I started my first compost pile with high hopes. We’d moved in on October 31, so the first yard waste available was a lot of oak and maple leaves . . . As the Norway maples in front of our house turned yellow late in the fall and dropped their vast harvest, I raked and dragged the leaves through the gate to my new compost pile against the side of the house. After doing my best to create a rectangular base layer out of the leaves, I threw on some soil, added more leaves, and proceeded in that way. My pile did not have the vertical sides of the ones in the diagrams. It was shaped more like a sand dune than a box.
Despite my great plan, by the next summer the oak and maple leaves in my embryonic compost pile had not turned into lovely leaf mold. What I had instead was a pile of matted leaves. The pile had sunk to a third of its original size, and the leaves had clumped together in rough sheets, but they were still whole. I learned that the leaves of our red oak were particularly tough and slow to disintegrate. I started the summer torpid from morning sickness, expecting my first child. Once that cloud lifted, though, I pushed on, surrounding the pile with a lopsided ring of chicken wire, trying to turn it with a pitchfork, and adding weeds, spent annuals, and potting soil as they became available . . .
From the beginning, I was torn between wanting to follow the recipes for precisely layered “lasagna” compost piles and wanting to dump all my yard waste on the piles and get on to more interesting work. The second approach won out . . . Gardening time was at a premium, and I couldn’t bear to spend it fussing over the compost piles. In spring, I mostly added grass clippings. In midsummer, I had less grass to compost and more weeds and prunings from the garden. In autumn the lawn started growing again, and a huge volume of fallen leaves needed to be dealt with. I gathered up most of the leaves to use as mulch, but some made their way into the compost piles. At the end of the growing season, I moved vegetable stalks, spent annuals, and perennials cut down for winter from the garden beds to the piles. By late November, both piles were at least four feet tall. According to Organic Gardening’s writers, I should have been maintaining separate supplies of carbon-rich fall leaves and nitrogen-rich grass clippings and weeds to contribute the right balance of elements to the piles. It just seemed like too much effort.
Alas, the promise of “black gold” in sixty or ninety days proved to be a fantasy. My method, I discovered, was cold composting. Without turning the piles, watering them in dry spells, and balancing carbon and nitrogen more carefully, I wasn’t going to get rapid, hot decomposition and quick results. I found that with my minimal efforts, it took two years to make rough compost. It wasn’t decomposed so far as to look exactly like soil, but the individual components were starting to blend into a pleasing, easy-to-handle mix. I could discern pieces of leaves of varied sizes and clumps of un-decomposed roots, but in between them there was some dark soil-like material that must be the real thing. What a thrill! There was something about plunging my spade into that proto-humus that was amazingly satisfying. In fall 1990, I moved compost by the wheelbarrow-full to wherever in the garden I wanted to improve soil. By the next spring, I had richer soil and happy peonies and cranesbills. Without compost, my sandy loam was not very fertile. With it, in addition to my leaf mulch, I could grow sturdy plants without supplemental synthetic fertilizer.