Life, Death and Compost: A Guide (of Sorts)

This story is about compost. How to do it, what to put in the pile, what not, and all that. It’s also about beauty. Because what is more beautiful than witnessing, and being a part of, the incredibly complex yet staggeringly simple circle of life on planet earth? Life, death and rebirth. What better place to ponder such existential questions than the compost heap?

The earth is old, very old. With age comes death – in the earth’s case – millions of years of death. Look down, right now. There’s likely to be a few hundred thousand dead humans, animals, plants in the soil beneath your feet. Or more, who knows. Imagine a world where composting didn’t happen? We’d be wading through bones, guts, eyeballs and unidentified bodily fluids and it’d be horrible. Instead, there’s an army of tiny eaters, transforming death into life, incredibly beautiful life. Extraordinary.

Aside from witnessing the beauty and productivity of the grand cycle of life on earth on a daily basis, composting is a very practical and sensible way to transform waste into value, big time. Sticking food scraps in general rubbish bins sends them to landfill – leading to anaerobic decomposition which then releases methane gas into the atmosphere, as well as potentially sending toxic liquid (leachate) into groundwater. Composting transforms food scraps into nutrient rich black gold (as some in the biz call it) to add to your garden or if you don’t have dirt to tend, to give to your gardening friends for Christmas. They’ll love it, trust me.

I am not a compost expert, but I know someone who is. His name is Luke Quinn and sometimes I call him Quinn the Compost King. I had a chat with him about composting because he knows more about it than me, and I don’t like pretending.

“Don’t put anything you wouldn’t put into your mouth into your compost bin,” Luke tells me. “You can cast a wider net with your compost heap, though, unless you eat wood filings and roadkill – great additions to your compost heap, less palatable to your body.” I like this analogy because it’s more relatable than carbon/nitrogen ratio stuff I’ve learned a million times and keep forgetting because chemistry and numbers don’t work so well in my brain.

Feeding my compost heap a balanced diet, like I (try) to feed myself, makes a lot of sense. A little bit of everything is good, but too much of the rich stuff and not enough roughage causes problems.”

For humans and their compost heaps…

Carbon/nitrogen ratio. “If you’re composting in the city, you’re probably going to be short of carbon,” says Luke. This isn’t the end of the world, it just means your heap will take longer to break down. “The carbon/nitrogen thing can sound a bit daunting – you could just think about it as dry and wet matter. Dry = carbon, wet = nitrogen.”

If your compost looks too wet, add some dry stuff like wood shavings, dry leaves, shredded paper. If it’s too dry, add some wet stuff – food scraps, for example.

Air. “Bacteria can be classed largely into anaerobes and aerobes. Anaerobes don’t need air to metabolise, whereas aerobes do,” Compost heaps need aerobic bacteria. You can encourage these guys by providing air pockets within your heap. “If it’s a big, soggy pile of gunk and smells like rotting citrus, you’ll need to turn it to allow air into system and add some dry matter like wood shavings or leaves, to re-balance the pile.”

Moisture. Water is essential to life. “Nearly all bacteria in existence live in water, so your compost heap needs moisture in order to host the bacteria that will help break it down.” Nothing will happen otherwise. It’ll just be a pile of leaves for eternity.

Bacteria breeds and travels in water, and the more moisture in an environment, the faster the decomposition process is.

Think about this – in a rainforest decomposition happens so quickly you can nearly hear it, whereas in a desert, it takes forever. The same goes for compost heaps. Make yours a rainforest, not a desert.”

Quinn the Compost King reckons the big black bins are great for a domestic situation. He suggests two are best as you can fill one whilst waiting for the other to compost. He also reckons it’s worth digging the bases down into the soil so critters are less inclined to get under the bottom and eat your compost. You can also put chicken wire under the base too, to keep rats out.

He says you don’t need to put the bins in the sun, just somewhere easy to access.

As well as composting general food scraps like kitchen waste, meat, bread, etcetera, you can throw in all sorts of animal/vegetable things. Just ask Luke… “I put one of our chickens (it died of natural causes) into my compost heap and it was composted entirely within a month. I couldn’t find a trace of it,” Luke tells me.

Other things he’s composted include possums, magpies and other small roadkill. He also gets bags of fish guts from the local fishmonger. He gets very excited about the guts. “It’s the best,” he reckons.

If you are adding big, nitrogen rich things like small animals, Luke suggests you add lots of carbon rich things at the same time, to keep the balance. Also, make sure you cover your pile properly so other scavenging animals don’t get into it. Like your dog. Gross.

Plastic and it’s friends.

It depends on the three big things –  air, water and carbon/nitrogen ratio. It should take anywhere from six weeks to a few months, but there are no hard and fast rules. “Just scratch around at the base of the pile and see –  your carrot offcuts should have transformed into nice, friable dark brown matter.” 

“Your heap will smell like something. Generally, a healthy pile will smell sweet and earthy whereas one that has too much anerobic activity will smell like rotten citrus.” Dont fret and remember everything stinks, you included.

According to Luke, Soldier flies are the best. “Adult soldier flies don’t have working mouth parts. They just have sex and lay eggs. The larvae are big fat maggots that eat anything rotten. They’re not like prissy little worms that won’t eat citrus or garlic.”

“You want soldier flies in your compost. They churn through so much food in such a short time. If someone else has some in their heap you can get a handful of maggots from them, otherwise they’ll (hopefully) just arrive.”

“People don’t like flies because they sit on your lip and no one likes that. They’re a bit annoying to humans. Soldier flies don’t annoy humans, they’re great.”

Google them.

“Composting is not only a good way of waste reduction and adding value to your soil, it’s owning your part in the grand closed system of life on earth,” says Luke.

Thanks, Compost King Quinn. I’m off now, to gaze in wonder at the seething mass of life, death and rebirth that is my compost heap.