Compost in garden beds

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Can Compost Be Used As Mulch: Information On Using Compost As Garden Mulch

In a sustainable garden, compost and mulch are important ingredients that should be used constantly to keep your plants in top condition. If they’re both so important, what’s the difference between compost and mulch?

Mulch is any material put on top of the soil around plants to help keep in moisture and shade out weeds. You can make mulch from dead leaves, wood chips and even shredded tires. On the other hand, compost is a mixture of decomposed organic ingredients. Once the ingredients in the compost mix break down, it becomes a universally prized substance gardeners know as “black gold.”

If you have a large compost pile and have more than enough for your soil amendment, finding out how to use compost for mulch is the logical next step in your landscaping design.

Compost Mulch Benefits

There are a number of compost mulch benefits besides simply using up all the excess compost in your pile. Frugal gardeners prize using compost as mulch because it’s free. Compost is made up of discarded yard and kitchen waste; in other words, rotten trash. Instead of having to buy bags of wood chips, you can pour shovelfuls of mulch around your plants for free.

Using compost as garden mulch gives all the benefits of regular, non-organic mulches and adds the bonus of nutrients being constantly leached into the soil below. As the rain runs through the compost, micro amounts of nitrogen and carbon are washed downward, constantly improving the soil.

How to Use Compost for Mulch in Gardens

Like most mulch, a thick layer is better than a thinner one to help shade out sunlight from emerging weeds. Add a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost over the soil around all your perennials, extending the layer outward about 12 inches from the plants. This layer will slowly work its way into the soil during the growing season, so add additional layers of compost mulch every month or so during the summer and fall.

Can compost be used as mulch year round? It won’t hurt the plants to have their roots covered with mulch through the winter months; in fact, it may help to insulate younger plants from the worst of the ice and snow. Once spring arrives, remove the compost from around the plants to allow the sunlight to warm and thaw the soil.

In the past, we have discussed Mulch and Compost separately. But sometimes people get confused over the two. So in this article, we are discussing mulch vs compost. We believe after reading the article you will be absolutely clear about what is the difference between mulch and compost.

Mulch vs Compost: The Differnce

Mulch:

mulch

Mulch, on the other hand, is used to create a barrier between the soil and the environment. It works as a protective cover for the soil. It increases the soil temperature during those cold winter seasons and helps to prevent excess heat from reaching the soil during hot summers.

Mulch helps in keeping the moisture level of the soil intact. You would have less wastage of water and certainly less frequent watering schedule. It works as some kind of a blanket that keeps weeds away.

Mulch differs from compost over the fact that it doesn’t require any particular ratio and combinations of ingredients to work. It doesn’t need to get those ingredients composted before using.

Though it is better to use organic materials as much as possible, it is not compulsory; and sometimes other materials like plastic etc., are also used in mulching.

Mulch can increase the nutrients in the soil in the long run if prepared from organic materials, but that is not its fundamental feature. It is more concerned with preserving water and working as an insulator.

Compost:

compost

Compost is called gardeners gold. For preparing compost, you need to mix different ingredients together in the proper ratio. Then the mixture is left for decomposition.

Many plants have a particular requirement of nutrients. You should keep this in mind while preparing your compost. They are mixed in a particular ratio to get the ultimate nutrient mixture for the plant.

The main function of compost is to fertilize the soil. You can use the compost by mixing with the garden soil or with the potting mix (in the case of container gardening).

For a good compost, it is essential that the ingredients are decomposed properly and should not be smelly like manure. Some people add water to the compost to make ‘compost tea’ which is then added to the soil for enrichment.

All compost can be used as mulch but not the other way around. Both serve particular functions in gardening and they both can be used as soil conditioner. Though it would be foolish to use a nutrient-dense material like compost as a protective coating and not enriching the soil.

Mulch and compost are two age-old concepts of gardening that improve the soil quality tremendously. whether you want to use compost or mulch it solely depends on your needs. If used properly, these two can change your garden soil from unproductive sterile one to growing heaven.

Have any questions? Why not post it in the comment box:


As a gardener, you probably already know that both mulch and compost are important to the success and long-term health of your plants and flowers. But do you actually know the difference between these two materials? Although the terms seem to be used interchangeably by many people, mulch and compost are actually different things, and they have different purposes. Clearing up any confusion that may be rolling around in your mind will help to ensure that you use both mulch and compost correctly going forward.

Understanding Compost

To start, let’s create a clear definition of compost. When talking about compost, you are talking about organic matter that has already decomposed. Many people make compost in their backyard, but you can purchase it as well if you so choose. Things like food scraps and lawn clippings can be piled together in a designated place in order to create compost. While not a fast process – a proper compost can take a year or more to create – the end result will be a powerful organic substance that can work wonders in your garden.

The potential uses for compost are many. For one thing, you can add compost to a planting hole, along with potting soil, in order to provide roots with all of the nutrients they need to thrive. Or, for plants that are already in place, you can rake a little bit of compost into the dirt near their roots to deliver nutrients in much the same way. Basically, using compost is a great way to ‘feed’ plants, whether they are new to your garden or they have been there for years.

Understanding Mulch

Just as is the case with compost, mulch is also an organic material. However, mulch is intended to be used on top of your soil as a protective layer for your plants. Rather than working mulch down deep into the soil to feed your plants, you will leave it resting on top of the ground as a form of insulation. When done properly, mulch can help to keep moisture in the ground, it can prevent weed germination, and it will eventually make the soil more nutritious as it breaks down over time.

Two of the most-popular mulch materials that are used by the average home gardener are grass clippings and shredded leaves that have fallen from their trees. If you have grass as part of your landscaping, you already have access to free mulch each time you mow the lawn. And, if the trees on your property drop their leaves once a year, you can shred those leaves and use them for mulch material as well.

Although mulch and compost are certainly not the same thing, they do both have the potential to work wonders in your garden. By using each of these powerful organic materials correctly, you can give your landscaping the care and nutrients it needs to thrive all throughout the growing season.

Make Your Bed

Good soil prep is the key to successful gardening. This article covers the basics of soil preparation.

“Make your bed” is one of those statements that we each must have heard a million times as kids. As gardeners though, this simple phrase has a different meaning. “Make your bed” is all about preparing the soil for planting. Every gardener gets excited by the thought of finally getting her hands in the soil and planting out the newest plant acquisitions. The joy of finally getting to see the garden come together in spring is certainly a rewarding experience. However, the key to success starts before the first plant even sees the garden.

The roots of a plant are the foundation on which that plant thrives. Good roots will generally mean that you have a happy, healthy plant that can survive the rigors of spring and summer with aplomb. A poor root system means your plants cannot grow to their full potential and leaves them vulnerable to damage from insects and disease. The most important factor for good roots is good soil preparation. If you are a beginning gardener, properly preparing your soil can be daunting. However, there are some simple steps that you can take to get your beds ready to be planted.

There are three basic types of beds you might be preparing. The first type is a brand new bed that has never been planted before. The second type is an empty bed that has been planted before and the third type is a bed with existing perennials, bulbs, and/or shrubs.

Brand New Beds

The first step when planning to add a new flower bed or even if you are simply planting a tree or shrub is to check if there are any buried utility lines on your property. Most areas should have a number you can call to check locations for these lines. Check with your local government for the correct number to call. In addition to public utility lines, you will want to make sure you have identified any irrigation lines that might be buried on your property.

When preparing a brand new bed the first step is to kill the existing vegetation. If this is woody material, you will need pruners or perhaps even a saw. If the existing weeds are herbaceous plants, things like grass and chickweed, you will have an easier time. The best way to begin to prep this type of bed is to define the outline of the bed in the fall. It can sometimes be helpful to use a garden hose to determine the outline of the bed. A garden hose can be moved and reshaped until you find exactly the right shape and size for your bed.

Once you know the shape and size of the bed, cover the soil and plant material with several layers of newspaper (a good 5 to 6 sheets should be sufficient) and then cover the newspaper with a good thick layer of compost, 2 to 3 inches would be great. Do not use the slick, full color adds. The ink in regular newspaper is not harmful to your soil, but the ink in the full color, slick papered ads can be problematic. Leave the bed alone until spring. Over the fall and winter the newspapers will block out all light, which will kill the vegetation. The newspapers will also decompose over several months and come spring you will have a nice layer of compost that you can turn over into the soil. This method is completely organic and will help improve your soil while killing existing vegetation.

If it is already spring and you want to plant your bed soon, you can use a herbicide to kill the existing vegetation. Be sure to read the label for instructions on how and when to apply the chemical. Some herbicides can remain active in the soil for a period of time after application, be sure to take this into consideration when planning your bed prep. It is also possible to skip killing the foliage and simply move on to the next step, digging.

Once the existing vegetation is dead use a tiller, spade/shovel or garden fork to turn the bed over. With a brand new bed it may be difficult to get your tiller to break into the soil so turning the bed over first with a spade or shovel may be best. When working the soil, you want the soil to be damp, but not wet. If the soil is too wet it will clump when you turn it over. If the soil is too dry it will be very difficult to dig and harmful to the soil. If you turn over a spade full of soil, it should break apart and look moist without sticking to your tools or dripping water.

A tiller will often turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. It is good to get down at least 12 inches (the depth of a spade or shovel) when turning over a bed, another point in favor of the shovel. If you are really motivated turning over the soil to a depth of 18 inches is even better, although it is a lot of work. This is often called double digging.

Once you have turned over the soil, spread a layer of organic matter or compost 2 to 3 inches thick over the bed and then turn the soil over again to mix the compost into the soil. Adding compost will improve the soil by adding nutrition and improving soil structure. Avoid extremely fine compost or bagged amendments with a sand-like consistency as they tend to breakdown too quickly. You want something that has both large (1″) chunks as well as smaller particles. Use material from your compost pile if you have one, or check with your local garden center. Then rake the surface of the soil to level the soil.

Turning over the soil will expose weed seeds that were previously buried to light, causing germination. You can control the germination of these seeds by applying a thick mulch like pine needles or bark products over the bed or you can treat your bed with a weed and feed product to help deter germination. If you do treat with weed and feed, be sure to read the directions and apply correctly. Some weed and feed products can damage roots below the soil if applied incorrectly.

Also, do not directly sow flower or vegetable seeds into the soil when using a weed and feed product as they will not germinate. Weed and feed products kill all germinating seeds, not just the weed seeds. If you use a weed and feed product, you will want to install plants already growing in pots or packs to fill your bed the first spring. By fall the chemicals should have broken down and you will be able to direct seed, if you want.

You can also wait until the weeds come up and simply pull them. This can be more time consuming than chemical applications, but it is organic in addition to being good exercise.

After you plant the bed you may still want to add a layer of compost to the top of the soil. A layer of mulch or compost on the top of the soil will help keep weeds from growing, makes for a neater look overall and will also help maintain moisture in the soil.

Rules of Thumb for Brand New Beds:

1. Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

2. Turn the soil over to a depth of at least 12 inches.

3. Add 2-3 inches of compost and turn it into the bed.

4. Either cover the bed with a thick (3-4″) layer of mulch or use a weed and feed to help keep weed seeds from germinating.

5. Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Existing Beds

The second type of bed is an existing bed that has nothing in it. In other words, you are replanting the same area you used last year. With this type of bed, you can treat it similarly to the brand new bed, but it shouldn’t be necessary to layer the newspapers to kill existing vegetation. In either fall or spring or in both seasons, put a 2 to 3 inch layer of compost on the bed and then turn the compost into the soil. The single best thing you can do for your soil is to consistently add organic matter. This will enrich the soil and help you grow better plants.

Once again, you only want to work the soil when it is moist, not wet or dry. To check your soil moisture content pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it. If you squeeze out water the soil is too wet to work. If the soil stays in a ball in your hand and then breaks apart when tapped, it is perfect. If the soil is too dry to form a ball, it is too dry to work. If you work soil when it is too wet, you will cause it to clump and become compacted. If you work soil when it is too dry, you harm the soil structure. Working soil when it is moist will help maintain good air porosity and soil structure.

After you add the compost layer, you will want to turn the compost into the soil. As before, you can use a tiller, shovel or garden fork to do this. I prefer to use a shovel so I can get at least 12 inches deep. Double digging will again be optimum, but any incorporation of organic matter will be beneficial. After turning this compost into the soil, you may want to put another layer on top of the soil to act as mulch. If you add organic matter in the fall, it isn’t necessary to add more in the spring. However, if you have poor soil adding compost twice a year can help improve the soil much more quickly. Remember that this organic matter gets used up each year and needs to be replenished to keep plants performing their best.

When I moved to my new house my Dad (he’s a farmer) came over and plowed a space for a vegetable garden. My soil is clay, but not really heavy clay. Over two years, I added compost three times and my soil has visibly improved. Now that the vegetable garden is in decent shape, I am concentrating on adding more compost to the flower beds around the porch. The soil there is more clay backfill, generously littered with rocks. I think it will take me longer to improve this soil. I have one thick layer of compost already incorporated and will add another thick layer this spring.

Rules of Thumb for Existing Beds that are Empty:

1. Add 2-3 inches of compost and turn it into the bed.

2. Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

3. Turn the soil over to a depth of at least 12 inches.

5. Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Existing Beds With Plants

The third type of bed is one that already contains some perennials, bulbs and/or shrubs. These beds can be a bit trickier. You can’t simply broadcast a thick layer of compost and then turn it under. You will need to be careful when working around the established plants that you don’t harm their roots. You do still want to add organic matter. This can be done either in spring or fall, or in both spring and fall.

Add a couple inches of compost around existing plants, work this into the top layer of soil a bit, if possible, but do not dig deep enough to harm the roots. Do not allow the compost to come into contact with the stems of the plants as this can promote disease. Even left mostly on top of the soil the compost will break down over time releasing valuable nutrients into the soil while preserving moisture and protecting the surface of the soil.

Established beds will often have open areas where plants have died or where annuals are added each spring. In these areas, go ahead and turn over the soil to incorporate the organic matter and then plant.

Rules of Thumb for Existing Planted Beds:

1. Add 2-3 inches of compost and work it into the top layer of soil, if possible

2. Work the soil when it is moist, but not wet.

3. Do not allow compost to come into contact with plant stems

5. Top dress with another layer of compost to keep down weeds and preserve moisture.

Preparing the soil in your beds doesn’t have to be difficult, although it is great exercise. Adding organic matter is the one thing that all soils can benefit from whether your soil is sand or clay based. The addition of organic matter is beneficial, even if you are blessed with loam soil. Are there more in-depth steps that can be taken? Sure. However, this is a good place to start. We have additional information on soil testing and amendments in another article.

You may also be asking where you can get compost or organic matter. You can make your own, you can buy it from your local garden center, or many municipalities have compost for sale or even for free. Check with your local government for programs in your area. In general, here’s a couple pointers until we have the compost article on line:

Cow and chicken manure are very high in nitrogen and can burn plants if used in their pure form. However, they make wonderful additions to the soil if you work them in well. They also act as a natural slow release fertilizer. Most of these manure products are highly composted so look for something organic to add along with them to get the best of both worlds. Peanut hulls, bark mulch (not bark nuggets, unless they are the 1/2″ size) or compost from your compost pile are all excellent options.

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Compost for Flowers

The compost or soil you choose to grow your flowers in will have a big impact on how well they grow.

Choosing the right compost for growing flowers is easy with our help:

Flowers in Pots, Containers or Hanging Baskets

John Innes No3 Mature Plant Compost has been specifically developed to help sustain mature plants and shrubs with its long lasting nutrient rich formulation. Because the compost is loam based its weight can help anchor and secure larger plants. The compost is free draining and helps to prevent the roots from becoming water logged. It will also feed for up to 4 months, by slowly releasing a measured amount of nutrients when watering. This ensures the compost feeds for longer periods before needing to be fed again, resulting in healthy growth and establishment of your plants.

Gro-Sure Easy Containers Compost is a really easy to use compost which makes it simple to get great results with pots, containers and hanging baskets. It contains clay granules which soak up water to release over time when the plant needs it the most. It also contains 6 months feed and our patented West+ formulation for stronger roots and bigger plants.

Alternatively you could use:

  • Westland Multi-Purpose Compost with added John Innes

Flowers in Borders

Perennials grown in beds and borders need a boost yearly and the best way to do this is to improve your soil by mulching. You could use Westland Soil Conditioner or Gro-Sure Farmyard Manure on top of the soil, near to established plants and allow the worms and soil organisms to work it into the soil.

If you’re creating a new bed from an area that had been previously used for something else it’s important to add some organic matter before planting. Spread Westland Soil Conditioner or Gro-Sure Farmyard Manure over the surface of the dug area and work it into the soil with a fork. The high organic content also encourages the activity of beneficial soil dwelling organisms including worms.

How to Use Finished Compost

Top 10 uses for mature compost

1. Use as mulch.

Compost-as-mulch is a fantastic way to boost your garden’s harvest. Naturally absorbent and dense, compost applied to the soil surface will prevent evaporation when laid over drip irrigation or after watering. It will also prevent weeds from sprouting. Apply in a 3 to 6 inch layer and rake until even.

2. Mix DIY potting soil.

Finished compost makes an excellent addition to homemade potting soil. Remove large debris by passing compost through a half- to 1-inch soil screen. Mix in the following proportions:

  • 1 part compost
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 1 part topsoil

Use in container gardens and when potting up starter plants.

3. Brew compost tea.

Have you ever wondered how to get the benefits of compost directly to your plant’s roots? Steeping your compost in a liquid emulsion is one way to concentrate the nutrients and make them easier to absorb. For a quick and easy recipe, see this primer on making compost tea at home.

4. Feed fall perennials.

Add 2 to 4 cups of compost to the planting hole of fall perennials. This will feed your plants and help extend their bloom time. Tennessee urban garden center Bees on a Bicycle says that “…adding a bit of compost to your digging hole retains moisture and gives the plant a boost for vigorous, healthy growth. Compost is a key factor in regenerative gardening and allows us to proceed without fertilizer leaching into our water table. The healthy soil benefits not only the plant, but vital organisms that help our ecosystem.”

5. Feed spring bulbs.

Now is also the time to plant your bulbs for springtime. Add compost to the planting hole to help bulbs that have recently been divided. This will give them an added boost when they come out of winter dormancy.

6. Spread on new or established lawns.

Fall brings about the best weather for planting and maintaining lawns. Add a one- to two-inch layer of compost on top of your lawn in the weeks before planting. This will improve the tilth of your soil and provide the nutrients your seeds need to thrive.

7. Top dress garden beds.

Twice each year we give our raised beds a hearty dose of finished compost. We sprinkle it along the soil surface, and soon seasonal rains wash the nutrients down to root level. Worms do the rest of the work, pulling the organic matter into the soil. And we’re not alone. Southern Harvest Farms in Georgia recently shared how adding compost to their garden beds has increased water absorption and improved runoff.

8. Add to fruit trees.

Fruit trees are best fertilized in early spring before buds open. Be sure to reserve some of your finished compost for the growing season if you generally harvest in the fall. If you miss this window, applying compost between March and July will still give your trees a boost. You can also use as mulch any time of year. Compost is high in nitrogen—a fruit-tree favorite—along with many micro and macronutrients.

9. Feed container plants.

When you freshen up the soil around your outdoor potted plants or transfer to bigger pots, add screened compost to boost growth. Mix with potting soil and/or peat moss for better absorption.

10. Grow melons, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and squash.

These heavy feeders need lots of nitrogen to produce. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see squash plants thriving directly in a compost pile voluntarily. Add compost to the planting holes when transplanting seedlings into the garden. Top dress a few times during the growing season for best results. For a great illustration on how compost helps boost plant growth, check out this Instagram post from Kristi.

Making and using compost all to the exclusion of all chemical fertilizers is not new. Longtime gardeners highly recommend using composts and organic matter in the garden.

For thousands of years the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and the people of many European nations all made and used composts.

Using compost in the garden or on the lawn is not without controversy. Some advocates of organic gardening claim any use of commercial fertilizers will harm the soil.

Some advocates of organic gardening claim any use of commercial fertilizers will harm the soil.

However, when organic matter from the composting process in any form gets combined with commercial fertilizers, the yields are usually greater than when either material is used alone.

When properly used commercial fertilizers prove beneficial, not detrimental, to garden soils and crops. The actual results obtained from any soil treatment, however, vary considerably depending on:

  • Soil Structure
  • Water-holding capacity
  • Seasonal conditions
  • Crop grown

Always do a soil analysis so that you will know the actual fertility level of the soil. You will know what soil amendments and in what amounts will benefit the crops grown.

Compost decomposes most rapidly and benefits the soil most when a mixture of finely ground limestone and fertilizer chemicals supplying available nitrogen and phosphorus mix with the composting materials, especially when compost manure is not available.

Using Compost Benefits The Soil And Environment

For hundreds and even thousands of years, gardeners have been creating their compost application by piling organic yard waste – weeds, coffee grounds, leaves, grass clippings, manures – in heaps, to decompose into soil-enriching compost.

In a compost bin or heap, dead materials become transformed into substances that nourish new life. Compost increases the fertility of the soil, introduces beneficial microbes and improves its physical soil structure.

As a soil amendment adding compost to clay soil helps loosen hard-packed clays, binds sandy soil, aids water retention, and releases major and minor nutrients to plant roots. No other substance has so many beneficial effects on the chemical, physical and biological properties of the soil.

Garden compost, is a basic tool for building fertile soil and thus for growing quality plants. Made and used properly, it is excellent for everything from sowing seeds to feeding trees.

Composting For Soil Improvement

A long time friend Ron W shared his experience with adding compost to his growing routine.

“Finished” compost from the pile has many purposes in the garden. For flower beds, I use four parts soil from the compost pile and one part unscreened leaf compost.

For outdoor potting soils, I use screened material from both heaps, half, and half plus a little sand. For improving garden soil I use leaf compost, applying it steadily year by year in the Fall and digging it in. In this way, a poor soil derived from gray mud shale has been completely transformed.”

Compost and Fertilizer

There are those who say composted material contains everything necessary for the growth of plants.

Ron W shares this perspective…

“Much as I depend upon my yearly harvest of compost, I would not care to garden with compost alone. I use fertilizer applications over all my garden, regardless of the amount of compost used.

I find that organic material in compost improves the soil, making it more friable and, at the same time, more retentive of water.

Compost stimulates the activities of beneficial soil bacteria, provides some plant food and establishes healthy growing conditions under which plants can make more use of extra plant food supplied by fertilizer. Compost and fertilizer work together. Neither does its best work alone.”

How To Make Good Compost

In times past homeowners would burn their leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and small prunings and destroy valuable soil material. Organic material that improved soil structure and added fertilizer to the soil too. Material for helping aerate a heavy clay soil or assist sandy soil in retaining much-needed moisture.

Good Soil And Good Compost Full Of Life!

Do you think of soil as being something inactive and lifeless? Poor soil may be near death, but good soil is teeming with untold numbers of active and very much alive microorganisms.

Treat soils, like plants, like living things. A close relationship exists between the amount of life in the soil and its fertility on which productivity depends.

Forests continue to thrive for ages because each year the falling refuse collects to gradually decay and enrich the soil. We use this same principle by making compost from our waste materials and applying it to our gardens each year. The waste materials convert into a rich, dark, crumbly substance that can give new life to worn out soils. Even good soils need renewing.

There are dozens of ways of composting these waste materials. Some are simple to follow, and others are quite lengthy and complex. Busy gardeners will probably prefer the simpler methods.

Two Easy Composting Methods

These two easy methods for composting honestly, should not be termed “making compost.”

Both methods improve on the burning or destroying of a valuable material or having it hauled away to the local landfill.

The first uses nature’s way. This method allows leaves to fall between the shrubs and perennials. Then remove the materials from the lawn or paths to places where the soil needs enriching.

This could include grass clippings and weeds. It is more mulching than composting but this material in time by works of insects and bacteria along with the help of rain enriches the soil.

The second method throws everything into a pile:

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Weeds
  • Small prunings
  • Kitchen waste consisting of food scraps vegetable peelings as it accumulates.

Slowly it would decay but sprinkling the soil with water and turning the material occasionally will improve the speed of decay. But with time and effort, you can get better results with less haphazard methods.

Where To Build Your Compost Bin

Now we get to the serious side of composting which begins with a compost bin or pile.

When choosing a location for your compost pile, use these guidelines:

  • Near a water supply
  • Screen it from view as much as possible
  • Protect it with a hedge, trellis, or wall on three sides
  • Place in a well-drained area – not near the bottom of a slope where water might collect during prolonged rainfall.

For backyard composting serious gardeners construct more permanent compost bins or fenced enclosures for composting.

For the sake of convenience, make it so you can open one side to turn the pile and get at the finished material. Snow fencing works well with four posts in the ground at each corner.

Other suggestions include:

  • Using cement blocks or bricks laid to permit air to enter
  • Chicken wire with posts to make a square, rectangular or round container
  • Rough stone where available
  • Logs making enclosures inconspicuous in the garden

When soil is necessary to add to the compost layers, dig a pit or hole in a well-drained location. This part of the heap is lower than the soil surface. Use the dug out soil in constructing the compost pile.

The size of the compost heap depends on space available and the amount of material at hand to use. It should probably be no smaller than five feet square but preferably larger.

For best results, five feet high is about the maximum regardless of width and length. If there is space, it is a good idea to have at least two piles. One ready to use and the other in the “decaying process.”

Also, make a space near the pile to collect the green materials as they accumulate. This future “green composting material” should wither some before being used. You also need enough on hand to build the heap all at one time.

What Are The “Green Garden Materials”?

By green materials we are talking about plant refuse:

  • Weeds
  • Grass clippings
  • Discarded vegetables of vegetable waste from the kitchen
  • Dead foliage
  • Hay
  • Straw
  • Corn stalks

Just about any vegetable scraps that will decay.

The use of the word “green” does not refer to color.

The Art Of Building The Compost Pile

If the location of the compost heap is on hard soil, spade it first to provide good drainage. Place a layer of green material six to ten inches high on the ground. The looser this material is, the thicker the layer can be.

If there is compost on hand, sprinkle a thin layer on the green layer. It will contain the soil organisms that help tear down the composting materials.

If you sift the finished compost recycle the coarse siftings for building these layers. Add a layer of fertilizer and a sprinkling of agricultural lime or wood ashes. Then a layer of soil enough to make about two inches of the materials above the green layer.

When using very dry composting material, water each layer as you add the layer to the heap. The bacteria that does the work requires ample moisture, but the bacteria also requires air.

The composting pile should not be waterlogged.

It should be soft and fluffy but have all the moisture it can hold without any of it running out of the bottom of the heap.

Add another layer of green material and then another layer of the fertilizer, soil, lime, and compost if any of the latter is at hand.

Alternate the layers to make the desired height, sloping the sides gradually to make the heap somewhat smaller at the top than at the bottom. Leave a depression at the top to hold water when it rains.

Use a hose to add water if the heap drys out between showers. Cover the top and sides with a six-inch straw mulch to prevent the heap from drying out during hot, dry windy weather.

Turning the pile in three weeks speeds up decomposition. Fork over the material, so the outside of the pile moves toward the center. This benefits the material of the stronger heating and decaying action in the center of the heap.

Turning the heap will disorder the layers, and this is all right. Turning again in five weeks will be beneficial. Over a four to 6 month period, the pile should decay and be ready to use.

If weather or specific conditions do not permit turning when the exact date arrives, there will be no harm done. In fact, you will discover lots of opinions on the matter of timing.

Some say to turn the pile every two months except during the winter. Others recommend one turning at the end of three months. A gardener must through experience find out which method works best for him.

The high heat generated in the fermenting process usually kills any weed seeds. There should be no disagreeable odor. If there is, it means that the wrong kind of decomposition is taking place.

  • Forking it over and adding agricultural lime usually corrects this.
  • A heap that does not have enough nitrogen will decay very slowly.

Adding fertilizer, rich soil, or compost will quicken the decaying process. A heap that is too soggy will smother the air-loving organisms yet if it is too dry, these organisms cannot work.

Make holes in the pile to permit air to enter. A black plastic sheet helps to keep the heap from drying out too rapidly. This also prevents the pile from getting too wet during rainy weather.

Shredding or grinding the green materials shortens the process of turning the heap into rich, crumbly dark humus. Break up or shred material such as corn stalks. Even leaves decay faster if shredded.

As the heap heats up, it starts shrinking in size. The heaps are made in layers, so the use of ingredients is in somewhat correct proportions and mixed evenly throughout the heap.

Tips on Composting The Row And Sheet Methods

There are lots of tricks to speed up the home gardener’s composting process. Making compost is no longer the tedious job it once was.

One of several time-saving methods makes compost right in the garden by the “row” or “sheet” process eliminating the compost bin with its hauling and heaving.

If left to her own devices, nature uses this row or sheet method herself, but scientific help can speed it up.

Row Composting

In row composting, make shallow or deep trenches between rows in the vegetable garden or anywhere plants grow in rows!.

Regularly till the trenches progressively, during the season, from one end to the other, with any or all organic wastes:

  • Non-oily and fat-free garbage
  • Leaves, yard waste, sod and grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Seed-free weeds
  • Sludge
  • Sawdust
  • Barn manure
  • Brewery waste
  • Mushroom compost
  • Just about any kind of animal or vegetable food waste available

Treat this material with one of the activators like this available on the market and add some commercial fertilizer or nitrate, then cover lightly with soil.

Nature’s minute soil life and earthworms do the rest. For many, the compost heap doubles as a worm bin.

The addition of commercial fertilizer or nitrate primarily helps speed up decay and serves as fuel for the bacteria. The more fuel you feed the bacteria, the faster they “burn-up” the waste converting it into humus. And, the nutrient value of the fertilizer remains in the soil.

This, undoubtedly, is a better way to use fertilizer than applying it directly because bacterial action converts it to a form that will not upset Nature’s balance of microorganisms on “biological” substances providing you use it in reasonable quantities.

Manufacturers give directions for using chemical fertilizer as activators in a customary way:

  • Estimate the amount of compost you add to the garden
  • Sprinkle 2 to 4 pounds of nitrate or complete mixed fertilizer for each 100 pounds of compost material.

Sheet Composting

Sheet composting is a little different. In this method, spread or broadcast the compost like mulch is over the garden area. The depth of the material should be about from 1 to 6 inches. By the way, compost makes a fine mulch.

Treat it with an activator or the complete fertilizer or nitrate and then disc, roto till or dig it in by hand so that some of the topsoil mixes with the compost. Most who compost like to use this method in the fall without spading it in, so the waste remains as a winter mulch or cover. Then, in early spring, turn it into the ground.

The lazy method composters advise holding off spreading fertilizer until spring on sheet compost spread in the cold late fall.

They reason that if the nitrate or mixed fertilizer in early spring you will avoid leaching of the “fuel” chemicals.

The use of chemical fertilizer is essential unless the soil is very rich, to begin with. This is because virtually all compost contains cellulose-bearing materials and bacteria which to split and digest the cellulose requires lots of nitrogen.

If not added in sufficient supply, the bacteria robs the soil of nitrogen reducing the yield of the first crop where the compost is used. The reason? The nitrogen, although still there, is in a form unavailable to the plants. After the first season you won’t have to worry about it for there should be more total nitrogen than ever.

The bacterial activator is essential in sheet composting to encourage more rapid decomposition. The activator supplies more bacterial action than most soils can provide.

In both row and sheet composting, pulverized limestone for neutralization is usually essential. If you live in an alkaline soil region, it may not be needed. But, if the soil is acid, neutralizing is recommended. This encourages the right bacterial action and prevents further acidifying of the soil.

If no pulverized dolomitic limestone or other limestone (natural rock, mainly calcium carbonate with some magnesium carbonate) is available, you can use the faster-acting agricultural grade of hydrated lime or wood ashes (preferably from hard woods), rock phosphate, potash rock or gypsum.

The Compost Tumbler

Another method of speeding compost-making is the use of compost tumbler. You can operate a tumbler composter with no odor in a basement or garage year round. I’ve seen it done.

Compost tumbler cabinets give semi-automatic aeration. These specially developed “machines” have proven superior to compost bins or piles.

Properly operated, they prevent the souring tendency possible in poorly aerated and drained bins or pile arrangements. Using this type of composter once decomposition starts, in three or four weeks, the operation is fairly continuous.

Purchase composting tumblers like this online or at local gardener supply stores.

How To Use Compost

General Rules For Using Compost

  • The more liberally you apply compost, the better your results will be.
  • A two or even three-inch application on a given area each year is not too much, especially if your soil is poor to start with.
  • It is best to apply half-rotted, fibrous compost in the fall. The structure and fertility of poor soil will show significant improvement if you incorporate large amounts of this compost 12 to 18 inches deep. Spread compost on the soil surface and work in with a rotary tiller to a depth of four to six inches.
  • Composting material will continue decomposing through the winter. Some gardeners plant a green manure crop to add more nutrients and fertility for tilling under in the spring. Others leave a mulch of hay or similar material on top of the soil.
  • Apply finished compost, which has is notably crumbly of a rich, dark color, a few weeks before planting time.
  • Work compost through a half-inch screen, returning coarse pieces to the composting pile. Save the very fine material for use in seeding and potted plant mixtures.
  • Mixed with topsoil, well-rotted compost is ideal for top-dressing and side-dressing growing plants. Used this way, composting material gradually supplies nutrients to the plant roots near the surface Compost also acts as a mulch to protect the soil from eroding rains and temperature extremes.
  • Another method of supplementary feeding during the growing season is compost watering also known as compost tea. Many of the nutrients in compost are readily soluble.
  • Fill a watering can half full of compost, add water and stir, and sprinkle all your plants liberally with the compost tea mixture. A cheesecloth bag of compost suspended in a barrel or similar container will also give you a rich, amber-colored solution for feeding all plants.

How To Use Compost On The Lawn

A good compost, containing a liberal quantity of organic matter, is not only favorable for the multiplication of bacteria, which liberate plant food to grass, but also promotes aeration of the soil.

For a thick, deep-rooted lawn that defies crabgrass and drought, use plenty of compost both in making the lawn and maintaining it. When building a new lawn, thoroughly spread and mix a two-inch layer of compost and fertilizer into the top six inches of soil.

Do this early in the fall, using finished compost and sow the lawn in cool weather.

When starting your lawn in the spring, sow a temporary covering like Italian ryegrass. The grass will look neat until turned under in the fall. Then work in the compost and make a permanent lawn.

Renovate Old Patchy Turf:

  • Dig out the bare spots about two inches deep
  • Mix in ample finished compost
  • Tamp down
  • Water well before seeding

Adding Compost Top Dressing To Established Lawns

  • Feed established lawn with compost regularly every spring and fall.
  • Go over the grass with a spike-tooth aerator. The deeper the spikes, the better
  • Spread compost put through a quarter-inch screen
  • Rake the compost into the holes made by the aerator
  • Water well
  • Spread fertilizers, preferably slow-acting organic type, and water in at the same time.

Using Compost On Trees and Shrubs

For good growth of woody plants, soil building is a must. As the experts say,

“A $10 hole for a $1 plant” is the key to beautiful, healthy trees and shrubs.”

Dig the hole for planting two or three times the depth and diameter of the root ball. Use as a planting mixture of equal parts of topsoil, finished compost and peat moss or leaf mold.

Fill this in evenly all around the roots, tamping down each spadeful.

Spread two inches of compost on the top, out to the maximum reach of the branches. A mulch of peat moss, hay, ground corn cobs, buckwheat hulls or leaves over the compost will help keep the in the soil moisture and add more nutrients and humus as it decomposes.

Roses Thrive In Compost

Roses, by the way, thrive amazingly if copious amounts of compost. Use a compost soil ratio of two parts compost to one of soil in planting. Apply a six-inch mulch of hay or straw.

For regular maintenance of young trees and shrubs, spread several inches of compost each year, and mulch. Use pine-needle or oak-leaf compost for evergreens needing an acid soil, and mulch them with the same materials.

Always give the soil a thorough soaking before mulching, then soak the mulch well, too. Place stones on top of the mulch for a neat appearance. The cool, moist conditions under them encourage worms and other organisms that break down the organic matter and release its fertility.

To keep rodents from nesting near the trunk and damaging it, leave a bare space two feet from the trunk outwards.

This “ring” method is ideal for fruit trees as well as ornamentals, and for berry plants. Many an old, sickly fruit tree enjoy a vigorous, healthy new life by a heavy composting and mulching program, combined with judicious pruning.

Numerous home fruit-growers claim a reduction in their spray program when following such a program.

Another method of feeding older trees is to auger holes a foot deep and a few feet apart encircling the tree, and pack these with mature compost. Or you can push a fork into the soil at intervals, working it back and forth to crack the earth, then pour compost water or tea into the cracks.

Adding Compost To Flower Beds

Work in a four-inch layer of compost at least 18 inches deep in all new flower beds. If the soil is poor, use more. This will make it light, rich and crumbly, well-drained but moisture-retaining.

Your seeds will sprout better when using compost generously in planting. Bulbs, too, like a handful or two of compost in the bottom of the hole, covered with an inch of sand or soil.

Early in spring, lightly cultivate the top two or three inches of soil in your annual, perennial and bulb beds, and work in plenty of compost.

Then use finely screened compost, mixed with an equal amount of topsoil, as an inch-thick mulch when your plants come up. Feed every two weeks all season with a compost tea.

How To Use Compost In Vegetable Garden

Vegetables grow bigger and taste far more delicious when lavishly using compost in the vegetable garden for growing them. You’ll find disease and insect troubles greatly reduced as well.

For Luscious Vegetables:

  • Dig in all the half-rotted garden compost you can get in the fall
  • Work in finished compost two weeks before planting
  • Use compost generously in the planting holes and furrows.
  • When plants come up, mix ripe compost with soil and side-dress them heavily; repeat this in summer.
  • As an alternative, mulch the rows with lots of semi-finished compost covered with raw compost materials such as hay, grass clippings and the like.

You can’t get too much compost, that comes from a large variety of organic materials to ensure a balance of nutrient elements. Vegetables grown in pure compost, have shown amazing results.

Starting Seeds

Compost put through a fine sieve and mixed with equal amounts of fine sand and soil is an excellent seed-sowing medium. Use coarser compost in the bottom of flats for good drainage. No fertilizer is necessary.

When seedlings develop their first true leaves, transplant them into a richer mixture, made up of half compost and half topsoil.

Use the same mixture when transplanting them outdoors, and give them frequent waterings with a dilute starter solution of compost tea to speed their early growth.

How To Use Compost For Potted Plants And Houseplants

NOTE: For houseplants I am more a fan of using commercial bagged soil mixes, using a simple mixture of peat moss and perlite or LECA.

The Reason?

Too many houseplants are overwatered. However, there are other reasons.

Below are some guidelines for those wanting to make soil for houseplants or potted plants grown outdoors.

  • To ensure good water retention and aeration potted plants need a porous well-draining soil with good moisture or water-holding capacity
  • Two parts of loam to one each of sand and crumbly compost makes a good general potting mixture.
  • Double the amount of sand for cactus, and double the compost for humus-requiring plants like African violets.
  • Use pine-needle or oak-leaf compost for acid-loving plants such as azaleas and gardenias.
  • A biweekly feeding of weak composted tea is all the fertilizer most potted plants will ever require.

Most potted plants can use a repotting every year or two with a fresh soil-sand compost mixture. This includes plants in window and planter boxes.

Remove an inch or so of the old soil every spring and replace with a mixture of equal parts of fresh topsoil and compost. For vigorously growing or flowering plants, repeat this procedure in the summer.

The Application Of Compost

Compost making, does not require fancy garden equipment. But it is an essential garden tool. Just as in any garden operation, the right equipment goes a long way in helping you do the job easier and better.

There are many ways to make a compost heap or pile and some people prefer to make compost in a bin and still others like a compost tumbler.

The most important ingredient in making compost is the green garden or organic material which breaks down into humus. This you can’t buy – you have to gather it yourself.

A few examples of what you might use are: leaves, vegetable tops, weeds, grass clippings, hedge clippings, spent annuals, above-ground portions of spent perennials and even some of the material that usually goes into the garbage can.

Nature makes its own compost in the woods and we use this in the form of leaf mold. But, let’s face it. Nature takes a long time to break this material down. For our home garden, we want compost a little faster.

Compost is also known as black gold due to its value in the garden. It is commonly known that compost can be used as a soil conditioner by being dug into the soil. Compost adds valuable nutrients and microbes to the soil but can only be dug in as finished compost, or that which is fully broken down. If you have partially unfinished compost, you can use 1/2 inch screen to separate the larger pieces out of the finished product.

Compost can be made in your yard, in a bin or compost tumbler. It consists of layers of organic materials that are turned periodically until they decompose. The layers can include food scraps, grass clippings, and leftover garden debris. Weeds should not be placed in the compost pile so that the seeds do not transfer to your garden when you use it.

Finished and unfinished compost can be used in the following ways.

1. Using Compost as Mulch

Mulch works to suppress weeds, and to help retain water in the soil around your plants. Organic mulch such as unfinished compost or compostable materials like wood chips and grass clippings make very effective mulch. As these items continue to breakdown, they create readily available nitrogen and beneficial microbial organisms to the soil.

Use these items to mulch around plants in the flower bed and garden. All that is needed is a trowel to carefully shovel compost in a circle around plants from 3 inches from the stem to the drip line. You can use wood chips or grass clippings on top of the compost for better weed suppression. These items will break down more slowly, and incorporate into the soil when you turn it at the end of the season.

2. Using Compost as Fertilizer: Side Dressing

This is an organic way to fertilize plants throughout the season and is similar to mulching with compost in that they are both applied to the surface of the soil. The difference is that side dressing is applied in much smaller quantities. It is recommended that you place one handful of compost around the perimeter of the plant two to three times during the season.

After you apply the side dressing of compost, water it well so that the nutrients and microbial organisms are able to seep down into the soil. Compost adds much needed nitrogen to the soil, and unlike digging unfinished compost into the ground, does not compete with your plants for this essential nutrient.

3. Using Compost as Fertilizer: Compost Tea

This is an application of compost that is more versatile. Compost tea is just as it sounds. It is a brew made from soaking compost in water for a few hours to a day or two depending on the concentration of tea that you are wanting. Place compost into a burlap bag, and submerge in a bucket or barrel of water. You can also just place compost into container then strain it out with a screen. Compost can be used later in the garden.

Compost tea can be used to water plants in the garden by irrigating the soil around the plants. It also makes a great fertilizer for container plants, and those indoors. It can also be used as a foliar spray. This helps to make plants stronger to prevent damage by disease and pests. Compost tea used for irrigation gives microbes the opportunity to soak into the soil.

Compost is a valuable resource in the garden in a number of ways. If you have only used compost as a soil amendment, you should consider one of these other methods. All of them are effective in one way or another. Compost is a free resource, and should be fully taken advantage of.

Want to learn more about how to use compost?

Making and Using Compost for Organic Farming from NC Cooperative Extension
Compost Guide to Home Composting
Compost Tea by Oregon State University Extension Service

Garden Myths – Learn the truth about gardening

Compost is good for the garden, in part, because it adds nutrients for the plants. That sounds like a fertilizer. But almost everything you read says that compost is NOT a fertilizer. Something doesn’t make sense—let’s have a closer look at this myth. Is compost an organic fertilizer?

Compost bin for making organic fertilizer

What is Fertilizer?

Before we look at compost we need to understand the term fertilizer. Here are some definitions from the internet dictionaries:

  • A chemical or natural substance added to soil or land to increase its fertility.
  • Any substance used to fertilize the soil.
  • Any of a large number of natural and synthetic materials, including manure, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds, spread on or worked into soil to increase its capacity to support plant growth.

It certainly sounds as if compost fits into this category, but none of the definitions I found actually list compost.

It turns out that the above definitions are definitions in common use. When we ask about the legal definition of fertilizer we get a very different answer. Legally, at least in some parts of North America, fertilizer is “a soil amendment that guarantees the minimum percentages of nutrients (at least the minimum percentage of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash)” (ref 1) . An organic fertilizer is a fertilizer from organic sources.

The key words are “minimum percentages”.

Since compost is made from plant material, and the inputs are very variable, manufacturers have a hard time controlling the amount on nutrients in the final product. Because they can’t or won’t guarantee “minimum percentages” from batch to batch, they can’t legally label the compost as fertilizer.

Interestingly, in Manitoba, Canada, the definition of fertilizer does not mention minimum percentages. So in Manitoba, even under the legal definition, compost is fertilizer.

Fertilizer Numbers in Compost

A lot of information sources refer to compost as a ‘poor source of nutrients’. They say that compost has ‘very low levels of nutrients’. Is this true?

Home made compost contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—the NPK fertilizer numbers—in levels around 3-0.5-1.5. The key nutrient that might be deficient in soil is nitrogen and home made compost has about 3% nitrogen, with a range of 1 to 6%. Commercial sources for compost report levels of 1-1-1. I suspect that home made compost has higher levels of nitrogen because it is less finished.

That is a low level of nitrogen for fertilizer, but consider this. Fish fertilizer is considered to be a great fertilizer, and it has average fertilizer numbers of 5-1-1 with a range of nitrogen between 2 to 5%. It is not all that different from home made compost.

Compared to commercial fertilizer that might have 20% nitrogen, compost does have lower levels of nutrients. But 3% nitrogen is a fairly good fertilizer when compared to other natural organic products. For example it is higher than coffee grounds which are considered to be a “good source of nitrogen”.

It is also important to know how much fertilizer is being added to a garden. Usually you add very small amounts of commercial fertilizer, compared to compost. If commercial fertilizer is 20% and compost is 2%, nitrogen, and you add 10 times as much compost as commercial fertilizer – then both applications are providing the same amount of nitrogen to the soil.

Compost also contains a reasonable amount of micro-nutrients. This makes sense. Since plants need micro-nutrients to grow, and compost is made from plant material, the compost must also contain the micro-nutrients that were absorbed by the plant.

Will compost provide all the nutrients your plant needs? That is a question for another post.

Does Compost Feed Plants?

I think this is a dumb question, but I ask it because many web sites say something like this:”In the simplest terms, fertilizers feed plants. Compost feeds the soil”–clearly implying that compost does NOT feed plants.

That is a dumb statement. First of all soil does not need to be fed–it is not living. Things live in soil, but soil itself is not living. Things, also live in air, but we don’t go around calling air a living thing that needs to be fed! Compost makes nutrients available to living organisms. As we will see in future posts it also improves soil structure so it improves the environment for living things.

There are certainly differences between compost and fertilizers, but the differences have nothing to do with feeding soil. Both provide nutrients for living things, including plants.

Is Compost an Organic Fertilizer?

From a legal perspective, compost is NOT a fertilizer especially if you make it in your back yard. From the point of view of a gardener, compost is a fertilizer. It certainly adds nutrients to the soil, which can then be used by plants.

Most sources of gardening information say that it is not a fertilizer and although legally speaking this is correct, this is one instance were a small white myth is OK. Gardeners would understand their gardens better if they think of compost as a fertilizer.

What Type Fertilizer is Compost?

First of all it is organic. More importantly, compost is also a slow release fertilizer as explained in my post; The Real Value of Organic Fertilizer . Unlike commercial fertilizer, compost adds nutrients to the soil very slowly over several years. In my last post I discussed the fact that so called ‘finished compost’ is still decomposing. This continued decomposition provides a steady slow release of nutrients to the soil.

A new term that is being floated around is ‘biofertilizer’ and this term would seem to be a good fit for compost. Unfortunately, the term biofertilizer has been butchered by many in the organic movement and the term no longer has an accepted definition. Until this mess gets sorted out it is probably best not to use this term to describe anything.

In conclusion, compost is a good organic fertilizer–unless you are a lawyer who lives outside of Manitoba!

1) Legal definition of Fertilizer and Organic Fertilizer: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/232.html

2) Chemical numbers in home made compost

3) Definitions for Biofertilizer: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4108841/

4) Photo Source: grabadonut

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If you are new to gardening, you know you have heard the words compost and fertilizer used in relation to your vegetation, but you might not know exactly how to use either of them, or what, exactly, they are truly for.

I know I’ve had my moments concerning the use of fertilizers on both my lawn, and in garden beds- such as when to use them, how to use them, and why exactly am I using them in the first place… And I’ve been equally confused as how to add compost to my garden beds when I don’t even have a compost pile (soon to be remedied).

Today I’m going to define the differences between these two, and explain how to best use them in your garden.

Table of Contents

COMPOST

PROS

  • Creates nutrient rich soil
  • Aides in soil moisture retention
  • Assists in disease resistance
  • Helps control weeds

CONS

  • Takes time to make your own
  • Compost pile can smell
  • Physically laborous
  • Large amount needed for success (problematic for large gardens)

FERTILIZER

  • Adds nutrients
  • Immediate nutrient availability for plants
  • Targets plant’s specific needs
  • Overload of nutrients can occur
  • Can upset microbial balance
  • Generally chemically produced
  • Chemicals can release into groundwater

COMPOST: WHY BOTHER?

Compost is a medley of organic matter, such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, raked leaves, coffee grounds, egg shells, etc…that has been mixed together and allowed to naturally decompose over time through microbial and bacterial (good) processes. When added into your soils prior to planting, or amended into your top layers, it provides a wealth of benefits for your vegetation to take advantage of.

In short, compost feeds the soils, and enriches them to provide the best atmosphere possible for your garden plants to thrive.

BENEFITS

The perks of adding compost to your soils is a long and varied list, but the most important thing to remember is that plants uptake nutrients from the soils their roots come in direct contact with. Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to your soils as they are a very important part of the vegetative equation.

By amending, or improving upon, your soils through the addition of compost, you are providing a better atmosphere for your plants through an increase of oxygenated air and moisture retention. Soils will adhere to compost particles to form an overall better root environment, and in turn allow roots to grow deep and more easily uptake the many nutrients that will be present through the decomposition process.
Furthermore, soil bacteria create antibodies, some of which are utilized within your garden beds to combat many soil borne diseases to keep your plants healthy and producing.

APPLICATION

Compost can be made in a backyard compost bin (either bought or built), or purchased at your local garden center in potting soil, and garden soil mixes. Applications are varied in nature and those who use it regularly all have their favorite ways, but the result is the same; your soils will be improved through its application.

SOIL AMENDMENT

Mixing your compost into existing soils is the easiest way to begin to reap the benefits of its use. You can do this either prior to planting, or in established garden beds. To use in the preparation of soils prior to planting, you’ll want to layer approximately 2 to 3 inches of compost on the bed, and then mix it into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. As an addition to established beds, simply spread along the top, and work into the top 2 to 3 inches of soil. Compost continues to decompose in the garden on a microbial level, and so as it amends the soils upon application, it also continues to provide a steady supply of nutrients to vegetation.

Watch how the addition of compost to clay soils make it palatable for planting:

COMPOST TEA

Compost Tea is simply compost allowed to soak in water for 3 to 4 days (the longer you ‘brew’, the more concentrated it becomes), strained, and then diluted with water (at a 10:1 ratio) and then used to water your plants with! Of course you can use this poured directly upon your soils as well after dilution, but the straining makes it easy to apply using watering cans, or even spray bottles for foliar applications.
Applications of tea can be used for a wide variety of vegetation. See how it can be use on lawns and landscaping:

CONCERNS

Because compost is comprised of rotting organic materials, funguses can begin to form that, if inhaled, could pose a health risk. The process of rot, or decomposition, also produces a lot of heat due to the microbial activity, and if your compost pile becomes too dry, or is piled too high, this can cause combustion (although very rarely).

Less concerning is the odor given off by rotting materials. This may not be a problem for you, but it might bother close-lying neighbors.

FERTILIZER: QUICK FIX?

Unlike compost, fertilizer feeds the plants directly, and does very little to the surrounding soils for any length of time. Everything a plant needs to grow and thrive is found in both the soils it is planted in, and in the air around it, so why does fertilizer even exist? In short, not all soils are made equal, and despite containing nutrients, they might not be readily available for vegetative uptake. And this is doubly important for quick growing plants that you are depending upon to yield a harvest.

The addition of commercial fertilizers target plant’s individual needs, and do so quickly to alleviate deficiencies. Because they are not always long lasting, multiple applications over time are needed, but this is a quick fix to problematic soils that cannot support the nutrient draw certain plants place on them.

Not all fertilizers are equal either. Many fertilizers are created with specific plants or needs in mind, and you can purchase what you need for either whatever ails your plant, or for the result you are looking for.

They also may be organic, meaning they are made from naturally occurring products, or a synthetic fertilizer, which are made from chemical compounds, or a mixture of both. Generally one is not better than the other, but choices should be made based on personal preference.

There are a myriad of fertilizers and fertilizer applicationson the market, and when faced with choices, it can be a bit overwhelming. Your first step is to buy with your needs in mind so you can easily narrow down your choices to what, exactly, you are looking for.

QUICK RELEASE

Quick Release Fertilizer is just that, a compound that very quickly targets the needs of your plant through direct application to the soils in contact with the plant. Fertilizers come in either a solid (granular or powder form) or liquid form. As expected, liquid fertilizers are more readily used as they soak into the soils, but they also need to be applied more often and also diluted with water or you will kill your plants.

Solid fertilizers can also break down quickly when worked into the soils for quick nutrient release, but need a few days and watering in order to see results. These last longer than liquids and don’t need to be applied as often. Some powders are used to mix into water as well to form a liquid application.

SLOW RELEASE

Slow release fertilizers are generally found in granular form and break down over time. When mixed into the soils surrounding the plant they can last anywhere from 2 to 9 months depending on temperature and moisture.
Watch some great tips for fertilizer applications here:

Because fertilizer break down at different rates, over application can occur if they have not been all absorbed upon repeat applications. This can cause burning of your plant, or an abundance of certain nutrients and cause poor growth, or flowering.

Chemical fertilizers can also run into nearby water sources, or even leech into the ground, although with proper

FEED YOUR SOIL? OR FEED YOUR PLANT?

With proper composting application and soil amendments you shouldn’t need to apply fertilizer at all, and I have had great success with using compost in my gardens to feed my vegetation through the entirety of the growing season. Although fertilizer has it’s uses (especially with houseplants), and can be extremely helpful for specific nutrient deficiencies: with compost you are guaranteed a natural, organic compound that improves the quality and health of the soils over time.
*You might also like: Compost Vs. Topsoil

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Notice the thick layer of mulch under this ichiban eggplant.

Janice Leach | Contributor

A few weeks back, we posted about shredding leaves to use as mulch on our garden beds. A couple of readers stated that they composted their leaves before adding them to their gardens, which provided me the impetus for addressing two topics close to my heart and, more specifically, their differences.

What is the difference between mulch and compost?

Technically speaking, compost is organic matter that has been decomposed. The easiest way to make compost is to pile up garden refuse, kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, and wait a year.

We humans have devised some ways of speeding up that process, like paying attention to the “formula” of parts (two parts ‘brown/dry’ to one part ‘green/juicy’ is a general guide), of turning and watering as needed and of using different style bins or containers.

Compost that has fully decomposed is sometimes referred to as humus. Humus is usually dark brown in color and has a mild, pleasant smell. If your compost smells, it’s not yet finished breaking down.

Finished compost has many uses. Compost can be added or dug into garden beds while the soil is being turned. When planting new plants, you can add compost to the hole. (It’s usually a bad idea, however, to fill up the hole with only compost. That creates such special comfy place that plants don’t want to send their roots out into the regular soil, which inhibits their growth.)

Compost can be used to “side-dress” plants already in the ground by spreading the compost next to the plant and working it into the soil with a small garden fork. Compost can also be added to the mixture in which you start new plants or seeds.

We don’t use compost as mulch however. Compost is full of nutrients that we want to get down in the soil to feed the plants through their roots.

In contrast, mulch is the layer of organic materials placed on the top of the soil as a protective cover. Mulch helps to suppress weed germination, retain moisture, insulate the soil and reduce erosion. Mulch also contributes nutrients the soil by gradually breaking down over time.

During the gardening season, we heavily mulch our garden beds with grass clippings, straw and shredded leaves. From our point of view, leaf mulch is such a fantastic mulch that the 60 minutes once a year that we spend shredding leaves is a worthwhile effort. Our electric shredder is a little bit louder than a lawnmower and makes quick work of this simple task.

On the perennial beds, we like to use purchased cedar chips as mulch. In addition to a pleasant appearance, cedar chips break down slowly, providing coverage for several seasons. Cedar is also reputed to discourage some types of insects.

Compost and mulch are the two organic gardening approaches that have improved our soil tremendously over the years. We’ve seen the soil change from being “fudge” to becoming “cake,” to quote Jim’s metaphors.

Using both compost and mulch in the garden are simple changes with huge impacts on growing plants, cutting down on weeds and improving soil.

Janice and Jim Leach have been gardening together for close to 30 years. They tend a backyard plot in downtown Ann Arbor, where they try to grow as many vegetables and other plants as possible. For the last four years, they’ve published gardening tips, photos, and stories at their 20 Minute Garden website.

Mulch vs Compost

Whether to use mulch or compost on flower beds is a question of what you want to accomplish and how quickly. Technically, mulch is anything you put down on the soil to prevent weeds and loss of moisture from occurring and to improve the looks of the area. So compost applied to the surface of a garden bed is mulch, the same as wood chips or shredded leaves or small stones or other such items.
The results of what you add as mulch are different, depending on the material used. Shredded wood chips or bark will help prevent weeds and retain moisture in the beds. They break down slowly, eventually becoming a single-source compost. This will slowly add organic matter to the soil and supply a minor amount of nutrients. They also last longer than compost due to the larger size particles. Typical compost (either homemade or commercial) has already been broken down by microbes and the nutrient content, although minor, is more quickly available to the plants. It does a poor job of weed suppression but helps retain moisture.
The best of both worlds would be a layer of compost covered by a more decorative layer of shredded bark or wood chips. A total of three inches is enough to prevent most weeds and to help retain moisture during our typical summer dry season. Be aware that homemade compost often has weed seeds in it that may germinate whereas commercial compost has usually been heated enough to kill any seeds.
The mushrooms growing in the mulched areas are the fruiting parts of fungi that are decomposing the wood chips. They are not harmful but can be removed if they are unsightly. They will eventually decay and go back into the soil food web if left alone.
This publication gives a lot of good information on compost in the home garden and this publication details kinds and uses of mulch materials. If you have additional questions on this subject, please use the reply feature within this email or call the Chesterfield Extension office at 804-751-4401. Thanks for using Ask an Expert!

What is the Difference Between Mulch & Compost?

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Compost and mulch are gardening terms that are so often used interchangeably that many people think they are simply two different words for the same thing. Even long-time gardeners frequently use the word compost when they really mean mulch or use the term mulch when they are actually talking about compost.

To make things even more confusing, compost can be used as mulch, and mulch can have compost-like effects on your soil. So, it is easy to see how many folks might not realize that there really is a difference between compost and mulch.

To help you better understand the difference, this post will address the following questions:

  • What is compost?
  • What is mulch?
  • What is the difference between compost and mulch?
  • Is compost or mulch better?

What is Compost?

Compost is an organic soil amendment that looks and feels like soil. You can purchase compost at your local gardening center, acquire it from a commercial composting facility, or make it at home in a backyard composting bin or pile. In some areas, residents can even get free compost for their home gardens through community programs.

Compost is the result of microorganisms decomposing organic matter through the process of aerobic biodegradation, such as kitchen scraps, chicken or rabbit manure, leaves, organic yard waste and some paper products. For example, if you have a compost bin at home, you could add banana peels, used coffee grounds, coffee filters made from unbleached paper, twigs, leaves, the tube left after you use a roll of toilet paper, lawn clippings and the poop you scoop out of your hamster’s cage. In the controlled environment of your compost bin or pile, these items will decompose and become nutrient-rich compost you can use in your garden.

Compost is mixed into the soil to improve soil structure and add nutrients. Because it is so rich and full of these nutrients, it must be mixed into soil in order for your plants to thrive and should not be used alone. As it continues to decompose in the soil, it adds nutrients over time and continues to improve your garden soil. In garden beds where plants are already in place, compost is sometimes used to side-dress plants by spreading it around the plant and either allowing it to naturally work into the soil or using handheld gardening tools to lightly mix it into the soil without injuring existing root systems. In some cases – particularly with coarser compost that looks a bit more like mulch – compost is used as mulch to top-dress garden beds.

Compost is sometimes referred to as fertilizer. This makes sense, since it does add nutrients to the soil, and plants are usually healthier and exhibit faster growth or more production when grown in compost-enriched soil. However, it is a bit of misnomer, because compost is a soil amendment but it is not the same thing as fertilizer.

To learn more about compost and backyard composting, here are some helpful resources:

  • What Can I Compost? 20 Things You Can Put in Your Backyard Compost Pile
  • 15 Things You Should NOT Compost
  • 14 Reasons to Start Using Compost in Your Garden
  • Backyard Composting Tips: 16 Accessories to Take Your Compost Pile to the Next Level

What is Mulch?

Mulch can be used to refer to both inorganic and organic materials that are spread on top of soil as a top dressing. The material used could be leaves, lawn clippings, shredded wood, straw, recycled rubber, gravel, crushed seashells, crushed nut shells or similar products. While ground covers like gravel can be used as mulch and are sometimes called mulch, it is far more common to use the term mulch when you are talking about organic materials or materials that are intended to mimic organic materials, such as rubber mulch. When a gardener tells you to add mulch around your plants, they are rarely talking about gravel and will almost always be referring to organic materials.

Gravel, rubber mulch and similar, inorganic products that technically fall under the term mulch provide some of the benefits seen with all mulches. These include limiting weed growth, moderating soil temperature, reducing the potential for erosion, and enhancing moisture retention in the underlying soil.

When using organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, shredded wood or lawn clippings, gardeners get the added benefits of improved soil structure and added nutrients as it decomposes.

To learn more about different types of mulch and its uses, check out What is Mulch and How Do I Use It?

What is the Difference Between Compost and Mulch?

Okay, now that we have a basic understanding of what compost is and what mulch is, let’s make the differences a bit clearer.

Compost is mixed into the soil; whereas, mulch is spread on top of the soil.

Compost is best at adding nutrients to the soil and improving soil structure.

Mulch is best at limiting weed growth, preventing erosion and retaining soil moisture.

Compost is made up of decomposed, organic materials; whereas, mulch can be inorganic or organic materials that, in most cases, have not yet decomposed. (This one can get a little confusing because compost can be used as mulch, so, in this case, it would be decomposed.)

So, basically, if you mow your natural grass lawn and spread the lawn clippings on top of the soil around your plants, your lawn clippings are mulch. If you take those lawn clippings and add them to your compost bin, wait for them to decompose, and then mix them into your garden soil, your lawn clippings are now compost.

Is Compost or Mulch Better?

Now that you understand the difference between compost and mulch, the next logical question is: Which is better to use in my garden – compost or mulch?

If your goal is to increase the production of food plants, get more blooms on your flowers or encourage your plants to grow faster, use compost. If your goal is to limit weed growth, control erosion and retain soil moisture, use mulch.

Most gardeners want all of these things to happen in their gardens, which is why it is common – and often best – to use both compost and mulch in your garden.

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