Tag Archives: “My Pile: A Year in the Life Of a Backyard Compost Heap”

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!