My Pile: In Clover

Memorial Day Weekend has passed, and though this side of the planet still tilts toward spring, the calendar says June and the vibe says summer. The onset of hot, sunny days and warm humid nights, along with a parade-spoiling thunderstorm that drenched the backyard with an inch of needed rain, have conspired to send the lawn into overdrive.

The early-flowering bulbs, azaleas, bleeding hearts and rhododendrons have prospered and peaked. Until the summer flowers blossom with their showy displays of pink and white and magenta and blue and orange, the color of my backyard is leafy green, and that’s money for my pile.

Though it begins each season as a massive heap of old brown leaves, albeit amended with frequent additions of fresh compostibles, my pile finishes by gorging on grass. It’s only fitting as by volume, not to mention square feet, the steady harvest of clipped turfgrass and ground-covering kin every spring, summer and fall represents my backyard’s biggest source of organic recyclables, its green manure.

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The lawn is the biggest source of organic recyclables for my pile each summer. I’ve let several “micro meadows” grow, including this patch of grass and clover.

 

Say our Wiki friends: “In a 2005 NASA-sponsored study, it was estimated that the area covered by lawns in the United States to be about 128,000 square kilometres (49,000 sq mi), making it the nation’s largest irrigated crop by area. Lawn care is thus a major business in the United States; maintenance, construction and management of lawns of various kinds being the focus of much of the modern horticulture industry. Estimates of the amount spent on professional lawn care services vary, but a Harris Survey in 2002 put the total approximately $1,200 per household using such services.”

That’s a lot of green, and all of my share stays in my back pocket, my pile and my backyard.

In her book, “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” (1994) Virginia Scott Jenkins traces the historic desire, transplanted from the landed gentry of Europe, for Americans to feature squares of tapis vert, or “green carpet,” as part of their greenscapes. Though borrowed from abroad, the notion is now as American as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, I read in “Blades of Glory,” which reports both grew English-style lawns on their colonial estates, kept close cropped by resident sheep, horses and cows and, no doubt, the labor of slaves.

The article, published by The Week, quotes Jenkins as stating that “‘Front lawns didn’t really trickle down to the common man ‘until the development of suburban housing after the Civil War.’ With World War II’s end and Americans’ mass exodus from cities, lawns became emblems of American leisure and prosperity.” The invention of the lawn mower, first as a hand-powered rotary sickle blade, then gas-powered engine, further fueled the trend.

The Week trots out the arguments in favor of the American lawn: “A well-kept lawn is an outdoor refuge, a place for touch football and summer parties, ‘a carpet all alive,’ said the poet William Wordsworth. Writer Katherine S. White called the lawn ‘a soft mattress for a creeping baby’ that adds ‘restful green perspectives’ to the landscape. Realtors claim a nice lawn adds as much as 11 percent to the value of a home. Beyond curb appeal, tidy lawns are the connective tissue of neighborhoods, providing a common element that links our residences to one another and to nature. And researchers have recently discovered that chemicals released by a freshly mowed lawn make people feel happy and relaxed.”

The article also points out how much the lawn has become “a burden for generations of homeowners. Today, about 80 percent of all American homes have lawns. Great sacrifices of time, energy, money, and natural resources go into mowing, trimming, edging, and feeding all that grass.

“Lawn care is a $40-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Because much of the country is not hospitable to turfgrasses—none of which are native species—we use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually just to keep lawns thriving, bright green, and bug-free. Fertilizers contain high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which run off into drains during rainstorms, contaminating drinking water, leaching into rivers and streams, and causing ecological havoc. Pesticides and herbicides, too, which are used by homeowners in ever-increasing quantities, find their way into the air and soil.

“Then there’s the carbon footprint of the lawn. Americans spend more than 3 billion hours a year pushing or riding gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment that gives off toxic exhaust and greenhouse gases. A gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 11 cars. These facts have triggered a backlash against the country’s love affair with large, immaculate swaths of green grass. ‘We have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns,’ said author and activist Michael Pollan.”

I admit to a growing obsession with the look and feel and texture of my lawn, and the need for motorized help to keep it in check. Jenkins herself argues that “American front lawns are a symbol of man’s control of, or superiority over, his environment.” I am thoroughly American in that regard, though question how much superiority I have over its control, especially with a balky old push mower and without the aid, in most years, of any store-bought fertilizers or herbicides.

But I do see the lawn as a boon for my pile, the true object of my backyard affections. Another factoid from the web: The average half-acre lawn in New England – about the size of my property — produces over 3 tons of grass clippings a year. Like I said, that’s a lot of green, and it’s too good to go to waste.

According to Chris Starbuck, a horticulturalist at the University of Missouri Extension, grass clippings contain about 4 percent nitrogen, 2 percent potassium and 1 percent phosphorus. Returned to the lawn, clippings provide up to 25 percent of your lawn’s total fertilizer needs. While decomposing, they also serve indirectly as a food source for the bacteria in the soil, which are doing many beneficial things (such as decomposing thatch) for a healthy turf environment. Grasscyling can also reduce mowing time by nearly 40 percent, vs. bagging, saving fuel and additional money on trash bags as well as reducing or eliminating fertilizer (which themselves are incredibly energy and resource intensive to produce), Starbuck adds.

As voluminous and valuable a crop of cut grass is to recycle through my pile, it is not even close to being the most recycled product in America. Know what is?

Asphalt.

According to the National Asphalt Paving Association, as early as 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Highway Administration identified asphalt pavement as America’s No. 1 recycled product in a report to Congress. It continues to be reclaimed and reused at a greater rate than any other product in the U.S.

This fact came to light as I came home early today, the hump day Wednesday after the Memorial Day Holiday Weekend, to find the street along my property in the process of being stripped of its old and crumbly veneer of asphalt by a huge mechanical contraption that grinds the pavement into pebbly chunks and sluices them up a conveyor belt into a waiting dump truck sidled alongside. If the street crews are busy black-topping the nation’s roads late in the day, it truly must be summer.

I’ve let the lawn go through the long Memorial Day Weekend, in favor of parades to attend to and beaches to picnic on. Now the bill has come due. The grass is tall and thick enough to swallow the tennis balls I toss to the dog and hide his morning poo, which is my marker for high time to mow.

I’d planned a long overdue session in the yard but with the din of the repaving I head inside to wait for the machines to make their way further down the street. It’s hard to decompress in gardening mode while a lumbering machine is beeping and belching and spewing asphalt on the other side of the forsythia hedge.

I am intrigued to find on NAPA’s website that “A wide range of waste materials are now incorporated into asphalt pavements, including ground tire rubber, glass, foundry sand, slag, and even pig manure, but the most widely used are reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) and recycled asphalt shingles (RAS). The use of recycled materials in asphalt pavements saves hundreds of millions of cubic yards of landfill space each year.

“Asphalt pavement is not only America’s most recycled and reused material, it now is being recycled and reused at a rate over 99 percent. Use of environmentally friendly warm-mix asphalt grew by more than 148 percent from 2009 to 2010, a trend that is expected to continue. Recycling of asphalt pavements and asphalt shingles in 2010 alone conserved 20.5 million barrels of asphalt binder. According to the latest survey data by NAPA, during the 2013 construction season more than 67.8 million tons of RAP and nearly 1.65 million tons of RAS were put to use in new pavements in the U.S., saving taxpayers more than $2 billion.

“Using reclaimed materials also reduces demands on aggregate resources. Warm-mix asphalt technologies allow asphalt pavements to be produced at lower temperatures, which means reduced energy demands, as well as lower emissions during production and paving.”

Still, Joni Mitchell’s siren song had it about right. We’ve paved paradise: According to Yahoo Answers, “The United States, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times. However we visualize it, the U.S. area devoted to roads and parking lots covers an estimated 16 million hectares (61,000 square miles), an expanse approaching the size of the 21 million hectares that U.S. farmers planted in wheat last year.”

A Yahoo answerer, a “johnslaut,” adds, “Once paved, land is not easily reclaimed. As environmentalist Rupert Cutler once noted, ‘Asphalt is the land’s last crop.’”

With the noising street machine steaming down the street, I close my browser to finish strip-mining Google for such thoughts and head back outside. I have my own harvesting to do. Grass is my wheat, my backyard bounty, my green pavement. In this growing season, the culling of grass must be done on almost a weekly basis.

The lawn is dotted with white button balls of clover flowers, and it almost seems a shame to decapitate them. But many escape the mower’s swath and more will soon sprout anew to nourish both my soil with their nitrogen-fixing roots and the bees that buzz across it with their energy-rich nectar. I’m in clover, and so is my pile. Lucky for both of us.

Sadly, though, the bees are nowhere to be seen this spring. I read why on the Hartford Courant: “Connecticut beekeepers reported losing nearly half of their honeybees during the summer and winter of 2015-16, according to a new report, a die-off rate even higher than the national average of 44 percent. The national survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that the 2015-16 season was the second consecutive year when summer bee losses rivaled winter die-offs.”

“State and national experts call the continuing losses of honeybees — which are essential for pollinating crops humans depend on — a major concern and unsustainable in the long run.

“‘The fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming,’ said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. Most scientists studying the problems of honeybee die-offs agree that these extraordinary death rates are the result of a combination of poor bee nutrition due to loss of habitat, disease, and pesticides.”

A member of the leguminous pea family Fabacea, clover or trefoil — or Trifolium — to botanists — is cultivated around the world as nutritious fodder for livestock, as a source for mild and sweetly flavored clover honey, and as a cover crop that naturally fertilizes the soil. Anyone with a bit of the Irish in them, like me, love their shamrocks, and as a kid I happily hunted for four-leaf clovers. I have mostly white clover in my backyard, though there is some more gangly red clover here and there.

Why is this green manure so valuable? The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grow in symbiotic partnership with clover roots convert atmospheric nitrogen that nourishes the plants and others around it. When clover dies, the fixed nitrogen is released, fertilizing the soil to the tune of up to 200 pounds per acre, according to the Wikipedia page about clover. The effects are long-lasting, too: When used as a cover crop, upwards of half of the nitrogen produced by the rhizobia bacteria in the root nodules remains. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

I leave the three micro meadows of uncut grass and clover intact, mowing around them, and create several new islands elsewhere in the yard. These patches of natural artifice make the cut grass that surrounds them look even more manicured. It may be the native Nebraskan in me, but I like the look of amber waves of grain, especially in the early morning or dusk, when highlighted by the sunlight passing through the stems bowed heavy by their ripening seeds. I will cut the untrammeled patches in mid-summer more as field hay than turfgrass, after ripping a fistful or two of grass seed from the stems to hand seed in the fall. But for now they stand as quirky symbols, exclamation points, really, of pastoral nature left to be — not to mention the pots of golden soil buried underneath.

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A patch of uncut grass next to a young hickory that was five feet tall and growing in the backyard bramble I cleared 12 years ago to create the lawn. Live and let live, I say.

I let the bag fill up but continue mowing, churning most of the clippings back into the lawn. Still, I stop three times to empty the stuffed grass-catcher at the base of my pile. It is thick with mulched maple seeds and sycamore seed fluff; the backyard is a battleground in the sometimes uncivil war between tree and turf, and right now the lawn is winning. To my pile, go the spoils.

After collecting the neighbor’s kitchen trimmings, plus my own Hooch bucket, I dig into the back of my pile, forming first a trench by excavating steaming clumps of last week’s insertion of dried spruce needles and grass. The burnt-orange needles are tinged with white mold and red hot to the touch; it is living rust, and upturned on the new berm will be exposed to much-needed air.

With the pitchfork I gouge out leaf duff from the pockets in both back corners to top dress the feverish mix with clutches of cool dry leaves and crumbly shakings. I toss in lengthwise three flower stalks culled from the rhubarb in the vegetable garden. My pile needs all the air I can give it with the pitchfork, and once buried these hollow stems will serve as shafts for air within it at least for a day or two.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

The hollow stems of rhubarb flower stalks are the first to go into the turned-out trench along the top of my pile.

Next into the trench go the two buckets of kitchen scraps, which I bury with further scrapings from across the back face of my pile, more dry fodder to mix with the next heaping of grass clippings at my feet. I grab a handful to toss across the pile; the fermenting clippings are already so hot it’s like sticking my hands into a pot of boiling water.

I’m careful to spread the subsequent layers of new green and old brown as thinly as I can, tossing and turning as I go. My pile is its own aggregate mix, at least the top part, equal parts new and old, hot and cold, moist and dry, dank and airy.

I work my way around the front of my pile to trench out another berm along the top, turning upward and outward everything within reach of my pitchfork, matching the trench created and now filled along the back. Looking at my pile from the side, today’s excavation and back-filling would take the shape of a long “W.”

I borrow more brown fodder from the base and corners to bury the rest of the clippings of grass and clover. It’s strip mining in reverse, helping my pile do in a matter or weeks what it takes eons for the bigger heap that is the earth to produce: Not coal or oil or tar sands, but the rich dark crumbly new resource called humus. Through my pile and fair bit of sweat and toil, much of it will soon be recycled straight back into the lawn, nourishing both its life and my own.

I’m proud of my lawn — weeds and other warts, clover and all — and will defend its rightful, restorative place in my backyard and as an integral part of the American landscape — and dream. Still, as Little Richard once said, “The grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut.”

 

My Pile: Act of Nature

My pile is much more than a messy construct taking up space in my backyard. It is a garden unto itself.

Truth be told, I get more pleasure and payoff from my pile than I do from the vegetables and flowers that it helps grow come summer.

Today, the last day of the year, I dug up the fennel in the corner of my vegetable garden that my neighbor had given me as sprouts last spring. The fragrant green stems have grown wild and tangly, but neither of us knew if the bulbs had developed enough to shave into a fennel salad for brunch on New Year’s day.

Sadly, when I plunged the pitchfork deep under the roots, the fennel below ground was as sprawling as it was above. No fat bulbs that you see in the farmer’s market, just scraggly roots like misshapen white carrots. No matter. Once peeled, the shavings will make a fine, licorisey accent to the salad, and the lush green stems will make fine fodder for my pile.

It’s been unseasonably warm as winter dawns. No white Christmas this year, and the December storms have brought rain that has soaked my pile. The seeds from the pumpkins smashed a week or so ago have sprouted through the sodden leaves that cover my pile; their tender white stalks strive to gain purchase. Already I can see most are under attack from unseen creatures, and perhaps some nibbles from creatures higher up the food chain, a squirrel or one of the small rodents that I’m sure frequent or inhabit my pile, be they chipmunk, mouse, vole or mole.

I look closer at a slender rod of pale white; it’s not a pumpkin sprout but the quill from the wing feather of some sort of waterfowl. The hollow nub of the quill is a-swarm with roving creatures just large enough to detect their movement. They look like roly-polys writ small. I wonder whether these tiny scroungers came to my pile already aboard the molted feather or if they were resident scavengers with a taste for holiday goose. And what feeds upon these tiny mites when they are finished with the feather?

“Details, details, you might protest,” writes Richard Fortey in “The Wood for the Trees,” a biography of his own small patch of land in the shires of England. “I reply that the delight, as well as the devil, is in the details. To an animal of small size, particularly an insect in which the larva hides away discreetly to feed and grow, our wood is a potpourri of opportunities, quite a wonderland of niches. ‘Biodiversity’ as a word sounds rather dull and a bit abstract. Played out on the ground it is something else: the difference between the numbered title of a symphony and its glorious complexity unwrapped in a concert hall. Every rotting log is a small world. The underside of a leaf is a realm to a greenfly; a crack in the bark of a beech tree is a capacious and secret hideout. They all fit together in a jigsaw that remakes its own pieces month by month…

“Each little life is not much more than a pinhead of brilliance,” writes of the the bug that has captured his own attention, a crane fly, and wonders how his woods could support so many species of just this one type of fly. “Some bob up and down together; a mating dance, I suppose. Others move purposefully and then vanish from the light, seeking something, smelling something, following a precise instinct to a precise niche. Even if I had the scientific names of them all, it would only be like having the notes on a page, not the symphony. A species inventory is only the beginning. Every species will have its own biography, its special requirements and its curious secrets.”

Fortey trains his hand lens on the underside of a rotting log to reveal a hidden world very much like what is going on in my pile:

“A list of animals and fungi could become tiresome, but is necessary to grasp the true richness of nature. Think of it as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interlocking stories. The world beneath a rotting log is a small one, but it is marvelously complete. The cascade of life there comes ultimately from the sun. The photosynthetic work of a tree eats up the energy from sunshine for many years; as soon as the tree falls to the ground, the construction begins to unwind. Fungi play a vital role. Beneath the log in the damp, dark places, the recyclers and degraders get to work. Wood-eaters, and grazers of fungal patches, and then their predators, set up a food chain that is a lightless version, a dark parody, of the grass-herbivore-carnivore system that thrives in light and rain. Rot is creation in the underworld. That list, that catalogue, is the dramatis personae of a kind of soap opera of slow decomposition, where sex and death, voracity and subterfuge, play out their measured parts in the life habits of dozens of species ‘hidden away privily.'”

My pile is part hobby, part pet. It is a living curio cabinet, a menagerie composed of countless wild creatures I keep in untamed captivity. In return for helping create, develop, nurture and mature this creative act of deconstruction, I am rewarded in compound ways, not only in wheelbarrows full of compost at the end of its short year of life, but every day.

My pile keeps me grounded. In a very basic way, it’s even helped make me who I am.

Fragrant shocks of fennel from the garden help my pile ring out the old year. I'll cover the fresh green with a layer of soggy leaves.

Fragrant shocks of fennel from the garden help my pile ring out the old year. I’ll cover the fresh green with a layer of soggy leaves.

Writer Michael Pollan takes a deep dive into the metaphysics of compost in “Second Nature.” This “gardener’s education” reads as true today as when it was first published in 1993, especially the chapter “Compost and Its Moral Imperatives.” It’s worth reading whole, but allow me to share a composted version:

“There isn’t an American gardening book published in the last twenty years that doesn’t become lyrical on the subject of compost … In American gardening, the successful compost pile seems almost to have supplanted the perfect hybrid tea rose or the gigantic beefsteak tomato as the outward sign of horticultural grace.”

“The apotheosis of compost is really just the latest act in a long-running morality play about the American people and the American land. In the garden writer’s paeans to compost you can still hear echoes of Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, paraphrased here by Henry Nash Smith, ’Cultivating the earth confers a valid title to it; the ownership of the land, by making the farmer independent, gives him social status and dignity, while constant contact with nature makes him virtuous…’

“At least in a metaphorical way, compost restores the gardener’s independence – if only from the garden center and the petrochemical industry … and because it makes the soil more fertile, composting flatters the old American belief that improving the land strengthens one’s claim to it…

“No less than the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and reformers, we look to the garden today as a source of moral instruction. They sought a way to preserve the Jeffersonian virtues even in the city; we seek a way to use nature without damaging it. In much the same way that the antebellum garden became a proof of the agrarian ideal, we regard our own plots, hard by the compost pile, as models of ecological responsibility. Under both dispensations, gardening becomes, at least symbolically, an act of redemption.”

Pollan’s ruminations on the nature of compost and what it means leads him to conclude one fall day that “if I wanted to perfect my gardening faith I would have to begin my own compost pile. Which I promptly did … and forgot about it.”

To Pollan, composting is a byproduct of manifest destiny, a “quasi-religious movement” in which the compost pile has “emerged as the status symbol among American gardeners.” But he can resist signing on to the “moral crusade” of this particular branch of American horticulture for only so long:

… By the time I returned to the compost pile in April, I had read enough about American gardening to know that composting was a pretty silly fetish. It would never produce a beautiful perennial border, just a morally correct one, and wasn’t that a little absurd? Well, I guess it is, but when I lifted off the undecayed layer of leaves on top and ran my hand through the crumbly, black, unexpectedly warm and sweet-smelling compost below, I felt like I’d accomplished something great. If fertility has a perfume, this surely was it …. this heap of rotting vegetable matter looked more lovely to me than the tallest spike of the bluest delphinium. Right then I realized that, like it or not, I was an American gardener, likely to cultivate in the garden more virtue than beauty.”

Gardening, and more specifically, tending my backyard compost pile, defines me. It is an act of nature, and I am an actor upon this chosen piece of ground, cultivating the space, both physical and mental, between chaos and order, both natural and man-made.

“Gardening is an obsession that cannot be conquered or abandoned, only indulged,” writes Thomas C. Cooper in the “The Roots of My Obsession,” an anthology in which “Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden” (Timber Press, 2012).

“Marketers have tried for decades to identify what makes a gardener in hopes of brewing up a large batch of it and sowing it, through advertising, across the land. It has never worked … Gardeners are a blend of family and geography, of childhood wonder and even sometimes the independence born of the parental “neglect” that allows a child to get lost in the woods, tracing the source of a springtime rivulet. They rise from trauma and travel. People come to gardening for the refuge of a personal Eden, endlessly complex in its makeup, gloriously simple in its demands.”

That about sums it up for me, though there is much to recognize of myself in the reflections of the 29 other gardeners essayed.

As the page prepares to turn on another calendar year, I have no new resolutions to make other than to continue tending my backyard compost pile as best I can. It’s my nature.

Portrait of an American backyard composter.

Portrait of an American backyard composter.