Once overlooked and misunderstood, compost has become a valuable commodity in the landscaping and gardening industries. Different types of compost can be found in bags at big box home improvement stores, your local garden center or ordered in bulk from landscape suppliers. On a smaller scale, many people have compost bins at home where they make their own compost by mixing food scraps, leaves and lawn clippings. Because of its nutritional value, many consider compost a viable alternative to commercial fertilizers.

gardening compost ready for useWhat is Compost?

Compost is basically decayed organic matter. Almost any natural material, if left alone long enough, will break down and turn into compost. Commercial compost is often manure-based – cow manure being the most common – or mixture of materials such as mushroom compost, which is used growing media from mushroom production. Bulk compost is likely to be a mixture of yard waste materials and, possibly, farming byproducts like manure and straw.

The best compost begins with a proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen. If the right combination of materials are piled together, they will decompose more quickly. Heat builds in the center of the pile, which helps to destroy harmful pathogens. Turning compost and adding moisture at regular intervals keeps the process moving. The final product should be dark and rich, almost like topsoil.

compost barrel at home

home composting

Using Compost in Planting Beds

Compost typically provides nutrients and improves the structural qualities of garden soil. If you are preparing a planting bed, try spreading an inch or so of compost and, then, dig it into the top several inches of soil. This will make it more readily available to plant roots while improving the aeration and water holding capacity of the soil.

Using Compost on Your Lawn

Compost also is an effective topdressing for lawns. After dethatching and aerating your lawn in spring or fall, spread a very thin layer of compost. It will serve as a mild fertilizer and, over time, improve the soil. Compost can also serve as a mulch for lawn overseeding or reseeding of bare patches.

How to Know What You Are Getting

Bagged compost will have information about the percentage of the primary nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. It should also have basic information about the source of the compost. Among its other uses, bagged compost is considered safe to use in vegetable gardens.

gardening compost

If compost comes from a pasture, ask about herbicide use

If you are buying compost in bulk, ask about the source of the compost and how long it has been composting. In general, animal manure should compost for at two years before it is used in the garden, particularly vegetable gardens. It is possible for herbicides such as Grazon, which is used in some pastures, to pass through a horse or cow’s digestive tract and remain in the compost, stunting plant growth in gardens.

You can, of course, make your own compost. It’s a good way to recycle materials that might otherwise take up space in a landfill. Be sure to use a mixture of green, brown, wet and dry materials. Examples include fresh grass clippings, dead leaves, food scraps and shredded newspaper. If you use food scraps, avoid meat byproducts.

There is no reason that compost should not be part of every garden and landscape. It’s a practical and efficient way to recycle resources while improving the health of lawns, ornamental plants and vegetable gardens.