Biofilter Snob

By , August 5, 2011

I’ve recently added a new word to my vocabulary, and I find myself using it often in conversation and internal monologues. The word: biofilter.

I learned it when I started taking more responsibility for compost on our property. Michelle’s in charge of the garden. She has the skill, dedication, and desire to take the lead on it, while Aly and I serve as more or less unskilled labor in support. The compost piles have been a natural extension of this process, but I’ve finally figured out that this is an extremely vital aspect of the homestead that I can manage. I’ve begun educating myself beyond what Michelle has taught me over the years. That includes learning about biofilter.

Biofilter refers to a loose layer of organic material—grass clippings, leaves, forest duff, straw—piled several inches on top of a compost pile. Applied under the simple principle, “If it looks or smells bad, cover it until it does neither,” the biofilter makes the compost pile a much more pleasant feature of one’s home. A proper amount keeps flies and other pests out of the compost pile. Probably not bears, but we haven’t had to test that theory yet.

The principle is sound, but my pursuit of it may not be. I’ve become a biofilter snob.

For the last couple months the beach grass (also called bear or sedge grass, although these may be names of distinct varieties that are not actually represented on our beach) has been growing at an incredible rate. It grows to several feet high in tough tufts. The mature plants put out long, sharp blades that can be close to an inch wide. I’ve been harvesting this for biofilter. I wander up and down the beach with a 5-gallon bucket, grass clippers, and gloves (the grass is very sharp; it’s like harvesting long razor blades). I chop the grass into lengths of about 4 inches or less and store them in an old garbage can next to the compost piles. Each time I add compost to the pile, I sprinkle a generous amount of clippings over it all. The result is very satisfying.

The grass grows so fast that I have developed a circuit that visits each of the grass clumps in our area. They grow about 5 inches every couple of days, even during the dry weather. The irony that I, who hate mowing lawns, now eagerly cut grass by hand every two days is not lost on me. With an audio book to listen to, I find it a pleasant pastime while waiting for the tide to reach a good height for fishing.

The snobbery comes from my carefully seeking out and selecting the widest blades, and from the inordinate pride I take in the attractive cover they provide. Even though I complete my circuit every couple of days, I constantly range farther to find untouched clumps offering lusher foliage.

I clearly see trouble ahead: eventually, as autumn progresses, these grasses will die back. They’ll stop growing, then become brittle, yellow straw. A day will come when they will not grow back. In a short time—perhaps a matter of weeks—I’ll have to settle for “inferior” product, then be forced to seek out a different, less satisfying biofilter, probably dry leaves. I need to adjust my aesthetic ideals in a hurry.

2 Responses to “Biofilter Snob”

  1. Don says:

    Don’t knock dry leaves. I love the smell of them and, if they aren’t Live Oak or Magnolia (not problems for you :^) they make some GREAT compost.

    Have a wonderful Autumn!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Don, I wouldn’t knock dry leaves, they just aren’t as “special” as my beloved grass!

    Garden Guru Mike McGrath, to whom Michelle listens faithfully each Sunday, warns that leaves should be shredded before being added to compost, otherwise they’ll compact, mat, and rot. However, I’ve never known that to be too big of a problem.

    The birches have already begun to turn yellow in places, and lose leaves. I can always tell it’s mushroom season, because the birch leaves start falling and fake me out, making me think they’re chanterelles. However, we’re probably at least a month away from seeing enough leaf litter to collect. In the meantime, I’m perfecting my grass harvesting techniques, cutting a bit more carefully so that the blades will grow back faster.

    You’re right about the smell of the leaves. That will be added value as far as biofilter is concerned. I love the aroma of a trudge through dry leaves on a nippy day. Of course, the first autumns of my memory are of central Washington, so the smell of leaves I love best is the smoke from their burning. I smell that, and I get an itch to carve pumpkins!

    Thanks for your good wishes–an excellent autumn to you, too!


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