Make a habit of adding compost to the soil each planting season because it is rich in nutrients, and it promotes soil microbes that aid plant growth. In a nutshell, compost is decomposed organic matter. Composting is a natural process of recycling organic material such as leaves and vegetable scraps into a rich soil amendment that gardeners fondly nickname Black Gold.
The Many Benefits of Compost
Compost energizes the soil food web, which is made up of microscopic bacteria and fungi, along with earthworms, crickets, and many other life forms. Many fungi form symbiotic, or mutually rewarding, partnerships with plant roots, making it possible for vegetables to feed themselves more efficiently. Research shows that compost enhances the ability of tomatoes and other vegetables to stand up to common diseases and may improve their flavor and nutrition, too. Compost also helps the soil retain moisture. Through composting you enhance your garden’s ability to grow healthy plants while reducing your volume of trash.
What Is the Difference Between Compost and Fertilizer?
The simplest way to distinguish between compost and fertilizer is to remember this: Compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.
Fertilizer adds to the soil’s nutrient supply, but instead of feeding the soil food web, the ingredients in fertilizers are intended to meet the needs of fast-growing plants. While recommended amounts of compost can be quite general, fertilizer application rates are based on the needs of plants. Either organic or conventional fertilizers work well for vegetables, but organic fertilizers have been shown to be friendlier to the soil food web. Chemical fertilizer can also feed composting, but continual use may throw soil chemistry out of balance and discourage microbes.
Compost and organic fertilizers can work together. The organic matter in compost sponges up the fertilizer nutrients until they are needed by plants. Compost also provides many nutrients that plants need in small amounts, such as boron. You can use fertilizer without compost, but why miss an opportunity to increase your soil’s fertility and its ability to hold moisture? Soil that is regularly amended (i.e., improved) with compost becomes wonderfully dark and crumbly and often requires much less fertilizer compared to soil that has not yet benefited from regular helpings of compost.
How to Make Compost
Like homemade soup, every batch of compost is different. The mixture depends on the materials that go into it, which means there isn’t just one list of perfect ingredients. There is, however, a single tried-and-true ratio to follow: Add 3 parts browns and 1 part greens.
- Browns for composting include leaves, pine needles, hay or straw, newspapers or cardboard, and sawdust.
- Greens for composting include veggie scraps and kitchen waste (but not meat or dairy), untreated grass clippings, coffee grounds, and manure or other organic fertilizers.
If you want to compost jack-o-lanterns or your fall cornucopia once decorative gourd season is over, know that they need to be deseeded before they’re added in. For uncarved pumpkins and gourds, this means opening them up and scooping out all of the seeds inside (save those seeds to use in the kitchen). With carved pumpkins, make sure your jack-o-lantern is in fact free of seeds, but additionally, check it for candle wax and remove any that may have dripped. Carved or not, you can help speed up the decomposition process by smashing or cutting your pumpkin into sections. If your pumpkin is painted, however, it needs to go in the trash.
Check out our article, How to Make a Compost Pile, for step-by-step instructions on getting a compost pile started. Also, know that even gardeners who actively compost may still need to buy a little “black gold” from time to time, either in bulk or in bags. See Smart Compost Shopping for tips on buying commercially produced compost for your garden.
Turning your organic waste into a useful gardening material is a win-win for you and the earth that feeds us. Plus, seeing your ingredients turn into compost is really fun! Just stick to the ratio and soon you’ll have a nutritious batch that’s ready to help make your growing season an even bigger success.