My Pile: Wandering in Place

I am sure there’s a systematic way to add to, aerate and otherwise mix my pile in the most efficient and productive way possible, a process whose inputs and variables could be modeled by a computer program, spit out and followed. Commercial composters take such a scientific and mechanized approach to their operations.

My backyard pile is much more artisanal, handmade in small batches, sampled throughout the year but mostly harvested en masse by late summer. The recipe for this homemade humus varies from year to year, as does its specific cooking time. Some parts mature early, and most springs I can usually harvest a wheelbarrow or two of fresh-hot compost to tuck along the rows of sprouting vegetables in the garden or new transplants in the perennial beds, or to fill the holes left by rocks I pluck from the lawn through mud season.

Creating each new vintage of compost is part art, part science. Mostly it’s about mixing air, water and sundry organic ingredients by turning my pile inside-out, in place, with a minimum of fuss and to the maximum effect. It’s a sport-like hobby, a pastime that engages me both mentally and physically.

The guidebooks and online sources describe a bewildering array of compost setups and contraptions, from the homemade to the high-tech. Google a few search terms and you’ll see that there is a composting solution for every need. It would be easier if I had room for a two-bin type compost heap; I’m envious of the setups using two or three side-by-side bins made of removable wood-slat bins that turns composting into more of an assembly-line process. As is, working my pile in place is a constrained, somewhat convoluted act, like changing your clothes in the backseat of a small car.

Structurally, the best description I can find for my pile is that it’s known as a “log cabin” compost heap. I rather like that. There is a Lincoln Log aspect to my pile, harking back to a baby-boomer childhood spent playing around suburban construction sites and building forts in the woodlots yet to be filled in by new housing. There is a bit of the rail-splitter in every American.

Despite adding volumes of compostibles to my "log cabin" pile throughout the winter, as the spring season begins, it is a condensed, compressed stack of organics in need of a good "airing out."

Despite adding volumes of compostibles to my “log cabin” pile throughout the winter, as the spring season begins, it is a condensed, compressed stack of organics in need of a good airing out.

The literature defines my backyard composting as following the Indore process, first developed a century ago in India by Sir Albert Howard, with a prototypical American twist, which Rodale describes as the University of California method. It’s fitting, as my composting has its roots in California, and I happen to be a UC Berkeley alum.

“The composting method developed at the University of California in the early 1950s is probably the best known and the most clearly articulated of the rapid-return or quick methods,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “It is similar to earlier methods recommended by modifiers of the Indore method, to those practices in mechanical digester units in Europe and America, and to those described and advocated by Harold B. Gotaas of the World Health Organization in his 1935 book ‘Composting.’ Whereas the Indore method may be described as falling on the cool end of the compost spectrum, the California method aims for more heat and faster decomposition.”

“Turning is essential to the California method, for it provides aeration and prevents the development of anaerobic conditions. The more frequent the turning, the more rapidly the method works. If you have a single bin, turning the pile requires you to remove the front of the bin and fork out the contents, beginning with the top layer and keeping track of the original location of the material. When you return the contents, make sure that the material from the outer layers (top and sides) of the pile ends up in the interior of the new pile. The material should be fluffed as it is forked, and it should be so thoroughly mixed that the original layers are indistinguishable. In the course of the composting process, every particle of the pile should at one time or another have been exposed to the interior heat of the pile.”

Even more apropos is Rodale’s evocative, if tautological, description of the “wandering compost pile,” which seems to describe my pile well:

“For continuously composting household, yard and garden waste while maintaining optimum pile size, a ‘wandering compost pile’ is effective. Starting with minimum dimensions of 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep, this type of heap ‘wanders’ as fresh ingredients, such as kitchen refuse (minus meat or animal fat), are tossed onto the sloping front face and finished compost is sliced from the back. By screening the finished compost as it is removed and using the larger particles to cover additions to the front of the pile, newly added materials are seeded with the necessary microrganisms.”

There’s a good bit of manual labor involved in working a compost heap the size of my pile and its particular composition. Actually, the “how-to” reminds me of the old-fashioned flywheels that you see pulling taffy in a candy shop on a seaside boardwalk. First I spread my pile open and out, adding air and space, then fold back in fresh heapings of green and brown from the edges. I think this taffy-pulling bioturbation of my pile is the best way to go about it, as is the log cabin I keep it in.

Last time I turned my pile, to add the unplanned load of horse manure, I excavated twin channels across the top of my pile, scooping the rotting remains of the heap up and outward. I added in the manure and kitchen scraps, then back-filled with dried leaves shaved from the sloping sides.

Weighed down by a few inches of heavy spring snow that fell that night and melted the next day, the dome of my pile from a week ago has now settled in on itself, sagging beneath the tops of the bracing log walls. It’s a good sign of the foment within, and a pattern I’ve followed on pretty much a weekly basis since amassing this heap of fallen leaves and gathered seaweed and hay and other compostibles from the last days of summer on through the end of autumn.

At its peak last last year, my pile swelled to a height higher than my head and sprawled over the log walls that sought to contain it, spilling over the wire fence along the back and down a cascading slope onto the lawn at its front. Each time I watered it, or rain or snow fell upon it, my pile shrunk within itself, subsiding under its sheer weight and succumbing to the forces of gravity and similarly unseen forces of natural decay and entropy. And each time I tucked a fresh batch of kitchen scraps and other organic recyclables into the midst of my pile, I heaped more leaves upon it, gathered from its flanks or the yard, building it up again, as high as my eye. My pile would now be 20 feet tall, if it didn’t always, and inexorably, settle into less.

Over this time, I’ve narrowed my pile’s footprint by nearly half, pulling a wide swath of leaves that once bulged against the back wire fence up onto the top and cleaving three feet or more of compressed leaf litter from the once-sloping front. My pile is now a squat, vertical stack. True, I’ve prodded and poked and probed my pile through and through with the steel rebar rod, perforating it to allow air and water to penetrate its inner recesses. But up to this moment, I have only stirred the top portion of my pile, infusing it with fresh compostibles on through the winter. I have yet to get to the bottom of it, where fresh air and water are needed most to spur on the decomposition process.

Today, the first Sunday of April, it’s time for my pile to get a move on.

After setting out the day’s additions — a week’s worth of kitchen scraps, a fresh bucket of rotting seaweed and salt marsh hay and the last scraps of sycamore fluff hoovered from the winter lawn — I pry into the bottom front of my pile with the straight-tined pitchfork. I tease out clumps of matted leaves, some dry, some wet, from the grip of gravity, heaping shovelfuls up onto the back of the heap.

My pile, in the process of taking a big step forward at the start of spring.

My pile, in the process of taking a big step forward at the start of spring.

Before long I have created an overhang of pressed leaves and tattered seagrass, which I pluck off with the curved tines of the hay pitchfork and add to the top of my pile as high as it will repose. After shaving this scraggly brow, I have a new, near vertical face of old leaves, which I undermine once more, using the hay pitchfork to pull more leaf litter from the bottom toward my feet to form a berm, about shin-high along the front. Within this gathering are just glimpses of anything more than old leaves — stray bits of white shredded paper, a few egg shells and flecks of seashells.

The newly created overhang of leaves along the front of my pile quivers. I step back to take a quick cell-phone video of the gentle avalanche that results:

I’m pleased to see, newly exposed, a rich, dark, moist mass of leaf mold. It’s like I’ve bitten into a creme-filled chocolate. I tease out the mix with the pitchfork. I’d considered trying to harvest a few shovelfuls to spread across my vegetable garden, having read recently that tomato plants thrive under such unfinished compost. But after some digging, the batch still seemed too raw, and besides, I’m still at least a month away from the last frost and planting time.

So I spread the steamy leaf mold atop the berm of drier material along the new front of my pile, and heap shovelfuls across the top. It will infuse these rawer parts of my pile with a rich riot of decomposers.

Such busywork creates a trench along the front portion of my pile, all the way down to bare dirt. I scrape into the crevasse some dried leaves from the corners and creases of my pile, then add the sycamore seed fluff, the kitchen scraps and mix thoroughly, topping it off with a layer of seaweed flecked with salt marsh hay.

I backfill the trench I've made in my pile with a fresh batch of seaweed and bury it deeply with leaf mold scraped from the top.

I backfill the trench I’ve made in my pile with a fresh batch of seaweed and bury it deeply with leaf mold scraped from the top.

I fill in the hole by causing another avalanche from the midst of my pile, and scrape more leaves from the top. The log walls make good markers, and a reckon I’ve tossed and turned nearly the front half of my pile, from top to bottom.

Backfilling in this way shrinks the top of my pile enough to prompt me to walk around the back side to cleave a half row of compost from behind to restore the heap to shoulder high. I now have a shelf of rotting leaf litter along the rear, and I see that just behind the wall of leaves is a rich vein of humus-like compost. Facing south and exposed to the warming sun, it is thick with earthworms and within easy reach.

The next time I mess with my pile, I reckon it will be to add these raw leaves along the back with grass clippings from the season’s first mow. I also make note to mine the newly revealed backside for a pre-season top dressing of raw compost for the tomatoes, not to mention the rhubarb. It’s a comfort to have an itinerary for my wandering pile.

I borrow from the backside of my pile to build up the top.

I borrow from the backside of my pile to build up the top.

I finished my hour’s work by tidying up the front of my pile with a rake, restoring it, at least in look, to the heap of leaves it always appears to be. A good portion of the hard-pressed bottom of my pile has now become the fluffed-up top. With April showers on the way, my pile will soak up all the rain it receives and settle back into itself. But by taking two steps forward and once step back, my pile is newly suffused with air and freshly mixed organic material. It’s primed for productive decay, a healthy rot, thoroughly dead but rife with life, and all the other remarkable paradoxes that constitute and define my pile.

And so my log cabin of a pile wanders in place through the seasons. “Wandering in place” is also an apt description of me in my backyard, as it is for most gardeners.


My Pile: A Jolt of Morning Joe

After a run of warm, sunny days, the thick mantle of snow from last week’s storm is gone from my pile, though the ground around it is still a frozen mix of snow and ice. The crown of jumbled salt grass hay atop my pile has subsided, and the heap is now a crestfallen soufflé of sodden leaves.

A thaw in the usual snowy cold of winter gives me a chance to bolster my pile with an infusion of energy-rich material.

A thaw in the usual snowy cold of winter gives me a chance to bolster my pile with an infusion of energy-rich organic material, including coffee grounds, weeks’worth of kitchen scraps and a topping of salt marsh hay.

I have plans to plump up my pile, first by giving it a good turn, at least the top level, with the pitchfork. Then into maw will go an infusion of scraps and leftovers from the kitchen, including a groaning bag of food waste and rabbit poo from the neighbors that’s been hanging in the tool shed, on ice through the recent snow storm.

I’ve gathered more salt grass hay from the beach – and have an ash can full of dried pressed coffee grounds, at least 20 pounds’ worth, courtesy of the barrista crew at the local Starbucks. In all, it’s a rich supply of nitrogen-rich, rottable organics to stuff into the inner reaches of a freshly aerated winter heap. Regardless of what the groundhog has ruled, this will be an early spring for my pile.

Standing toes to the log wall, I reach the pitchfork into my pile to draw up wads of soaked leaves, turning them out and over to build a berm across the front wall and along the sides. I dig deepest into the corner of the pile that took longest to slough off the snow, figuring it to be a cold spot in particular need of a jolt of fresh rotting greens and grounds. Before long, I’ve carved out a crater in the midst of my pile that’s the size of a bathtub, to be filled by a fresh infusion of green wastes and pressed leaves culled from the perimeter of my pile.

I toss the buckets and bags of kitchen waste into the deep dish of dirt-flecked leaves, and stir the mushy mix with the pitchfork, twisting the tines as far as I can reach. The many cups of pressed espresso grounds melt away; adding 20 pounds or more of what began as a large hill of beans will surely add a boost of biological energy to my pile. Coffee grounds from Starbucks are turbo-charged manna for my pile, especially in the midst of winter.

Getting the grounds from the local Starbucks was a pleasant task – certainly moreso than diving head long into a dumpster outside the now-closed neighborhood coffee shop. After a phone call to ensure they still supported the “Grounds for your Garden” recycling program, I borrowed a galvanized tin ash can from the neighbors. With lid and handle, it makes a perfect receptacle for such a recyclable, especially when lined with a tight-fitting plastic bag. I dropped it off yesterday afternoon with the manager I spoke with over the phone and picked it up late this morning. The barristas commented on the cool retro look of the old-fashioned tin can, once a household staple used for hauling away coal ash. They seemed happy to pitch in, and all it cost me was a cappuccino to go and a couple of dollar bills added to the tip jar.

A bucket of pressed coffee grounds from Starbucks will give my pile a big, mid-winter pick-me-up.

A bucket of pressed coffee grounds from Starbucks will give my pile a big, mid-winter pick-me-up.

A heaping can of coffee grounds is a splurge for my pile, one that no doubt represents hundreds of dollars worth of espressos, cappuccinos and the like. The jolt of nutrient and nitrogen-rich granules will add to the unique batch of compost that I’m brewing this year. To each his own compost, concurs Clare Foster in “Compost,” a British title (Mitchell Beazley, 2014):

“How do you go about creating a heap that’s going to work for you? Since time began, people have used different methods to make compost. In recent times, some of these methods have been recorded and they can be used as models for our own composting. While some people are content to leave the heap for as long as it takes for nature to take its course, others are anxious to produce as much compost as possible to feed the soil and benefit their plants. Building a compost heap be as effortless or as time-consuming as you want it to be; however you decide to play it, you’ll end up with usable compost –the only difference is the time it takes to produce.”

The day’s warm enough to dig up the remnants of the collard greens and fennel from the vegetable garden, so to add further bulk to the sunken hollow of my pile, in goes a bushel’s worth of thawing clods of stems and roots. What’s more, I reach into the back of the fridge to extract a half-empty jug of lemon-flavored ice tea left over from the warm days of fall; rather than dump the mold-flecked remains down the kitchen-sink drain, I pour it into into my pile, figuring that the sugary compost tea will add its own measure of sugary measure of nutrients to my pile.

However unique my pile may be – customized by site, climate, weather and owner – I take comfort in realizing that my composting practices closely follow the principles first advocated by Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist and botanist who was stationed in India, from 1895 to 1939. Howard is considered the founder of the organic farming movement.

Foster’s account is succinct: “Carrying out experiments on his 75-acre farm, Howard developed what is now known as the Indore process of composting (named after the area where he was stationed from 1924), which was based on an ideal of three parts plant matter to one part animal manure. The principles at the root of Howard’s thinking are summed up in an unforgettable statement that we could all do well to remember: ‘Artificial fertilizers lead to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.’

“His principles of layering and aerating are still applicable,” Foster relates, “The materials Howard used were animal manures, brush (twiggy material), straw or hay, leaves and soil, arranged in alternating layers in a wooden bin to a height of 5 ft. A layer of brush came first, followed by 6 in of plant matter, 2 in of manure and then a sprinkling of soil. Howard recommended three parts of plant matter to one part manure. Care was taken to moisten the pile with water while building, and the pile was turned, once after six weeks, and again after 12 weeks. Later, Howard experimented with using human urine mixed with kitchen waste and materials high in carbon such as straw and leaves. The Indore system is labor-intensive, and the heap doesn’t reach extremely high temperatures. It does, however, produce good quality compost in a reasonable length of time.”

I consider my pile a living (and dying) testament to Sir Albert’s good works, an ephemeral shrine to the Anglo-Indian system of Indore. My shop-warn coffee and tea and other food wastes are largely equivalent, in nutrient value, to the dung of India. I’m merely adapting the wheel of life, from colonial Raj to modern-day metro suburb.

To add more volume and rebuild the crown of my pile – my aim is to raise it higher than the log walls that contain it – I strip mine a layer of dry, pressed leaves from along the chicken-wire fence that bulges outward along the back side. The fence groans against the crush of leaves; already two of the galvanized staples that pin the end of the wire grid to the log wall have popped out like a fat man’s buttons.

The leaves are compressed, almost stacked, and excavating them by pitchfork is almost like moving large, crumbly bricks that fluff apart with a flick off the tines. I toss forkfuls across my pile, about 20 in all, to restore it to peak form.

The crush of leaves that press up against the backside of my pile add bulk and fresh fodder to the churning, burning core.

The crush of leaves that press up against the backside of my pile add bulk and fresh fodder to the churning, burning core.

I get about halfway down the back row of pressed leaves, enough to relieve the backward pressure on the wire fence, and to leave an easy-to-get to stash of leaf mold next time I need to replenish my pile. This hidden shelf behind my high-rise heap will also make a nice backstop against which to pee. Sir Albert Howard would certainly approve, and even Ms. Foster gives her blessing:

“Your nose may wrinkle at this, but human urine is one of the best additions for a nitrogen fix: it is entirely sterile, so it can’t be harmful, and as well as containing a high percentage of nitrogen, it is also crammed with minerals and vitamins. Many an owner of a vegetable patch (mostly male it has to be said) confesses to having the occasional pee on the compost heap – after dark of course—and it really does work wonders.”

I top off the mound of mostly sodden leaves with sprockets of salt grass hay, teased out of the plastic barrel with the pitchfork. I like the look of a compost pile covered with hay. It keeps the leaves from blowing around, and will help ward off the next snow. Its briny smell brings me out for closer inspection after a rain, and in time, the salt grass will be churned underneath my pile, to be claimed and consumed by its depths.

Before long, my pile once again meets my eye, or close enough. It is a proud survivor of winter, and harbinger, of spring.

A mid-winter turn and infusion of potent organic compostibles, has renewed and restored my pile.

A mid-winter turn and infusion of potent organic compostibles, has renewed and restored my pile.