My Pile: Green Machine

A backyard is by its nature a passive, back-of-mind kind of place. But sometimes it demands attention, like this week, which is unfolding with the full bloom of spring.

After days of drizzly rain, the sun now dominates a cloudless sky, kickstarting the greenest of growth across the landscape. The leaves on the maple trees have burst out, the garden ferns have unfolded and the grass is thickening and surging upward.

They say you can almost see some types of grasses, like bamboo or switchgrass, grow in real time. The same seems true of my own lawn, and over the past few days the grass has grown so quickly and lushly that I fear waiting until the weekend to cut it. Besides, there’s more rain in the forecast.

So after getting home from work I haul the mower out of the shed and fire it up. It’s a pleasant chore on a pleasant evening. It’s not like having to mow the lawn on a sweltering August day, sweating through the baking sun and buzz of mosquitoes.

The dog’s delighted when I trundle the lawnmower out of the shed. His sport is to drop the tennis ball just outside the path of my mower, entreating me to retrieve it and toss it yonder for him to fetch. It’s a sport for both of us; I try to bend down to grab the ball without pausing or forcing the mower offline. When he drops the ball in front of me he waits for my reaction – if it’s in the path of the coming lawnmower blades a hand gesture from me is all he needs to dart in and grab the ball without slowing me down. In all the years of us playing this game, I’ve only mowed over a couple tennis balls.

Aside from learning how to throw a ball, ride a bike, swim, and perhaps read, I’ve been mowing as long as any other thing I’ve done in my life. I jumped at the chance to show my dad I was big enough to take over mowing duties for him as a kid, and as I grew older made spending money by taking care of some neighbors’ lawns each summer. By the time I left high school, I mowed four or five lawns. Mowing a lawn was my first job, and it probably will be my last.

Mowing is a simple, rewarding task that I enjoy doing. It’s fair way to get some sun and some exercise, especially if you never bother to fix the belt that once self-propelled the rear wheels. The unit is now just dead weight, if not a hand brake. Just the same, I wheel the trusty red Toro around the yard like a matador, raising the front wheels just so to skim an exposed root or pass over and along a rock border so I don’t have to edge with the hand shears or electric trimmer — or bust the whirring blade.

I don’t know what may be on, say, Forrest Gump’s mind when he’s atop his riding mower, but I’m right there with him. Walking behind a mower invariably leads me down interesting paths of thought. It’s a rolling Buddhist prayer wheel of a meditative act, a squared off labyrinth that leads to a vanishing point — the final strip of ankle-high grass that gives way to a uniform plane of green etched by the tracks of the mower wheels. I always feel better about myself after I’ve finished mowing the lawn.

Mowing is another form of hand-crafting, like watering with the hose or weeding with the tip of a digger or hoe. I can’t imagine hiring out for such tasks, though can understand why others do, because of time or inclination. To each his own.

Many gardeners fret about giving over precious backyard space to turf, but my lawn is as well-trod as center field at Fenway — by the dog and me playing our constant game of catch or, ever-rarer these days, a session of Frisbee with my son. Close-cropped grass makes all the difference; the ball bounces high and true, our footfalls are firm, and no doubt the robins have better luck procuring worms for their chicks in the nests of nearby bushes.

The aesthetics of a just-mowed lawn are pleasing, too. A freshly mowed lawn looks bigger. It’s also a fine counterpoint to the helter-skelter growth of the perennial beds. And as this being the second cut of the season, the rest of the lawn has caught up to the eye-jarring tufts of hot-spot grass, and my linear passes around and up and down the lawn produces a uniform spread of manicured green — except a trio of circular patches I leave to thrive as micro-meadows.

Two of the sculpted spaces are thick with clover, for the bees; the other is a curious patch of fescue fast going to seed, for me. My lawn is a motley mix of sun- and shade grasses, and most are thrusting up slender spikes of grain. The poa annua is by far the most profligate, but here and there are more curious strains, and I plan to let this particular patch of fetching grass mature and harvest the seeds. I let most of the rest of the plantings in my backyard come to fruition, and it seems only fair to allow this little bit of turf to do the same.

Aside from mowing around a patchwork of micro-meadows of uncut turf, sometimes I try to re-create the artful designs of those who mow major league outfields. I like the geometry of this particular form of American landscape art, and my lawn is a backyard fascimile of the fields of dreams I see on sports TV, or from the small oval window of transcontinental jet flying over the swath of the American Heartland divided by quarter section and ruled by massive combines, tractors and center-pivot irrigation. I’ll mow on the diagonal one week, back and forth the next or in concentric squares the next. The best visual effect is the on-off sheen of the mowed turf, which comes from the rotation of the whirring motor that flattens the grass blades to shimmer in the sun, or not, according to the path taken, up or back. My efforts are very much bush league; mostly I concentrate on not cutting off a toe or knicking a shin with a thrown rock, or chewing up a tennis ball or scalping a prize planting along a garden edge. The border of the lawn, the fringe of anything, is where you run into the most trouble.

Even with the blade set on the second-highest setting and “grasscycling” wide swaths with the grass-catcher once full, I gather four bags full of clippings to park at the base of my pile.

Fresh fodder for my pile -- the gathering of grass clippings from a fast-growing lawn.

Fresh fodder for my pile — the gathering of grass clippings from a fast-growing lawn.

Over the past week, since stuffing it full of plucked spring weeds and unwanted sproutings from the garden, and being soaked by rain, my pile has settled in on itself, like it always does. My goal with this latest batch of moist green clippings, which are already heating up and fragrant with ferment, is to play hide and seek.

I want to tuck all the grass into my pile and seek out snatches of dried leaves from its fringes to mix within. First I fluff up the top to take in the first few handfuls of clippings, releasing a pungent aroma of the over-wintering cilantro I’d culled from the garden a week ago. Next I dig into the back of my pile with the pitchfork to tease out pockets of virgin contributions from the fall — smatterings of white shredded paper and rotted stems of salt marsh hay gathered from the beach last fall, a chunk of sunflower stalk, and tightly compacted layers of last year’s leaves, as dry as the day I swept them up. It’s a time capsule, my pile, and now I’m mixing past and present, fresh green and old brown, to create something all together new.

The back of my pile remains a stout wall that can withstand my borrowings from underneath. In my mind’s eye, my pile is ever-more like a bowl of chowder served in a crusty round loaf of bread. For months now I’ve added a stew of food waste from the kitchen, coffee grounds and seaweed and more to the middle part of my pile, which is rotting into a melange of composting leaf mold. Now I am mining the outer crust and base for its raw material, untouched by my compost mixology.

I borrow snatches of pressed dried leaves from the bottom of my pile to mix with the grass clippings, effectively turning my pile inside out and upside down.

I borrow snatches of pressed dried leaves from the bottom of my pile to mix with the grass clippings, effectively turning my pile inside out and upside down.

I’m turning my pile upside down and inside out as I excavate. I’m getting ever closer to the moist, dark inner reaches of more finished compost, which I hope to add to my vegetable garden when I plant it this weekend.

I finish by tossing the last grabs of grass clippings across the top of my pile and bury them by cleaning up around the perimeter. I step back to consider my pile, newly restored and resupplied with fresh green fodder when my neighbor comes over with a wheelbarrow full of clippings of his own.

My pile will take it all in. It’s a green machine, a backyard biofactory getting ever closer to turning out its finished product of new living soil.

 

 

My Pile: The Big Dig

It’s May Day, and my pile is now fully six months old. In November, it rose, phoenix like, from the remnants of last year’s heap of compost, which had been whittled down through the late summer and fall to a small starter mound of rich, dark humus and scrambly stalks and stems harvested from the vegetable garden.

My pile soon swelled with the onslaught of fallen leaves, supplemented by layers of sandy, sinewy seaweed and salt marsh hay beachcombed from the nearby shore and with grass clippings from a lawn revived by the balmy, sun-dappled days of autumn. As the season turned and I finished the yard cleanup before the cold set in, the heap of mostly dry chopped leaves received the spent growth of perennials culled from the garden beds, dried needles of pine and fir, and regular infusions of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, shredded paper and other organic compostibles. It drank eagerly from the business end of a garden hose, and exhaled a steady stream of vapors from its midst.

For two months, my pile carried a burden of thick insulating snow, before thawing with the strengthening sun of early spring. Despite receiving hundreds of pounds fresh fodder along the way, from a barrel of horse manure to bag catchers full of sycamore seedballs scarfed up from the dormant winter lawn, as well as my efforts to toss and turn it, my pile has steadily settled in upon itself. I’ve trimmed its edges; tidied up the corners and poked and prodded its innards. By volume, it’s shrunken by nearly a third, and by look is now more composed stack than overstuffed heap. From a distance it still seems a big mess of decomposing leaves.

As much as the first half-life of my pile is dominated by dead brown leaves, the ever-quickening race to its fruition as finished compost will be now driven by mass infusions of hot green grass clippings.

Today, a Sunday, is the day I mow the ever-thickening lawn and add its surplus trimmings of minced green blades of grass to my pile. True, over the past three weeks I’ve stuffed it with my neighbor’s artificially enriched clippings, as well as a batch of more naturally nitrogen-spiked grass, courtesy of the resident deer and dog’s urea. But those contributions are just appetizers for the main course of fresh greens. Today marks a literal tectonic shift for my pile, in shape and composition.

Even with the newly sharpened blade set on high, the Toro’s catcher fills quickly. I mulch back into the lawn most of the clippings, yet stop a half-dozen times when the mower chokes to detach the hopper from the mower and dump the moist, fragrant clippings at the base of my pile.

 

The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

As usual, I set out my other fixings – a week’s worth kitchen scraps from next door and of my own, as well as two small plastic bags of shredded paper from the office. I figure the crinkled white strips, laboriously processed from wood pulp, would make a fine counterbalance to the finely chopped blades of lush green grass. Add too much grass to a compost pile without mixing it with drier, brown materials and a compost heap that’s humming along into a stinky, anaerobic mess.

“Not all grass clippings should be removed from the lawn; when left after mowing, their nutrients enrich the lawn itself, without the application of chemical fertilizers,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “However, most lawns do not need as much enrichment as a full growing season’s clippings will provide. Collecting grass clippings also helps reduce weed growth by removing weed seeds from the lawn.

“Freshly gathered green clippings are exceedingly rich in nitrogen and will heat up on their own if pulled into a pile. But, because of their high water content, they will also pack down and become slimy. This can be avoided by adding grass clippings in thin layers, alternating with leaves, garbage, manure and other materials, thus preventing them from clumping together.

“Clippings that have been allowed to dry out will have lost much of their nitrogen content but are still valuable as an energy source and to absorb excess moisture….Grass clippings and leaves can be turned into finished compost in 2 weeks if the heap is chopped and turned every 3 days.”

So here I stand, pitchfork in hand, to at long last begin to unearth the hard-pressed beginnings of my pile from back when. I stick the pitchfork, upside down, into the front edge of my pile to pull a wedge of moist, matted leaves from underneath. My previous working of the pile have helped create a nearly vertical wall, which I undercut by pulling chunks forward to form a front line of decayed, crumbly leaves. It’s the first light of day these leaves have seen since the fall. Each forkful writhes with squiggly worms and glistens with flecks of mica from the beach. Any trace of the seaweed they traveled in on is long gone.

I dig as far under the front wall of compost as I dare, until it threatens to collapse forward under its own weight. I toss a layer of grass clippings into the newly made trench, then cover with several pitchforks full of dried brown leaves gleaned from the corners of the log walls. They appear as fresh as the day they tumbled down from the top of my pile last fall.

I cleave a few more pitchforks of dark, rotted leaf mold from the bottom center of my pile, then stand back to watch the front face of the pile tumble down upon itself. I spread the avalanche out across the new front of my pile to create what amounts to a moraine.

As I excavate further into the center of my pile, I unearth a pocket of pristine leaf litter. Bone dry and compressed into a tightly wadded stack, the leaves lie underneath the digging I have done through the winter. Bound by the weight of all that is above it, the clutch of leaves has repelled any intrusion of water or rot, and now resists even the tines of the pitchfork. I tease the leaves apart bit by bit, and spread them across the newly created trench and cover them with a combination of grass clippings, white shredded paper and moist gatherings from the sides of my pile. Released from their state of suspended animation, they will now fully join the fungible, seething mess of rot and transmutation that is my pile.

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Digging out the deepest layers of leaf mold to pull them out to the front of my pile, I uncover a pocket of dry, hard-pressed leaves untouched by the rot that surrounds it.

I dig further into my pile, nearing the heart of it. Again it collapses, and I add more grass, as well as the kitchen scraps, deeply, mostly to play hide-and-seek with my mysterious rodent interloper. Its furtive trail has gone cold, and I can only hope that the mass of grass clippings added to the mix, easily a hundred pounds or more, will mask any scent of food waste to scavenge.

Essentially, I’m stepping my wandering pile forward, according to my plan of turning it inside out and upside down, largely in place. Its front has moved forward about two feet, hard by the edge of the lawn, and is a crumbly mix of nearly finished compost. I make note of using it as a top-dressing for when I plant the vegetable garden, once the risk of frost is past.

I portion out the rest of the grass and shredded paper, tucking it deep within a third trench. I can no longer reach down to ground, but I’m close, and far enough into the center of the pile to come across the barely discernible remains of my earliest insertions of kitchen recyclables and such. I spot a broken egg shell and the skin of an avocado, still adorned with the supermarket stick-on label. The pitchfork snags a seashell, then a wadded up section of soggy newspaper, the bottom of the rabbit hutch from before the snows of late January, I figure. I tease it apart with the tines of the pitchfork and bury it anew with the last of the grass clippings.

To cover the rest of the clippings, I scrape the hard-tine rake across the top of my pile, pulling the outer layer of sun-baked leaves forward, releasing volumes of vaporish steam from the rot taking place just below the surface. I cover it all with fat forkfuls of more raw compost from along the back side, tangly with the rotting stems of the salt marsh hay that insulated my pile through the winter. In short order my pile is newly restored to its customary height. Its front half, at least, is newly suffused with fresh mixed greens and rotting brown.

Next time I mow, I’ll repeat this process, working from the back of my pile, then I will dig inward from each flanking side. It will take me another month or so to get to the very bottom of my pile, the small mound of humus reserved from last season that served as the activator for rot and decay to come. But from today to harvest, my pile will be a most active compost heap, suffused with high-octane grass clippings. Keeping it aerated now becomes my chore, and it will be good hard exercise as I work to expose the compressed leaves deep within my pile and tease them apart to allow my pile’s “Friends of Distinction”*  – the worms, the creepy-crawlers, the mold-makers and microbes – to finish the job.

* The allusion seems fitting to me, for this group recorded a ’60s hit — “Grazing in the Grass” — that makes a great soundtrack for backyard composters:

Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it
What a trip just watchin’ as the world goes past
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
There are so many good things to see
While grazin’ in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
Flowers with colours for takin’
Everything outta sight in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
The sun beaming down between the leaves
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
And the bir-ir-ir-irds dartin’ in and out of the trees
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)

Everything here is so clear, you can see it
And everything here is so real, you can feel it
And it’s real, so real, so real, so real, so real, so real
Can you dig it
Whooo-oooh

I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby
I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby