My Pile: Breathing Room

It’s a balmy Sunday in mid-December,  and although the neighbors are busy decking out their homes and yards with holiday lights and decorations, it’s unseasonably warm. With a record high of  near 70 degrees today, I leave my own lights in their boxes in the attic and plan to devote the day to sprucing up the backyard and taking care of outdoor chores.

There’s wood to chop for the fireplace. I roll a few whole logs from the stack of sawed-up maple drying next to my pile. I stand them on end to split into chunks and soon have set aside enough cordwood to burn well into the new year.

Some of the maple logs are too long for the fireplace, or too knotty to bother chopping. But they will make good new replacements for the rotting logs that contain my pile. The two parallel walls of thick old stacked logs also serve as stepping stones for me to clamber up, and several are now too crumbly to safely perch on.

Today I plan to give my pile a good poking, using an 8-ft. length of rebar I snagged a couple years ago from a neighbor’s scrap bin. Standing atop the log walls requires a bit of a balancing act to thrust the bendy section of rusty, ribbed steel down into the heap of leaves.

I roll two new logs into place, improving both the sturdiness of the log steps and giving me new perches to sit on at the feet of my pile. I also like the look, as along the way I’ve also added some rakings of fresh leaves to the top of my pile. There is always tidying up to do in a backyard garden, especially one as active as mine.

Some of the busyness involved in chopping wood and shoring up my pile. Plus, old pumpkins from the neighbors...

Some of the busyness involved in chopping wood and shoring up my pile. Plus, old pumpkins from the neighbors…

My pile is like a sandbox for grown-up play. It offers endless opportunities to make things up in a playful yet industrious way. It reminds me of the forts we baby-boom suburban kids once made in nearby woods or construction sites to fight imaginary cold-war battles.

Which brings me to the rebar I use to poke my pile.

The rusty stick of half-inch steel weighs just a couple pounds, but climbing atop the log walls and thrusting it a couple dozen times into the midst of my pile gives me a good, quick workout. As an aerating tool, it does a fine job of making my pile more porous, for both water and air.

My pile needs to breathe. It may be chockful of dead stuff but it is a living thing, and to sustain the life within it my pile needs air.

“What you are doing when you construct an aerobic (with air) compost heap is creating the right environment for the billions of microorganisms that make the compost happen. Their food is the materials that you put on the heap,” counsels Nicky Scott in “How to Make and Use Compost.”

“A happy heap will have a balance of air and waiter, just like a squeezed-out sponge; the whole surface area is coated in water but there are air spaces in between. If the pile is too dense, squeezing out all the air, then all the beneficial life forms in the compost heap are not going to survive and will be replaced by the ‘bad’ microbes — the anaerobic (without air) ones that are responsible for all the bad odours you get from putrefying substances. This is bad news for your compost and if you put this material on your plants it can be toxic to them. So creating air spaces in the compost is vital.”

Turning, or tumbling, a compost pile is the surefire way to add big gulps of air to the process, but my pile is too big and unwieldy at this point in its life cycle. Using a hand aerator is much like performing CPR — a remedy used after the fact as a short-term fix.

I try to give my pile good lungs from the start, mostly by building it in layers and using plenty of porous material along the way, mostly the hollow reeds of salt marsh grass gathered from the seashore but also armfuls of spent tomato vines and flower stalks from the cutting garden.

Some years the deer allow me to grow sunflowers along the fence bordering the vegetable garden, and come the fall their thick fibrous stalks make excellent ventilation shafts for my pile. The soft centers rot out — think of sugar cane — creating hollow tubes for both air and water to flow.


Sunflower stalks, or reedy stems from perennials make good interior highways for air, water and things that creep and crawl.

Sunflower stalks, or reedy stems from perennials make good interior highways for air, water and things that creep and crawl.

Some compost experts advise starting a heap by first sticking a length of perforated PVC pipe in the middle, or a rolled-up tube of wire mesh fence, to serve as a more permanent chimney. I may try that trick someday but for this season will stick with my sticks of sunflower augmented by slender steel.

Jousting with my pile is also instructive.

With a few hard thrusts, back and forth, the rod drives deep into the pile. The rebar ribs make it thrum and give me sensory feedback through the vibrations in my gloved hands.  The rod zings like a tuning fork through a section of dried leaves. It tings like sonar when the blunt end strikes an oyster shell caught up in a collection of seaweed from the beach. What’s that tough but squishy part? The Jack o Lantern tossed in after Halloween?

An old length of rebar makes a good aerator for my pile.

An old length of rebar makes a good aerator for my pile.

I press harder, leaning into the bar of rebar when it meets the resistance of a thick patch of tightly packed mulched leaves. I press on, and when the tip meets hard ground I feel the jarring end note all the way up to my elbows.

Sometimes when I tug the rod back up and out of its tight pathway, jousting with my pile, it wins, and the pole slips through my gloves. I grab tight and pull harder, fearing that one of these days I’m going to stick the shiv of metal right up under my chin.

I jerk the rod free and clear, using its slender wobble like a tightrope walker to keep from teetering off the log wall.

I make a dozen or more thrusts from each side and front and back, varying the angle of entry each time, making a pin cushion of my pile. In my mind’s eye I see each punch hole as a slender tube of air for water to navigate, a superhighway for countless unseen bugs and bacteria to mix and mingle. I’m creating breathing room for my pile.

The piece of rebar also makes a handy thermometer to gauge the temperature of my pile. It's hot to the teuch!

The piece of rebar also makes a handy thermometer to gauge the temperature of my pile. It’s hot to the touch!

The butt end of the rebar glistens with steam. I pull my glove off to confirm: The rod is warm to the touch.

I wonder if the heat is caused by the friction of all my aerobics, so I stick the piece of cooling steel back down into the heart of my pile. I wait a few beats, then draw the end back out to take the temperature of my pile. The bar is hot to the touch. I take it as a good sign that inside my pile is a churning, burning mix of earth, water and air.

It’s smoking hot, my pile.

My Pile: Waste Not, Want Not

Urban Dictionary defines a Connecticut Yankee as “someone who is so cheap with money, they use both sides of the toilet paper … A Connecticut Yankee will serve the same exact meal to house guests two nights in a row to finish the leftovers.”

Guilty as charged, at least as far as the leftovers are concerned. And like any good Yankee homesteader in these Connecticut climes, I make busy through late fall stocking the larder that is my pile with leftovers of leftovers. The entry bar is low: Most any old vegetative matter that the lower parts of the food chain can make a meal of will do. It can be as bland as shredded white paper from the office or as rich as a bouillabaisse of washed-up seaweed and shells plucked from the beach.

I also abide by the old saw that a good compost heap is 80 percent dead brown stuff — fallen leaves, in abundance — and 20 percent green materials — things that biodegrade with some alacrity and without malice. I have no interest in adding cat litter or dog doo to my pile, or meat, though some bones of various critters or crustaceans may be tossed in on occasion. I hear they are rich in calcium and other minerals.

The easy pickings are grass clippings from the yard, until they peter out with the waning autumnal sun. Filtered coffee grounds from a local caffeine shop are always free for the asking, or taking, and my pile is the end stop for all the remains from my kitchen and that of the family next door. Seaweed gathered from the local shore takes more effort, but a jaunt to the beach with a bucket in tow is always worth the trip, whether I bring back a pungent load of wet sandy gleanings or not.

A certain amount of scavenging suits me and my pile. My goal each fall is to find the time and wherewithal to add a layer of something “green” to most every load of leaves I gather from the yard and dump upon it.

At this point in my pile’s life cycle, there’s always way more leaves than anything else. The more fresh rotting green I can contribute to my pile at this formative stage, the hotter it will cook through the winter months and the sooner the mass of leaves and compostible whatnot will boil down into a finished batch of loamy new humus that enriches my lawn and garden.

There are not many rules to building my pile, more like guidelines — and opportunity.

I see value in every garbage can and recycling bin, and scrounging up these leftovers pays off in a very modest way as a local environmental good and a micro investment in my property. Each year’s compost heap adds a lot of fresh, healthy biomass to my yard, and stands as a convenient destination for organic discards. Time to toss the Halloween pumpkins? The puckered-up ol’ Jack O’Lanterns on the porch do cannonballs straight into my pile.

Jack o' Lanterns get tossed into my pile each fall.

Jack o’ Lanterns get tossed into my pile each fall.

Cover with a rounded-up mess o’ leaves, and repeat. Next with a bagful of gleanings from the bottom of a rabbit cage, courtesy of my next-door neighbors. Or a dusting of wood ash from my fireplace, or the tired-out dirt from an old flower pot, upended into a tsunami of fall leaves. It all adds up, into the distillation that is my pile.

I’m sure other compost compilers in other places have their own localized routines and recipes. I’ve seen lists of all the things you can compost, and it’s an impressive array, from dryer lint to hair swept from the floor of the barber shop.

It’s a dirty, messy  and inconvenient truth that we waste an untold amount of green biomass, mostly food but a lot of other things made from nature or manufactured by man. Most of the composting books I’ve perused include charts of the sundry materials that can be safely composted, and the listings are impressively creative and diverse.

In “Let It Rot,” Stu Campbell includes such items as feathers (very high in nitrogen and phosphoric acid), tobacco dust and stems (a rich source of potash) and bat guano (pretty much the richest manure around).

Cardboard and “‘Zoo Poo’ made from elephant, rhinoceros and other herbivorous animals’ poo,” make the list in Nicky Scott’s “How to Make and Use Compost — the Ultimate Guide.”

The silliest thing I will admit to adding to my pile is a gathering of fingernail clippings, cupped in my hand until I ambled outside to my pile. My pile makes work for idle, if manicured, hands.

I also once visited a work colleague who lived in a beautiful apartment in a stable house at a Connecticut estate and, much to her bemusement, brought home with me a bucket of horse manure. The horses she lived above were worth millions, and their droppings added value to my pile as well.

Such inputs are a very modest offset to the magnitudes more of soil that is lost each year across the living skin of the earth.

The United Nations proclaimed 2015 as the “International Year of Soil,” I read on, a website maintained by the “organics recycling authority.” What’s more, Dec. 5, is World Soil Day, my monthly issue of National Geographic reveals. “Soil, in which nearly all our food grows, is a living resource that takes years to form. Yet it can vanish in minutes …

“Each year 75 billion tons of fertile soil are lost to erosion. That’s alarming — and not just to food producers. Soil can trap huge quantities of carbon dioxide in the form of organic carbon and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. Over the course of 25 years, healthy soils can absorb an estimated 10 percent of human-generated carbon emissions.”

Writer Kelsey Nowakowski supplies more factoids:

  • Soil is now eroding up to 20 times faster than it is being developed.
  •  Since 1980, one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.

“If we protect and sustainably manage soils,” says Ronald Vargas of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “we can combat climate change.”

Think globally, garden locally. As Douglas W. Tallamy writes in “Bringing Nature Home,” “Gardeners enjoy their hobby for many reasons: a love of plants and nature, the satisfaction that comes from beautifying home and community, the pleasures of creative effort, the desire to collect rare or unusual species, and the healthful benefits of exercise and outdoor air…

“But now, for the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to ‘make a difference.’ In this case, the ‘difference’ will be to the future of biodiversity, to the native plants and animals of North America and the ecosystems that sustain them…

“I needn’t elaborate on the many things our garden do for us,” Tallamy continues. “Properly designed, gardens tie our homes to the surrounding landscape as well as provide an outlet for artistic expression and a source of natural beauty that be enjoyed year round. Our gardens also offer us refuge from an increasingly hectic and unpleasant world. But because gardens are, in essence, groups of plants, they also have the potential to perform the same essential biological roles fulfilled by healthy plant communities everywhere.”

Tending my pile offers me plenty of good ol’ fashioned outdoor exercise. It serves as a crunchy-granola hobby, it keeps me at home and out of trouble further afield, and it all costs next to nothing.

If that all sounds simple and skinflint, know that the payoff is profoundly rich and complex. A garden that is healthy — diverse, well-balanced — begins with and is sustained by regularly replenishment of newly minted soil that is commensurately rich and complex and wholly in sync with the native ground from which it comes.

That’s compost. That’s my pile. Decomposers also “play a vital role in keeping the [plant and animal] in balance,” adds Tallamy. “Most decomposers are insects, and they can be present in fantastic numbers, ready to recycle the nutrients in dead plants and animals for later use by the living. Decomposers are also important components of the terrestrial food chain and help provide the energy required by higher trophic levels.

By adding the richness of organic compost to my garden, I can forsake the costly herbicides and pesticides required to keep most suburban gardens perky and pest-free. “Would we not better achieve our goal of a pest-free garden if we employed nature herself to look after things?” asks Tallamy. ” We have spent the last half-century proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a sterile garden does not work. It is a high-input enterprice requiring more time and money than most of us would like, or are able, to devote or spend.”

Bottom line? I think there’s a bit of the Connecticut Yankee in every composter, wherever their backyard heap may be.

Some kitchen scraps, a half bucket of seaweed, and a bag from the neighbor's rabbit hut. All good to go!

Some kitchen scraps, a half bucket of seaweed, and a bag from the neighbor’s rabbit hut. All good to go into my pile.