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.