My Pile: To Each His Own

Every compost heap, by definition, evolves organically, in its own way.

My pile suits my backyard and reflects the New England climate and the resources I bring to bear on it, including my own energy and ambitions.

My brother lives in the rural high country of New Mexico. He owns a small ranchette and keeps an old mare in a corral out back, rescued from a shelter. His compost pile and its concerns are wholly different from my own. Seeing my pile for the first time, he expressed envy for its copious amounts of leaves and ample supply of rainwater, as well as the seaweed. He has manure, hay and kitchen scraps, but with the arid desert and daytime heat, keeping his backyard heap wet enough is a constant problem, as is keeping the coyotes at bay. Instead of decomposing, his pile dessicates, becoming more a mound of mummified remains than a compost heap. I advised him to consider pit composting, and to locate it near the water trough for the horse, for easy access to both water and manure.

Closer to home, a nearby friend has house atop a small rocky outcrop, with towering oaks that shade all but a patch of her backyard, on which she tends a small garden of herbs and vegetables. Without the time or inclination to amass a heap of leaves, she instead tucks her garden trimmings into a tumbler set up on the side of her house. It looks like a 55-gallon oil drum on a rotisserie, and churns out buckets of compost in short order that she spreads across her tidy garden.

On a larger property just down the road, one of the original farmsteads in town, is a barn and open field behind the main house. The owners keep a small menagerie of a few sheep, a couple goats and a llama in an enclosure near the road. When my son was younger, he’d delight in stopping by to pet the animals through the fence along the road. The acreage behind the barn lies fallow, and a real estate sign indicates that the owners are just waiting for the right price to develop the parcel into new homes.

A view of one of the last tracts of open land left in Westport, on which the owners have spread leaf mulch to compost.

A view of one of the last tracts of open land left in Westport, on which the owners have spread leaf mulch to compost.

But some agriculture still takes place, if only for tax purposes, and a couple years ago I was delighted to see the owner spreading truckfuls of leaves collected from the town’s fall cleanup across an acre of so of freshly plowed land, depositing them in long windrows about six feet tall.

Over the course of a few months, he turned the windrows with a small front-end loader, then spread the cooked-down lot across the field. Sheet composting, it’s called, and by the next year the ground had absorbed it all, and it’s now a rich meadow of field grass.

The scale of the operation puts my puny pile to shame. But then again, I would imagine that the urban composter with a vermiculture setup under the kitchen sink would say the same thing about my backyard compost heap.

On my shelf of compost books is a title from England, “How to Make and Use Compost – the Ultimate Guide,” by Nicky Scott. Published by Green Books, it’s a useful compendium of composting tips, if a little foreign.

Particularly intriguing is the chapter, “Choosing the Right Composting System,” which leads with a description of the Dalek bin.

“The compost bin that most people are familiar with is the plastic ‘dalek’-type bin, promoted by local authorities. Sizes vary from just over 200 litres to 350 litres, some have access/inspection hatches, and they come in a variety of colours. Millions of these are now in use in the UK.

“Daleks are lightweight, so you can move them around the garden easily and plonk them down where you want either on earth or hard ground. They contain your materials, so you just need to mix or layer the material as they go in.

“When they get pretty full, lift the whole bin up – as if making a sand castle – and if you have enough space put the bin down next to your compost castle and fork the top, uncomposted layers back into the bin. The bottom section should be nicely composted and ready to use…

Some councils have given bins away free; other councils pass on the benefits of being able to bulk buy, so that the bins are offered at wholesale cost price, around 12-15 pounds…”

A collection of Dalek bins at a garden center. "Danger, Will Robinson!"

A collection of Dalek bins at a garden center. “Danger, Will Robinson!”

The English love their gardens, and long ago raised gardening to an art form. So it should come as no surprise that in the land where every man’s home is his castle, millions of council houses and flats have one of these stubby little bins in the backyard, castles of compost.

It saddens me to realize just how backward our own country remains when it comes to backyard composting – but in a glass-half-full way I’m optimistic when I think just how much potential there exists for Americans to take to composting in the individual way that best suits their own needs. As they say, people who wonder whether the glass is half empty or full are missing the point: The glass is refillable…

 

 

My Pile: Wandering in Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Pile: Marking Territory

My pile has many mutually beneficial purposes. It serves me well. I heap it with produce and praise, shower it with attention … and pee.

As Charlton Heston once explained to Dear Abby, in response to the lady who feared her husband’s habit of urinating on their lawn was inappropriate: “So it may be, but the fact remains that all men pee outdoors,” said Moses himself.

It’s the gospel truth. One of the reasons I keep my pile as tall as I do is to take a leak behind it without fear of pissing off any passing neighbors. Most mornings I let the dog out; he pees on the front of my pile, and I take the backside. After a cup of coffee and his morning bowl of chow, we may hit it again.

The backside of my pile, set in the corner of the yard. Keeping it chest high makes it big enough to continue to cook through the winter — and for me to step behind it for a private pit stop.

I’d probably piss outside even if I didn’t keep a compost pile. I’ve spent enough years in rain-deprived Southern California to value each toilet flush; I’ve paid enough utility bills to know to conserve my supply of water for more important uses, like watering the tomatoes in July.

I also drink a lot of coffee and beer, and when home try to spend as much time outdoors as indoors, often tromping around in muddy work shoes. Go back inside to take a leak? No, I piss on my pile. It’s a convenient and somewhat furtive release, in a Huck Finnish, behind-the-woodshed kind of way.

To excuse myself further, let’s hear more from Dear Abby & Co. on the subject:

DEAR ABBY: After reading the letter about the woman (“The Whiz-zard’s Wife”) whose husband urinates in the yard, I had to write. It’s what I went through with my ex-husband for 13 years! I pleaded with him to stop, but his answer was that no one could see him because it was dark.

My present husband (now of eight years) did the same thing. He’d be closer to the bathroom in our house and still go out back to urinate in our yard after dark two or three times a week. When I gave him my opinion about it, he’d ignore it.

When we moved to our new home, we had a wooden fence built. I decided to teach him a lesson. When he continued to urinate in the back yard, I decided to do the same. He was shocked! He told me I had better not do it again. I told him that as long as he continued his behavior, I would do the same.

Abby, he has not urinated in our back yard since. Sometimes when they won’t listen, you have to SHOW ’em.
-HAPPY WIFE IN FORNEY, TEXAS

DEAR HAPPY WIFE: Congratulations for having curbed your husband’s spraying. I was intrigued to discover that some men consider it a form of conservation! Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Marking our territory is only one reason for this age-old tradition.

Boys have long enjoyed distance, accuracy and creative urinary competitions: knocking leaves off the trees in the fall, drawing pictures in the winter snow, protecting young fir trees from hungry deer in the spring, and dousing campfires in the summer months are just a few highlights.

Some may deride this as small-minded male nonsense, but on a global scale, this ritual has significant benefits to our environment. The flush water we save is substantial. At 2.5 gallons per flush, a man urinating outside just once a day will conserve almost 1,000 gallons of water a year. If one-fourth of the men in the United States saved one flush per day, we’d save more than 4.5 billion cubic feet of water per year.

If you consider all the rainfall that’s channeled into storm sewers from our streets and parking lots, we’re returning valuable moisture to the soil by urinating on our lawns.
NATIVE OREGON STREAMER, TILLAMOOK, ORE.

Giving the backside of my pile a dousing, I do some calculating: A couple-two-three leaks a day, a pint each, maybe…It adds up to more gallons of golden showers a year than I’d like to admit to. But all that urine is good for my pile: It turns out that this body waste that’s (usually) flushed down the toilet can actually be recycled into a number of useful products, says one online resource, todayifoundout.com.

“Comprised of water, calcium, chloride, potassium, sodium, magnesium, urea, creatinine, nitrogen, uric acid, ammonium, sulphates and phosphates, urine’s beneficial ingredients can be separated from its waste, and used to make fertilizer, medicine, brain cells and, yes, gunpowder.”

The key ingredient is phosphorous, which was discovered in the 1660s by German alchemist Hennig Brand, who was trying to turn urine into gold. Instead, he turned 1,500 gallons of urine, likely collected from beer-drinking German soldiers, into what became a new kind of liquid gold. Under high heat, the phosphate in urine loses its oxygen and becomes phosphorus.

An essential element for life, phosphorous is the sixth most abundant element in any living organism. It not only glows in the dark, but can also be highly poisonous and combustible (white phosphorus is used in many destructive weapons, such as napalm), I read on Gizmodo, an account which adds: “Some environmentalists believe that we will have a severe phosphorus shortage in twenty to forty years. That said, human urine could hold the key to solving the crisis. According to Mother Jones magazine, ‘There’s enough phosphorus in your annual output of urine to provide P for more than half of all the grain you consume in a year.'”

Early each spring, my lawn is pockmarked with bright green patches as the grass begins to grow again, from both the dog and passing deer. I know from the splotches that there are frequent doses of energy, in the form of nitrogen, urea and other organic (and sterile) materials to be directed in a more targeted way. Why not my pile?

According to Nicky Scott, author of “How to Make and Use Compost — The Ultimate Guide,” urine is “the cheapest and best activator to speed up the composting process. It adds nitrogen and water to woody, dry, carbon-rich material.”

Rodale’s Organic Life agrees: “If you aren’t using your urine in your garden and on your compost pile, you are, pardon my French, pissing away a free, valuable resource and missing out an easy way to help close the gaping hole in your household nutrient cycle,” Jean Nick writes in “How to Use Your Pee for the Planet.” Using urine in the garden can help you cut your water use (less flushing) while also cleaning up the environment downstream (no water-polluting fertilizer runoff).”

Nick adds: “Recent scientific studies have shown urine is a safe and very effective fertilizer for cabbage, beets, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and pretty much anything else you want to grow. Urine boasts a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 10:1:4, plus more modest amounts of the trace elements plants need to thrive. The nutrients in pee are highly available to plants, too—an extra plus.”

So I like having a good excuse to pee outdoors and the privacy that my pile offers in taking that relief. I also take comfort in the fact that my own end product turns out to be so vital to the new beginnings that my pile is all about. A comfort station, indeed, the compost heap I keep…

My Pile: Breathing Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Jousting with my pile is also instructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s smoking hot, my pile.

My Pile: Waste Not, Want Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer Kelsey Nowakowski supplies more factoids:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 www.mastercomposter.com, 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.