My Pile: The Big Thaw

The warm spell continues, producing a weekend of springlike conditions. My pile is fast shedding its winter cloak of snow, and today, a Sunday, I will take advantage of the February thaw to prime my compost heap with a bounty of fresh compostibles.

The middle of my pile has sunken into itself. The backside wire fence strains to contain the stack of freeze-dried leaves squashed up against it. A swath of drifted snow turned rotted ice nestles along the backside of my pile, soaked further by a winter’s worth of pee. Patches of snow hold out in the crevasses of the log walls like retreating glaciers, and the north-facing front remains a frozen mat of crusty, frozen leaves.

It dawns on me that the reason my pile has looked so diminished of late is that I’m standing on a foot of packed snow that surrounds it, looking down on it from that much higher. Subtract that misstep and my pile has suddenly grown much in volume.

My pile is primed for spring. A winter's worth of cached green energy will soon help fuel its inner fires.

My pile is primed for spring. A winter’s worth of cached green energy will soon help fuel its inner fires.

Soon it will grow more. I have several bags of kitchen scraps in cold storage in the shed, and I know my neighbor’s compost bins are chockful as well. I also have a lidded ash can crammed with more coffee grounds from the closest Starbucks, a plump plastic bag full of shredded office paper and two plastic bins of salt marsh hay scooped up yesterday from the local beach. In all, I have 50 pounds or so of a variety of high-octane “greens” to stuff into my near-dormant pile, a haul that will surely help nurture it along through the waning days of winter.

Hemmed in by the weather these last few weeks, I’ve dipped into the cyberworld of composting, googling “Winter Composting” to stay attuned to my pile, if only virtually.

Near the top of the list is a helpful overview from organic The internet is one big compost pile itself, the digital humus of humanity. True, there are parts of the worldwide web that are toxically anaerobic, and stink about as much. But there is much fertile, active stuff worth digging through.

In “Cold Weather Compost,” Genevieve Slocum writes: “Even in winter, a compost pile is alive, an ecosystem in flux.”Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition activity in a compost pile,” explains Dave Wilson, research agronomist at the Rodale Institute. The microbial action in decomposition is exothermic, which means that heat is a by-product of the chemical process of breaking down the material.

The microbes’ metabolism slows down as the temperature dips, which explains why food keeps in a refrigerator or freezer. In winter, your goal is to create an ideal habitat for microbes. Think of it as “micro-husbandry.”

Among the tips is this: “Help chilly, sluggish microbes by doing some of the work for them—chop or shred both browns and greens before adding them to the pile. Tamara Listiak of the Texas A & M Cooperative Extension recommends shredding the material into pieces smaller than 2 inches. The pile heats up uniformly, and the small particles form a kind of mat that shields the pile’s warm core from outside temperature extremes, she explains.”

With so much chopped fodder for my pile on hand, I have plans to dig even deeper. With the front and back of my pile frozen thick and the center caved in on itself, I decide the best approach to the first pre-spring “turn” of my pile is to excavate the core. Standing atop the log walls, I use the hay pitchfork to spear clumps of the dankest, fulminating parts of my pile, and pull them out toward the edges, tossing and turning the collection as I go. It’s like strip mining in reverse, carving out chunks of leaf mold and composted kitchen greens from within my pile and stacking them up, out or to the side as efficiently as possible.

Poking across into the center of my pile through the tangle of seagrass stems at its top, I spot a fuzzy yellow green tennis ball, giving me the real reason for my dog’s nuzzling around my pile all winter; he’d lost a ball in snow long ago and like an old bone hadn’t been forgotten.

I toss it across the backyard and the dog is delighted to retrieve it, catching a high bounce off the still frozen ground. It turns out my pile really is made of memories

I dig down through my pile, turning up and over the detritus from the deposits from a month ago, before the snow started falling nearly a month ago. Most has already been consumed by the digestive process of my pile. The pitchfork tines hook on a scrap of coffee filter here, poke a half eggshell there. I turn up a small plastic container cup, like the kind you get cream cheese in, likely tossed into the container the neighbors keep. It was already packed with a humus-like loam, which I fleck out with a tap against the log wall.

I burrow as far as my hay pitchfork and straining back will allow, clearing out a bathtub-sized space in the center of my pile. At the bottom is a tangled mess of wet, pressed leaves. It’s cool to the touch, but I’m pleased to see a clutch of fat red earthworms glued stiff to the underside of a clump of bound leaves. Holdouts or pioneers, I don’t know, but they will soon be richly rewarded with their perseverance through the rigors of winter. With the new addition of shredded paper and coffee grounds to my pile, it will be a good year for earthworms, I think.

I fill the hole first with fluffy gobs of the julienned strips of crinkly white paper, then add half of the kitchen slop and rabbit poop, two buckets’ worth. I mix a bit with the pitchfork, then backfill with forkfuls of frozen chunks of leaves from the backside.

The pit mine of my pile is filled with fresh green fixin's and freeze-dried leaves from along the backside.

The pit mine of my pile is filled with fresh green fixin’s and freeze-dried leaves from along the backside.

I dump the rest of the shredded paper atop the deep layer of leaf mold, sprinkle in the coffee grounds and mix in the remaining kitchen scraps. I bury this second layer of greens with a crown of clumpy frozen leaves from along the backside of the fence.I have enough coffee grounds to be generous, and take several scoops with a garden trowel to sprinkle the pressed granules directly over  decaying leaves that surround the stems of the azalea bushes in the perennial garden.

As a finishing touch to my pile, I add a heap of the salt marsh hay across the top. I figure this will be the “last straw” for my pile. The topping of rotted stems and flecks of seaweed and bits of shells will help insulate my pile through the remaining days of winter. But it breaks down slowly, require more time to decompose fully. The next time I toss and turn my pile, I will fold the straw into the mix, allowing it to serve as tangly fodder for the heap on through early spring.

It short order, my pile is restored, pumped up and primed for action. Newly enriched by the stored-up green fixin’s and such, I expect my pile to soon heat up with a serious case of spring fever.

In time, I will further turn and shape and feed my pile and give it a full airing as spring finally arrives, but this first “shock and thaw” will reignite its inner fevers.