what is compost? The dirt on compost

So what is compost? Well as it turns out adding compost into your garden is among the best things that you can do for the plants. There are many benefits to composting, not to mention how easy it really is.


  • Healthy soil needs organic matter, provided by humus/compost.

  • Slowly releases both macro and micro nutrients for plant uptake.

  • Retains soil moisture.

  • Acts as a pH buffer that helps the soil reach a pH level that is best suited for nutrient availability for plants.

  • Helps form aggregates and develop soil structure.

  • Makes soil easier to work by loosening clay and moistening sand.

  • Contains bacteria that can break down organic matter and convert nitrogen so that it is available for plant use.

  • Encourages beneficial insects (like worms!)

  • Suppress diseases and harmful pests

  • Encourage healthy root systems

  • Retains fertilizer, which also means less runoff polluting our waterways 🙂

Now that you know how awesome compost is, it is time to start using it in your garden!

Compost is actually pretty easy to come by, the local zoo in the city we use to live even gives it away!


Where to get it…

Compost is often for sale at several gardening supply locations, however be aware that some companies try to pass some unsavory things off as compost. It is always a good idea to know where your compost comes from, and what’s in it.

One of the best and easiest ways to quickly determine if the compost you are looking at is a decent quality compost is to just use some of your senses! Look to see if it is dark in color and all the material has decomposed. Feel it, compost should be soft and light. Then smell it, it should smell like delicious earth (like a damp forest floor) not moldy, sour, or musty. It also may be beneficial to do a bit of research before buying.

If you are looking to buy compost, we recommend Charlie’s Compost. They are a Kentucky-based company whose compost is made from high quality chicken manure and other locally-sourced products.

Check out the Worms Way Blog product spotlight to read more about why their compost is so awesome. They also sell in bulk which can provide a significant discount. We know a group of neighbors who buy a bulk bag together before the growing season.


Composting is also really easy to do in your own home (and not as messy as you may think). That way you know exactly what goes into your garden. In this article, we have outlined some of the best ways to compost at home.


If you decide to compost at home, it actually can be beneficial to mix two different composts into your garden, because one may contain nutrients that the other doesn’t. Since we don’t have chickens (yet) Charlie’s Compost is a great way to incorporate some of their “offerings”.


Composting at home

What you need:

  • Storage

    • A small container in the kitchen for weekly scraps.

    • A large container (if you don’t want to do the traditional outdoor “pile” method)

  • Space

    • Out of the way, just in case things get stinky/messy.

  • Tools

    • Pitchfork

    • Shovel

    • If you are opting for a smaller set up, a garden hand rake/shovel should be fine.

  • “Browns”

    • Dry leaves

    • Small twigs

    • Shredded paper

  • “Greens”

    • Fruit and vegetable scraps

    • Used coffee grounds or  tea leaves

    • Flowers/grass clippings

    • Nut shells/clean egg shells

  • Water

    • Just enough to keep the pile moist (to a dry sponge consistency)


What not to put into your compost pile:

  • Meat

  • Dairy

  • Fats/oils

  • Unrinsed egg shells

  • Waste from meat eating animals

  • Charcoal

  • Plastic

  • Plants with diseases or pests


There are two main ways to store and maintain composting materials: the pile, and the bin.


A compost pile is probably the easiest and most traditional method for composting. Also, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a pile. The group at the Good Life Garden with UC Davis mention methods that store composting materials in a small trench in the yard (certainly less of an eye sore). The downside to composting outdoors is that it can take the most space and the most time to develop.

what is compost

The second method, and probably most favorited by home gardeners, is to build or buy a storage bin. The benefits of buying a bin is that it may decrease the time it takes for compost to develop, there is often less work involved, and there could be less of a mess or smell (a bigger concern if you’re keeping it indoors). We really like rotating compost bins, they require less work when mixing the compost and are great for outdoors.


Whether you are keeping the material in a pile, or bin the steps remain the same.


Create an initial layer of brown items. If you are just starting your compost pile, it is good to put some of the larger sticks on the bottom for better airflow.

Then add a green layer, sprinkle on some fresh soil and/or compost starter to get the microbial wheels turning. Top with a final layer of browns, a green layer should always be topped with a brown layer. Feel free to add multiple layers if you have a lot of material. Especially when starting out, the more material the better. Just make sure to keep all the layers damp. No need to drown everything, just enough so it has a kind of spongy feeling.


what is compost


In about a week add another green layer, topped with a brown layer, and wet again. Then mix some of the older stuff on top.

You want to repeat this process every week or so. Compost is kind of like a campfire; to keep it working you have to consistently add some fuel and mess with it to allow oxygen in.

As this process continues, in a matter of about a month, some of the material you first added should have developed into compost. You will know it is truly compost when it is dark, soft, and does not have any foul odors. If you are a more serious gardener, you may want to consider testing your compost with a simple seedling test.

Compost can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to develop, depending on the material and the conditions. So be patient, and keep mixing!

what is compost


How to use compost

  • Mix it into the soil, about 4 inches deep, when first planting seeds or transplanting established plants.

  • Dress it around the base of each plant throughout the growing cycle.

  • Spray compost tea on plants foliage as an organic liquid fertilizer.


Making your own compost tea is really simple if you are already composting.

Simply add water to your finished compost, about 2 parts water for 1 part compost. Let the mixture steep for about 3 days, mixing it up occasionally. After it has all mixed up a bit, strain out the larger particles using a cheesecloth. Add more water, about 10 parts water per part compost liquid, the color should be like a weak tea.

If you simply don’t have the desire to make your own compost tea, it is available online and in stores.

Our personal favorite, Charlie’s Compost also makes compost tea that can be sprayed onto plants.


Here is our final note, with a bit about vermicomposting.

what is compost

Vermicomposting is using certain species of worms that digest food waste and other paper material into nutrient rich material that can be added to a garden to benefit plant growth.

It is essentially compost that is made by worms. Things can get a bit messier than traditional composting methods. However, the process happens faster, and highlights the many environmental benefits of worms!

Mary Appelhof is an environmentalist, worm farmer, and vermicomposting pioneer. Her publication Worms Eat My Garbage contains a lot of information for those who want to learn more about vermicomposting.

You can buy a vermicompost set up for a decent price online. This well built design from Worm Factory comes with the complete kit. Well made, and an easy access spout makes it almost effortless to get  compost tea.

If you want to save a few extra bucks and don’t mind a little manual labor, then everyday simple living has laid out step by step plans to easily make your own bin.

There are just a few key things to remember when vermicomposting:

  • Not all worms are created equal. You shouldn’t just go dig some earthworms up from your garden and put them into the composting bin. They likely will not survive the conditions. The best suited for vermicomposting are the red wrigglers, but there are a few other varieties you can choose from as well.

  • You need a lot of worms. About 2000 for every pound per day of food waste. But keep in mind they reproduce. The population can double in about 90 days.

  • When you add the bedding, also add a bit of something gritty such as, fine sand, crushed leaves, cornstarch, sawdust or rinsed and ground egg shells.

  • When you add kitchen scraps, it helps to cut up the food a and bury it to give the worms a head start.

  • Worms attract other critters as well. Some are alright, such as springtails, sowbugs and pillbugs, and millipedes. Others like centipedes, predatory mites, fruit flies, rove beetles and ants could cause some problems.