The morning weather report foretells of a “top 10” day of the year, and I can see why: It’s a Friday, finishing off the third week of May, and it will start out partly cloudy and grow increasingly sunny, with a breezy high of 75. A perfect spring day to take off early from work and spend the afternoon idling away in the backyard.
Now until the gloaming dusk of evening, I’ll mow the lushly rising lawn, groom the blossoming backyard gardens, sweep the driveway and patio clean of windblown leaves and other tree debris and even spruce up the neighbor’s front yard, and in so doing add measurably to my pile. A top 10 day, indeed, for a backyard gardener, if less idle than ideal.
Even with the blade set on high it’s a bit of struggle to plow through the newly lush lawn. The grass-catcher hung off the back quickly fills, and even after changing directions to blow the excess clippings out to the cropped side, grasscycling large swaths of the lawn, I still have to stop five times to empty the bin of clippings on a tarp set down next to my pile and to allow the two-stroke engine to catch a breather after it nearly chokes on a particularly moist, almost chewy patch of clover. I leave three patches of uncut grass in the middle of the lawn to grow as mini meadows, each the size of a beach blanket, an archipelago of ankle-high nature amid the manicured turf.
The plastic tarp brims with freshly harvested green as well as a bushel-worth of fallen petals from the dogwood tree mixed with the swept-up sycamore fluff that continues to rain down from the myriad seed balls that hang from the dapple-barked trees, like disintegrating Christmas ornaments. More presents for my pile.
Next door, my neighbor raked up a pile of needles from the blue spruce that lords over their front yard. Little grass grows from the dusty bare dirt and exposed roots that surround the big tree, partly because of the shade the tree produces and partly because she rakes up all the leaf litter, sweeping the ground to bare dirt into a dusty mound of spruce needles and branches.
The stash has since settled into an unkept island unto its own. Typically, I take the swept-up leaves, mostly maple, that she gathers when tidying up her small patch of yard. She has nowhere convenient to put it, nor a trash service to haul it away. Though she knows I gladly take the food scraps from her kitchen to add to my pile, I hemmed and hawed about this prickly lot, mentioning to her that needles from fir trees were awfully hard to decompose, especially at this late part of the seasonal cycle. Some kinds of coniferous needles even contain a hormone that deters other plants from growing nearby. That’s why nothing usually grows under pine trees other than thick mats of rusty pine-needle straw. I found that out the hard way when I killed the tulip magnolia in my front yard under a suffocating blanket of spruce needles that cooked its roots.
I mentioned that perhaps I’d stuff the sweepings into a rubbish bin the next time I haul the pruned and fallen branches from my own yard off to the town refuse dump. But I haven’t needed to make that trip this spring, and I suppose the open invitation to do so has resulted in at least partial ownership of the abandoned heap of refuse. Eminent domain, of sorts, for being the resident composter. Besides, why go to the time and bother with hauling the mess away by car or truck when an alternative destination, a way station, is just a wheelbarrow away?
To some in the neighborhood, the scrap heap of needles is an eyesore, like having a junked car parked in the front yard. To the family next door, it’s a bother of a chore left unfinished. To me, the litter has just enough value to sweep up and deposit in my pile. Maybe that’s the solution to the yard and food-waste solution that clogs our landfills and waterways and taxes municipal budgets; to find a way to monetize such refuse so it’s worth it to dispose in a way that is profitable. It’s worked for plastic and glass and junk metal, a nickel or pennies on the ton at a time.
“There is a hefty price tag for food waste to business and society. It has only recently been quantified: an estimated $165 billion per year,” I read in an article by Forbes, “A Food Waste Reduction Movement Gathers Steam.”
“The good news is that both corporations and consumers now have access to a growing number of initiatives making it easier to avoid waste—solutions that go from farm to store to fridge, and all the way through to trash …. A growing number of companies are monetizing even rotten food. Harvest Power has 40 plants across the North America that take food waste plus leaves and yard trimmings and through anaerobic digestion and composting transform them into renewable energy to power neighborhood homes. A fringe benefit: natural fertilizer that Harvest Power sells to farmers and landscapers.”
According to Harvest Power, more than 33 million tons of organic waste gets sent to landfills in North America each year. “Our vision is to reduce organic wastes in North America, transforming them into renewable energy, beautiful landscapes and rich soils for agriculture,”says CEO Kathleen Lidocki. The company’s mission is to put organic waste to a higher and better use through a growing network of some 40 composting facilities around the U.S. and in Canada, to turn a healthy profit by helping states to meet recycling targets, produce clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainably revitalize the soil for its crops and landscapes.
I see my curbside pickup as a modest, neighborly act that adds to the present and potential of my pile. It takes a village to make a proper compost heap, and my pile is a manifestation of that neighborly collective, a living link that connects us walking and talking creatures as it does the web of life that exists at, below and above our feet. Put another way, if I didn’t keep a backyard compost heap, I’d have that much less of a reason to interact and share with my neighborfs, if only on a bare, grass-roots level.
I scoop up a wheelbarrow full of the spruce needles, separating out the stray sticks and branches by hand, getting several pinpricks along with the heady, resinous scent of a high-country forest glade. The gathered sweepings are about the size of a throw rug and a foot high. Augmented by a smattering of old leaves and dirt, the needly mix holds together as I scrape pitchfork fulls off the hard pan, locked together in its own slow-motion decay. A big fat nightcrawler protrudes from a snatched clumpful, making me realize that this dusty mound of spent fir needles will make a fine counterpoint to the hot-house heap of grass clippings already stationed by my pile.
I park the first wheelbarrow of spruce at the back corner of my pile, jostling for space with the plastic tarp overbrimming with grass clippings, already steaming. Another plastic sheet lays covered with more clippings at the front of my pile. I try to make the mental calculations of gauging how much new material I’ve gathered against the space I can create to tuck it all in. It will be a tight squeeze, fitting all I’ve gathered into the boot of my pile. I also wonder if I’m up to the physical task of carving into the backside of my pile, and how much resistance it will put up. I may have bitten off more than my pile, and I, can chew.
But it’s a beautiful spring evening, golden hour here beside the Gold Coast of Connecticut. I need the exercise, and turning my pile gives me a good workout, the upper body especially, like steering a kayak in a bathtub. I’ve heard that music conductors never suffer heart attacks because they’re always waving their arms. Wielding a pitchfork in concert with my pile gives me much the same cardio lift.
As always, I begin by tugging apart the top part of my pile, to shift old rotting material up and out from the middle reaches. It’s not a coincidence that my pile is precisely as wide as I can reach into the middle with a pitchfork, from either side and, nearly, from back to front. I pull out pitchforks full of rank, rotting organic matter, a mix of grass clippings gone bad and moldy leaves, and stack them along the front and sides. I’m relieved to see no sight nor hear no buzz of a batch of beachflies gone rogue. The smell, however, is just short of anearobic stink bomb, and I’m glad to be giving my pile a good airing out.
The freshly dug cavity along the front side of my pile needs a good supply of raw brown matter to offset the foment within and the new batch of grass clippings I have on hand. The spruce needles — long an afterthought in the neighbor’s yard — now seem like a timely contribution to the rotting tinderbox that is my pile.
I also cleave out chunks of tightly bound clumps of old leaves from the back edge of my pile. Each new pitchfork full gleaned from the ragged wall seems to come with a spring release, replacing itself with a new edging of easy pickings, some of it marbled with the moldy stems of salt march grass, some so fresh I can still read the numbers of the slips of shredded office paper deposited last fall.
The clutches of old leaves help me fill up the yawn with alternating layers of grass clippings and spruce needles, while steadily pecking away at the back wall. I wonder if it will collapse before I exhaust my supply of clippings and conifer duff, and how far I can dig into its footings before I can prompt it to do so. Most of the fun in a game of yatzhee or pick-up sticks is when the structure tumbles down.
I heap my pile with this tri-mix of compostibles until I’m literally up to my eyeballs. I’ve piled the top of the heap as high as I can, and come to a literal point. The crest can take no more, yet I still have to make room to accommodate the rest the grass clippings, and a barrow more of spruce needles. I’ll have to go in whole hog and rip into the back of my pile until it caves out to create the space in which to tuck in the rest of these recyclables.
I step away from the back-side wall and plan my way into the cliff-face like a rock climber plotting his ascent. I undercut more the bottom under edge, pulling out compressed tufts of dried leaves first laid down last autumn, to form a berm that stretches a step back along the entire backside. I keep plucking away, the pile stout enough to resist my undermining until I’ve carved out a channel a foot or so deep and as wide that reaches down to bare dirt. I fill the chasm with scraggly, alternating layers of clippings and needles, brown with green, then drag tumbled pitchforks full of more rotted remains down from above it.
This is a newly conquered cross section of my pile, and I stripmine my way further up the backside. Once teased apart and resorted and stuffed anew, these terraced layers of tossed compostibles will not again see the light of day for some weeks and hopefully will settle into their own zones of decomposition, consuming themselves according to their mix. My pile is not monolithic; it contains any number of areas of varying ingredients that cook away at their own time and pitch. It’s like a gourmet kitchen stove, its top burners and oven tasked to finish a multi-course feast all at the same time.
I backfill with more spreadings of fir needle mulch and clippings, stopping to catch a breather and to gather up the rest of the littered mound of spruce needles from next door. In fact, spotting an old eggshell fragment tumbling down from the newly exposed back wall reminds me to collect my own half-full bucket of waste from the kitchen and that of the neighbors, and add them behind a deeply edged steppe about halfway up the shaggy heap.
It’s been a long while since I plunged, full tilt, into my pile, and I surprise myself with how far into the back of my pile I can go, and how much fresh fodder I can mix within its reconstituted rear sloping wall. I do like finishing a project in full, especially one that seems to me as much performance art and science project as manual labor.
As I poke and pull my way back up to the top of the heap, I finally run out of clippings and needles. The backside of my pile, long a stratified stack in various states of petrification that I’ve been chiseling away at for weeks, has been replaced by a sifted mix of old organics and lusty new contributions, with plenty of breathing room in which to rot away.
I clean up around the edges, front and rear, grooming my pile back into a rough-hewn pyramid shape with steeply sloping faces of crumbly rotting leaves in every hue of brown, flecked with grass, turning from green to yellow. The front presents an attractive facade as handsome as any compost heap could be. And I’ve stuffed the trunk full of junk.
As they say, “L.A. face, Oakland booty,” my pile.
I consider dousing this recharged heap of compost with the hose; it could use a drink. The bloom of bacteria and the other microbes that this latest twerking of my pile will set off are a thirsty lot, and they will throw off a lot of steamy exhaust. But I’d rather keep my pile on the dry side. Too much water could choke off the feeding frenzy, turning my pile into a stinky, sulphurus dead zone. Besides rain is one the way, the morning TV forecaster also predicted, to buzz-kill any outdoor plans for the weekend.
I am happy to let my pile sit and soak and party on, inside and out, to varying degrees according to its constituent parts for the next week or so. How I approach it and what I find within next time I mess with my pile will be as much as a discovery and adventure as today. I know I’m on borrowed time with my pile and have only a few short months left before it will all be gone.