A Heap O’ Scott Smith

Westporters blog about many things: Work. Kids. “06880.”

Scott Smith blogs about his piles.

Okay, his compost pile. Still, it’s an interesting topic. It’s called “My Pile: A Year in the Life of a Backyard Compost Heap.” He covers fertilizer, leaves and lots of other, um, stuff. Like the compost pile itself, it’s a work in progress.

The other day, Scott sent this story along. He hopes it’s of interest to “06880” readers. Whether or not you compost, I think it will be:

Autumn is my favorite time of year to be a Westporter — especially when the weather gives us such a pleasant run of bright, shiny days to prepare for the dark, cold winter to come.

It’s harvest time. For a backyard gardener like me, that means dealing with our most abundant crop – leaves. Driving along our roads, I’m always gobsmacked to see so many tall brown paper bags stuffed full of leaves stacked along the way. What a lot of fuss!

An autumn sight: bags of leaves awaiting pickup.

An autumn sight: bags of leaves awaiting pickup.

All those leaves – 2 tons per acre, I’ve heard – add up to a hefty load for our town (and our tax dollars). Westport’s Public Works Department doesn’t break down the costs of the annual pickup, but similar towns spend upwards of $370 per mile of road to collect leaves each fall.

Add to that the noisy efforts of squadrons of leaf-blowing crews that suck up and haul away the season’s leaves from many other local yards, and that’s an awful lot of green going to waste (or brown).

My neighbors and I have another, less costly and more sustainable way to dispatch our yearly bounty of leaves — and get something worthwhile in return. We rake, mulch and scooch most of the leaves that fall each season over to the compost pile I keep in the back corner of my yard.

My compost pile is a community in every sense: both in and of itself, and because of how it brings neighbors together. I still have the thank-you card the lady across the street sent after a buddy and I swept her leaves onto an old sheet and dragged them over to my pile.

Topping off a compost pile.

Topping off a compost pile.

My pile is awesome. Beyond generating nice neighborly feelings, the compost heap now takes in the bulk of leaves from nearly 3 acres of suburbia. That’s 4 homes that have largely gone “off the grid” of the town’s fall leaf cleanup.

Abiding by the old saw that a good compost heap is 80 percent dead brown organic material and 20 percent fresh green stuff, my goal each fall is to add a layer of something “green” to every load of leaves I put in my pile.

Easy pickings are grass clippings from the lawn, until they peter out with the waning autumn sun. Filtered coffee grounds from a local shop are loaded with nutrients and often free for the asking, as are bags of shredded paper brought home from the office. My pile also absorbs all the food scraps from my kitchen, and the family next door.

A certain amount of scavenging suits me and my pile. We live near the beach, where I bulk up with the greenest of green for my pile: seaweed.

Searching for seaweed on the shore.

Searching for seaweed on the shore.

I got the idea from a Westport Historical Society exhibit a while ago. “A Bunch of Farmers” detailed the area’s agricultural roots, beginning in the 1830s, which over generations developed richly with the maritime exportation of fish and produce to New York, Boston and beyond. By the Civil War, Westport was the leading onion supplier to the Union army. Onion farmers used nutrient-rich seaweed as fertilizer. There’s a certain symmetry to that, as my neighborhood was once an onion field.

Depending on the season, the weather and the wind, high tide usually leaves a long scraggly line of flotsam, most of it a musty salad of seaweed and raggedy reeds of salt marsh grass. Both are high in nutrients and the trace elements garden plants love.

Caught up in the tidal ebb and flow are dismembered crab legs and carapaces of baby horseshoe crabs. Shells of mussels, clams and oysters dot the mix, and in they go too. I love bringing this bit of the beach back home with me. The bucket smells like part wet swimsuit, part low tide, and all pure summer.

Scott Smith

Scott Smith

The more green I can contribute to my pile in the fall, the hotter it will cook through the winter months. With some turning with a pitchfork, the sooner the mass of leaves and compostable whatnot will boil down into a finished batch of loamy new compost. Last summer I spread 50 wheelbarrows full of fresh compost across my garden beds and lawn. My neighbors always know where they can go to fill up a flower pot or top-dress their tomato garden.

I know that in the greater scheme of things my backyard compost pile doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. But it’s a fun, low-tech hobby that provides me plenty of good ol’-fashioned outdoor exercise, costs next to nothing, and in a modest way allows me to act locally while musing about bigger issues like food waste, sustainability, carbon footprints and global warming.

I highly recommend it to anyone with the time and inclination. Lord knows there’s always plenty of leaves to go around!

9 responses to “A Heap O’ Scott Smith

  1. Love my compost area. I bring my clients leaves to my Weston farm and pumpkins will grow the next year! I used to love the distinctive smell of burning leaves in the old days.

  2. How do I love my compost heap? Let me count the ways……. Thank you, Scott, for spreading (!) the word. mmm

  3. What a nice neighbor you are. Just imagine the benefits to the town if more people did this. Less stuff in landfill, less expense for the town, and more good stuff for the gardens of Westport.

  4. Jacques Voris

    It amuses me no end that something once so commonplace in Westport is now news worthy. What will it be in another twenty years? “Westport resident changes lightbulb without calling a contractor! Film at 11!” But good for you Scott, maybe we won’t lose all the old ways.

  5. well, the next celebration could be for worms who continue to do their work in the soil — also with little to no thanks, but ever so effective.

  6. Sharon Paulsen

    This is awesome!

    I just spent the past couple years “researching” organic lawn and garden “practices”, and I’m really close to starting my own composting.

    I am open to advice and tips from those of you out there who “got with the program”, way before it was touted as “a program”, lol!

    I feel like I’m somewhat late to the party on this, but on the other hand, I’m seeing a lot of ignorance around me too.

    Note: I was never ever into using pesticides or commercial products around our yard (lawn or flower beds). I always instinctively cringed when I saw some of my neighbor’s having lawn-treatments applied, followed by installation of those little yellow flag signs, warning of “poison” just recently applied. I always thought, “doesn’t that all just seep into the water supply, plus kill all kinds of beneficial microorganism”?

    Anyway, most of my plantings, quite varied and unique, and many of which “came” with our house, seem happy. And the lawn “acceptable”. My hubby and I do all of our own work around the house, so we’re no strangers to the hard work.

    But, in light of serious issues with our environment and sustainability, (and the scary situation with bee decline), I’ve decided to kick it up a notch around here! I’ve always enjoyed seeing what works and what doesn’t, so why not ramp it up.

    Couple little things I tried thus far:

    – Coffee grounds and bananas to help the acid loving (or otherwise droopy) plants and bushes, mixed into the dirt, underneath some untreated wood chip mulch. Results were AMAZING for hydrangeas – they grew to almost alien proportions! Now I have to move them to wider spaces, lol.

    – Mulched all our fall leaves with the mower, into little dime sized fluff, and just left them on the lawn. Next season when the lawn “wakes up”, I’ll be spreading a mix of crushed eggshells (saving piles of them as we speak) and coffee grinds (saving piles of them as we speak), as a light top soil dressing to help amend the lawn and speed up the mulched leaf breakdown (worms dig that shite, I’ve read).

    – Spread some loosely crushed eggshells around flowers that certain invasive buggies enjoyed, and it seemed to cut down on the carnage of blooming lilies and such. (A very diluted spray of water with a smidge of Dawn mixed in, seems to help save the leafy parts from the egg laying critters. I’m working on that one though, ’cause too much Dawn , and you harm the good bugs. It is petroleum based, after all).

    – Planting of Bee-loving wild flowers. Did that a few years back, quite by accident really.
    In the late summer, it’s all-a-buzz around here. Makes me smile.

    I read about the benefits of seaweed and other marine scraps that one can compost, especially oyster and clam shells. Good for mulch over rock garden beds too! Going to try that soon.

    I was considering getting a bamboo “mini beehive” from the Friends of Earth website.
    I wasn’t sure about this though, because I don’t have a zillion acres of land and didn’t want to freak out the neighbor’s kids, LOL.
    But, I re-visited the site just today, and get this … They were sold out!
    IMO, that’s a good sign.

    So, overall, this is fun, and it does feel good. Just makes sense to me now. Here’s to rethinking the “getting back to basics” meme.

    Thanks for this article Dan, and to Scott Smith’s blogging and sharing. Soooo cool. Can’t wait to read more. Does he have a website dedicated to this?


    • Nancy Hunter Wilson

      Amazing work, Sharon! So much to learn from and experiment with!
      Sounds like your compost ideas are working well: coffee grinds and lettuce-type vegetables (which add air, rather than dense veg), or even straw…
      Then add warmth to force those lovely little microbes to prosper!

      And yes, eggshells seem to frighten away the slugs!

      Keep up with the bee-loving blooms… a world without bees is impossible.

    • Nancy Hunter Wilson

      p.s. You might enjoy reading “The Curious Gardener” by Anna Pavord.
      It’s a month-by-month guide, both practical and amusing.

      • Sharon Paulsen


        I’m laughing at myself now – I think my comment was just a tad bit long winded!