My Pile: Turf Wars

Between a busy week at work and at home with spring-cleaning projects, it’s been a struggle of late to devote attention to my pile. But that’s the nice thing about tending a backyard compost heap: There’s not much of a deadline involved, and my pile makes few demands upon me, other than those I put upon it. My pile is the very definition of a self-starter.

Besides, my pile continues to benefit from the largesse of others. This evening I return home from work to find that my across-the-street neighbor has mowed his lawn and deposited the clippings at the base of my pile.

With a cool, dry start to spring in these parts, I have yet to cut my own grass. My neighbor, however, three weeks ago spread a 50-pound bag of fertilizer across his lawn and watered it in with his sprinkler system. He’s already mowed twice. The first cutting he mulched back into the lawn, but his turbocharged turf has since grown so fast that he had to mow again, this time with the grass catcher. His wife was upset by all the clippings that their daughter tracked into the house after playing in their front yard.

Something borrowed, something green: My neighbor Craig's grass clippings, to be added to the top of my pile.

Something borrowed, something green: My neighbor’s grass clippings, to be mixed into the top of my pile.

Chemical fertilizers for lawns have only been around since just after World War II. According to Tom Andersen, whose 2002 book, “This Fine Piece of Water,” documents the devastating impact of excess nitrogen and other mandmade pollutants have had on water quality (and life) in Long Island Island since then.

“In the Northeast United States, each acre of fertilized lawn is covered with an average of 134 pounds of nitrogen a year…Nitrogen that occurs naturally in the soil is taken up by plants for growth only as it is needed, but chemical nitrogen dissolves easily in water, and anything not used immediately by the grass is washed away in the first rainstorm.”

My pile is a sponge for that nitrogen, keeping at least some of it from flowing down the storm drain and into the nearby Sound, where the excess nitrogen causes all kinds of problems, from algal blooms to dead zones without oxygen that kill anything that swims or crawls in the water.

I have some qualms about adding such chemical-laden contributions to my pile, but welcome the fresh green material to what is largely still a pile of old brown leaves. And I figure the mineral cocktail that makes up the typical store-bought fertilizer will in time break down into its elemental parts that will ultimately be absorbed by my pile to a more natural end.

Those manufactured ingredients are worth closer inspection, and are generally listed by a three-number ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, most often using their chemical symbols, N-P-K. For example, I read on, a bag of a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer would provide 5 lbs of nitrogen, 5 lbs of phosphorous and 5 lbs of potassium.

The most abundant element in the air we breathe, as a solid nutrient nitrogen promotes foliage and overall growth and is the mineral that gives grass its dark green color. Too much can overload both a grass lawn and local waterways. Phosphorous spurs root development, and I read that an adequate supply helps lawn grasses develop drought tolerance. As with nitrogen, an excess of phosphorous in runoff leads to algae blooms, which can prove toxic to both aquatic ecosystems and humans. Potassium promotes disease resistance and aids in the production of flowers and fruit, the research says.

The rest of the ingredients in a typical bag of store-bought fertilizer are fillers to keep the granules from clumping and a bunch of trace minerals, among them magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron, manganese, zinc, boron and molybdenum. All are helpful in the proper proportion, though I’d need a textbook to help explain why and to what extent.

Of course, all of these minerals and nutrients occur naturally, and assembling them in natural abundance and dispatching them in the proper proportion throughout my backyard is a big reason why I tend a compost heap in the first place.

Stu Campbell, in “Let It Rot,” provides a helpful reality check: “Many composter-gardeners worry too much about producing compost with a very high and well-balanced NPK. Would it be terribly disillusioning to be told that compost is not a miracle fertilizer? In most good compost, the content of NPK is actually very low. In fact, it usually does not have a high enough percentage of NPK to be considered a fertilizer at all. But you can boost the NPK by adding natural sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to your compost pile.”

Like I said, my pile is nothing if not magnanimous, and mostly welcoming of begged or borrowed or store-bought supplies. It’s also a very capable buffer, a backyard treatment facility that I trust to safely process all manner of raw ingredients into a finished product that is, if not wholly organic, then at least ultimately natural and homemade. So into the mix this hopped-up grass will go. Besides, I have some housekeeping to do of my own.

The still-unseen rodent continues to have its way within my pile, and by the looks of it has ferreted out the kindergartner’s compost of last week. I see that the rat or whatever it is has not only eschewed the wedge of cheese I set in the live animal trap but has used it as a springboard to get to the good stuff hidden within. I checked the trap this morning and it was near buried under a fresh outpouring of tailings from its latest tunneling. At least the trap is good for something.

The live bait trap, set along the back edge of my pile mostly buried by the rodent's diggings.

The live bait trap, set along the back edge of my pile, made a good springboard for the rodent, who tunneled a new hole just above it.

It seems I have to accept the interloping rodent’s presence, at least for now. I can rationalize most anything, and I figure the varmint’s burrowing instincts no doubt are helping aerate the oldest, dankest parts of my pile, perhaps even enough to offset the biological cost of what it takes from the pile as food.

So this evening I spread out the crusty leaves atop my pile and layer the grass clippings with pitchforks of matted leaves from the front side and back. The unscheduled addition of this hothouse material to my pile should be unappetizing to the rat. And re-sculpting my pile into a nearly vertical wall in front and shoring up the ledge in back will allow me to undermine it with my next insertion of grass clippings from my own yard.

I reset the live trap with a slather of peanut butter and retire for the evening. I can’t help but feel that somehow, the varmint has me at a disadvantage and will have its way with my pile, at least until I scrape away the last of this year’s finished compost and spread it across my garden and lawn.

Humans have long shared the outer fringes and inner crevasses of our hearths and homes and barns, especially our midden heaps and agricultural leftovers, which is more or less exactly what my pile is.

I suppose tending a compost pile tends to promote such a “live and let live” approach to all creatures, great and small. And while that mindset includes striving to be the best organic backyard gardener I can be, I admit to occasionally relying on more drastic, manmade solutions when the circumstances seem dire enough to warrant a lethal approach.

The back story: Five or so years ago, my lawn was under mortal attack. After grassing it with the initial renovation of the property, the newly expanded greenscape grew well for a few seasons. Then whole patches of turf started to scrape off with the gentlest of raking, or even scuff of a shoe. Before long, I could roll up the dried thatch like a carpet. Every time I dug underneath the sod I would find the cause: the subsoil was permeated with short, fat, dirty-white grubs, the ugly larval stage of the scarab beetle. The grubs chomp through the grass roots like so many micro mowers, scalping the lawn from below. At its worse, my lawn attracted foraging skunks, who grubbed out a meal from the turf, inflicting further damage.

I considered applying nematodes, an organic option that relies on a beneficial parasitic creature to do the dirty work of killing grubs. But it’s an expensive solution and requires just the right conditions and timing.

After much agonizing, I bought a bag of commercial grub killer from Home Depot and spread it across the worst parts of the lawn. I kept the dog and son and all others at bay for the better part of a week.

I’m sure there was some collateral damage; earthworms seemed to be in short supply for a time, and it may be my imagination, but the fireflies that rise from the sod each July also seemed muted that year. But since the application of the “nuclear option” of the grub killer insecticide, the lawn has been as thick and lush as it’s ever been.

Relying on chemicals to treat and care for the garden and lawn is made easy by the longstanding habits and practices of our culture. Last weekend my neighbor had sprayed his gravel driveway with Roundup, and had enough left in the canister to ask if I wanted a spritz or two to hit the weeds coming up through my own gravel driveway and in the cracks between my flagstone back patio.

I waved him off with a “thanks, but no thanks.” Herbicides I can do without.

Though I admit to being a weed killer in my own way, I prefer it to be a fair fight, mostly relying on hand to hand combat. Over the years I’ve spent hours and hours hand-weeding my garden and lawn, mostly as I amble about the yard throwing tennis balls for the dog to catch or picking up dog droppings. I often stick a dandelion digger in the back pocket of my jeans, and have become fairly adept at stooping between throws to flick a weed, roots and all, out of the ground before the dog returns with his slobbery ball.

The first eradication effort focused on dandelions, which blighted my lawn for several years, the seeds blowing into my yard from an untended slope along the street, just upwind from my house. I’ve also waged war with other weeds, among them creeping wild strawberry, certain sedges, wild onions and other contagions that somehow reach critical mass from one spring to the next. Clover I keep, to feed both bees and the turf, which it benefits by adding nitrogen through the symbiotic hookups of its roots and bacteria in the soil.

With some overseeding and the spreading of many wheelbarrows full of humus, plus aeration with a rented machine every couple of falls, my lawn has become a lush thatch of green. But still, enough crabgrass sprouts each spring for me to grow callouses on my fingers and a sore back from bending over to pluck out crabgrass plants before it goes to seed and repeats the cycle all over again.

It’s not so much that I favor a monoculture of grass. My “grass” lawn is a meadow-like mix of annual and perennial rye, fescues, bluegrass, bent grass, poa annua and a medley of weedy greens that manage to survive mowing and escape my wandering clutches.

But crabgrass is the most pernicious, spreading unsightly and producing copious amounts of seeds if left unchecked. Crabgrass seeds can remain active in the soil for years, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. I was amazed to realize, from the book “Green Immigrants,” that crabgrass is derived from millet, the oldest grain cultivated by man. Evidently, it was unwittingly brought to America by immigrants from Eastern Europe, where it was once grown as a grain.

Like most lawnkeepers in the northern-tier states, I like my turf grass skinny and soft, green and lush. Clover will do, but crabgrass and dandelion just don’t pass muster.

To that end, I’ve been considering taking a systemic approach to my weeding this spring by applying a natural treatment that’s part herbicide, part fertilizer. Corn gluten.

Lately I’ve been reading up on this product, and here’s what I’ve gleaned. This, from Paul Tukey of the website:

“Scarcely any subject in organic lawn care has spurred more discussion in the past two decades than corn gluten meal, the corn bi-product that was patented by Iowa State University in 1991 for its pre-emergent weed control properties. In the past decade, as the demand for alternatives to toxic chemicals has risen, the use of corn gluten meal on lawns has grown exponentially…

“Dr. Nick Christians, one of the most widely respected figures in the lawn care industry, is credited with developing corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent lawn herbicide. His product kills the dicot weeds (clover, plantain, dandelions, etc.) before they grow to adult size. The weed seeds actually do germinate, but the corn gluten meal inhibits the expansion of the plants’ roots and they quickly die of dehydration.”

A stock shot of what corn gluten looks like. I figure it would cost $100 for one treatment of my lawn.

A stock shot of what corn gluten looks like. I figure it would cost $100 for one treatment of my lawn.

As a native Cornhusker from Nebraska, I like the idea of using a corn byproduct on my lawn. Corn is as American as it gets, and how the grain has evolved over the millennia to become a food staple makes for a pretty cool story, even if the crop has been hijacked of late by Bog Ag. I’m still on the fence about GMO, but it pains me to know that so much of today’s high-tech corn is produced to fuel the needs of ethanol makers and government-subsidy takers.

Here’s some more about corn gluten as a herbicide, from the organic lawncare section of

Corn gluten inhibits root formation of germinating seeds. Timing a corn gluten application is crucial for it to work properly. Corn gluten needs to be applied before weed seed germination. The seed will germinate and form a shoot, but not a root. Prior to germination, a short drying period is needed to kill the germinated, but rootless, plant. If conditions are too wet during germination, the plant will recover and form a root.

Corn gluten is a pre-emergent herbicide only; it provides no post-emergent weed control. If seeds have already germinated, a late application of corn gluten will only serve as fertilizer for the weeds.

The first application of corn gluten will only suppress up to 60% of the weed seeds. The initial results may be disappointing but after several applications it can achieve better than 80% effectiveness.”

This cool, dry spring creates the perfect conditions for testing out corn gluten on my lawn. But I balk at both the price and being suckered into a long-term program that commits me to more expenditures. Paul Tukey seems to agree:

“My standing answer to anyone who asks about this natural weed alternative is that corn gluten meal has been vastly oversold by an overeager industry. With the rising prices of corn gluten meal in the past three years, homeowners can go broke trying to buy enough product to really make a difference in their weed population.”

I have my pile and it turns out a fair equivalent of naturally produced soil amendments for free. As last summer turned to fall, I spread upwards of 50 wheelbarrows of freshly made humus across my garden beds. This year, my compost crop will be devoted to my grass lawn. With an aeration and some overseeding, plus the 50 or so inches of rain that it gets in fairly regular doses throughout the year, my motley lawn will continue to thrive.

And the corn in my backyard this summer will be not cast piecemeal upon the ground but rising up whole in my garden, and from there on the cob hot off the grill, just as it should be.

My Pile: Holy Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Phocas, the patron saint of composting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Pile: Breath of Fresh Air

It’s a Sunday, and in advance of the next-up storm, which the forecast says will be a mix of freezing rain and a few inches of snow, I head out to my pile.

It’s done well to slough off its latest covering of white, nearly a foot of wet, heavy snow delivered two days ago. Wide vent holes have opened up across the heap, and once again the top of my pile has sagged deep into itself.


My pile sloughs off the latest snowfall, creating vent holes over hot spots within.

But I can’t resist fussing with it further. Using the wide-mouth shovel, I clear the thick caps of snow from each side of the log walls, heaping the snow into the cavities created by the melting from within. I then scoop more snow from the sloped front side, which faces north and is still swathed in deep drifts. I then turn the shovel upside down and slice and dice down through the remains of the crusty snow caverns and new chunks of added snow.

The result is a topping of cottage cheese snow, about six-inches thick, for my pile to work its way up through anew.

Heaping my pile with more snow.

Heaping my pile with more snow, at the risk of dousing the biological process that keeps it burning within.

The log walls cleared of most of the old snow, I grab the rebar rod, clamor atop and punch a couple dozen holes down through the pile. I focus on reaching the “cold” areas where the heat from within hasn’t percolated upward. My goal is to activate as much of the pile as I can to give my pile fresh gulps of air to offset the weight and soddening effect of the water within snow. Sort of like doing acupuncture, only with a half-inch metal bar.

Aside from the shoveling of my driveway and porches and chilly walks along the beach with the dog, such tinkering is my exercise for a winter day. In short order my arms are heavy and burning with the effort of plunging the length of ribbed iron again and again through the resisting layers matted leaves below. The working end of the bar heats up before long, and the jousting releases a faint whiff of rotten egg.

In the aptly titled “Let It Rot! – The Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell explains:

“To grow and multiply, microorganisms need four things: (1) an energy source, or carbon; (2) a protein source, or nitrogen; (3) oxygen; and (4) moisture.

“Oxygen is required by many of the microorganisms, especially the most efficient bacteria, called aerobes. When not enough oxygen is available, the aerobes cannot survive and the anaerobes take over. Once this happens, decomposition slows by as much as 90 percent.

“The aerobe can do a more complete job of composting than can the anaerobe. As the aerobe and its cohorts break down carbon compounds into carbon dioxide and water, they are also producing a lot of energy. This gives them a distinct advantage, because they can use this energy to grow that much faster themselves and decompose that much more material. At the same time, and no less important, they excrete plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium, to name just a few.

“Meanwhile, back at the airtight heap, the anaerobes struggle to produce carbon dioxide, water, energy, and nutrients, too – although in much smaller quantities when compared to the aerobe’s performance. They also produce a lot of useless organic acids and amines (ammonia-like substances), and in some cases are toxic to plants. Some of the end products of the anaerobe’s efforts are hydrogen sulfide (which smells like rotten eggs), cadaverine, and putrescine. These last two descriptive names do a great deal to explain the nauseating odor of an anaerobic compost pile. So you see why this book places so much emphasis on keeping the pile well aerated.”

At this point in its life cycle, my pile has all that it needs, save air to keep breathing. There is no timeline for my pile, no order to fill. I could let it slumber in stasis through these days and nights of sub-freezing weather. But where’s the sport in that?


My Pile: Nature vs. Nurture

The first hard freeze of winter has set in. I consider my pile from behind the frosted glass panes of the kitchen door, squinting through the low morning sun for a sign of steam vapor rising from its top. What combustible forces, if any, still go on within? How far into my pile has the cold seeped in? What protection does the heap’s insulating cloak of leaves and seagrass straw provide? Have I given my pile the resources it needs to keep from shutting down completely?

A good long winter’s slumber is just fine for groundhogs; aside from the birds that flock to the backyard feeder, all else in my yard has closed up shop for the winter, as it should. But part of the sport of nurturing a compost pile is in keeping its inner fires stoked to ward off the stasis of winter dormancy for as long as possible. A compost pile in hiberation is boring. It just sits there.

A pile of dried leaves and additions of rotting greens teems with the unseen creatures and natural processes that make humus happen.

Or so it seems. Some years ago, as I was beginning to take backyard composter more seriously, I went to the local garden store to shop for my pile. I’d read a little about “activators” that kick-start a pile’s decomposition, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t missing some essential ingredient, an edge.

On the shelf I saw a squat bag of a powdery product called Bio-Excelerator, that promised “to offer the complete solution to generating rich, fertile humus – Nature’s best soil conditioner.” The package looked and hefted like a bag of flour; the backside label boasted that inside were “the most effective microorganisms coupled with the proper energy sources and pH balancers to assure you composting success…”

I checked the side of the bag for a list of ingredients and instead found copy that claimed inside were “…billions of microbes especially cultured for composting. In addition to containing moderate and high-heat active microbes, special varieties are included that can speed the decomposition of difficult-to-compost organic matter. All are combined with special proprietary energy sources containing kelp and dried blood to ensure a rapid decomposition … also contains special natural organic calcium compounds to neutralize the organic acids produced during composting.”

Like a bottle of daily vitamins, it seemed to me, only more mysterious, in a secret sauce sort of way. So I plunked down $11.99 plus tax. I shook the white powder onto my pile like so much pixie dust. It figured it couldn’t hurt, and just might help.

That was before I’d begun my winter reading of composting and gardening books and blogs, and learned that my pile could do just as well left to its own devices.

Each random handful of dirt in my yard contains millions of bacteria; countless spores of mold and fungi settle each day on my pile. All play their roles in reducing the rawness and wholeness of my pile into more elemental, digested parts.

In “Let It Rot — the Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell writes, “Composting will be a whole lot simpler for you if you acknowledge the fact that the right bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes already exist within your compost pile. The potential for excellent decomposition is right there. Let Mother Nature worry about adjusting the various populations within the micro-community. That’s her job, and she does it well.”

Co-authors Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin explore the case for adding activators in “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide” (Storey Publishing 2008): “Even the slowest of heaps includes colonies of adapted microbes, but why not have more? This is the idea behind microbial compost activators, which are typically dry powders that contain compost-ready fungi and bacteria.

“It can be argued that using microbial activators is like selling ice to the good people of Iceland. Why would they need more ice? And if they did need ice, why not use some of their own? You probably already possess the best microbial activator you can use, which is homemade compost. Your own compost (especially almost-finished compost) contains an overflowing buffet of microorganisms that have proliferated in the unique setting of your own yard. They have a proven ability to work your one-of-a-kind compostable waste stream. They haven’t been imprisoned in a package, so they are ready for action. Need we say more?”

Actually, Mike McGrath, in his “Book of Compost” (Sterling, 2006) does have more to say: “…Turns out [compost activators] DO have value, but not when used according to the directions on most of the packages….”

“Saved your purchased ‘starter/activators’ till the very end. New research has found that many composts could use a little kick AFTER they’re finished. That’s right — after! Lots of beneficial creatures are killed by the heat of the composting process itself, and many others simply reach the end of their natural life span around that time. So, after a batch of compost is finished, mix the recommended amount of activator directly into the finished batch. Let it sit for 24 hours so the organisms can colonize the entire batch of compost, and then use it. That way, you’ll be sure to be adding the maximum amount of beneficial life to your soils.”

Food for thought. But for now I’ll stick to my new year’s resolution to leave my pile to its own devices, my good-natured meddling aside.



My Pile: Size Matters

The parameters of my pile are shaped partly by my ambition but mostly by the sheer number of leaf-producing trees in my yard. Since moving to my small suburban property 10 years ago, I’ve lost a handful of mature deciduous trees, mostly swamp maples and mostly due to storms.

The grass lawn and garden beds have greatly benefited from the decrease in shade and roots. My house and those of the two adjoining neighbors are that much safer from the threat of their heavy, overarching limbs and rotted trunks riddled by fat black carpenter ants. But my pile is that much less for all the leaves that once dropped from those profligate trees each fall.

To compensate, I’ve expanded my pile’s reach, and more and more of its autumn crop of leaves comes from my neighbors’ yards or from along the street. I also now forage farther afield for bonus materials to add to the mix, chiefly seaweed and seagrass from a nearby beach. It all adds up.

My pile’s mass is bolstered by two parallel rows of seven whole logs (from those maple trees) set about seven feet apart. The smallest pair of logs at the front are a foot or so tall – they make nice flat perches for a hand tool, beer can or butt. I like to ponder my next garden project sitting at the foot of my pile.

The rest of the stacked logs rise in rough matching increments to close to four feet high at the back. A stretch of 36-inch-high wire garden fence, its cut ends stapled to the tallest logs, makes a useful backstop. So at best, my pile is seven feet wide, eight feet deep and five, maybe six feet high at the center.

As such, my pile is pretty sizable for a third-acre piece of suburban property, a sturdy set piece of barnyard nature in the back corner of my yard, on par with the garden shed, trampoline and picnic table. It’s a feature of both my landscape and lifestyle.


The backside of my pile, late fall.

The backside of my pile, as fall turns to winter.

My pile’s structure and dimensions are modest enough to allow me waist-high access to most any part, whether it’s with a pitchfork, rod of rebar, garden hose or shovel. The logs are sturdy enough to clamber up to dump material over the top.

The wire fence along back side bows backward with the weight of the gathered leaves. That and the sidewalls limit the height of the pile to five or six feet tall at best; leaves and such piled higher tend to tumble over the sides and make a mess. I like a tidy pile, so I fuss over its general appearance.

In these climes, a compost pile needs to be of sufficient size to sustain its own internal combustion. Today is Christmas Eve, and with temperatures in the 50s there will be no white Christmas this year. And even though the coming days will grow ever longer, the deep freeze that is a typical New England winter has yet to take hold.

Old hands and the research suggest that 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 4 ft. is the bare minimum for an outdoor, uncovered heap to keep the “hot” bacteria going. Anything smaller isn’t really a compost pile but just a prospect of one, a mound on cold hard ground.

“In most areas of the continental United States, a compost pile needs quite a bit of mass to be self-insulating and maintain ideal temperatures,” advises Stu Campbell in “Let It Rot!”

A pile that is too small may lose its heat so quickly each night that it will cool off, or even freeze, quite readily. Pathogenic organisms, weed seeds, and larvae will not be killed, slowing the whole process. If you want hot, fast compost, your pile should measure at lest 1 cubic yard.

“On the other hand, a pile that’s too large can have different problems. The length doesn’t matter, but if you make it much wider or higher than 5 or 6 feet, the center of the pile may not get enough air and you could wind up with an anaerobic area there. Air naturally penetrates anywhere form 18 to 24 inches into a pile from all directions, but not much beyond that. The center of the pile may heat up too much, killing off the microorganisms. You’re apt to overheat yourself if you try turning a huge heap.

Piles bigger than average – like my own – require more physical effort to sustain the proper mix of air and water needed to fuel the decomposition process. It’s a chore I relish. My pile provides me much more than an ongoing harvest of compost. It gives me an excuse to get outside for a while every so often, plenty of exercise, and a purpose.

A midweek storm, along with my recent soaking and poking, has caused my pile to subside. Its top is now nearly flush with the log walls that contain it. There is room for more.

Taking a morning walk with the dog at the local beach, I find that the storm has also deposited a fresh jumble of seagrass hay along the high-water mark at the local beach. I scoop up a big plastic bucket full, packing the crinkly stems together with a stomp of my boot.

Back home, I gather the bucket of a week’s worth of scraps from my kitchen, as well as the food waste that my next-door neighbors keep outside their back door in a galvanized can, its lid weighed down by a piece of cast iron to keep the varmints at bay.

I tease some empty space in the top of my pile with the hay pitchfork, pulling the mess of steamy leaves toward the edges so that a crater is formed, into which goes a week’s worth of kitchen slop. Farewell banana peel, egg shell and coffee filter — I’ll never see them again.

Next, I take the steel-tined rake and old bedsheet and cross the street. I need more leaves, and my neighbor Craig, a good but busy friend, hasn’t quite got around to cleaning the windblown leaves piled up against the rock wall that borders his gravel driveway. Earlier in the fall he ran his mower up and down the driveway, mulching the leaves as he blew them to the side. More leaves, mostly from the sycamore on my side of the street, have blown up against the wall through the fall and stuck in the rock crevasses.

It takes me 10 minutes to glean two sheet-fulls. With each load I first pick the biggest lumps of gravel and sticks from the edge of the sheet, bind up the four corners of the sheet and heave the pendulous  bag over my shoulder, then shlep it over to my pile like some lumbering, crunchy granola Santa. Prancing up the rotting log walls, I unfurl a blanket on each side across the top. Adding this gift to my pile is a lot easier than squeezing down a chimney. Besides, I owed Craig the favor of sprucing up his driveway, and in return my pile has a late-season boost of primo leaf mulch to cover the kitchen scraps.

I top off my pile by spreading the seagrass hay across the top. It makes good insulation, and once buried, the hollow stalks will keep things loose and airy and the masticated seaweed that binds it together will also help rot it away. The mop-top of blonde straw gives my pile a finished look, in a tossled, hayseed sort of way. I lean in to spot a baby clamshell dangling from the tip of a stem. The waning sun shines through the pearly skin; it twists in the breeze on a strand of sea green like a Christmas ornament. My pile, my crib. Merry Christmas!

Away, in a manger…

My pile on Christmas Day, with all the trimmings.

My pile on Christmas Day, with all the trimmings.