Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
Many gardeners will visit the big box store or nursery to find soil or compost. With many products, deciding which is the right choice for your garden cannot be easy.
It is best to use compost when there is a surplus of leftover food and items thrown into the landfill in your households, which can be utilized to lessen the use of chemical fertilizer in your plants and soil amendments. Potting soil is commonly found in stores with a mix of organic and inorganic materials to aid in specific gardening needs.
Using either soil or compost has many benefits for your garden. We will discuss your garden’s advantages and disadvantages when using either compost, soil, or both. We explain the difference between soil types to help you make the best decision for your garden.
The only certainty is that to maintain your garden’s health, adding soil or compost is always better than not adding anything at all. Compost and soil can be difficult to distinguish, so let’s get into the differences and find out what’s best for you.
What are Compost and its use?
Compost uses oxygen, water, organic materials, and bacteria to create a mix of decaying, nutrient-rich soil with medium density. Brown matter, such as dry leaves and twigs, and green matter, including lawn clippings and food, are combined as part of composting and begin to deteriorate.
Before planting a new set of crops in the springtime, the materials are predominantly used to freshen up depleted soils after breaking down materials into rich soil.
Benefits of the use of Compost
Composted materials benefit the soil by loosening clay for optimal root penetration, aiding in water penetration, and providing microorganisms.
The nutrient-filled matter that composting provides reduces the need to use soil amendments and chemical fertilizers. It also reduces the number of leftover foods, fruit and vegetable peelings, and eggshells ending in landfill waste.
Once it has completed maturing and is ready, there are many ways to use compost in your garden. You can use it to improve the quality of your soil by mixing it in; after you aerate your lawn, you can spread the compost over it, water down the compost tea, and use it as liquid fertilizer; you can improve the quality of your soil by mixing it with your compost, you can even spread it as mulch.
When using compost as mulch, you can create a two- or three-inch layer on top of your garden beds once or twice a year—the same as any other mulch.
You can dig the compost through your soil, down to about four inches deep, if the soil needs improving. You can speed up the composting process by using an insulated bin designed to trap heat, this will allow organic materials and food scraps to break down faster in the composter, or you can add worms – also known as vermicomposting.
Water that has been soaked in composted materials is known as compost tea water. Some of the compost’s microorganisms, humates, and nutrients are leached into the liquid.
Instead of using water, you can add compost tea to help your soil and boost the nutrient levels, the humates in compost help plants in their ability to use the nutrients that are available in the soil, along with many other benefits.
Before applying compost, ideally, you should sieve it when using pure compost to topdress your lawn. To work its way to the soil, you would want the pieces to be as small as possible so the compost doesn’t sit on the top of your lawn.
The most common types of compost are:
Wood Waste Compost
Wood waste compost is primarily made up of bark chips, leaves and branches from when trees are pruned. It is piled up high and quickly heats up. Due to its carbon content, this compost takes a long time to break into usable compost. It can, however, be used as mulch before fully broken down.
Green Waste Compost
Green waste compost comprises all garden matter, kitchen vegetables, and fruit scraps. It is typically left at the curbside, collected by the local authorities and taken to a processing center. It is ground into smaller particle sizes and blended, adding huge amounts of water.
Green waste compost is mounded high in long rows called windrows, and special equipment is used to turn this every couple of days to increase air, speeding up the breaking down process. A lot of bagged compost contains green compost in its formulations.
Manure compost comes from herbivore manures. It is usually cow or horse in nature, but alpaca, sheep, rabbit, goat, or any other animal that does not eat meat can be used. This is required to be left to continue rotting into compost.
Care must be taken to know where the manure has come from as certain animals have been treated with antibiotics, and the ground they feed on could have been treated with pyralid weed killer, a broadleaf weed killer. These can continue throughout the composting process and kill your plants when used to grow in
Ask the source if these have been used on their land to avoid this issue.
This type of compost combines clay, sand, and silt. The combination is treated to ensure no undesirable organisms or chemicals. There is usually more silt and sand than clay within loam compost.
When To Use Compost
Compost is best if you want to improve your soil’s quality. If you put many plants into one pot, such as during the summer when planting bedding plants, the plant won’t reach as many nutrients or spread its roots.
This is when you need something with more ‘oomph’ – more nutrients, a slow-release fertilizer, and more organic matter.
To apply the nutrients to your soil, you can rake or till the compost to mix it into the soil. You can use this compost and soil mixture when planting flower beds, sowing seeds, installing sod, or planting shrubs.
The mixture of compost and potting soil is called potting compost and is used by many nurseries. This mix gives you the advantages of compost, more nutrients, organic matter, and the benefits of soil because it holds a better structure and dries out slower.
To grow properly and allow them to grow better with the added nutrients, you may consider adding compost when growing “hungry plants,” such as vegetables.
|Uses of Compost||Benefits of Use|
|Soil nutrient booster||It helps feed microbial life|
|Maintains a high level of natural health of the soil||Increases overall population and diversity of soil life|
|Beneficial microbes growth||Builds soil fertility, structure, and nutritional value of soil|
|Sufficient nutritional elements for soil||No chemical additives are required|
|Retains moisture in the soil||Compost holds moisture in the soil like a sponge|
|Proper plant growth promotion||Microbial life increases nutrients, and fungi help plants to grow|
|Fights disease in the soil||Increases good bacteria that attack the bad bacteria|
|Controls and limits weeds||Weeds prefer Barron, poor soil. wanted plants are stronger|
|Feeds soil directly||No chemicals, organic matter increases fertility with microbes.|
It is much cheaper and environmentally friendly than fertilizers, both organic and non-organic because you can make your own
- We need to ensure that there are no soil-borne pathogens in garden plants.
- It takes longer to see any effect in the soil compared to other additives
- It Will be very time-consuming and can take months to break down properly
- Unlike digging up some topsoil, making compost will require more physical labor.
- It can be smelly because it is made of decaying organic matter.
For further advantages and disadvantages of composting, I have a detailed article covering this. It will take you through the entire subject so that you know what, when, and where to use and make compost.
What Is Soil?
Made from various proportions of clay, small amounts of organic matter, sand, and silt, the soil is found on the top layer of the earth. There are more than 70,000 types of soil.
To get nutrient levels back to optimal, you will want to amend the soil by adding new soil after several seasons of growing usage. Because of this, compost has become important. The top layer of soil, where everything grows, is called topsoil.
Topsoil is what you need if you are adding or replacing lawn, making new garden beds, or the soil already in your garden is shallow, or putting in raised beds and adding new soil.
What Is Potting Mix?
It is important to understand what typically potting mix you find in stores. You will discover various combinations to help you with your gardening efforts; this section will focus on the potting mix.
Potting mix usually contains organic and inorganic materials; they may also have mineral soil and sand.
Many potting mixes consist of sphagnum moss, peat moss, and compost for moisture retention. Vermiculite or perlite is used to drain without using mineral soils like clay or sand. This type of potting mix is labeled as “soilless.”
Many people have issues deciding whether to use potting mix or soil. This article will help you decide what to use in your circumstances.
Different Soil Types
To be a successful gardener, it is essential to have a healthy layer of topsoil. Topdressing your garden or lawn will lead to healthier growth if you purchase higher-quality topsoil.
Topsoil is available in three different types:
This type of soil contains tiny particles holding water and not draining water. As well as other types, soil with water has water well and doesn’t need to be amended regularly since it can hold nutrients for longer.
Clay soil can be a cause for concern when growing in your garden. I wanted to tackle this and answer the question can you grow in clay soils? So I wrote an article to break this down and show you how to get the best results.
Like loam compost, loam soil consists of a mix of silt, sand, clay, and organic materials and is the best regarding the level of nutrients. This is the perfect soil type for adding topsoil to your garden or lawn due to its high nutrient and organic matter level.
You will have to water and fertilize more frequently with this soil type because it is the exact opposite of clay soil in nutrient and water retention.
Balance is key when it comes to amending your soil. Adding sandy soil is best when you need to improve drainage. Adding clay-based soil is ideal if your soil is not holding nutrients or water. If you need to add the most nutrients possible, consider adding loamy soil.
How to make compost to add to your soil?
For some, composting can be daunting; they worry about how to make it effective. You may have had experiences or heard of someone who had a slimy, smelly heap or one that never broke down. In the video below, I take you through everything you need to know in full detail so that you get perfect results every time.
Is It Ok To Use A Mix Of Topsoil and Compost?
Using a mix of topsoil and compost; will mean that your garden or lawn will benefit from both.
Due to its organic nature, compost has more nutrients but is more difficult to spread around your garden. Mixing topsoil and compost will produce an easier-to-spread and more nutrient-rich combination.
You will start to see the benefits of your work several months down the line since that’s how long it can take for the nutrients in your newly added layer of topsoil or compost to reach down to the root system of your garden.
If you decide to buy compost out of a store, read the label and, based on what you are using it for, decide which is best since store-bought compost will be more often than not a mix and not a pure compost.
Make sure to research when it is time to buy soil or compost. You can avoid problems from a poor quality product and save money and time.
When deciding whether you need compost or soil, here is the basic rule that you should follow:
- General gardening = topsoil
- Hungry or potted plants = compost
Adding soil or compost can be a regular practice; most people add new layers yearly or every other year. You would want to top up at the beginning of every growing season to give your garden better-growing conditions no matter how thin you spread your soil or compost.
FAQs on Empowering Gardeners: The Truth About Soil and Compost
Can I plant directly into compost?
Compost is a wonderful resource; you can plant and grow directly into the compost. Compost is better utilized by incorporating it into the soil and building your soil’s microbial and fungal life. It increases yields of vegetables and flowers and provides more robust root plants.
Can homemade compost be used as potting soil?
Homemade compost is higher in nutrition but is riddled to remove the more significant components, so it is more refined and utilized as potting soil. Many gardeners use homemade compost solely as potting soil, but amending it with perlite may be required to aid drainage.
How long does compost last in pots?
Pot compost typically lasts around three months before the additional feed is required. However, homemade compost can last as long as six months due to the increased microbial and fungal life it contains. Organic feed like blood fish and bonemeal can be added to feed plants in pots.
Conclusion on Should you use potting soil or compost?
Adding potting soil or compost to your garden and deciding which is best to use is pretty straightforward, and following the information in this article, I know you can make the right choice. Remember, plants want to grow and will tell you if something isn’t right.
Become a student of your plants and watch what’s happening to them; little telltale signs will show themselves, and you can make the difference by altering your tactics whether you’re adding potting soil or compost, then know that your plant will grow as long as they have nutrients, water, and warmth.
As we have discussed, compost increases the microbial and fungal life in the soil. But it also increases worm density; as we all know, worms are perfect for the garden. I wrote an article on increasing the worm population in the garden to help you increase productivity.
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