My Pile: Chipping Away

With a sprawling load of shredded wood and leaves parked in my driveway, I know what I have to do this weekend.

After Saturday morning errands, I haul the wheelbarrow from behind the backyard shed and load into it a set of tools – the wide-tined hay pitchfork, two rakes and the wide-brim shovel. I wheel them to the front of the yard and set up shop beside the mound of tree mulch, already steaming with the raw, aromatic scent of sap and fermenting wood pulp. It’s easily the largest load I’ve ever had to tackle.

Digging into the massive wood-chip mulch pile, which I'm relieved to find is actually a fluffy mix of leaves and shredded sawdust and sycamore balls.

Digging into the massive wood-chip mulch pile, which I’m relieved to find is actually a fluffy mix of leaves and shredded sawdust and sycamore balls.

I feel like a rube for accepting the chips without first peering into the covered dump truck to see that not only did it contain the diced-up remains of my tree trimmings but also that of a previous job. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck; it fell on me. I eyeball the wanton load and attempt to mentally parcel it out across the perennial beds that ring my property. Just thinking about the work ahead is tiring. I glance up the street and wonder who among my neighbors I can pawn off the excess chips I will surely be left with after covering every square inch of my available ground.

Spreading wood-chip mulch is both a physical and mental exercise. I think back to the many other times and seasons I’ve accepted a load of wood chips from a crew working nearby and know I’ve thought the same “be careful of what you wish for” before. A large pile of anything you’ve suddenly got to dispense is always a daunting task; massive, real, and seemingly immovable.

But volume measured in cubic yards invariably becomes manageable when spread across a lot of linear square feet. Picture an above-ground swimming pool filled with water. It bursts, and the water spreads out across the ground and is gone. That’s the same with spreading wood chips across the garden beds and other weed-free spots around my tidy suburban property. Call it sheet composting, for I’m taking a heap of freshly dead organic material spreading it across the ground where it will over the coming year block a season’s worth of weeds before decomposing straight into the ground. It’s a pop-up version of my pile; here today, gone tomorrow.

Such mental gymnastics helps but doesn’t change the fact all those chips won’t move themselves, so I lean the wheelbarrow against the steepest side of the mound of chips and plunge the hay pitchfork into the peak of chips above it, using gravity to fill the wheelbarrow with several scraping thrusts.

Last spring I spread a small load of wood-chip mulch under the row of forsythia bushes along the side street and across the back fence of my property. I devoted much of last year’s finished compost to the largest stretch of planted garden, along the western side of my yard, and now the perennial beds are covered with the end result: Deep, loamy, newly minted soil. If I don’t blanket the ground this fall with a layer of fresh wood chips, come next spring the strip of garden will surely grow in thick with weeds that I will have to laboriously have to evict by hand and trowel. Funny how striving for a low-maintenance garden involves so much work.

I start by dumping whole wheelbarrows full of wood chips in the spaces between the perennial plantings of ferns and seasonal flowers as well as the azalea, rhododendron, rose of sharon and butterfly bushes that take up their own separate spaces along the border garden, a curvaceous stretch about 110 feet in length that ranges from five to 15 feet in width.

I’m pretty efficient at working a pitchfork, shovel or rake to load the wheelbarrow with wood chips. It’s easy lifting, when you get down to it. Most of the energy expended is in the transport. I schlep a dozen or so wheelbarrow loads to dump across a section of garden before stopping to rake out the tidy piles to cover the bare ground with a meringue of mulch, taking care not to bury the perennials. I strive for a depth of 4 inches; enough to keep the weeds at bay without making life to difficult for the many bulbs of daffodils and crocuses that are buried beneath. All the while, I make the mental calculus of figuring out how much ground I’ve covered against how big of a dent I’ve made in the mound of chips blocking my driveway.

In years past, I’ve spread chips made almost entirely of chopped-up tree trunks and branches, harvested after the leaves have dropped and the sap has been chased underground by the cold. But this batch, I’m relieved to realize, is a fluffy, airy mix of fresh tree potpourri, suffused with shredded leaves and diced sycamore balls, nearly as light as cotton candy. I spread it more thickly than usual, knowing that the shredded leaves will soon condense themselves into a matrix of leaf mold and wood chips, flattened by rain and further stitched together, first by frost and then by freezing ground.

Besides, I enjoy the manual labor, working up a sweat wielding a wheelbarrow and the business end of a pitchfork and rake on a pleasant fall afternoon in late-October. It’s a weekend warrior’s workout, and  a good one at that, if a lost practiced art in the age of the leaf blower. It’s also a hike, all that back-and-forth muling. I spread another dozen or so loads, dumping the wheelbarrow in the spaces between plantings, then raking it all in. The leaves on the trees in my yard are just now peaking in color, and I have figure I have just enough time to finish spreading the chips before the major leaf cleanup begins.

By evening time on Saturday, I’ve covered about half of my long garden bed of perennials along the western side of my yard and figure I’ve used up about a third of the pile of chips. I’m working on a tight timeline, and at a certain point in moving any gift of cast-off wood chips, my thoughts turn from how best to spread the supply to getting rid of it. I have just Sunday afternoon to scatter the wood mulch, as the weather forecast calls for heavy rain midweek, as much as two inches, the first significant rain of the month. As easy as it is to load, haul and spread a feather-light mix of wood chips and pureed leaves, I don’t fancy shoveling up chips soaked with all that rainwater.

On Sunday afternoon I power through the rest of the mound of mulch, layering the remaining flower beds with a four-inch covering of the minced mulch, and dumping wheelbarrows wholesale along a shallow ditch between my back fence and bed of ferns and hostas. The lowest part of my gently sloping property, the ditch briefly fills with water during the heaviest of rain storms. It makes a fine final resting place for a thick layering of wood chips left to rot.

The small culvert that runs along the back fence becomes the repository for much of the chips, which will soon decompose in the shady, damp environs.

The small culvert that runs along the back fence becomes the repository for much of the chips, which will soon decompose in the shady, damp environs.

By late Sunday afternoon, I’ve packed up the tarps and used the leaf blower to scoot the last flecks of chips from the gravel driveway. The garden beds are now cloaked in a mesh of fresh chopped mulch.

My pile has benefited as well, for at the bottom of the heap of chipped-wood mulch were pockets of ground-up leaves, masticated sycamore seed balls and pure shavings of sawdust. I add two wheelbarrows of the fluff straight onto my pile.

I glean several wheelbarrows of minced leaves, diced sycamore balls and chain-saw sawdust curlings to add straight to my pile.

I glean several wheelbarrows of minced leaves, diced sycamore balls and chain-saw curlings to add straight to my pile.

I’ve kept the remains of my own tree trimmings on the property, and the yard has absorbed much more decompostible organic matter from somewhere nearby. If and when the rain comes, it will soak deep into the mulch beds and settle in place, making the coming fall cleanup of leaves that fall onto the beds that much easier. I’d salute myself in triumph for a backyard gardener’s job well done, if I wasn’t so tired to lift up my arms.

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…