the drops that fall from the rainbow sprinkler when it arcs beyond the vegetables growing in the fenced-in patch bordered by the house and back patio.

But still, the turf keeps growing and remains thick and green; surely it has benefited from the compost I have spread across it over the years and the aeration that allows the roots to extend deep down into the soil profile to chase after water and nutrients even through the dog days of summer. I’ll mow in the coming week and grass-cycle the clippings back into the turf. My pile needs no more hot greens this season.

More than a week’s gone by since I last turned my pile, and today after work I decide to dig back in to finish a long-awaited task I began yesterday evening. It’s harvest time for my pile, with the first takings to be spread across the vegetable garden. Rain is forecast for the weekend; all the better to time my yardwork.

Last night I weeded the small patch of vegetables in the raised bed I’ve fenced in the back corner of my house. Truth be told, I spend more time each year tending my pile, but I do grow a handful of tomato plants, some arugula, basil, cilantro, kale and lettuce – more than enough to keep me and my neighbors in salad the summer long.

Cucumbers and beans grow along the low wire fence. Tall, spiky cleome and some other flowers bloom the summer long in narrow beds that border the fence, self-seeding each year and throwing off enough seeds to keep a covey of dove happy the summer long. The flowers that grow thick along the fence of the garden do a fair job in keeping the deer at bay, though this summer they’ve nibbled the vines of cukes and beans that have spread beyond the fence.

This summer my next-door neighbor brought over some collard greens, fennel and dill that she’d started in pots. Lacking a garden, she asked if I’d grow them. Now all are in fine fettle, and most evenings she or a daughter comes by to cull the day’s take of cherry tomatoes or pluck a handful of greens for the night’s salad.

It’s now time to cull the riot of spent flowers and vegetables — the greens I planted in the spring have mostly all bolted — and prepare for the fall planting of more lettuce, kale and arugula.

I enjoy the cleome most of all, for their profuse flowers and for the small, banana-shape pods that produce an amazing number of small seeds that look just like poppy seeds, to which the dove that flock to my backyard seem addicted to. I cull a handful of seed pods from the cleome stalks most every day and spread them onto the flagstones of my back patio. I can hardly go outside my back door without a dove or two or three taking flight. They perch on the top of the roof, biding their time while I set up shop at my pile, then flutter back to the ground to continue their feast.

In addition to finding a stray stem of crabgrass or two lurking among the greens – and about to go to seed – I had some major “weeding” to do in my garden last night — at least when you define a weed as any plant in an unwanted place.

The fennel has grown tall and lanky and bends over the fence; two of the tomato plants have withered with rot, and the potato, cucumber and watermelon vines have sprawled across the beach-brick path.

The biggest and best surprise of the day comes when I tug at the potato vines. Early in the spring my neighbor had brought by a bag of rotting potatoes from her fridge. I cut up a couple with the most prominent eyes, planted them in the garden and then mostly forgot about them. Potatoes are very much an under the radar garden planting. But today I pluck the two sprawling plants from the ground and find their roots are a mass of potatoes, looking just like the ones I find in the bin at the grocery store.

Most weedy are the strawberry plants that virtually taken over half of the garden. Though they produce a couple weeks’ worth of very tasty berries each May, they have overwhelmed my small garden patch. I spent an hour or so ripping out the most of the vines, leaving only a small patch in the back shady corner of the garden that I promise myself I will restrict the strawberries to next year.

Hating to waste so many viable fruit plants, I tease out a dozen or so of the biggest clumps of strawberry roots and save them for my across-the-street neighbor, whose daughter is the garden’s main strawberry picker. He’s promised her that next year they’ll have their own strawberry garden.

The rest of the garden trimmings I pile together and, using the long, weedy fennel plants as a sled, drag the lot over to the side of my pile. These fleshy vines and hollow stalks will make a fine, fluffy base for next season’s compost heap.


Out with the old, in with the new. After dragging the overgrowth of spent fennel and tomato vines from the vegetable garden, I begin the harvest of my pile, adding wheelbarrows of fresh compost back into the garden.

Having ripped out much of my own strawberry field, I now have a bare patch of garden. I will soon plant for the fall season, but first what my garden needs is a bumper crop of compost from my pile.

So tonight after work I head out to the backyard to begin the harvest of my pile.

I start at the front, which I’d worked the week before. The compost holds together just enough for me to use the pitchfork to fill the wheelbarrow. I don’t bother to screen it, though I stop occasionally to pluck out a wood chip or piece of broken branch or toss a pancake-sized clump of leaves back onto the top of my pile. Having just been turned and now mostly matured, at least this part of my pile is cool to the touch. I’m delighted to see all the worms that have squirmed their way back into the mix, and happy to transport them along with the compost to my garden.

The barrow fills quickly, and I wheel it across the yard to the garden to toss shovels in and around the plants, on both sides of the fence. Within a few minutes, I’ve spread five wheelbarrows full of compost across my garden, which measures just about 20 feet by 20 feet. It’s a chore I do every August, to give the plants protection from the withering heat of late summer, and a layer of absorbent organic material to soak up and retain what water I give them.

An "after" photo of my vegetable garden, which accepts all the compost I can give it.

An “after” photo of my vegetable garden, which accepts all the compost I can give it.

Later in the fall, when the last of the tomatoes stay green on the vine, I’ll cull the rest of the plants and spade in the compost. I started the garden a decade ago from bare dirt; over the years I’ve added enough compost so that now its surface is raised to the level of the 6 x 6 wood beams that gird the base of the wire fencing.

After extracting five wheelbarrows of compost for my vegetable garden, I've hardly made a dent in my pile.

After extracting five wheelbarrows of compost for my vegetable garden, I’ve hardly made a dent in my pile.

My Pile: Churn and Burn

It’s the home stretch for my pile in its annual cycle of transformation from an assemblage of dead leaves and such to a new life as the mysterious thing known as humus.

I’ve nurtured my pile as best I can, adding at regular intervals copious amounts of fresh green organics — of all manner and in varying states of decrepitude — as well as regular replenishments of decaying old browns, natural and manmade, and other essentials, like water and pee and sand and soil. The process has kept my property tidy, given me a scavenger’s joy in sourcing such an array of recycled contributions, and provided a steady outlet for physical exertion and mental musing.

It all adds up to a very large heap of moist, dark crumbly organic matter sitting in the corner of my backyard.

For the past weeks, I’ve largely left my pile alone, trusting its inner workings to complete the job of turning all these elements into a finished product – part fertilizer, part soil amendment, part good, ol’ fashioned dirt – that I will soon spread across my lawn and garden, and share with neighbors.

Today after work, it’s time to dig back into my pile and give it a good turning. Over the past couple of months, I’ve infused the ever-absorbent and accommodating heap with an ample supply of grass clippings, pulled weeds and other trimmings, as well as the leftovers from my kitchen and coffee pot as well as food waste from my neighbors. I’ve poked and prodded and carved up my pile as best I can to add air and help mix and disperse the yin of matted brown leaves with the yang of the ripe-to-rotting organic material that will meld with it.

Despite my efforts to blend my pile all together, there are still parts that remain untouched since last fall – the deepest, darkest parts of the base. I want to get to the bottom of my pile.

I've tilted back one side of the log wall that contains my pile to excavate its inner reaches. Note the dried leaves in the crevasses.

I’ve tilted back one side of the log wall that contains my pile to excavate its inner reaches. Note the dried leaves in the crevasses.

I know from year’s past, as well as my recent excavations, that there remains a layer of compressed leaves at the core of my pile. Like an Egyptian archaeologist opening a pharaoh’s tomb, I also know that once exposed to light and air, these long buried leaves will quickly crumble. That’s the goal at least.

I have another chore, and that is to find a repository to stockpile the continuing pile of kitchen trimmings and other compostables as my pile matures. For the first time this year, I’ve decided to cut off my pile from having to ingest fresh fodder and instead create a starter batch of compost.

My packrat of a neighbor has several extra garbage cans he doesn’t use, so I borrow one with a lid and set it up on the opposite side of the log wall that I’ve splayed to get to the side my pile. It’s a good spot to park the can as I harvest this year’s batch of compost and prepare for the next season’s haul.

I fill the bottom with a layer of pieces of sycamore bark, then cover those scraggly bits with half of my regular supply of shredded office paper for a base of absorbent material. I top it with a pitchfork of compost from my pile, then upturn my kitchen Hooch bucket. I cover that small batch of leftovers and coffee grounds with another forkful of compost, filling up nearly half the plastic garbage can.

As my pile matures, new raw materials go into a garbage can -- a base of sycamore bark, shredded paper, food scraps and a dollop of compost...

As my pile matures, new raw materials go into a garbage can — a base of sycamore bark, shredded paper, food scraps and a dollop of compost…

My neighbors’ kitchen scraps fill a five-gallon white plastic bucket, and in it goes as well, a mucky supply heavy with corn husks, avocado skins and egg shells. As these are all slow to decompose, I’m glad I’ve made the decision to keep them out of my nearly finished pile, but worry that I may have just created a barrelful of stinky problems for the next month or so. But after mixing up the mess with a pitchfork and adding a bit more compost and the rest of the shredded paper, I put the lid on this small batch of compost, flipping up the handles to seal it up for a week or so. It’s air-tight at least enough to not attract flies, and surely the few stray worms I’ve tossed in will have the compostibles to themselves for the next few weeks.

I plunge back into my pile with the pitchfork, relishing the simple task of digging through the loose matrix of crumbly proto dirt. I start with right side, which has been left unturned the longest. I pull the bottom layer forward and excavate inward, piling up the tailings across the three other flanks of my pile. I’m happy to see that the compressed leaves I fork out have turned to clod-like chunks that crumble into bits and pieces. A few of the largest pinwheel down to the slopes of my pile and break apart against the ground.

Digging deeper, I come across a few flecks of white shredded paper bound together, a half-pipe of a sunflower stem I’d laid down last fall. Having served its purpose as an air tube, is now turned to a pulpy sliver. The pitchfork tangles on a snarl of fishing line, which I set on top of a log with a few pieces of plastic detritus from the beach. The buckets of seaweed I added to my pile through the fall and winter and even this spring are long gone, save for stray oyster shell and flecks of mica that glisten on the backs of dark moist bits of leaves.

A clump of leaf mold impales itself on the curved tines of the pitchfork. I tease it off; pleasedto find  that it’s warm to the touch. I search for sulfurous spots of matted grass but find only smatterings of yellow-green flecks. My pile has not turned anaerobic, as I’d feared, but has largely burned through the infusions of grass clippings I’ve added to it on through the summer. I come across a pocket of the maple seeds I tossed in recently. They remain obstinately intact, and I take care to rebury them in as deep as I can as I work my way down into the center core of my pile.

I carve a wide hole nearly to the middle center before the top portion topples down into the chasm. My pile is no longer a lasagna-like layering of distinct components but more like brown cottage cheese. Much of it separates through the wide tines of the pitchfork before I can toss it up onto the pile.

With the evening light fading, I decide I’ve made enough progress, and spend a few more minutes scraping the dried chunks of leaves from the perimeter of my pile and tucking them back up into its interior.

Before long, I’ve reconstituted my pile into the squat pyramid that is its natural shape. Freshly aerated and rekindled, the nearly finished compost will continue to churn and burn until there it finishes consuming itself.

My pile, nearly mature, after a thorough turning in mid August.

My pile, nearly mature, after a thorough turning in mid August.