Unless you’re surrounded by long-time gardeners or soil ecologists, you’ve probably been under-appreciating compost for most of your life.
And that’s okay. We get it.
It looks like dirt.
It’s made up of a bunch of decomposed, dead things. (I prefer to think of it as organic matter that has been turned into nutrient-rich soil. That sounds so much better, doesn’t it?)
But to us gardeners, compost is black gold. It is an essential component of organic gardening.
By the end of this post, I hope you have a greater appreciation for compost—or at least for what compost can do for your garden.
THE BENEFITS OF ADDING COMPOST TO THE GARDEN
Compost is one of the main ingredients of healthy plant growth. Compost:
- provides nutrients
- improves soil structure so that plants’ roots feel supported
- helps soil retain moisture and nutrients
- attracts beneficial organisms to the garden
- reduces the need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
- sequesters carbon in the soil
In short, compost is a natural fertilizer that makes an excellent choice for all of your garden beds, especially your vegetable garden.
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DIFFERENT TYPES OF COMPOST
There are several types of compost soil available from stores. I recommend that you purchase the best-quality compost you can afford from your local nursery (or consider starting your own compost pile for food scraps and garden waste).
Here are some of the most common types of organic material you can buy and add to your vegetable garden as soil amendments:
This is a general all-purpose compost made from a mixture of yard waste, plant materials, and kitchen scraps. It is suitable for all types of plants and is ideal for improving soil structure.
Also known as vermicompost, worm compost is made by using worms to consume materials and then break them down into organic matter. Worms are able to digest and break down complex nutrients into a form that plants can more readily enjoy. The result is nutrient-rich and ideal for use in pots and containers.
Leaf mold is made from fallen leaves. You know how people are saying to leave your leaves on your lawn instead of raking them up now? That’s because leaves are a great source of nutrients for your yard and reduce the need to use chemical fertilizers. For best results, use leaf mold as a mulch or soil amendment.
This is made from spent compost that has been inoculated with mycelium and used to grow mushrooms for harvest. After a couple weeks, it’s no longer a good growing medium for mushrooms, but it’s still a rich source of nutrients. It’s ideal for use in vegetable gardens, but avoid planting seeds or young plants directly in fresh mushroom compost.
Composted animal manure
Cow and chicken manure have long been used to make garden fertilizers. It might sound kind of gross, but the manure is left to decompose and then cure over the course of a couple months. This composting process removes pathogens but leaves all the good nutrients. High-quality compost from animal wastes should look (and smell) more like soil, not poop—don’t worry.
A lot of the bags of multi-purpose compost you might buy from the store are blends of different types of compost. You might, for example, find a blend of cow manure, earthworm castings, and peat moss to make the compost lighter and fluffier for potting.
HOW TO CHOOSE HIGH-QUALITY COMPOST FOR YOUR GARDEN
There are several factors to consider to ensure you buy the best bagged compost for your buck. Prioritize buying a certified organic compost bag if one’s available.
Other than that, keep the following things in mind:
Compost should be rich in nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Look for compost with a balanced nutrient content for your vegetable bed. The bag might, for instance, be labeled 2-2-2 for the NPK ratio.
Compost should have a neutral pH level (around 7.0). This ensures that it’s suitable for a wide range of plants. You can always add in peat moss to lower the pH if you’re growing more acid-loving plants like blueberries.
Fresh, finished compost should have a crumbly texture that is easy to work with. Not too course and not too fine—but just right. If you notice large pieces in a bag of compost from the garden center, that’s a sign that the compost might not be ready for your garden just yet.
Finished compost should not have an unpleasant odor. If you smell something strong, that’s another sign that the green materials inside the compost are still breaking down.
HOW TO USE COMPOST IN YOUR GARDEN
Compost can be used in a variety of ways in raised beds, container gardens, and even in-ground flower beds.
Here are some of the most common uses:
Amend native soil for in-ground beds
Mix compost into your existing soil to improve soil structure and provide nutrients for plants that might not otherwise be too happy growing in the ground.
If you have sandy soil, compost will add water retention and structure for your plants’ roots. And then compost can help loosen up compacted clay soils.
Use compost as a main ingredient for your raised bed soil
Our ideal raised bed blend is equal parts topsoil, construction sand, and good compost. The majority of the herbs, flowers, fruiting plants, and leafy greens you might want to grow in a kitchen garden will do very well in this mix.
Add compost to a potting mix
Whenever you’re potting up plants for your container garden, mix compost with potting soil. This will help hold moisture since some potting soils can be a little too well-drained. It’s also like giving your potted plants a little multivitamin.
Use compost instead of mulch
Spread compost soil like a mulch around your plants to help retain moisture and suppress weeds. Instead of wood chips or mulch, compost is a great option that feeds the soil and doesn’t rob nutrients from your plants. You also don’t risk introducing weed seeds, which often hang out in mulch since it hasn’t been processed at high temperatures like compost has.
Spread compost over your vegetable garden each growing season
Give your garden a fresh 2- to 3-inch layer of compost up top at the beginning of each new growing season. Here’s our rule of thumb: Before you plant something new, add some compost.
Top dress with compost to solve garden issues
Sprinkle compost on the surface of your soil whenever your plants need a nutritional boost. A compost top dress should be your first step if your plants aren’t growing as quickly as they should, if their leaves are turning yellow (a sign they might be missing some key nutrients), or if they’re being attacked by pests.
You might end up needing to add more specific essential nutrients (such as an organic fertilizer higher in phosphorus and potassium while your tomatoes are forming fruits), but overall, compost is kind of like a cure-all.
Using liquid and granular fertilizers can sometimes be stressful for newer gardeners because you can accidentally burn your plants (basically overstimulate them with nutrients) if you apply more than is needed. There’s really no such thing as too much compost, so you don’t have to worry. When in doubt, add compost.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN COMPOST FOR YOUR GARDEN
Making your own compost in a compost bin or pile is a great way to reduce your food waste and create your own healthy soil for your veggies.
There are whole books on this topic, so I’ll summarize it for you here to show you that it’s absolutely something each of us can (and should!) be doing to help with climate change and waste. I encourage you to go out and do your own research once you’ve decided which type of composting works best for you.
There are two main types of compost production that are accessible to home gardeners: composting bins/piles and vermicomposting.
You can make compost in a special bin intended for compost production, in a large trashcan, or even in a pile in the ground. I recommend picking up a compost starter to help initiate the breakdown of organic matter because it’s not exactly a fast process.
Your main goal will be to balance the ratio of green materials (nitrogen-rich things) to brown materials (carbon-rich materials).
- Food scraps (which you can collect in a little countertop compost bin)
- Fresh grass clippings
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea leaves/natural tea bags
- Fresh leaves
- Dry leaves
- Egg shells
- Wood ash
- Shredded cardboard
- Non-glossy paper
Note that there are certain types of food scraps you’ll want to avoid, including meats, oils, and dairy products. This trio just attracts the wrong kind of critters, including the horrible bug that rhymes with sockpoach—bleh!
You also want to avoid adding citrus peels and garlic and onion pieces. These can repel the good bugs that you want to make the compost bin their home. The larva of soldier flies (they look like extra-ugly roly polies) are rockstars at breaking down green compost. Leave them be if you see them—they’re a sign that good stuff is happening!
Lastly, avoid anything that takes forever to break down or that could release little plastic particles (like produce stickers). I learned the hard way that bags that say they’re compostable will only actually break down in a commercial composter. The type of composter we have at home won’t get hot enough to break these guys down.
The ratio of green to brown is 1 to 4. Think: every time you add a banana peel, also toss in a handful of dry leaves. This not only helps break down the materials faster, but it also prevents foul odors.
You want the materials inside to be damp but not soaking, so add water if things look too dry. If your composter is a barrel that can turn, you’ll want to turn it at least once a week to quicken decomposition. Similarly, you’ll need to stir a compost pile using a shovel or pitchfork.
Making your own worm castings is one of the easiest ways to compost your kitchen scraps.
To start vermicomposting, you’ll need an adequate container like a plastic bin with a lid. You can make your own DIY container or purchase a Subpod (my favorite outdoor container option) or an indoor worm bin, which is perfect for small spaces or apartment living.
Your next step is to add bedding material at the container’s bottom to provide a comfortable environment for the worms. This may consist of shredded newspaper or cardboard, as well as leaves.
Next, add organic materials like vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells to the container, followed by worms, which can be purchased online or from a garden center. Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm is where I purchase my red composting worms.
Place the container in a cool, dark area with excellent ventilation and spritz it with water periodically to keep the bedding material moist.
Worms will devour the organic waste you provide them and create nutrient-rich castings. These casting will, in turn, become a natural fertilizer for all of your plants.
Making your own compost is a great reminder of the simple joy of gardening. We can literally create our own healthy soil that will feed and nurture our plants—and all we have to do is collect things that would otherwise go in the trashcan and into a landfill.
Months and months after we tossed that apple core into the compost pile, it’s nutrient-rich soil that’s supporting a tomato plant that will then give us lots of nutrient-rich fruits. I mean, how incredible is that?!
Even if you’re not up for making your own compost, you can still support compost producers by buying bagged compost. You’ll also be avoiding synthetic fertilizers and stuff you don’t want in your garden.
It might look like dirt, but compost is really a beautiful thing once you come to appreciate it.