My Pile: Why Not?

Anne Scott-James, author of The Pleasure Garden, writes: “However small your garden, you must provide for two of the serious gardener’s necessities, a tool shed and a compost heap.” In my small suburban backyard, these two necessities are side by side.

In fact, along with a trampoline, much used by my son and the neighborhood kids and which sits on the opposite side of the shed from my pile, these three structures dominate the back of my backyard.

The shed, a prefab, 8 ft. by 8 ft. saltbox that I had trucked to my property from its Amish country makers several years ago, really is a necessity. My small cottage-style home lacks a garage, so into the shed go the bikes, lawn mower and cushions for the patio furniture, for safe-keeping, along with my collection of gardening tools, the leaf blower and hedge trimmer, cans and jugs of gas and oil, a couple ladders, and the other things you stick in a shed.

My pile is a fixture in the backyard, same as the tool shed and trampoline.

Like the trampoline, my pile is more of an elective. Despite Scott-James’ admonition, I realize and accept my pile fully as something I willingly choose to do. The compost heap stands as a statement of intent, of purpose, of what I value. It truly is a landmark, at least on the scale of my humble backyard.

The reasons why I keep a compost heap are what this blog is all about: among them, improving the soil, repurposing yard and food waste, sustainability, reducing my carbon footprint, creating something of lasting value virtually for free, nurturing a connection to biology, fostering a sense of community, exercise, entertainment, introspection and, yes, pleasure. In act and deed, a steady supply of all of that and more.

So the better question may be, why not keep a compost pile?

It may be an odd time of year to ask the question, as my pile, sequestered by the cold of winter and soon to be blanketed by forecasted snow, steadily recedes out of sight if not from mind. My pile is still there, hard by the tool shed and stack of firewood, but at this point in its life cycle is as distant and removed as it will ever be, from me, for now.

It’s been a week since I last dug into its top portion to mix in two full buckets of food scraps, covering them with a smattering of leaves and a fresh helping of salt marsh hay gathered from the beach. Since then, a blustery rainstorm has soaked my pile, and the temperatures have dropped to well below freezing, turning its outer layer of leaves into a hard-crusted mantle that to the touch feels like permafrost. I can only hope that underneath this cloak of cold my pile continues to churn and burn away.

Funny, but I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to compost. I’ve always liked to garden, and I suppose there was often a pile of leaves and organic detritus somewhere in a corner of the yard I tended waiting to be raked up into a bag or trashcan and hauled away. Or left forgotten…

My pile first came to be when I realized the copious leftovers to be had from the test kitchen at the food magazine I worked for in Los Angeles, the idea being that perhaps I could add these fresh greens and shells of deveined shrimp to the heap of yard waste I had stashed among a hillside patch of English Ivy under the ponderosa pine that lorded over the duplex I lived in. The rakings were mostly pine needles and the dry, brittle scrapings from underneath the olive trees that also grew on the property. In the dry, Mediterranean climate of the Hollywood Hills, that heap of collected yard trimmings wasn’t going anywhere unless I did something with it.

My choice. No one asked me to do it, not my landlord and certainly not the law. This being 25 years ago, composting was very much a fringe pursuit, an afterthought from the Age of Aquarius by way of earnest organic cranks and proselytizers like J.I. Rodale or garden aesthetes like Eleanor Perenyi.

The times, they are a changing. But ever so slowly. Despite mounds of evidence in support of composting, both at home and on a community and even industrial level, despite a sweeping cultural shift toward such a practice in sustainability and, lately, a raft of regulations to spur compliance of this greater good, tending my pile remains a quirky hobby of a habit that brands me as the neighborhood eccentric. As much as my pile stands out in my backyard, it stands for the most part as a solitary, somewhat quixotic enterprise.

“Even though more and more cities around the nation are offering compost pickup along with their trash and recycling, most of us are on our own to figure out how to recycle our food waste,” I read in a recent blog posting on, titled “I Want to Compost, But…”

“And the rate of composting bears that out: only 5% of our food waste makes it to compost instead of landfills or incinerators. But there’s a growing awareness of the food waste problem, and most people want to help. A recent study sponsored by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that 67% of Americans would be willing to compost food waste if it was more convenient to do so.”

Convenience seems to be the greatest hurdle, and to that I would add cost, comfort and commitment. Adopting a new habit or practice — by person, then more culturally — requires a shift in what you are comfortable with, coupled with the decision to stick with it.

An important driver of my composting these days is, in fact, the convenience it affords. Having a backyard compost heap in which to park the leaves that fall each year in my yard is a blessing. It’s much easier for me to haul leaves and other yard waste to the corner of my yard than it is to stuff them into what would likely be dozens and dozens of brown refuse bags to stack along the roadside for pickup.

So, too, is it more convenient for me to stash my daily coffee grounds and food scraps into a small lidded bucket that I keep in the kitchen rather than dump them in the trash can. In my house, that wet, messy waste is what forces me to take the garbage out – often long before the container is anywhere near full of other household waste.

I’m fortunate to have stumbled across my “Hooch” bucket, a tag-sale find that has turned out to be a wonderfully useful addition to both my kitchen and my pile. The small plastic container, with lid and handle, looks just fine on the kitchen counter, and effectively keeps my food waste and its smells in check until I can tote it out to my pile.

The internet and bricks and mortar stores are awash in similar solutions for such compost storage, both indoors and out. Case in point, the website, where I came across an article, “No More Excuses! Home Composting is Easier than Ever” by Kent Swanson, which provides some helpful product information that I would likely consider if I was starting composting from scratch:

Stainless Steel compost bucket“Most people don’t like to have a pile of these scraps sitting on their kitchen counter. Innovative products such as this stainless steel compost pail make it easy to save your kitchen scraps until they’re ready for the compost bin. This compost pail is easy to store under your kitchen sink, and thanks to a carbon filter, there is virtually no odor.”

And though I admire my pile for its sprawling, seemingly unkempt nature in the backyard, I can understand why another homeowner or backyard gardener wouldn’t be so inclined to tend to such a construct.

Author Swanson helpfully provides a tidier solution:

Australian tumbler“Thanks to a wide variety of new composting products on the market, home composting is now quicker and easier than ever. Moreover, with many new compost bins and tumblers, there is no need to have an unattractive compost pile in the corner of your yard at all.

For example, the Australian Tumbler Composter holds up to 58 gallons worth of kitchen scraps and yard waste. What makes this product great is that you simply need to spin it on a daily basis to fully mix your kitchen scraps and yard waste to active the composting process. Additionally, although the traditional compost pile may take several months to produce organic compost, this Tumbler will have your compost ready in less than a month.

Now that’s what I call convenience! If I had a smaller backyard, or a recalcitrant spouse or neighbor, I can see myself dappling with such a device.

Cost is another concern, of course, and as a resolute skinflint, I’ve always rationalized my backyard composting as a way to save money – on garbage pickup, yard maintenance and gardening. By reducing my kitchen waste stream, I don’t see the need to subscribe to the twice-weekly garbage pickup that is the rule of our local vendors. Nor have I ever paid someone to take the leaves that fall across my yard off my hands, much less mow the lawn or weed or sort out my plantings. And by producing so much fresh humus each season, my pile allows me to have a garden, for free, that needs no fertilizer or soil amendments and virtually no purchased herbicide or pesticide controls.

That said, I’m fully aware that I am an outlier, especially regarding the time and energy I devote to my pile, and time is money. There is an opportunity cost to composting, and the hours I spend tending my pile do add up. I sometimes fret that with the time I spend on my pile doing something I enjoy, for free, I could be doing something more renumerative. Like driving an Uber car. Still, I’ve always figured that the hours I “waste” doting on my pile is time I’m not using to spend money on more expensive hobbies.

This may not be the case for others, and for those people, other viable options for composting are emerging. So I read online, most recently at, in “7 Things to Do with Compost if You Don’t Garden.”

“Perhaps the easiest solution, if it’s available to you, is to find a curbside compost service that will pick up your food scraps once a week, right at your house,” writes Mariele Ventrice. “According to EarthShare, more than 150 U.S. cities now offer curbside composting as a public service, to go along with trash collection and recycling. However, if you’re not one of the lucky ones, there are plenty of private compost pickup companies that will do this for you. From what I’ve seen, it costs around $8/week and is incredibly easy — just throw your scraps in a bin provided and someone from the company will pick it up each week, replacing it with another bin.”

I’m intrigued by the news of the rise of the compost entrepreneurs that have sprung up in communities around the country, often by millennials who use bikes to run urban routes, like chimney sweeps of old, the milk vans of a generation ago or the paper boys of my youth, collecting compost as they go. (For just one example, check out what the fellows at are doing in Durham, N.C.) Godspeed to them, and failing that, find a neighbor, work mate or friend who gardens and pawn off your food waste on them. They will appreciate the thought, and perhaps return your kitchen scrap deposits as red ripe tomatoes next summer.

So it turns out that with a little digging, there are, if not easy, then at least some worthwhile and viable answers that address the issue of why not to compost in terms of convenience and cost.

Comfort and commitment require a little more effort when it comes to compost. I admit, to borrow a cliché, there is a fly in the ointment. A few flies, on occasion. Fruit flies, to be specific.

In my experience, the biggest turn-off to composting at home is the prospect of having the kitchen food-waste receptacle become the habitat of fruit flies. Though innocuous and non-biting, these flittering little drones (the Drosophila melanogaster, of high school biology texts) can become bothersome if allowed to populate a compost bucket indoors. The solution to eliminating their presence is fairly easy – simply keep the kitchen scraps in a lidded container, and after dumping it out, clean the bucket just as you would a dirty dish, with some soap or a spritz of a disinfectant that contains bleach or similar product.

The second biggest concern about home composting regards outdoor pests, chiefly rodents. Every guide to compost fairly screams with the advice not to add meat scraps, dairy products or fats to an outdoor heap, for fear of attracting varmints to your backyard compost heap.

Given the wide range of fauna that frequents virtually every suburban backyard, mine included, this is not a surprising concern.

I share my suburban property with many wild creatures. I rather like that the bird feeder I keep filled through the winter attracts such a wide variety of songbirds, and have learned to tolerate the sparrows and grackles and other “unwanted” birds. The yard and garden attracts all kinds of four-legged critters through the seasons, from skunks to possums to raccoons and deer and more. They, too, and the owls and hawks and foxes and coyotes that prey upon them, have their place in my yard, and I have learned to live with them, grudgingly, for some.

And though voles, moles and field mice, as well as chipmunks and squirrels, are also in residence on my grounds, and mostly tolerated, I draw the line at rats. Fortunately, those rodents are seldom a problem with my pile, but if they were, I would not be a happy composter for long.

Which leads us to commitment. To be effective and sustainable, composting needs to become a habit, one that’s both personal and widespread, a cultural meme.

“Composting isn’t just for cooks — it’s for anyone who throws out leftovers, stale bread, or pizza…”

“It’s for everyone,” I read on Huffington Post, in “Why Compost?” by Aly Miller. And everyone recycles plastic and paper, so what’s stopping us from recycling food waste? Toss it in a bin, cover with some soil and newspaper, and let microorganisms go to work, turning food into fertilizer for your neighbor’s garden.

“Why go through all that effort? Now watch their jaws drop: food scraps are the number one material sent to landfills. In New York, it accounts for a third of all residential trash; more food is thrown out than paper or plastic.  All of that goes to landfills, and for us New Yorkers, that means Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina. It costs the city 336 million dollars each year, but if we could return our food to the soil, we could save 100 million dollars a year.

“Your food gets dumped in landfills, where it’s trapped by tons of garbage, which generate 20 percent of the nations’ emissions of greenhouse gases. Microorganisms break it down by anaerobic digestion, emitting methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 22 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In a biogas facility, food scraps can generate electricity, but when food sits in landfills, the only work it does is raise the global temperature.

’Ok, that makes sense,’ someone said, ‘but I’ll only ever compost if the city makes it super easy for someone like me.’

“That’s what people said, 20 years ago, about recycling paper and plastic. Now, it’s second nature.

“San Francisco is a case in point: despite its residents’ initial complaints, the city diverts 80 percent of all waste from landfills with their city-wide composting and recycling programs. It makes sense that the Big Apple, mecca of restaurant life, consumption, and now, rooftop farming, will follow suit.

“It’s anticipated that New York City’s rodent and cockroach populations will decrease with this composting system. Instead of bags of food waste sitting on the curbside, people would store them inside in airtight bins until collection day.

“Looking at it that way, the inside of your compost bin isn’t some gross pile of dead plants and soggy bread; it’s a simple solution which practical people should take pride in endorsing.”

Composting gives my suburban backyard, and me, by direct extension, a sense of practical purpose it otherwise would not have. My pile allows me to be productive, the product being something akin to new soil. There may not be anything truly “new’ under the sun, but my pile at least allows me to play the ancient role of alchemist, to tap into humankind’s deeply rooted quest to somehow turn inert, base elements into something new and precious.

Why not?

Looking across the lawn and gardens to my pile, a backyard fixture.

My Pile: The Kitchen Sink

The chill of winter has settled over the landscape and across my pile. The thermometer outside my back kitchen door hasn’t ticked much above 30 degrees over the past 10 days.

The wood chips I spread before Christmas under my forsythia hedges and untended areas are frozen in place, like brittle particle board. The hardwood trees creak in the wind; the sap within the branches having retreated deep down the trunks into the roots. The ground is rock hard, and to keep from shattering the blades of grass I try to vary the path I beat each morning to check on my pile.

I haven’t seen a wisp of steam rising from my pile in a week, though am pleased to see that its crown has sagged into itself, forming a craggly crater. Perhaps it still percolates, deep down within.

My bucket of kitchen scraps is nearly full, and the winter downtime has given me time to cook up a plan to excavate a hole in the top of my pile and tuck the fermenting leftovers and coffee grounds into its midst. I visualize the crusty round loaf of bread that restaurants hollow out to ladle in a serving of chowdery soup.

I’ve also scouted the yard of my across-the-street neighbor for a batch of wind-blown leaves to add to the mix, and I have stowed a bucket of tangled seagrass stems gathered from the beach last weekend beside my pile. I’ll sprinkle them across the top when I’m done, to return my pile to its full midwinter form.

I like how my pile allows me to ponder and plot; it also teaches me patience. I will serve no compost before its time.

But a long week’s worth of garbage awaits. My backyard neighbor called a couple nights ago to let me know that the small ash can that her family uses to store their kitchen trimmings and rabbit-hutch cleanings is stuffed full as well. I suggest she start a second bucket and assure her that any varmints that might have an interest in rooting around the pails of frozen food waster are surely in hibernation. At worst, I could park the bucket in the backyard shed for safe-keeping. I’ve used it before as a cold-storage unit for kitchen scraps between my winter infusions to my pile, especially after a snowstorm covers it.

My back-fence neighbor adds to the week’s worth of kitchen scraps that will keep my pile cooking all winter long.

I’m glad to have a close neighbor who “gets” my compost pile. She grew up on a small, multi-generational family compound on the outskirts of Budapest, in the Cold War era. Now the mother of four very American girls, she remains a frugal Hungarian housefrau from the Eastern Bloc, and her kitchen scraps are quite unlike mine: hefty stalks stripped bare of their Brussel sprouts, lots of eggshells, potato peels and hard-pressed pellets of coffee grinds from her French husband’s espresso maker. Over dinner, she tells her kids of growing up in a multi-generational, semi-rural household with a large kitchen garden and a variety of fruit trees. Canning the apricots, slaughtering the pig before Christmas, packing the potatoes, turnips and beets in straw for storage in the cellar. They made the most of what they had, and wasted little. Her girls clean their plates at every meal.

Much different from my own mother, who had no further use for even the slightest potato peel – not for soup stock, much less for a bucket of festering food scraps to keep in the kitchen. Swanson’s TV dinners were a staple in our house. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I bet we discarded enough pocketed aluminum trays to make a jet airplane.

My mother was raised on a large Midwestern farm, where nature was mastered and the corn and milo fields were managed by awesomely large machines. Summer visits to my grandfather’s farm were always fun, albeit on an agro-industrial scale, playing on the huge green John Deere tractors and combines, running around the cobalt blue AO Smith silos as tall as Titan rockets.

I don’t ever recall seeing any sort of kitchen garden out back, and one day when I brought an ear of corn plucked from the edge of a corn field behind the barns full of machinery, my grandfather tossed it aside, saying it was yellow corn fit only for livestock. The vast corn rows along the rural highway that ran by his ranch house were labeled with small metal signs marking their genetic variety and, likely, the type of herbicide sprayed by crop duster and tractor pulling a liquid spreader with a wingspan even wider.

Interestingly, those two worlds intersect in Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts,” a classic on garden writing. An American who married a Hungarian baron in the decade before World War II, Perenyi writes of “remembering the smoking piles of straw and manure on our Hungarian estate.” Urged by her husband to flee Europe in the early days of the war, Perenyi relocated to the Connecticut coast, where she spent the rest of her long and productive life writing and gardening. She had a particular and prescient passion for composting:

When I learned about composting after the war, it was a hobby for cranks, and neighbors refused to believe the heaps didn’t attract rats (They don’t.) Now that ‘organic’ has become a catch word, composting has even acquired a kind of mythical status. That is nonsense. It is a practice as old as agriculture, and no civilization has survived for long that hasn’t found a way to recycle its vegetable and animal wastes…

“Composting was, in fact, general throughout the world until the development of chemical fertilizers, which farmers were brought to believe were all that was necessary to replenish the soil.  Especially was this true in advanced America. I certainly did when I planted our wartime victory garden….and knowing nothing of the virtues of mulch, allowed the chemicals to be poured on. The family paid handsomely, too, to have the leaves raked up and removed each fall. It pains me now to think of it.

“You can’t buy compost. Neither can a healthy, well-conducted garden do without it. Even if you can’t bring yourself to believe in it as fertilizer and use it only in conjunction with chemicals, you still can’t do without it, for the very life of the soil itself depends on it. Without the microorganisms at work in compost, soil would literally be dead.”

Agribusiness still rules the range and the supermarket shelf, but things have changed on the home front all across the country, cities and suburbs. Over my lifetime, recycling has had its fits and starts, but increasingly it has become big business, an ingrained personal habit to some, if not a necessity for many others as mandated by municipalities overwhelmed by the trash our lifestyles produce.

The push to reuse, recycle and eat local is driven by a growing grass-roots awareness of ecological concerns and passions, to be sure, but also by the sheer scale of the food we waste and the cost and logistics of what to do with all the resulting garbage we now produce.

I read in a recent report the EPA found that 21% of the municipal waste stream in the US is made up of food waste. That’s the largest segment of all waste types generated, greater than paper and even plastic.

It’s easy to track this trend, which started, as many such innovations do, on the West Coast. In 2009, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to make composting food waste mandatory, with a goal of becoming “zero waste” by 2020.

If you live in Seattle these days and throw away a banana peel or dumped expired milk into the garbage, you are in for a fine, reported CNN recently.

The network explained: “The new program will come into effect in January 2015 for commercial establishments and residences.

“Why is Seattle making residents compost? The city was not going to meet its self-imposed goal of recycling 60% of all waste.

“Compostables are about 30% of what is still in the garbage and they are the largest target we have to help us reach our goals,” said Timothy Croll, solid waste director of the utilities commission. “Also, composting food waste reduces emissions of methane, which is a strong cause of climate change.”

“Closer to home, before he left office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The report on CNN continued: “Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, the company that handles San Francisco’s food-waste recycling, said New York City is “definitely on the right track.” He added, “Food scraps are one of the most important types of refuse because they are full of nutrients and carbon, critical resources for the environment and human health.”

Much of San Francisco’s food waste, an article in National Geographic informs, is processed at a compost facility called Jepson Prairie Organics, 55 miles east of San Francisco in Vacaville. The orange rinds and pizza boxes are then feasted on by microbes, until they turn into rich compost, a natural fertilizer that is in demand by the region’s agricultural producers.

“A lot of wineries in Napa and Sonoma are big buyers of the compost [because] it has [a] high nutrient value, so that’s a nice way to close out the loop from what we put in our green bins,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, the communications director for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. The compost is also sold to individuals, landscapers, and the highway department. It is approved for use with certified organic soil.”

Repurposed from an old wine cooler, my humble Hooch bucket seems quite a fitting storage vessel for the kitchen scraps destined for my pile. And though it’s not destined for anything so grand as a Napa vineyard, I consider each finished batch of compost I produce from my own backyard a unique vintage in its own right.

Each year varies in composition and terroir. This year, I suspect, my pile will produce a briny, homebrewed mix of humus, rendolent of seaweed and mollusk shell, with a taste of oak tannin, a bit of pumpkin spice, dash of coffee, hint of horseshoe-crab shell and a subtle afternote of Angora rabbit pellets.

Despite frigid temps, my pile is still cooking inside. Mixing in a fresh batch of kitchen scraps will replenish the fuel supply.


My Pile: Chip, Chip, Hooray

With the yard cleanup complete and my pile put to bed for the fall, it’s time for another favorite backyard project: Dressing my beds of perennials and the forsythia hedges with a layer of fresh wood chips.

Over the years, I’ve spread truckload after truckload of the remains of all manner of local trees and bushes, sawed into chunks and run through an industrialized chipper by a local landscaping crew, flagged down to dump their results in my driveway. If it’s not grass or patio or pavement, the ground I tend is covered by a layer of what toney landscapers call arborist mulch, where it decomposes according to its own composition and timeline.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Each fall I replenish the garden beds of perennials with a fresh layer of wood chips.

Wood chips aren’t quite as virtuous as compost, ecologically, but they do have their benefits to the backyard gardener. A four-inch layer of chips spread among my perennial beds prevents weeds from sprouting. It soaks up rainfall and slowly releases it, drastically reducing the need to water the flowers, bushes and shrubs that ring the perimeter of my property and surround the house.

A blanket of freshly minced trees gives the ground underneath the forsythia hedgerow and around the trees a uniform, manicured appearance, though for a few weeks my yard has the look of the kid with the bright new sneakers at school. And for a time, especially after it’s wetted by the first rain, a freshly spread layer of chips gives my yard a Christmasy, pine-scented smell or, when I happen upon a load made of black birch, a hint of Wrigley’s peppermint gum.

Some of my neighbors landscape their properties with store-bought mulch, made from coconut husks or nut shells or ground-up bark processed from who knows where – often dyed an unnatural shade of red or coffee brown. I prefer to get my wood chips unvarnished and for free, from nearby, and to spread them myself. I also like knowing where the chips come from, as an unsourced load of chopped-up tree or brush could introduce some blight or bug into my landscape. I’m pretty sure one year I got a nasty case of poison ivy after spreading a load of chips infused with ground-up ivy vines.

Still, the virtues of mulch are plainly evident.

“The greenness and fertility of my garden are due to vast quantities of mulch, everything from compost to salt hay to seaweed,” Eleanor Perenyi extolled in her garden classic, “Green Thoughts” (Modern Library, 1981).

“To non-organic gardeners, mulch’s primary function is to keep down weeds and conserve moisture in summer; in winter they may use [it] to keep the soil from freezing and heaving around favored perennials. But to gardeners of my persuasion, mulch is much more: It is an organic substance whose benefits extend to the soil itself, improving its structure and enriching its fertility to the point where it needs nothing else. An organically mulched vegetable garden never requires tilling, digging or hoeing, and is scarcely weeded. [Mulch] doesn’t burn or cause sudden spurts of unhealthy growth as artificial fertilizers may – it is long-term in its effects.”

Perenyi was not much in favor of wood chips, seeing them as too expensive when purchased commercially, a “staple of every corporate planting,” and low in nitrogen, requiring the addition of a fertilizer to compensate [more recent research seems to refute that, as you’ll see below]. Still, she was wholly committed to using mulches that were to her liking, “even newspapers and old carpets.”

My qualms about adding so much wood chip mulch to my grounds are assuaged by some online browsing. My search for “composting wood chips” brings me to a collection of web pages produced by Washington State University and composed by an expert I soon recognize as the modern maven of mulch, Linda Chalker-Scott.

In a 2007 newsletter produced by Master Gardener,  Chalker-Scott, who is a Ph.D. , Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, and MasterGardener WSU editor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University Puyallup, explains:

In areas where trees are a dominant feature of the landscape, arborist wood chips represent one of the best mulch choices for trees and shrubs. A 1990 study evaluated the landscape mulch potential of 15 organic materials, including grass clippings, leaves, composts, yard wastes, bark, and wood chips. Wood chips were one of the best performers in terms of moisture retention, temperature moderation, weed control, and sustainability.

“In many urban areas, arborist wood chips are available for free, representing one of the most economically practical choices. Unlike the uniform nature of sawdust and bark mulches, wood chips include bark, wood, and often leaves. The chemical and physical diversity of these materials resists the tendency towards compaction seen in sawdust and bark. Additionally, the materials vary in their size and decomposition rate, creating a more diverse environment that is subsequently colonized by a diverse soil biota. A biologically diverse soil biota is more resistant to environmental disturbance and will in turn support a diverse and healthy plant population.

“Wood chips are considered to be slow decomposers, as their tissues are rich in lignin, suberin, tannins, and other decomposition-resistant, natural compounds. Thus, wood chips supply nutrients slowly to the system; at the same time they absorb significant amounts of water that is slowly released to the soil. It is not surprising that wood chips have been cited as superior mulches for enhanced plant productivity. Wood chips have been especially effective in helping establish trees and native plants in urban and disturbed environments. Arborist wood chips provide incredible weed control in ornamental landscapes. The mechanism(s) by which wood chips prevent weed growth are not fully understood, but probably include light reduction (preventing germination of some seeds and reducing photosynthetic ability of buried leaves), allelopathy (inhibiting seed germination), and reduced nitrogen levels at the soil-mulch interface (reducing seedling survival).

“While there are imported wood mulches available for purchase at nurseries and home improvement centers, they are not as cost-effective as locally produced wood chips, which are often free. In a society where using locally produced materials is increasingly popular as a measure of sustainability, arborist wood chips are a natural choice. Finally, the reuse of plant materials as mulches keeps them out of the landfill—a benefit with both economic and environmental attributes.”

In any event, over a season or so, the wood chips spread across the bare ground are broken down by rot and mold and earthworms to become a deep new layer of biomass that is easily tillable. True, sometimes a layer of chips gets permeated by a web-like tangle of fungus, and I’ve read that decomposing wood chips can suck available nitrogen from the soil underneath and turn the ground more acidic than some plants favor. What’s more, all that wood decomposing does add a measure of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

But on balance, a blanket of local, fresh-made chips spread around the walkways and untended areas saves energy all around. It lays the groundwork for healthier plants, especially when combined with compost, which I tuck around the perennials and spread across my vegetable garden and atop the densest patches of my plantings. It all makes my yard that much more of a biomass factory, though I marvel at how all that minced wood reduces to so little. I realize what I’m shoveling is mostly water and air, bound only for a moment of time into bite-size pieces of carbon.

Earlier this week, I turned out the dog for his morning relief just as a cherry-picker and a truck hauling a chipper lumbered past my driveway and stopped two houses down the street. They were there to remove a big old white pine overhanging a neighbor’s house. After watching the driver expertly back the truck and chipper up the narrow drive, I asked if he wanted to dump the chips in my driveway.

Good for him, good for me, as it’s a no-brainer to drive a truck 30 yards down the street rather than 30 minutes to some rural landfill or refuse yard. And sure enough, when I came home at the end of my work day, my driveway was covered with a pile of fresh-cut wood chips wide and deep enough to hide a car.


A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

A freshly dumped load of wood chips nearly fills my driveway.

By now, I’ve got the process down, if not to a science, then a sport. Come Saturday, I am ready to dish. I use a wheelbarrow, a hay pitchfork with four curved tines and an old wide shovel I use to plow snow off my driveway.

I get started by leaning the wheelbarrow sideways into the pile and filling it with chips dragged from the top of the pile with the pitchfork. As the pile reduces, I use the wide-mouth shovel to scoop up from the edges. I know just how many fork-fulls or scoops it takes to fill the wheelbarrow and have a good idea of how best to wield the wheelbarrow around the garden beds to keep from burying an azalea or phlox.

Besides, wood chips – especially this load of light, bright-yellow pine, flecked with minced green – is easy to work with.

I can work my way into a dump-truck-size pile in less than a day, replenishing all of my garden beds along the way. Fill a wheelbarrow, walk it over to a garden bed, tip, then repeat. Every five loads or so I stop to rake the few piles flat across the garden beds and around the buses. It’s my exercise, a chore I relish. A moveable feast of a compost pile.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Just a few wheelbarrows left to spread among my garden beds.

Dr. Chalker-Scott’s research findings about compost can be found on a wonderfully informative website produced by the Washington State University Extension called Horticultural Myths, at More of her findings may be found at The Garden Professors blog,

My Pile: ‘The Best Fertilizer in the World’

I’m blessed to live within easy reach of the ocean, and it’s to the beach I go to bulk up on the greenest of green for my pile, seaweed.

This is not a new idea in these parts, as I discovered through an exhibit held some years back at the local historical society. “A Bunch of Farmers” detailed the area’s agricultural roots, beginning in the 1830s, which over the generations developed richly with the “successful maritime exportation of fish and produce to New York, Boston and beyond. By the Civil War, Westport was the leading onion supplier to the Union army, and onion farmers used nutrient-rich seaweed as fertilizer.”

Onion blight, along with the invention of modern food production and preservation technologies, did away with the farming of onions in the loamy, sandy fields here in coastal southern Connecticut, which gave way to second-growth woodland and tracts of suburban housing, ranging from gilded manor and weekend New York retreat to postwar cape and modern McMansion.

My one-story, two-bedroom cottage was built in the early 1950s and sits squarely in the center of a flat, one-third-acre corner lot of coastal marshland long ago dredged and drained into farm fields for those onions and later filled in to develop as postwar housing.

Driving to work or errands along the narrow, winding road my house sits on, each day I pass by two old onion barns. The smaller was long ago converted into a house; the larger, two-story wood structure tucked into the side of a hill, is still pretty much a barn and now used as what looks like a pool house for the modern home it sits behind.

My home is just a mile or so away from several public beaches strung along the northern shore of Long Island Sound in a collection of rocky coves, sandy beaches and tidal-river marshland. I drive to one of the local public beaches often in the fall, with the dog sniffing sea breezes out the side window and a washtub-size plastic bucket in the back cargo space of my SUV.

My dog and I both prefer low tide — him for chasing a tennis ball over the tidal flats and me for searching out the easiest pickings of washed-up seaweed and salt marsh grass.

Gathering seaweed in the fall at a local beach.

Gathering seaweed in the fall at a local beach.

Depending on the season, the weather and the wind, high tide usually leaves a long scraggly line of flotsam, most of it a motley salad of different kinds of seaweed and scraggly reeds of salt marsh grass turned to hay. The wrack line, they call it.

Today’s catch was good; a recent storm had pushed up a dense patch of detritus along a rock jetty close to the parking lot.

The seaweed is yellow and brown and green and chopped by the waves into small mushy pieces, the edges crinkly like lasagna. The layer I set upon is a half-foot deep and flecked with all kinds of seaborne detritus, a Sargasso Sea at my feet. I turn the plastic tub on its side and scrape the briny mix into the bucket with a three-tined hand hoe.

Caught up in the tidal ebb and flow are dismembered crab legs and carapices of baby horseshoe crabs. Shells of mussels, clams and oysters dot the mix, and in they go, too. The clattering seashells, which slowly break down into their basic components of lime and calcium, offset the acidic mulch of all the leaves in my pile. (I’ve also heard that seashells give tomatoes more flavor, and I flick stray shells from the seashore straight into the vegetable garden. Like tossing a penny into a fountain, I wish for tasty tomatoes next summer.) I always have to separate out a few bits of styrofoam or plastic — a broken fork, a bottle cap, snags of fishing line or deflated mylar shell of a helium party balloon, with string.

I love bringing this bit of the beach back home with me. The bucket smells like part wet swimsuit, part low tide, and all pure summer.

Seaweed gathered from the local beach is a rich stew of ready to rot greens.

The town opens up its beaches to dogs on Oct. 1, and I bet I’ve made 10 trips back and forth since then. It’s always a good day when you are at the beach, and on most visits within an hour or so I can tire the dog out and fill up a keg-sized bucket with 30 or 40 pounds of fresh, ripe seaweed or, just as good, a lighter mix of salt marsh hay. My dog’s in great shape, and so is my pile.

“Seaweed garden nutrients are relatively low in nitrogen and phosphorus,” I read on, “but contain about 60 other trace elements, as well as fungal and disease preventatives. Using seaweed for compost improves soil consistency and increases water retention in sandy or grainy soils and may be used as a top or side dressing. Composting seaweed speeds up the compost process.”

Erik Hoffner, writing for, adds that “besides being full of necessary nutrients, [kelp seaweed] also contains growth hormones (auxins, gibberellins, and cytokinins) which are readily taken up by plants and put directly to use.”

“Talk about magic seaweed,” writes noted journalist David Kirby in a fascinating article published in late 2016 on, wonderfully titled, “How to Stop Farts From Warming the Planet: Feed Cows Seaweed.”

“A single type of seaweed could cut greenhouse gas emissions, fight ocean acidification, removed invasive species, restore fisheries, and help coastal economies around the world,” Kirby writes.

“Researchers in Australia have discovered that the seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, when mixed with livestock feed in small amounts, reduced methane emissions from sheep by up to 80 percent.”

All those burps and farts and manure add up to a huge amount of methane — more than 5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, Kirby quotes a researcher, “The total contribution from land transportation is 10 percent, so we’re talking about the equivalent of half of all the vehicles in the world. It’s not a trivial number.”

I worry about the amount of methane, however negligible it may be in the greater scheme of things, my puny pile may fart out. So I take comfort in knowing that the seaweed I stuff into it may also be a solution to a far greater problem. Evidently, the seaweed contains a compound that helps disrupt enzymes used by gut bacteria to produce methane, which has up to 36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

We may be only just now finding out how basically good seaweed is, in situ and on my pile, but this new reporting makes me appreciate it even more.

Garden writer Eleanor Perenyi, in “Green Thoughts,” her classic account of gardening along the Connecticut coast in Stonington, also sought out seaweed, which required hiring “a man with a pickup truck and the willingness to scramble over wet rocks wielding a pitchfork, not a combination I find every day.”

“The ultimate mulch is, of course, compost and if I had enough of it I would need no other. But one never does have enough—wherefore the salt hay and, increasingly of late, seaweed.”

Perenyi also cites salt hay as “a good source of trace minerals and decomposes without depleting the soil of nitrogen.” Added to my pile it also helps aerate the mixture of other rotting organic material, and any bucket of seaweed I haul home from the beach is usually suffused with the straw of salt marsh grass.

“Like compost [seaweed] is a fertilizer as well as a soil conditioner, one of the oldest known to man. All marine peoples have used it. In seventeenth-century France, royal regulations established the kinds to be gathered and how they were to be used. It has twice the potash content of barnyard manure, making it perfect for beets, potatoes and cabbages, the potash lovers. More than that, it has the power to unlock minerals in the soil; it contains growth-inducing hormones that will increase the yields of tomatoes, corn and peppers. Plants given seaweed are better able to endure a light frost, and some are made more resistant to insect and disease attack. With those remarkable properties (some of which, it is true, have only lately been established by research), and given the high cost of commercial fertilizers and pesticides, you might expect to see the gardening citizenry of both coasts swarming over the rocks and beaches. You don’t, partly because no high-level interest exists to care to tell us.”

Another inspiration for adding seaweed to my pile is The Field, a fine if unsettling film by Jim Sheridan, made from a stage play in 1990 with a stellar cast, starring Richard Harris, John Hurt, a young and menacing Sean Bean and Tom Berenger as the rich, handsome Ugly American. The title role is played, with convincing Irish charm, by an acre or two of lush green pasture enclosed by a rim of ancient stone walls.

Bull, inhabited by Richard Harris, has tended the rented vale his entire life, turning it from barren ground to most productive pasturage, where he raises fresh hay and straw to feed his livestock for market. To Bull, his field is my pile a hundredfold.

The movie begins with Harris and Bean, as his mulish son, collecting heaping strands of giant kelp fronds from a rocky beach, packing the lot into wide-mouth wicker baskets on their backs and schlepping the harvest of seaweed over hill and dale back to their Field.

Their arduous trek plays out wordlessly over the opening titles. Cresting the last slope between the sea and the field, Harris plops down his basket. Gazing over the valley to his field, he says to his son, “God made the world, and seaweed make that Field, boy.”
“It’s the best fertilizer in the world,” Harris adds as they dump their wicker backpacks atop a pile of seaweed-infused compost, an Irish version of my pile.

It’s a tragic movie, and near the end, old “Bull” Harris tells the American, Berenger, who wants to buy the land out from under him, “It’s my field. It’s my child. I nursed it, I nourished it, I saw to its every want…”

If not to the same morbid end, I feel the same way about my pile.

Seaweed adds a rich mix of nutrients and minerals to my pile.

Seaweed adds a rich mix of nutrients and minerals to my pile.