My Pile: The Big Dig

It’s May Day, and my pile is now fully six months old. In November, it rose, phoenix like, from the remnants of last year’s heap of compost, which had been whittled down through the late summer and fall to a small starter mound of rich, dark humus and scrambly stalks and stems harvested from the vegetable garden.

My pile soon swelled with the onslaught of fallen leaves, supplemented by layers of sandy, sinewy seaweed and salt marsh hay beachcombed from the nearby shore and with grass clippings from a lawn revived by the balmy, sun-dappled days of autumn. As the season turned and I finished the yard cleanup before the cold set in, the heap of mostly dry chopped leaves received the spent growth of perennials culled from the garden beds, dried needles of pine and fir, and regular infusions of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, shredded paper and other organic compostibles. It drank eagerly from the business end of a garden hose, and exhaled a steady stream of vapors from its midst.

For two months, my pile carried a burden of thick insulating snow, before thawing with the strengthening sun of early spring. Despite receiving hundreds of pounds fresh fodder along the way, from a barrel of horse manure to bag catchers full of sycamore seedballs scarfed up from the dormant winter lawn, as well as my efforts to toss and turn it, my pile has steadily settled in upon itself. I’ve trimmed its edges; tidied up the corners and poked and prodded its innards. By volume, it’s shrunken by nearly a third, and by look is now more composed stack than overstuffed heap. From a distance it still seems a big mess of decomposing leaves.

As much as the first half-life of my pile is dominated by dead brown leaves, the ever-quickening race to its fruition as finished compost will be now driven by mass infusions of hot green grass clippings.

Today, a Sunday, is the day I mow the ever-thickening lawn and add its surplus trimmings of minced green blades of grass to my pile. True, over the past three weeks I’ve stuffed it with my neighbor’s artificially enriched clippings, as well as a batch of more naturally nitrogen-spiked grass, courtesy of the resident deer and dog’s urea. But those contributions are just appetizers for the main course of fresh greens. Today marks a literal tectonic shift for my pile, in shape and composition.

Even with the newly sharpened blade set on high, the Toro’s catcher fills quickly. I mulch back into the lawn most of the clippings, yet stop a half-dozen times when the mower chokes to detach the hopper from the mower and dump the moist, fragrant clippings at the base of my pile.


The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

The fresh grass clippings and other recyclables will soon be mixed deep within my pile.

As usual, I set out my other fixings – a week’s worth kitchen scraps from next door and of my own, as well as two small plastic bags of shredded paper from the office. I figure the crinkled white strips, laboriously processed from wood pulp, would make a fine counterbalance to the finely chopped blades of lush green grass. Add too much grass to a compost pile without mixing it with drier, brown materials and a compost heap that’s humming along into a stinky, anaerobic mess.

“Not all grass clippings should be removed from the lawn; when left after mowing, their nutrients enrich the lawn itself, without the application of chemical fertilizers,” I read in “The Rodale Book of Composting.” “However, most lawns do not need as much enrichment as a full growing season’s clippings will provide. Collecting grass clippings also helps reduce weed growth by removing weed seeds from the lawn.

“Freshly gathered green clippings are exceedingly rich in nitrogen and will heat up on their own if pulled into a pile. But, because of their high water content, they will also pack down and become slimy. This can be avoided by adding grass clippings in thin layers, alternating with leaves, garbage, manure and other materials, thus preventing them from clumping together.

“Clippings that have been allowed to dry out will have lost much of their nitrogen content but are still valuable as an energy source and to absorb excess moisture….Grass clippings and leaves can be turned into finished compost in 2 weeks if the heap is chopped and turned every 3 days.”

So here I stand, pitchfork in hand, to at long last begin to unearth the hard-pressed beginnings of my pile from back when. I stick the pitchfork, upside down, into the front edge of my pile to pull a wedge of moist, matted leaves from underneath. My previous working of the pile have helped create a nearly vertical wall, which I undercut by pulling chunks forward to form a front line of decayed, crumbly leaves. It’s the first light of day these leaves have seen since the fall. Each forkful writhes with squiggly worms and glistens with flecks of mica from the beach. Any trace of the seaweed they traveled in on is long gone.

I dig as far under the front wall of compost as I dare, until it threatens to collapse forward under its own weight. I toss a layer of grass clippings into the newly made trench, then cover with several pitchforks full of dried brown leaves gleaned from the corners of the log walls. They appear as fresh as the day they tumbled down from the top of my pile last fall.

I cleave a few more pitchforks of dark, rotted leaf mold from the bottom center of my pile, then stand back to watch the front face of the pile tumble down upon itself. I spread the avalanche out across the new front of my pile to create what amounts to a moraine.

As I excavate further into the center of my pile, I unearth a pocket of pristine leaf litter. Bone dry and compressed into a tightly wadded stack, the leaves lie underneath the digging I have done through the winter. Bound by the weight of all that is above it, the clutch of leaves has repelled any intrusion of water or rot, and now resists even the tines of the pitchfork. I tease the leaves apart bit by bit, and spread them across the newly created trench and cover them with a combination of grass clippings, white shredded paper and moist gatherings from the sides of my pile. Released from their state of suspended animation, they will now fully join the fungible, seething mess of rot and transmutation that is my pile.


Digging out the deepest layers of leaf mold to pull them out to the front of my pile, I uncover a pocket of dry, hard-pressed leaves untouched by the rot that surrounds it.

I dig further into my pile, nearing the heart of it. Again it collapses, and I add more grass, as well as the kitchen scraps, deeply, mostly to play hide-and-seek with my mysterious rodent interloper. Its furtive trail has gone cold, and I can only hope that the mass of grass clippings added to the mix, easily a hundred pounds or more, will mask any scent of food waste to scavenge.

Essentially, I’m stepping my wandering pile forward, according to my plan of turning it inside out and upside down, largely in place. Its front has moved forward about two feet, hard by the edge of the lawn, and is a crumbly mix of nearly finished compost. I make note of using it as a top-dressing for when I plant the vegetable garden, once the risk of frost is past.

I portion out the rest of the grass and shredded paper, tucking it deep within a third trench. I can no longer reach down to ground, but I’m close, and far enough into the center of the pile to come across the barely discernible remains of my earliest insertions of kitchen recyclables and such. I spot a broken egg shell and the skin of an avocado, still adorned with the supermarket stick-on label. The pitchfork snags a seashell, then a wadded up section of soggy newspaper, the bottom of the rabbit hutch from before the snows of late January, I figure. I tease it apart with the tines of the pitchfork and bury it anew with the last of the grass clippings.

To cover the rest of the clippings, I scrape the hard-tine rake across the top of my pile, pulling the outer layer of sun-baked leaves forward, releasing volumes of vaporish steam from the rot taking place just below the surface. I cover it all with fat forkfuls of more raw compost from along the back side, tangly with the rotting stems of the salt marsh hay that insulated my pile through the winter. In short order my pile is newly restored to its customary height. Its front half, at least, is newly suffused with fresh mixed greens and rotting brown.

Next time I mow, I’ll repeat this process, working from the back of my pile, then I will dig inward from each flanking side. It will take me another month or so to get to the very bottom of my pile, the small mound of humus reserved from last season that served as the activator for rot and decay to come. But from today to harvest, my pile will be a most active compost heap, suffused with high-octane grass clippings. Keeping it aerated now becomes my chore, and it will be good hard exercise as I work to expose the compressed leaves deep within my pile and tease them apart to allow my pile’s “Friends of Distinction”*  – the worms, the creepy-crawlers, the mold-makers and microbes – to finish the job.

* The allusion seems fitting to me, for this group recorded a ’60s hit — “Grazing in the Grass” — that makes a great soundtrack for backyard composters:

Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it
What a trip just watchin’ as the world goes past
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
There are so many good things to see
While grazin’ in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
Flowers with colours for takin’
Everything outta sight in the grass
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
The sun beaming down between the leaves
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)
And the bir-ir-ir-irds dartin’ in and out of the trees
(Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it)

Everything here is so clear, you can see it
And everything here is so real, you can feel it
And it’s real, so real, so real, so real, so real, so real
Can you dig it

I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby
I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Oh, let’s dig it
Can you dig it, baby

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: Life Everlasting

Today is Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, I realize, after seeing a coworker with a smudge of gray ash on her forehead this morning.

I’m not Catholic, so I have to look up the fact that this day marks the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.

I take the afternoon off as a sick day, citing the winter bug going round the office — and snagging a bag full of office-paper shreds on my way out the door,  personal penitence for playing hooky so I can go home to check up on my pile.

The predicted snow did come and go early this week, leaving a few inches more of powdery, not hardly enough to shovel off the driveway. I see my pile has also shrugged off the latest covering, etching craggy vent holes across the top, which roughly correspond to where I buried the last insertion of coffee grounds and kitchen waste. There’s not much I can do for my pile at this point.

Well, some. After etching a pee into the drift of snow along the back of my pile, I duck inside the shed to retrieve the hanging bag of frozen kitchen scraps; I add a fresh bucket from the kitchen and put it back in cold storage, along with the shredded paper.

Next, I clean the fireplace and then sprinkle the few scoopfuls of fine gray ash and bits of crumbly black charcoal across the top of my pile, which again sags between the log walls, beaten down by the leaden weight of winter.

Wood ash is in abundant supply this long winter, and the dusty detritus of cozy fires inside is the only recent addition to my pile. Ash and charcoal bits contain lots of desirable trace nutrients and they balance the acidic bent of the leaves and grass. What’s more, virtually all of the carbonized remains are from the maple tree that I had taken down this past fall, not 20 feet away from my pile. I’ve spent the fall and early winter splitting the logs from that tree into cordwood for the fireplace.

A smattering of ashes on my pile, tussled with melting snow.

A smattering of ashes on my pile, tossled with melting snow.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life,” goes an Anglican burial prayer.

All ground is renewed by the ashes of what grows on it and above it, and adding ash from the maple that once spread its branches over my pile and its roots underneath it closes a very local feedback loop in the cycle of life that is my backyard.

“The forest soil needs dead trees, or the slash and ‘waste’ from logging, to feed it,” writes Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). “By decomposing dead plant and animal matter, soil microbes release organically bound nitrogen and phosphorous in forms that the plants can use for growth,” adds Heinrich, who describes soil as “a complex, species-rich ecosystem that in some ways acts like an organism itself.”

“Aside from the complex chemistry,  however, soil with organic matter folded into it has a texture that binds water, making it continuously available for the trees’ growth. The carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles all meet in the soil, intersecting on dead trees, which give forest life. Soil plays a central role in the productivity of forests, and hence it gives farmland derived from forests their fertility.”

So there is a certain symmetry to the sprinkling some of the final remains of the maple tree upon the compost heap that long nurtured it. Just as its leaves have contributed to the soil that surrounds it, so, too, will the ashes of its limbs and trunk. Besides, I like the look of charcoal gray on white, the poetic juxtaposition of spent fire on frozen water.

“Plants, animals, insects, and people are all inextricably linked in a complex web of interrelationships with air, water, soil, minerals and other natural resources playing vital roles. Compost, too plays an important role. There is a cycle, a continuity to life,” I read in The Rodale Book of Composting (Rodale Press, 1992), the bible on the subject.

All of the environmental problems we face are rooted in a failure to appreciate the life cycle and to keep it intact….Composting is one way to work within the life cycle in the furthering of our welfare.

“Compost is more than a fertilizer, more than a soil conditioner. It is a symbol of continuing life….The compost heap in your garden is an intentional replication of the natural process of birth and death that occurs almost everywhere in nature….It is ironic that composting, the oldest and most universally practiced form of soil treatment in the world, should today be claiming so many converts. Perhaps this is nature’s Restoration–a reaffirmation that people do, indeed, live best when they live in harmony with nature.

“Because the compost heap is symbolic of nature’s best efforts to build soil, and because compost is the most efficient and practical soil builder, it has become the heart of the organic method of farming and gardening. Composting is the single most important task of the organic gardener or farmer because the health of the soil depends on the composting treatment it receives, and success in gardening and farming depends on the health of the soil.”

In hopes of resurrecting my pile, or at least nurturing its inner life toward the eternal promise of spring, I grab the hay pitchfork from its roost in the shed. First I scrape the tines up through the thick crusted snow on the north-facing front. Circumnavigating the log walls and sagging back fence between them, I thrust and parry my way through the congealed snow, collapsing the meltwater caverns and stabbing into the cold hard crust of leaves. It’s like punching through a sooty snow globe.

I work my way round my pile with the pitchfork and soon its top covering is a corduroy of granulated chunks of sooty snow. It’s about four inches thick, less than the untrammeled snow field of a backyard that surrounds it.

My Pile on Ash Wednesday, seven weeks until Easter!

My pile on Ash Wednesday, seven weeks until Easter!

After a series of snow events over the past six weeks, a day of rain is now on the horizon. I’m hoping that by scrambling the snow and ash cover atop my pile, it will be snow-free sooner than the rest of the yard.

To spur things further along, I grab the rebar, hop atop the ice-capped log walls and thrust the rod down through the chopped-up snow and frozen leaves until it tings against the rock-hard ground underneath.

The end of the piece of ribbed iron is warm to the touch. My pile is primed for a resurrection that will come as much from within as with the warming sun.