the oldest compost pile in Louisiana

In Louisiana, as botanist Charles M. Allen says, compost happens. Charles usually says that just to get a laugh but it is undoubtedly a true statement. Decomposition is part of the landscape along in the central Gulf coast. In general, things break-down quickly here, and feed the earth.

On a recent trip to Briarwood, Caroline Dorman’s fabulous horticultural home place, I was being driven about in a golf cart by Jessie and Richard Johnson, when we passed what Richard called the compost pile. I wasn’t particularly impressed at first, but I should have known better.

The pile appeared very unassuming. It looked like a long brush pile to me. I am guessing it was about eighty or a hundred feet long and maybe ten to fifteen feet wide, situated under the forested canopy of large trees on a relatively flat piece of ground.

Richard, who has curated these gardens for 42 years, said that he initiated the idea of the compost pile in the earliest part of his tenure. He said that the Briarwood folks simply collect limbs and organic debris and pile them on and let nature take its course. No fuss, no muss. In time, the pitched material settles down through decomposition and gravity and creates the finest, most precious commodity: compost.



above: “workers” at the Briarwood “Tom Sawyer Day” event, gather limbs for the compost pile.

Harvesting the compost is a ritual at Briarwood. It is mined when the time comes, no sooner. Whenever the garden needs some compost here or there, a section of the pile is “opened up” and mined for its black gold. Richard says he uses a screen to “sift out” the finished product. Its just like panning for gold, really. But I suspect compost panning is a bit more of a sure bet: its there, you just have to get to it.

I am not sure if this method would work very well without the shaded tree canopy. I would guess that weeds would settle in and management would be a bit more difficult. There’s no doubt, too, that there is a copious amount of bacterial activity available for culture, living on this ancient forest floor. So you may not be as successful at the Johnsons are without that. But then maybe so…

Its worth a try.

Richard and Jessie have all but handed over the largest responsibilities of the garden care to their most-capable son, Rick. So a new generation has been given the reigns of the compost heap and I am sure Rick will do his darndest to nurture and care for this biological heirloom. The heap will continue to be the factor in helping preserve Miss Carrie’s precious plants and gardens as Rick takes the baton and figuratively runs with it.



above: Bloodroot, emerging from dormancy (click on the photos to enlarge)




Bloodroot in full blossom




the bog garden, as it looks, about the first week of April




azalea in the bog garden




native azalea, perhaps R. prunifolium?





…and Mountain Laurel…. some of the plants nourished with Miss Carrie’s compost

If you have the interest, make plans to visit Briarwood during their Annual Spring Picnic. If you’ve not been, you are sorely lacking. The tiny town of Saline, Louisiana is not too far to go at all.

…from Rick…

Annual Briarwood Spring Picnic – Come and join us for a special day here at the nature preserve. We will have the log house and writers cabin open for visiting plus we will conduct special guided tours throughout the preserve. I will be conducting a special tour along the Cow Oak Flats trail which is a new trail hereĀ at the preserve.
Registration starts at 10:00 a.m.
Morning tour starts at 10:30
Lunch from 11:30 – 1:30
Music from 11:00 – 2:00
Door prizes and raffle at 1:00
Afternoon tour starts at 1:30

For ticket purchase information email me at and I will send you the ticket purchase form.