My Pile: Empty Nest

I come home from work midweek and change into my outdoor clothes, still shorts and a ratty old t-shirt. The summer heat lingers, even as the days grow shorter.

Storm clouds gather as I head outside for my usual “compost hour” of unwinding and reconnecting with the yard that is my small patch of outside world after a day spent inside in front of a computer terminal. It’s still a surprise to see my pile now reduced to a remnant of its once-overstuffed self.

I’m an empty-nester, at least for the next few weeks. Still, there are other backyard tasks to tackle, like spreading a 10-pound bag of seed across the barest patches of my lawn.

I use a small hand-crank spreader, which flings the tiny seeds outward like sprinkles of rain. I grab a few handfuls to cast extra helpings of seed directly on the thinnest spots, avoiding the thickest patches of clover. Aside from tending my small plot of vegetables and herbs, it’s the closest I get to feel like a farmer.  I speculate on just how many new seeds I’m introducing to my yard; it must be in the hundreds of thousands.

I finish in the gloaming by roughly raking over swaths of the yard to scratch in the seeds with the compost covering the ground, scooting aside the sycamore leaves that are already beginning to dapple the ground. The lawn has received the lion’s share of compost this year, and I am eager for the old grass to revive and this new crop of seeds to find purchase.

At best, only a fraction of all these seeds will thrive, but I take some comfort in knowing that I’m adding to the diversity of the turfgrass that grows in my yard. I overseed each year, always buying perennial mixes, all kinds of rye, fescue and bluegrass, usually grown in Oregon. The tiny oblong seeds are indistinguishable to me, but the label lists such evocative names as Evening Shade, Brooklawn, Sierra and Frontier. There are 10,000 grass species in the world, and countless more slight variations from genetic tinkering. I like the fact that my small backyard has more than its fair share of such truly global transplants.

I crank out thousands upon thousands grass seeds to cast about the lawn.

I crank out thousands upon thousands grass seeds to cast about the lawn.

Waiting for the rain to arrive and break a long, hot, dry spell, I’ve spent the past several days wandering across the yard, picking out a surprising number of sticks, stones and shells that have cropped up as the compost bakes in the sun and crumbles into the turf. It’s like beachcombing, only in reverse. Using wood chips as a mulch for many of the garden beds and pathways, I’m not surprised that my pile harbors so many flecks of wood. The more surprising finds — the shells, the odd horseshoe crab tail or seagull quill, pieces of plastic, especially — are from the washed-up seaweed I heap upon my pile each fall and spring.

The largest shells I toss into the vegetable garden to bolster next year’s tomatoes; I pitch the slivers and chunks of wood chips into the perennial garden beds.

Those who tend and till the soil are accidental archaeologists, as Karel Capek elucidates in “The Gardener’s Year”: “The garden – or cultivated soil, also called humus, or mould – consists mainly of special ingredients, such as earth, manure, leafmould, peat, stones, pieces of glass, mugs, broken dishes, nails, wire, bones, Hussite arrows, silver paper from slabs of chocolate, bricks, old coins, old pipes, plate-glass, tiny mirrors, old labels, tins, bits of string, buttons, soles, dog droppings, coal, pot-handles, washbasins, dishcloths, bottles, sleepers, milkcans, buckles, horseshoes, jam tins, insulating material, scraps of newspapers, and innumerable other components which the astonished gardener digs up at every stirring of his beds. One day, perhaps, from underneath his  tulips he will unearth an American stove, Attila’s tomb, or the Sibyline Books; in a cultivated soil anything may be found.”

Although I worry about the mower spitting out a shard of wood or seashell into an ankle or worse, I rather like the fact that the yard is a repository for such odds and ends, originating from so many places other than my own property.

At night, the thunderstorms bring an overdue soaking, and set the new seed on its way to germinating as the lawn greens up through the fall.

The overnight rains release me from the need to water, at least for a day or two, and I spend the next evenings preparing my pile for the coming season.

My pile is now a dirt floor between two sets of upright logs, the right side still akimbo. I’d wrested several logs out of place to gain ready access to my pile, and now I need to reset them in place so that they can contain the coming deluge of leaves and seaweed and grass clippings.

One log, the skinniest of the lot, is rotted, so I set it on the dolly and trundle it over to my ever-growing refuse pile of tree branches and pulled groundcover. I reset the other logs, using small flat rocks to secure them in place so that I can safely walk across their tops to dump bedsheets full of leaves as my pile grows.

The log wall now has a gap, which I bridge with the handmade screen of small-gauge wire netting stapled to two sections of wood gleaned from my son’s long-dismantled play set. I fashioned it some years ago to screen compost but I haven’t used it for several years, finding the process too laborious. Even the roughest gleanings from my pile soon break down into bits and pieces, whether by rake or mower or hard rain.

I set the wire contraption on its end on the inside of the two flanking upright logs to create a side door for my pile. As my pile grows this fall, the leaves will press against it. I hope to be able to lift it out of the way when I need to work my pile on through the coming season. It’s a small bit of home improvement that I wish I’d thought of years ago.

My pile now has a side door, fashioned by repurposing the wire screen I no longer use to sift compost.

My pile now has a side door, fashioned by repurposing the wire screen I rarely use to sift compost.

Next I take the maddox from the shed and gouge out the surface roots of the two nearby maple trees. Each summer they infiltrate the bottom of my pile, and each fall I do my best to trim them back. I don’t begrudge them their efforts to tap into the rich supply of nutrients that annually swells beneath their canopies, but the network of tangly roots have an annoying habit of snagging the pitchfork I scrape across the ground to tidy up the edges of my pile. It’s a battle I will never win as long as the maples rise up over, and under, my pile, but each year I chop away at the invading roots to keep them at bay.

The renovations complete, my pile is now an empty vessel, ready to receive its annual bounty of a season’s growth. Like a chef planning a harvest menu, I begin to plot out the courses that I will soon heap upon it. There are two garbage cans brimming with a month’s worth of compostibles, the tangle of spent vines and stalks from the vegetable garden, and seaweed waiting to be gleaned from the nearby shoreline.

But first, the leaves must fall. For now I can only watch and wait.

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

My pile awaits its annual resupply.

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: Heave and Haw

The ides of March fall this year foretell of nothing but the promised renewal of spring.

My pile is freshly fluffed and refueled with a winter’s worth of supplies from the larder. Rain came yesterday, soaking the new topping of whole leaves pulled up from within. For the next week or two my pile will sit tight, like a momma robin on her blue eggs.

My pile in mid-March. It has weathered the rigors of winter and is now poised to ripen and rot through the warming months of spring.

It’s a season in waiting, a time to prep the garden beds for spring planting and plot out new backyard projects. It’s weeks before any planting is to be done, much less grass cutting. The buds of the trees and flowering bushes are still nascent; squirrels scamper from their nests in the maple trees to sample the budding magenta flowers that tip out the top branches. The lupines are the latest sprouts in the garden beds, and I figure the fiddleheads are the next to unfold. The cardinals are picking off the last crinkled berries of the privet bushes; my 40-pound bag of bird seed is now gone, the feeder being overrun by a flock of rapacious grackles. Still, there’s work to be done outdoors, so I lace up my thickest-soled boots and head out to the shed for the straight-tined pitchfork, spade and spare bucket.

Another marker of the season, the effervescent green and frivolity of St. Patrick’s Day, is upon us. I’m already blessed to have, leprechaun like, small caches of black gold buried across my rapidly greening lawn.

Let me explain.

It’s pot-hole season, the time of year in these parts when the local road crews switch from spreading salt and sand and scraping snow off the streets to plugging the innumerable cracks and gaps and holes that suddenly materialize in the roadway, most often just beneath your tire.

The daily cycle of freeze and thaw here in New England now conspires to rework the skin of earth us colonials trod upon, paved and not.

My property is part of a former onion field, grubbed out and filled in from coastal marshland sculpted by the last ice age. Westport was once prized for its sweet onions. The crop was barged along the Sound to New York City in the 1800s and especially valued during the Civil War to supply union troops with fresh victuals. The market collapsed in the late 1800s due to blight and the rise of refrigerated produce.

The land is a silty, sandy mix of sedimentary clay atop glacier-scrubbed bedrock. Out of this subterranean matrix each spring comes an unending supply of what old-timers’ call the region’s most enduring crop – the Connecticut potato, the catch-all term for the fractured and rounded rock of all sizes, from pebble to Fred Flintstone, that emerge from the subsoil each spring.

Writing from his home ground in Europe a century ago, Karol Capek, in The Gardener’s Year, was equally perplexed: “After having finished grafting roses the gardener finds that he ought again to loosen the baked and compact soil in the beds. This he does about six times a year, and invariably he throws out of the ground an incredible amount of stones and other rubbish. Apparently stones grow from some kind of seed or eggs, or continually rise out of the mysterious interior of the earth; or perhaps the earth is sweating these stones somehow. ”

The science tells us that the freezing cold penetrates down into the soil saturated by the soaking fall rains. Stone is the better conductor of heat and cold than the surrounding soil, so the soil under the rock freezes faster than elsewhere. Since water expands about 10 percent when frozen, and the path of least resistance for a rock in soil is up, after many cycles of freeze and thaw, rocks will rise up through the mud to the surface.

The frost-heave phenomenon helps explain why New England has so many rock walls.

It’s harvest time. Each spring I get the troublesome stones out of the way by hunting and pecking around the lawn with a pitchfork, sharing space with the rounds of robins doing much the same for worms. As much as any compost pile, turfgrass needs deep drafts of air and water to thrive, to grow thick and crowd out weeds.

Over the years, I’ve found that if there’s a patch of my lawn that is bare or thinly grassed, chances are that just underneath the surface is a rock preventing the roots from reaching downward into the subsoil. As the heat of summer dries the soil, it also bakes the rocks just under the turf, which in turn cook the roots above them.

So I step on the pitchfork and drive it into the ground, not only to aerate the lawn but also to use as a divining rod, to hear the clang of metal striking rock. By the sound and vibration of the tines, I can tell what’s going through the first few inches of the turf, even the size of the rock.

As Dr. M. Jill Clapperton said, “When you are standing on the ground, you are really standing on the rooftop of another world.”

Aerating with the pitchfork turns up a clutch of 'Connecticut potatoes" buried just under the sod. I replace the clutch of rocks with a spade of leaf mold from my pile and replace the turf over this buried small pot of compost gold.

Aerating with the pitchfork turns up a clutch of “Connecticut potatoes” buried just under the sod. I fill in the resulting hole with a spade of leaf mold from my pile and replace the turf over this buried small pot of compost gold.

Most of the rocks, spud-sized, pluck up through the pelt that is my lawn without a fuss, often leaving their indentation intact, which I then fill with a shovel of leaf mold from my pile, packed hard with a stomp of my boot. I stretch the pelt of ripped grass turf back across the surface, tamp it all down again and know that I’ve just added materially to my yard by subtraction: In place of the dense piece of impermeable stone is a plug of raw organic material, surely a newfound surprise for earthworms and other hungry creatures that populate and enrich the soil.

The exercise is good for me, and one plunging synchronized footstep at a time, I get into the groove of rapid-fire hole punching. As I go, I multiply each footstep by 4, the number of tines, and calculate how many individual holes I’ve made, knowing that each will soon fill with a fresh filtration of organic material, if not from my pile then the first cutting of grass. In any event, my lawn, like my pile, needs to breathe.

I can make 20 or 30 steps at a time before getting winded, or worse, sloppy with fatigue. Some years back I went on too long and carelessly drove the end of the pitchfork into the toe of my boot, through the sole, into the ground. Shocked at the misstep, I gingerly pulled the tine back through the leather uppers of my boot, then sat down on a nearby rock to take off my boot and determine the damage. The pain was mixed with adreneline as I plucked the boot off and to find a puncture hole in toe of my sock, already wet with blood. I peeled the bloody sock away to find that, miraculously, the pitchfork tine had thrust neatly between my big toe and second, just nicking either side. All I’d suffered was a close call.

I’ve been much more careful to stay on my toes with the pitchfork ever since. More and more I go slower, stepping on the straight pitchfork to drive its row of four, 8-inch tines up to the hilt. Deep-tined aeration, they call it, and it punches dagger-like holes down through the impermeable layer of root-stopping clay and hardpan that often forms under the topsoil, five or six inches down.

The effort may look dorky in a labor-intensive, robotic sort of way, but before long I’ve aerated a good-sized patch of the yard, usually sticking to the low-lying spots and most-trafficked areas. Along the way I prod up buckets full of loose stones, which I add along the rock wall that borders one corner of my property. The smallest stones I use for backyard projects like filling in a new post hole or, if larger, augmenting one of the rock borders that line my garden beds. There is no end of uses for rocks here in Connecticut, nor any shortage of supply.

Sometimes, mud season turns up a bigger surprise. The spring of my second year at the house, while edging the border of a new perennial bed, I came across the jagged tip of granitic rock. I started digging away with enough vigor that the kids playing in the backyard with my young son that day came over to see what the fuss was all about.

There’s some Tom Sawyer in us all, and I handed the shovel to the oldest boy of the bunch and invited him to dig in. For the kids, it became a treasure hunt, a backyard mystery, and the chance to show some youthful muscle. Taken a perch on a sizable rock that I had unearthed the year before, I got to opine about how big this new find might be, or where it might have come from – maybe the granite mountains of New Hampshire and carried here by a glacier. Or maybe from the outcrop that rises behind the homes across the street and long ago tumbled down this way.

The other lesson is in the simple mechanics of moving heavy objects from one place to another, usually upward – first from its hole in the ground and then elsewhere. Here in Connecticut, that has long meant stacking them up to form a wall. I marvel at the ingenuity and work ethic of the first settlers and can hardly fathom how they constructed stone walls that have now stood for centuries, using only the tools of the day.

The urge to move rock must be in our blood, a Stone Age impulse. Once the kids had shoveled the dirt from around the rock, to find it about as big as a beach ball and too heavy to lift, they then had to find and use the tools – a crowbar and a couple of long 2 by 4s — as fulcrums and levers. It was an interesting exercise in applied engineering, backyard style, and somehow, they managed to hoist the rock from out the ground and tumble it to the side. It remains in its place years later, the cornerstone of the rock border of the shade garden next to my pile. It makes a convenient perch from which to ponder my pile — and to remember a day when I actually got a bunch of suburban kids excited about doing manual labor.

Other rocks that have bubbled up to the surface of my yard each spring require stronger backs. And a few years later, I had to tap a neighborhood buddy for help, with the promise of a beer or two for the effort. The photo below shows a large rock that my pitchfork pinged. It laid just underneath one of the barest patches of grass, and took a full afternoon to unearth and then roll into place as a sitting stone in the mint garden I keep by the back door. For this amount of back-filling, I used a wheelbarrow full of humus from my pile, and now that part of the yard is one of the thickest patches of lawn I have.

A buddy helps wedge a small boulder that has cropped up to the surface of my yard.

A buddy helps wedge out a small boulder that has cropped up to the surface of my yard.

Nowadays, my lawn is a rumpled quilt of dips and swales formed by all these pots of compost gold buried across my yard. Though I try to level out the hollows formed by replacing rock with leaf mold and compost, there’s always a certain amount of settling. But my lawn is immeasurably richer for it. The grass grows thick, and soaks up even the heaviest of rains. And I have more rocks than I know what to do with.


My Pile: Dive Right In

I lean over the grimy edge of the dumpster so I can sift through the jumble of garbage bags mired below with outstretched arms. Toes tipping to the ground,  the heavy metal lid of the bin pressing against the button on my baseball cap, I pluck a squishy, pendulous plastic bag from the mix and hoist it out of the bin.

I hold the straining, swollen bag at arm’s length, like a trophy fish.  It’s 20 pounds, easy, of freshly spent dark brown coffee grounds groaning against the thin white plastic film. I see no drippy leaks or cast-off paper cups or plastic lids, just a smattering of soggy paper filters. It’s a keeper. I set the bag, warm to the touch and ripe with the dank, roasty aroma of spent coffee beans from the tropics, on the floor mat of the backseat of the car and head for home.

I back away from the dumpster, rolling down the back windows and with a parting, sheepish glance into the rear-view mirror. I’m relieved to see no barrista running out the door asking me to explain myself.

But explain myself I will, for I’d do most anything for my compost pile. Even if that means getting, I see with a glance down to my lap, a smear of grease on the front of my good leather jacket, in return for some surreptitious dumpster diving for a morning’s worth of coffee grounds from the neighborhood coffee shop . Oh, well. It seemed a good idea at the time.

Coffee grounds already look like dirt but pack a bio punch. Not caffeine, but nitrogen.

Coffee grounds already look like dirt but pack a bio punch. Not caffeine, but nitrogen. They make a prized addition to my pile.

It’s early November here in Westport, Connecticut, an affluent, artsy New York commuter suburb along the shore of the Long Island Sound. The trees that surround my small home on its flat, one-third acre corner lot have largely shed their leaves. Over the past few weeks I’ve raked colorful, crinkly leaves into piles and hauled them the blanket-full over to the log-walled compost pile I keep in the back corner of the yard.

The heap of leaves and such I gather is now head high and a broad-jump deep and wide. It’s the copious conclusion to a short but bountiful burst of green growth that culminates with the kaleidoscopic “leaf-peeping season” here in southern coastal New England. The autumnal leaves of hardwood trees in these parts are more than a tourist draw or seasonal scenic perk to living in Connecticut. I see each leaf as a bank slip of carbon and other nutrients and minerals, just waiting to be recycled into new gains over the coming year.

My pile is a final resting place for a season’s worth of green life given up for dead. But it’s more like a waystation, and all those dried-up leaves need a catalyst, a kick-start to their conversion into living new soil. Rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, the 20 pounds of recycled coffee grounds will deliver the same jolt to the heap of leaves and such I compost in my backyard as they gave to scores of caffeinated customers this morning. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Not only are coffee grounds sky-high in nitrogen, the granules have a microporous structure like charcoal and contain a wide range of useful microogranisms, reports Nicky Scott in “How to Make and Use Compost — the Ultimate Guide.” Besides being a rich source of nitrogen, which both kickstarts a heap of fall leaves and hangs around to supply plants with an essential element for growth, coffee grounds happen to look pretty much like finished compost — dark brown crumbly soil that acts pretty much like fertilizer once its spread around plants or cast wholesale across the lawn.

I’m acting locally, thinking globally, I tell myself, trying to rationalize my dumpster diving, lightening the coffee shop’s dumpster by a bag of trash and saving the garbage hauler from having to truck off that much more organic waste to some distant landfill.

All that coffee adds up — to some 500 billion cups a year, worldwide. In all, 7,658,780 tons of coffee are processed each year, making the brewed beverage the second-most valued commodity on the planet, behind only crude oil.

“That’s a whole lot of coffee — and a whole lot of spent grounds,” I read on, where founder Mary Tynes “focuses on innovative sustainability efforts worldwide, and encourages environmental mindfulness in personal choices and actions.”

“I teach composting because I believe it helps connect people to the Earth’s natural processes,” Tyne writes. “The more we learn about compost’s effect on soil, soil nutrients, soil structure, water, bacteria, fungi, insects and other creatures, it is obvious that Nature’s entire cycle of life was designed flawlessly.

“Environmental protection doesn’t just happen on the other side of the world.  Our first responsibility is to care for the patch of soil on which we live.  People who understand soil and how Nature replenishes it are able to make more responsible choices on both small- and large-scale environmental policies, and wider socio-economic issues.”

Which brings us back to coffee. Spent coffee grounds are the perfect compost input, Tyne says, because:

  • They smell good.
  • They absorb and hold moisture which is so critical to the compost pile.
  • They are one of the few sources of nitrogen that is widely available year-round to people in urban and suburban areas.
  • They are easily stored for days in a closed plastic bag.
  • They are free.

Tyne surveyed followers of her blog and found that “more respondents have used coffee grounds for gardening or composting (87%) than actually drink coffee (81%).” She also found that “the idea of using coffee shops as a source of spent grounds had not occurred to most of the respondents in our survey.” Only 13% reported doing so. The chief reason being that most were too embarrassed to ask for other people’s garbage.

Tyne helpfully suggests “calling it ‘organic waste’ instead of ‘garbage’ — problem solved. Spent coffee grounds are a fruit nut that has been ground and had boiling hot water poured through it. It isn’t medical waste, or something that has been in someone’s mouth. It is the cleanest garbage around…You might be surprised at how fascinated some shop clerks can become with a person who finds spent coffee grounds useful.”

Some coffee shops around the country are making it easier to recycle and reduce waste; Starbucks has a “Grounds for Gardeners” program that offers spent coffee grounds to gardeners and composters, free for the taking in the bags originally used to ship espresso beans to the stores.

But this is a local java hut, and the last time I was inside I asked the girl behind the counter if she had any coffee grounds I could take home with me. She couldn’t quite process the out-of-the ordinary morning order, and it’s not easy to explain the concept of composting to a barrista when there’s three edgy people in line behind you.

“OK,” she relented. “There might be some in the bin, as long as you don’t make a mess…”

The mess is on me, at least for this day. But only the best for my pile, my insatiable, wondrous, mysterious pile.

My pile is my touchstone, a wellspring of life that nourishes me and my garden as I nourish it.

My pile is my balm. Some count bounding sheep to drift off to sleep; I turn over shovelfuls of compost in my head. After all, what’s a brain but an organic, chemical repository for gathered thoughts and things to be broken down and processed, to be composted. Visualizing, x-ray-style, what’s in my pile, sifting through its unseen layers and musing of its secret processes soothes my soul.

Garbage in, garbage out? That is only half-right about my pile, and that’s the beauty of it. The bits and pieces of digested life and matter that make up this heap of compost, in time and with some tending, always reconstitute themselves into something new and useful and whole, if only for a moment before being dispersed as fresh fodder and fertilizer for the future.

Each season brings a new and wholly unique pile, yet over the years each pile inevitably becomes one in the same. The longer and more deeply I dig into it, the more firmly my pile remains terra incognita, a Rubik’s cubic yard of shape-shifting organic matter that defies description.

Still, I try, if only for the exercise. My pile is a portal to the physical and psychic place where I spend my most agreeable waking hours, the backyard. On that front along, my pile is worth getting to know. I am comforted by the fact that there is a rich history of such landscape navel-gazing.


“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience,” writes Patrick Kavanagh, in Robert Macfarlane’s “Landmarks.” “In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow — these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

“While writing about landscape often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical,” writes Brian Lopez, also in “Landmarks,” a compendium of nature writing that aims to “re-engage a largely metropolitan populations with the marvelously specific and intricate habitats that continue to be smashed by industrialization, population growth and sprawl.” As a construct my pile may have modest value that extends beyond just one backyard.

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know,” wrote Wendell Berry. I want to particularly know my pile, and to do that I aim to plunge into it deeply, to turn it over and again, to process it, and, in time, to reap in and share its rewards.

Karel Capek,  writing nearly a century ago in The Gardener’s Year, had it just about right in unearthing the essence of what draws me to my backyard garden, and keeps me there. It’s not the showy blossoms or ripening fruits, it’s something much more basic:

“While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished word of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now, when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost.”

I could write a whole book about my pile.

So let me begin.

All the raw ingredients of fall start cooking quickly.

All the raw ingredients of fall start cooking quickly in my backyard compost pile.