The optimum way to care for plants has long been debated amongst plant owners. Essentially, each type of plant requires a unique approach to keep it alive and healthy. The overarching point of contention has been compost versus fertilizer, and which one does the job the better. In this article, we’ll explore each type of plant food to demonstrate that compost is better than fertilizers.
You’re probably wondering why compost is better than chemical fertilizers. While fertilizer is a common and effective way to nourish plants, it typically consists of a range of synthetic materials and chemicals. Compost, on the other hand, is a natural alternative for feeding your plants and ensuring they thrive.
That being said, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of plant food. We take a look at the two substances to identify key differences and explore their uses, as well as exploring the method to make your own compost.
Why Is Compost Better Than Chemical Fertilizers?
Compost is better than chemical fertilizers, predominantly because it is made from natural materials rather than synthetic products. This means it is better for the environment and less likely to have a long-term impact on the soil quality and surrounding area.
It is also a cheaper way of feeding plants and recycles dead organic matter to use it for a new purpose. While fertilizer is effective and a quick solution if you are in desperate need of plant enhancement, the fact that it is made from chemicals makes it the less superior choice for plant growth.
What Is the Difference Between Compost and Chemical Fertilizers?
Compost and fertilizer are both used to nourish plants, yet they are two completely different substances.
Compost consists entirely of organic matter. Things like dead leaves, plant scraps, and manure are mixed together, decaying until they become compost.
Fertilizer is a little different, being made of a mixture of ingredients. Some of these are organic, like manure, which is also used to make compost, but many are synthetic. Typically, fertilizer includes phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen compounds.
While compost and fertilizer both facilitate plant growth, there is one key difference between the two in the way that they do this. Compost feeds the soil, creating an environment where plants can develop and flourish. Fertilizer, however, feeds the plant directly and helps it to grow this way.
Compost, being made completely of natural matter, is better for long term use as it is better for the environment. Fertilizer is a quick operator and aims to provide fast enhancement to plants when necessary.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Compost?
Compost is an effective, natural way to improve the health of your plants. It enriches the soil to create an environment where plants can thrive.
There is a range of advantages and disadvantages associated with compost that all plant owners should be aware of. This way, you will be able to determine when compost should be used for your plants.
Advantages of compost
Compost is favored by many gardeners and with good reason. It provides a range of benefits, such as:
It aerates the soil
Compost helps to add oxygen to the soil, which in turn allows the soil to retain water. It is very effective in enhancing the natural drainage system to help water to get through.
It improves the health of the soil
Compost helps to feed the whole soil food chain. This makes sure that all organisms are playing their role and creating a healthy environment for all elements to exist, including plants.
It allows healthy microbes to grow
Compost provides an environment where healthy microbes are able to grow. Microbes are important in maintaining the natural order of things as they help to decompose organic matter. They play a critical role in keeping soil healthy and therefore help to keep plants healthy.
It enriches the soil with nutrients
Compost creates soils that have more nutrients. This is hugely beneficial for plant growth as the plants can access these nutrients and feed when they need to.
It controls weeds
Compost helps to control the growth of weeds, providing more room for plants to grow.
It encourages earthworms to live in the soil
An important part of the soil food web, earthworms play a significant role when it comes to soil health. They help to break down organic matter, turning it into a fertilizer-like substance, and increase the water and air that exists in the soil. Compost enhances the habitat, attracting earthworms to the area and thus improving the overall quality of the soil.
It helps prevent disease
Vegetable patches are targets for many diseases, but compost can help prevent these. It is especially useful in providing protection for tomatoes.
Disadvantages of Compost
There is only one main disadvantage of using compost to grow your plants: time. Most gardeners make their own compost, but this a process that can take months. You will need to set up a compost system and wait for the organic matter to decompose before it becomes useable.
If you are making and using your own compost, you will need to be careful with the organic matter that you use. Compost that has been made with substances containing soil-borne pathogens will transfer these to your healthy plants.
Make sure you avoid using this type of organic material in your compost as it will result in a broad-spread infestation and impact your healthy plants.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Chemical Fertilizers?
Fertilizer is a popular choice for enhancing plant growth. It works quickly and offers several benefits for encouraging the healthy development of plants.
Advantages of chemical fertilizers
The advantages of fertilizer are outlined as follows:
It adds nutrients to the soil
Fertilizer directly adds nutrients to the soil, allowing plants to feed on these and become healthier as a result.
It targets plants to give them what they need
Plants are able to grow faster when provided with fertilizer as the product is designed to target their specific needs. If a plant is missing something or the conditions aren’t quite optimum, fertilizer will address this product and speed up growth.
It enriches a plant by reducing deficiencies
Fertilizer helps plants grow by providing nutrients that can address specific deficiencies that exist in that plant. For instance, fertilizer may provide the magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, or calcium that a plant desperately needs to thrive.
It is available in different types
Depending on your requirements, fertilizer can be purchased in a range of types so that you can get the best results. For plants in desperate need of a quick boost, you can opt for a fast-releasing fertilizer. If you want to deliver nutrients over a longer period, fertilizer is available in a slow-release form for this very purpose.
Disadvantages of chemical fertilizers
While there are many benefits of using fertilizer, there is also a range of disadvantages. Most of these are associated with the chemical used to make the product.
Disadvantages of fertilizer include:
It can harm the environment due to the chemicals present
Given that fertilizers are made from a range of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, the surrounding environment can be impacted by its use. This is especially true around water sources, where the chemicals may enter the water and have a broader impact.
In fact, fertilizer can facilitate the growth of algae, which reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, in turn impacting the health of fish. It is important to prevent using fertilizer around bodies of water for this reason.
It can provide too many nutrients
Fertilizer is very rich in nutrients, meaning it can provide a valuable hit of these when required. It also means that it has the potential to overload soil with nutrients. This will upset the balance of the soil and actually be detrimental, rather than beneficial.
It can impact the health of microbes
If the soil becomes unbalanced, it impacts the survival of microbes. Microbes are hugely beneficial for the health of soil but require specific conditions to exist. Too much fertilizer can prevent microbes from living in the soil and therefore stops the benefits that come from having these microbes.
How Do I Apply Compost to My Garden?
There is a range of ways to use compost in your garden. Depending on who you talk to, you are likely to get a different response. All gardeners seem to have their own preferred method, but it doesn’t mean that all ways aren’t effective.
Here are five ways that you can use compost to enhance the health of your plants.
1. Use it to create a garden bed
You can use compost to create an entirely new garden bed. Simply dig out the space where you want to add plants and fill it with compost and manure. Leave it for a couple of weeks so it can really decompose, then you will be ready to add plants.
Given that it made from organic matter, it is impossible to use too much compost. Be generous to ensure there is enough available to cover your plants. Make sure that you only use old manure, as fresh manure should never be added directly to your garden bed.
2. Spread it like mulch
Compost is a great alternative to mulch. Simply spread it around your plants as you would with mulch, creating a thick layer around them. For optimum results, do not exceed 40mm in thickness.
The one downfall to this option is that you will need a lot of compost. If you are creating your own compost at home, the chances are high that you will not have enough to use your mixture in this manner.
3. Use it as potting mix
It is possible to create a potting mix by mixing compost with other ingredients. Use your wheelbarrow to create a mixture consisting of one part of sphagnum moss (thoroughly shredded), two parts river sand, and four parts of your homemade compost.
Your local garden supply center should have river sand and sphagnum moss available for purchase. The end result is an organic potting mix that your plants will love.
4. Turn it into a natural liquid fertilizer
Looking for an organic fertilizer? If so, you can easily re-purpose your compost. Here’s how:
- Put some compost in a bucket and add water, using a ratio of three parts water to one-part compost.
- Leave this mixture to sit for three days, stirring 2 -3 times throughout the duration of this period.
- When the three days are up, you will be able to use this liquid to feed your plants. Simply take the liquid and pour it into the soil around your plants.
This organic fertilizer is very environmentally friendly and can be re-used. When you are finished with your liquid fertilizer, add the remains back into your compost to be used again. Otherwise, you can make use of the remaining mixture by spreading it on your garden beds.
5. Use it to moisturize dry soil
Compost has a significant water component and therefore is a great, natural option for adding water to your soil. To make this happen, dig into the soil, add compost, and mix it through with your shovel.
Dry soil becomes resistant to water as it becomes covered in a wax-like substance. Compost breaks through this surface with the micro-organisms that exist within its contents. Mixing compost through your soil helps it to absorb water once again.
Can I Make My Own Compost?
It is definitely possible to make your own compost. In fact, creating your own compost at home is the most cost-effective way to nourish your plants. It also is a good option for recycling plant scraps and other organic matter.
The following details outline what you need to make compost and the process to follow.
- DIY compost bin (available at your local hardware or garden supply center)
- Coarse organic material for draining (twigs, hay or similar)
- A tarpaulin or piece of carpet
- Fresh manure
- Organic waste
And here’s the process:
- Start by laying your course material of choice at the bottom of the bin. You want to create a layer that is about 10cm in thickness.
- Next, add layers of garden waste. Each layer should be about 15cm thick. Make sure you alternate between different organic materials. For instance, add a layer of leaves, then a layer of food waste, and so on.
- Add water as needed. You don’t need the mixture to be excessively wet, but the layers cannot be dry. Assess each layer as you go, adding water where needed.
- In order for the compost to work, you need something to make it heat up. This comes in the form of the soil and manure. You can use one or the other (or both). It should be sprinkled on top of each layer that you build. Soil and manure add bacteria that will facilitate the decomposition of the organic matter.
- When you’ve finished making your layers of garden waste and soil/manure, cover it with the piece of material you have chosen (tarpaulin or carpet).
- Once it is covered, the mixture needs to be left to sit for three months. To enhance your compost, remove it at the three-month mark and put it straight back into the bin. This will loosen it up and add air.
- Leave the compost for another three months. When this time is up, your compost should be ready for use.
What Are the Benefits of Home Composting?
All composting is an environmentally friendly alternative for feeding plants, but home composting especially beneficial. If you implement a home compost system, you can significantly reduce your waste and play your role in limiting your footprint on this earth.
Home composting provides all the benefits listed above: it improves the soil quality, protects plants against diseases, and helps soil to remain moist by improving its water-retention abilities. It also helps to aerate the soil and provide an environment where microbes can exist.
In addition to this, home composting reduces your contribution to landfills. Instead of throwing everything out with your main rubbish, you will be able to recycle organic waste and turn it into a useable product. This leads to an extensive positive impact.
Firstly, it will reduce the number of greenhouse gases that are emitted. Instead of rubbish being disposed of through other means, compost will keep things natural and limit the creation of these gases.
Secondly, compost is less likely to lead to pollution through leachates that enter the soil and water. Leachates contaminate these sources, making them unsuitable for human consumption.
Finally, a home compost will reduce your need for chemical fertilizers. Fertilizers are typically made from chemicals and synthetic materials that are not good for the environment. With compost, you are simply returning organic matter to the soil, with the benefit of simultaneously nourishing your plants.
What Materials Can I Put in My Home Compost?
If something is organic waste, it can go into your home compost. Try to add as many items to your home compost as possible to reduce your landfill.
The following items are all suitable for home compost:
- Vegetable scraps
- Fruit scraps
- Lawn clippings
- Leaves and twigs
- Tree/plant trimmings
- Vegetable oil
- Coffee grounds
- Dust from a vacuum (not other items that the vacuum collects)
- Paper and cardboard (it’s best to shred before putting it in your compost bin)
What Materials Can I Not Put in My Home Compost?
Anything that is not organic should not be put into your compost. It will impact the effectiveness of your composting process and defeat the purpose of having one in the first place.
Plastics and other synthetic materials will not decompose and are not good for the environment if they get caught up in your compost, and you add them to your garden.
Things that should not be added to your compost include:
- Plants/trimmings that have suffered from a disease
- Any dairy products
- Treated sawdust
- Synthetic materials
- Pet droppings
Are there other options for composting apart from having a home compost?
A home compost is a worthy investment, but if you don’t have the time or desire to create one, then there is another option. You can choose to buy compost for your garden.
Compost can be purchased in bags or in bulk. If you go for the bulk option, a truck will deliver a big pile of compost to your home. The amount of compost you need will depend on the area of your gardens and your intended purpose.
If you want to use compost as mulch, you will need a lot of it, and a few small bags simply won’t do. On the other hand, if you just want to spread some over your garden beds to give your plants a boost, you may only need a bad or two. It is more cost-effective to buy compost in bulk.
Tips for Buying Compost
Compost should always smell good
There is a common misconception that compost always smells bad. This is not the case. When compost is ready to be used in your garden, it should have a pleasant smell. If it smells like ammonia or garbage, it is either not ready for use or not a high-quality mixture.
Compost should never consist of rubbish
If you can see rubbish in your compost delivery, get a refund. Under no circumstances should compost contain pieces of plastic and other non-organic waste. It means the compost has been contaminated and completely defeats the purpose of using a natural plant enhancer.
Compost should look like soil
Good quality compost should look and feel like soil. It should be dark and have a moist, soft texture. If you can see pieces of organic waste and actually make out what they are, the material has not decomposed enough and needs more time. Compost that looks like this is not ready for use on your plants.
Compost should not be mixed with soil
When buying compost, you want to get your money’s worth. That means you want the mixture to be 100% compost, rather than compost mixed with soil. Check with the provider to confirm this is the case before making a purchase.
Compost should not be made with toxic waste
It goes without saying that we do not want to be putting toxic waste on our gardens, especially vegetable patches. There have been times when sewage sludge has been incorporated in compost. If you see compost that consists of “biosolids,” avoid it completely.
Check the raw materials used to make the compost
In an ideal situation, all of the natural matter used to make the compost will be pesticide-free. This means that the compost is truly organic. That being said, it can be difficult to find compost that is strictly organic.
If you know the raw materials used to make the compost, you should be able to assess the level of pesticides present. For instance, a high-quality compost heap should break down small amounts of pesticide from leaves and grass if there is enough other soil, manure, and food scraps present.
Assess the test results
Most compost suppliers will not have conducted a chemical analysis on their compost. However, it is worth asking to see if they have.
A chemical analysis has two components: element levels and biological analysis. The element levels will indicate the presence of things like calcium and nitrogen, while biological analysis shows the number of microbes in the mixture.
It provides you with a better idea of the quality of compost, giving you the confidence to use it in your own garden. If a compost provider has conducted a chemical analysis, you can be pretty sure they take compost quality seriously.
Conduct a test yourself
If the compost provider has not done an analysis and you want to be sure the mixture is of high quality, purchase a small amount and conduct your own testing. Set up different tubs of the soil you will be using with plants and add compost. See how these perform to get an idea of how the compost will work in your garden.
As you can see, compost is the superior choice over fertilizer. Made entirely from natural materials, it is better for the environment and can help to enhance soil over a long period of time. It works with the natural environment to make it better and more facilitating of plant growth, rather than providing a short-term solution.
The main disadvantage of compost is that it takes time to make; however, if you are willing to invest in a home compost, you will be able to generate plant food for years to come. Alternatively, it is possible to purchase compost if you do not want to make it yourself.