My Pile: Holy Ground

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the canon of writings about compost to find a spiritual, even mystical appreciation of the process. For some, composting is nearly a religious act.

Biblical, even: “In the beginning, there was manure,” Stu Campbell sets forth in “Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting.”

“Soil is where geology and biology overlap,” Steve Jones writes in “The Darwin Archipelago.” “Adam’s name comes from adama – the Hebrew word for soil – and Eve from hava – living – an early statement of the tie between our existence and that of the ground we stand on (Homo and humus also share a root).”

“The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil,” I read further in “The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.” “It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.”

It’s Easter Sunday. Today I will worship not at a church but at the altar that is my backyard compost pile. And I will place within it a tithing of fresh green horse manure. Rich in nitrogen and ripe with voracious microscopic decomposers, it will kick-start the near dormant heap of dead brown leaves amassed last fall. Manure also provides plenty of phosphorous and potassium, both vital elements to the renewed growth of spring.

Yesterday, partly to free myself up for a blessed spring Sunday devoted to gardening chores, I drove my son’s grandmother from her senior-living facility nearby to a horse-rescue farm in the northwest corner of the state. A lifelong animal-rights supporter, she sponsors a broken-down race horse now in pastoral retirement. She wanted to see the old filly, hand deliver a further donation, and I was happy to drive her there. In part, because in the back of my car was a large plastic tub to fill with horse poop to haul back home to my compost pile.

If she had religion, Gigi’s patron saint would surely be St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican is a bit more equivocal on the point person for me and my pile.

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

Saint Fiacre is said to be the patron saint of gardening, but it seems he had an aversion to women, which is why he’s also considered the patron saint of those afflicted by venereal disease. Hard to cast yourself with that lot.

I’ve heard Saint Phocas described as the heavenly protector of compost, as he was martyred by Roman soldiers after digging his own grave in his garden, so that his remains would be subsumed by the soil. Props to him, but I’ll pass…at least for the time being.

Instead I make this pilgrimage to the nonprofit manger in upstate Connecticut, a complex of stables and paddocks devoted to giving comfort and shelter to rescued thoroughbreds from the race track, retired carriage horses from Manhattan and the odd, abandoned Shetland pony. The shelter also gives young girls a chance to groom and ride the horses, which is nice. Other than that, its chief product is horse poop.

“It’s the one thing we have plenty of,” said the friendly blue-jeaned blonde who runs the place, directing me to a 10-foot tall mound of manure in a muddy enclose behind the barn.

It’s a sight for any backyard gardener to behold. Karol Capek captured the feeling well in The Gardener’s Year. The slim, almost psalmic volume, is worth quoting nearly chapter and verse: “There are times when the gardener wishes to cultivate, turn over, and compound all the noble soils, ingredients, and dungs. Alas! there would be no space left in his garden for flowers. At least, then, he improves the soil as well as he can; he hunts about at home for eggshells, burns bones after lunch, collects his nail-cuttings, sweeps soot from the chimney, takes sand from the sink, scrapes up in the street beautiful horse-droppings, and all these he carefully digs into the soil; for all these are lightening, warm, and nutritious substances.

“Everything that exists is either suitable for the soil or it is not. Only cowardly shame prevents the gardener from going into the street to collect what horses have left behind; but whenever he sees on the roadway a nice heap of dung, he sighs at the waste of God’s gifts.

When one pictures a mountain of manure in the farmyard – I know, there are various powders in tin boxes; you can buy whatever you like, all sorts of salts, extracts, slags, and powders; you can inoculate the soil with bacteria; you can till it in a white coat like an assistant at the university or in a chemist’s shop. A town gardener can do all that; but when you picture a brown and fat mountain of dung in a farmyard –.”

Alas! Grabbing a thin-tined rake set against the fence, I fill my beer-keg tub with a rank mixture of horse droppings, rotting straw and sawdust shavings. Good thing I’d remembered to bring along a heavy-duty plastic bag to cover the tub or it would have been that much longer a ride home with my former mother-in-law. As is, I could only fill the bucket about halfway to the brim before it got too heavy for me to lift.

Whoa, Nelly! A mother lode of rotting manure and muck from horse stalls at a horse rescue farm in upstate Connecticut.

Alms for my pile, direct from the source. Back home at dusk, I finish up my winter reading:

“The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death which occurs almost everywhere in nature. Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life,” I read in “The Rodale Guide to Composting.” As thick as a King James Bible, the guide was first printed in 1979, as the title page states, “on recycled paper, containing a high percentage of de-inked paper.” For organic gardeners, this seminal work is as close to the gospel truth as it gets. Even so, its authors remain admirably humbled by the unknowable essence of their subject:

“The entire composting process, awesome in its contributions to all plant and animal life, is probably impossible to contemplate in its full dimensions.”

The Guide draws on the research and inspiration of the American prophet of compost, J.I. Rodale, who was building on the pioneering research done in the 1840s by German scientist Justus von Liebig, and the work of British agronomist Sir Albert Howard in the early 1900s, who spent nearly 30 years in colonial India experimenting with organic gardening and farming.

In 1943, Sir Howard published “An Agriculture Testament,” based on his findings that the best compost consisted of three times as much plant matter as manure, with materials initially layered in sandwich fashion, and then turned during decomposition (known as the Indore method). The book renewed interest in organic methods of agriculture and earned him recognition as the modern-day father of organic farming and gardening, report the helpful researchers at the University of Illinois Extension.

I read further on the UI site that “the ancient Akkadian Empire in the Mesopotamian Valley referred to the use of manure in agriculture on clay tablets 1,000 years before Moses was born. There is evidence that Romans, Greeks and the Tribes of Israel knew about compost. The Bible and Talmud both contain numerous references to the use of rotted manure straw, and organic references to compost are contained in tenth and twelfth century Arab writings, in medieval Church texts, and in Renaissance literature.”

If passing along these writings qualify me as a modern-day evangelist for the art and science and, yes, religion of composting, then so be it. I confess. And then I get to work on replenishing the sagging, sodden mound of gathered leaves that is my pile. First I carve a shallow trench along the top front, uncovering among the rotting leaves the moldy remains of my last insertion of food waste from the kitchen, releasing a plume of steaming vapors in the cold morning air. I add a few shovelfuls of the manure into the mix. Next I dig a deeper, wider hole along the back, pitching the excavated leaf litter to the front to mix in and aerate with the freshly deposited manure.

A trench along the front of my pile filled with leaves, manure and kitchen scraps. I’ll dig out a trench along the back, heaping old leaves on top of this new supply and bury the rest of the leaves and manure.

Into this new void goes a modest roundup of dry, crinkly leaves that have blown up through the winter against the chain-link fence that lines one side of my backyard. I follow with more manure, then add some wet, matted leaf mold scraped from the bottom backside of my pile. A week’s worth of fresh kitchen scraps follows, along the rest of the manure. I top it off by strip-mining the back side of my pile with the hay pitchfork. Pressed into a shawarma-like stack by a long winter, the leaves cleave off the ragged edge of my pile in tidy forkfuls.

In short order, I have buried twin chambers of hot manure and fermenting kitchen scraps deep within the dank, musty leaf mold and piled the heap high again with borrowings from its crumbly flanks, returning my pile to the pyramid-shape I favor for composting efficiency — and to have a backyard privy tall enough to pee behind.

If my pile and I had a religion, it would stem from the civilization that prospered long ago on the banks of the river Nile. “The ancient Egyptians saw the shape of the pyramids as a method of providing new life to the dead, because the pyramid represented the form of the physical body emerging from the earth and ascending towards the light of the sun,” I read on the About Religion website.

My pile is now fully primed for its resurrection by the warming powers of the spring sun. By mid-summer, the heap of dead leaves and organic detritus will be transformed into newly minted soil to be cast about the garden and lawn. Come the fall, it will begin again.

Until then, allow the last words on this virtuous cycle to Wendell Berry:

“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure.

“Even in its functions that may seem, to mechanists, to be mechanical, the topsoil behaves complexly and wonderfully. A healthy topsoil, for instance, has at once the ability to hold water and to drain well. When we speak of the health of a watershed, these abilities are what we are talking about, and the word “health,” which we do use in speaking of watersheds, warns us that we are not speaking merely of mechanics. A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.

“It is apparently impossible to make an adequate description of topsoil in the sort of language that we have come to call ‘scientific.’ For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: it is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it ‘miraculous.’”


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.