August 23, 2020

A Handsome Pile

There is so much foliage here, 
the 3' x 7' brush pile is hardly
noticeable. Can you find it?

I like a well-kept landscape around my house, but when I mimic Mother Nature, I generally end up with a bit of mess. For example, we have a policy that if it grows on our property, it stays on our property. Rather than considering vegetative debris as waste, we embrace it as a resource to help build up our soil. Rather than bringing in nutrients from somebody else's ecosystem in order to feed our plants, we try to use what we have on hand. Brush piles are an excellent example of waste-turned-resource, but they can be a bit of an eyesore. So what's an environmentally sensitive gardener to do?

When Hurricane Irma roared through Florida three years ago, it left a massive debris field in our backyard. One third of our big avocado tree came down. We created a long brush pile next to the avocado tree. This location had a couple of inherent advantages. First, we didn't have to haul anything very far. This could be interpreted as using less energy or exerting less effort, but it is the praxis side of the save-my-aching-back gardening philosophy. Second, placing the pile near its source meant that the nutrients incorporated in the avocado tree branches would now return to the soil from whence they came. A cycle fulfilled, as nature intended. We let the spirit of a natural forest guide us, but neatened it up a bit. Eventually, we covered it with wood chips. 

If you like a carefully manicured landscape, brush piles are not for you. But, if you are wishing for a touch of the wild in your yard, consider building a brush pile. If you are observant, you will be able to watch real life episodes of Nature playing out in your garden. 

A corn snake and an anole hanging from a dragon fruit plant
in a fight to the death. After 45 minutes, the corn snake won.
If you are made of tough stuff, click here for video footage
of the last minute of this struggle. Nature can be brutal. 

Brush piles create their own tiny ecosystem. Their many air pockets provide birds, mammals, reptiles, and other wildlife with protected areas for nesting and resting. I am not the keenest observer of wildlife, but I have spotted a gopher tortoise living around the bananas. Bananas produce a lot of vegetative debris, so the tortoise has many hiding places to choose from. We have oodles of anoles (a type of lizard) in our forest garden. We welcome them with open arms, as they keep the insect population down. They eat roaches, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, spiders and the occasional mosquito. They are also entertaining. Their courting behavior includes blowing out their throat pouch at will (more scientifically, opening and closing their dewlap). They also do pushups. I kid you not. Undoubtedly, some of them have taken up residence in brush piles. On balance, I'm hoping that our brush piles will attract more garden friends than garden foes. 

We have a cadre of professional fruit tasting critters that visit our forest garden. They sample our avocados for ripeness, they take tiny bites of our bananas, and they gorge on our mangos if we don't pick them soon enough. They are in competition with us to get to our fruit first. I'm talking about rats. Consequently, I am happy that snakes have taken up residence in our piles. You might be thinking that the last thing you want to bring into your garden is a snake. Many of us - and that includes me - have an innate fear of snakes. If you encounter a venomous snake, this fear is well-justified. However, the snakes that have come to live in our forest garden are not venomous. We get black racers and corn snakes. Neither snake is venomous, but both eat those fruit sampling, neighborhood rats. That makes these snakes our garden friends.

Pomegranate tree surrounded by a "nest" made from last year's
pruned branches . These branches were piled loosely, 
so they will take longer to decompose.

If you live in an urban or suburban area, you might fear antagonizing your neighbors with unattractive piles. I have learned a few tricks over the years regarding how to make brush piles less noticeable. Plant a vine nearby, especially one with blooming flowers. It will climb over the pile, draping elegantly this way and that. I have a sweet potato vine completely camouflaging a small pile in the front yard. Another technique is to build a pile obscured by a bush or overhanging branches. I have a couple of brush piles that are six feet tall, but nobody ever notices them as they walk by, because the Moringa and Florida privet hide them so well. Don't overlook the transformative powers of mulch. Mulch converts a brush pile into a softly curving earthwork objet d'art. After a few years of decomposition, you may not even be able to tell where the pile stood.

Left: Moringa and Florida Privet cloak what's behind their leafy branches.
Nobody walking by notices anything hidden.
Right: Behind the leafy cloak, there are two very tall brush piles.

Before building a pile, consider your fire risk and any local regulations. If you do build a pile, don't throw in any plants that root easily, unless you want to grow more of them. Also consider whether any of your plants are currently battling specific pests and/or diseases that you may not want in a pile. Materials generated from mowing a lawn, post-harvest clean-up, fallen leaves, and tree prunings are all fair game for a brush pile. 

Camouflaged brush pile with sweet potato vine growing over it.

Mango season recently ended and we have started pruning the mango trees. Here are my thoughts on what to do with those prunings -

  • Burn them.  Better yet, have a bonfire with some friends. From an environmental standpoint, I would be releasing all of the carbon and particulate matter into the atmosphere rather than letting some of it decompose in the soil. Debbie Downer here saying ix-nay on the ire-fay.
  • Put them out on the street. The County collects yard waste, turns it into mulch, and makes it available to the community for free. Side note: I toured the County landfill a few years ago. As we passed the yard waste section, there was a man whose job was to dump the collected yard waste out of plastic bags, so that the plastic bags could be removed. That was his only job and it was a full-time job. The waste of plastic, the transportation waste, and the waste of labor in this mind-numbing activity was depressing. Debbie Downer is now vowing to send the bare minimum of yard waste to the landfill. 
  • Make a charitable donation of mango branches to a mulch-making charity in need. Just kidding.
  • Make a small brush pile around the tree. Winner winner chickpea dinner!

This mango tree just got a haircut. In a few weeks, I will cover
these branches and leaves with wood chips. By next year,
you will be hard pressed to see the pile's footprint.

Most of us manicure our landscapes to some degree. Our yards look notably neat and quite respectable. In comparison, a natural forest has a disheveled look about it. But this translates into so much more diversity. With brush piles, I am putting a little bit of wild back into my environment. To add an air of respectability to such piles, I am considering giving each pile a name. I'm thinking of naming the Hurricane Irma pile Handsome, but that might make my sweetheart jealous.

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