Wondering what the best compost is for your garden? Check out this comprehensive guide to find out!
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Are you looking to give your garden the best nourishment possible? Have you considered composting? Compost is a great way to add nutrients and minerals back into the soil, replenish its microbial balance, and create an overall healthier growing environment. With so many types of compost out there, it can be hard to decide which one is best for your garden. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide — so that homesteaders and gardeners like you can find the perfect type of compost for your needs!
This is a post about the 5 best Composts for the Garden.
Table of Contents
What is Compost?
Composting is the natural process of organic matter breaking down. If you’ve ever walked through a forest, what did you see?
Usually you see fallen leaves, twigs, branches, fallen trees, and rotting logs (just to name a few). The debris on the forest floor naturally decomposes, recycling the material back into the earth.
Composting follows this natural process, but we take it a step further. In compost piles, food scraps are added along with things like grass clippings, leaves, and cardboard. The actual process of composting speeds up decomposition as the pile generates heat, but also attracts bacteria, fungi, and other decomposing critters like earthworms. At the end of the process, a rich, black fertilizing compost is unveiled that can be used to add nutrients back into your garden.
Pretty neat, huh?!
What are the Benefits of Composting?
There are so many benefits to composting and honestly we don’t do enough of it. I’ve compiled a list of just some of the benefits gained from composting.
- Recycling system right in your own backyard.
We have the ability to compost right in our own backyards and not send waste to the landfill. According to National Resources Defense Council,
“Food scraps and garden waste combined make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away. Not only is food waste a significant burden on the environment, but processing it is costly. The average cost to landfill municipal solid waste in the United States was around $55 per ton in 2019. With the United States generating more than 267 million tons of municipal waste in 2017 and sending two-thirds of that to landfills and incinerators, we spent billions of dollars on waste management. Composting at home allows us to divert some of that waste from landfills and turn it into something practical for our yards.”
Hu, Sheila. “Composting 101”. Natural Resources Defense Council, 20 Jul, 2020. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101
- Helps revitalize soil fertility
Overall, soil fertility is on a decline from not only poor farming practices, but even poor practices that we use to maintain on our own properties. The loss of fertility is due to salinization, acidification, loss of important nutrients, and the decline of beneficial soil microorganisms. One of the primary causes of this is the application of pesticides. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN),
“every year US homeowners use about 80 million pounds of synthetic pesticides.”
“Garden”. Pesticide Actiona Network North America. https://www.panna.org/starting-home/garden#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%20U.S.%20homeowners%20apply,synthetic%20pesticides%20to%20their%20lawns
- Attracts beneficial organisms
Beneficial organisms like bacteria and fungi are really important in the composting and decomposing processes. Your garden needs things like friendly bacteria to maintain the soil’s health.
- Reduces soil erosion
Impenetrable, hard soil doesn’t allow water to filter through its layers. Water collects on the surface and washes away the topsoil. By adding compost, it acts as a sponge to absorb water and keep topsoil where it should be.
- Helps with retaining moisture
As mentioned, the compost acts as a sponge, allowing it to absorb and retain more moisture. This is not the same as having waterlogged soil. Waterlogged soil only collects water but doesn’t drain properly. Spongy soil is critical, especially in areas that experience very warm temperatures, to keep plants healthy.
- Filters water allowing clean water to eventually make its way to the ocean
Healthy soil is able to absorb and then filter water. This natural process allows for the replenishment of local waterways. With so much soil that isn’t penetrable, this filtration process can’t occur. Therefore water collects on the surface and washes away both topsoil and any contaminants along with it. This pollutes our underground water and waterways as contaminants wash down outside drainage systems.
- Carbon capturer
Healthy soil leads to healthy plants that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. After absorbing CO2, the plant then converts it into carbohydrates, or sugar. The carbohydrates attract and feed microbes. And so the cycle continues!
[RELATED POST: How Does Gardening Affect Soil Fertility? ]
What are the main ingredients of compost?
To have a proper balance in your compost pile, there are 4 main ingredients it should have:
- Nitrogen-rich materials (green material) such as grass clippings and food scraps.
- Carbon-rich materials (brown material) such as leaves and twigs.
- Moisture: the pile shouldn’t be too wet, but it shouldn’t be too dry either.
What Can You Compost and What Shouldn’t You Compost
Since the point is to recycle the compost into your garden, you won’t be able to compost every single food scrap. For example you shouldn’t compost meat or dairy. These shouldn’t be composted because as they decompose it becomes infected with bacteria like E.coli. We don’t want bad bacteria in our gardens!
Here’s a short list of what you should and shouldn’t compost. This isn’t a complete list though!
What To Compost
|Leaves, twigs, any kind of brush
|Meat, bones, fish
|Fat, oil, grease
|Animal waste (from cats, dogs)
|Spent plantings (with no disease)
|Anything in the garden treated with herbicides, pesticides
What Isn’t Real Composting?
This may seem like a strange question, but once I explain it’ll make sense. Recently companies began selling machines that are labeled as composters. Examples are the Lomi Home Composter and the Vitamix Food Cycler. These do not create actual compost, but produce what we can maybe call “pre-compost”.
These machines take food scraps, heat them up, and pulverize them to create a fine finished product. The finished product can be used in the garden where it’ll continue to break down. However, this doesn’t entirely replace actual compost. It’s a great option for anyone who may live in an apartment or doesn’t have the space to compost.
I actually have the Vitamix Food Cycler and love it! We’ve had it for almost a year and use it several times a week. If you’re not able to have a composting set up, then this is something you may want to consider.
Searching for the Best Compost for the Garden: Different Types of Compost
Now that we have a basic understanding of how composting works, let’s move onto options you may already have available to you. Some of these options are even FREE. You can either start your own composting pile from some of these options or apply directly to the garden.
Shredded Leaves and Yard Trimmings Compost
Shredded (or mulched) leaves and yard trimmings are a free option for compost. I personally use shredded leaves directly in my garden. We use an attachment on our leaf blower that shreds to leaves and put them in a collection bag. Once the bag is full, the collection bag is dumped directly into the garden. I do this process every single fall. The leaves break down and slowly add nutrients into the soil. The mulched leaves protect the soil from being washed away as well.
Always have your soil covered! If you notice in nature, soil is covered.
In the spring, the leaves are then lightly tilled into the soil. I don’t use a tiller though as any disturbance to the soil to a minimum.
We don’t use any yard trimmings since there are weeds in the grass. However, you can definitely use yard trimmings if you’re able to have a compost bin.
How to Compost with Shredded Leaves and Yard Trimmings
If you’re starting a compost bin, layer your green (yard trimmings) and brown (leaves) material like a lasagna. Feel free to add in any other materials that you may have in your yard that you want to compost. After layering the pile, add some water to it. It shouldn’t be soaking wet though.
Yes, you can definitely use manure in your garden. But not just any manure. You shouldn’t use your dog’s or cat’s manure in your garden.
Both are meat eaters and for hygienic reasons. Their feces can carry pathogens.
In our garden, we use composted cow manure. It’s like black gold and one of the best things you can possibly add to your garden.
There’s an important thing to know about manure. With most manures, you can’t add them directly to your garden. It’ll literally burn your plants if you do. It needs to compost for a period of time before it’s added.
Let’s take a look at the different types of manure compost you can use.
Different Types of Manure Compost
What do these animals all have in common? They’re herbivores.
Mushroom compost, or mushroom soil, is a great addition as a soil builder. It can’t replace your soil though. Contrary to what you may think, mushroom compost isn’t made from mushrooms.
Mushroom compost is what’s known as the ‘substrate’. The ‘substrate’ is the medium in which mushrooms are grown. The most common blends for the substrate have: wheat straw, gypsum, and horse or chicken manure.
What you buy at the store to use in your garden is actually ‘spent mushroom substrate’. This means it’s already been used to grow mushrooms. The substrate is given a fungal inoculation when it’s going to be used to grow mushrooms. This fungal inoculation causes the compost to break down and it then becomes more soil-like.
An important thing to keep in mind: since it has already been used to grow a crop, it is low in nutrients.
In spite of being low in nutrients, it is still useful as a soil amendment since the straw continues to break down. The straw can be useful for clay soil, for water retention, and has other perks.
Bokashi composting is a composting method that uses fermentation. The word comes from the Japanese word that means ‘fermented organic material’, and was developed by Dr. Teuro Higa. It differs from other methods of composting, but it’s quick to whip up and use in the garden.
The process involves layering kitchen scraps in an inoculant in a special bucket. The inoculant is made with one of the following: wheat germ, wheat bran, or sawdust. One of these three ingredients is then combined with molasses and effective microorganisms (EM). After layering the ingredients in the bucket, it is left out in the sun to ferment for 10 days. Once it ferments, you’re left with a “bokashi tea” that’s used as a fertilizer. This “tea” is either dug directly into the garden or put into a traditional compost pile to continue breaking down.
Vermicomposting is a decomposition process involving worms. Worms are a really important element in the garden. Vermicomposting involves the decomposition of food waste, bedding material, and vermicast. Once the worms consume the decomposing material, their excrements result in an end-product of broken down organic matter. These excrements are known as vermicast. Vermicast contains nutrients that can be used as a fertilizer.
You can usually find bagged compost at a local nursery or a big box store. Bagged compost is made of various types of organic matter. It can be composed of: manure (horse, cow chicken, etc), grass clippings, leaves, worm castings, peat moss, and many other ingredients.
Bagged compost makes it super easy to apply to your garden without having to create your own. Not everyone has the space to compost (like me), so this is a great option to be able to introduce it to your garden.
Every bag of compost is different so they’ll all have different ingredients in them.
Let’s take a look at the 5 best composts for the garden.
The 5 Best Composts for the Garden: Store Bought Bagged Compost (Organic)
- Vermont Compost: Container Booster Compost Mix
Vermont Compost is a company based out of Montpelier, Vermont where they make their own compost blends. Their blends are made from materials from farms, forests, and food rescued from the local community.
Their Container Booster Compost Mix is made from a mixture of sphagnum peat moss; crushed, washed screened granite/basalt blend; coconut coir; blood meal; feather meal; kelp meal; gypsum; bone char; vermiculite. This mix is great for: container gardening, transplants, and houseplants.
This product contains 100% natural and organic material.
2. Wiggle Worm Soil Builder: Worm Castings Organic Fertilizer
I recommend trying to incorporate worm castings into your garden. This is a brand that I’ve used and like. It’s all natural and useful for both indoor and outdoor plants. It’s odor free so there’s no need to worry about any odors if you choose to use it for your houseplants.
3. Mountain Valley Seed Company: Worm Castings
This compost claims to be different from traditional vermicompost that comes from earthworms. The worm castings are made from redworms. They can be used for both indoor and outdoor gardening.
4. Blue Ribbon Organics Omri Certified Organic Compost
Blue Ribbon Organics is a company based out of Caledonia, Wisconsin. They make their compost from food scraps and yard trimmings. It’s good for all types of gardening from raised beds to organic farming. They screen their products for trace minerals, pathogens, test for compost maturity, and ensure that it’s safe and free from weed seeds. It even meets US Composting Council “Seal of Approval” and Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) requirements.
Sun Gro’s Black Gold Garden Compost is for both raised beds and in-ground gardens. There are only 3 ingredients in this compost: compost, composted bark, and composted or aged bark. The company shares what ingredients are in the compost. It states that its product varies from region to region based on what’s available in that area. It may contain composted rice hulls, composted mushroom casing mix, and/or composted dairy manure. It’s also OMRI certified.
When is the Right Time to Compost and Prep the Soil?
For planting during the spring and summer, I always prep the soil in the fall. Soil amendments don’t immediately fix the soil. They take time to work into the soil. I apply a layer of compost each fall and mix it into the existing soil. This involves light turning the soil. I never till the soil since I follow more of a no-dig method. Next a heavy layer of shredded leaves are applied to protect the top layer of soil.
In the spring, I start prepping the garden to get ready for plantings later in the season. The leaves are mixed into the soil, followed by a new layer of compost and mulch. I add straw on top after composting.
- Can I put compost on top soil?
Yes, you can add compost on top soil. The best practice after that is to add some sort of mulch on top though to protect the soil. For example adding shredded leaves or straw on top. This helps to prevent soil loss and compacting.
- Can you compost directly in the garden?
Yes, composting directly in the garden isn’t a new concept. Dig a small trench in the garden and add in the organic material. The organic material will decompose beneath the soil.
- Is bagged compost good for the garden?
Not all gardeners are able to create their own compost. So bagged compost is a great option.
- Can I grow vegetables in 100% compost?
Technically, you could grow vegetables in 100% compost, but it’s not good practice. It’s best to mix the compost with other mediums. Plants require more structure in the soil than what compost can provide.
- Can you put too much compost in the garden?
Adding too much compost to your garden can cause health issues for your plants. If there’s an excessive amount added, there could be high concentrations of nutrients. Excess nutrients can cause conflicts with other nutrients, inhibiting the plant from up-taking them, leading to deficiencies.
Remember, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
- Does compost need to be turned every day?
If you created your own compost pile at some point it has to be turned. There is advice showing a range of time from 2 to 3 days up to 2 weeks. The temperature of the pile determines how often to turn it. Therefore monitoring the pile’s temperature is important. Hotter piles require frequent turning. Although a compost pile can reach 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature is between 120 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Composting is the natural process of organic matter breaking down. It speeds up decomposition, and creates a rich, black fertilizing compost that can be used to add nutrients back into your garden. Some benefits of composting include: revitalizing soil fertility, attracting beneficial organisms, reducing soil erosion, filtering water allowing clean water to eventually make its way to the ocean, and carbon capturer. The 4 main ingredients for a proper balance in your compost pile are: nitrogen-rich materials (green material), carbon-rich materials (brown material), moisture, and oxygen. Shredded leaves and yard trimmings are a free option for compost that you can either start your own composting pile from or apply directly to the garden. We’ve looked at the best composts for the garden that fit a variety of budgets and how to incorporate them into your garden.
Do you compost in your garden? What tips do you have for fellow gardeners about composting? Comment below!