What do you need?

Use the search below to search the site or find your local unit office.

Return to Skip Menu

Main Content

Compost: What Is It and What's It To You

ID

452-231

Authors as Published

A.H. Christian and G.K. Evanylo, Extension Specialists, Department of Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech; R. Green, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Organics Recycling and Composting Committee (ORCC) of the Virginia Recycling Association (VRA)

Q. Is compost a peat? 

A. No. Peat is harvested from bogs and dried. Peat is formed over long periods of time by the decomposition of plant materials - - into a carbonaceous form. Peat is a non-renewable, limited resource material, used mainly by the nursery industry as a soilless potting medium.

MATURE COMPOST IS used in place of peat. It gives plants an advantage in increased nutrients and water availability, and reduced disease pressures.

Q. Is compost a mulch? 

A. No and Yes. Mulch can be either an inorganic or organic ground cover. Mulch can be pebbles, straw, shredded paper, bark, wood-chips, plastic, etc., that helps to retain moisture. Compost can be used as a high quality mulch, especially around new transplants.

MATURE COMPOST CAN BE used as a mulch. Its slow release of nutrients to the soil gives transplants increased protection and nutrients, and water availability near the roots.

Q. Is compost a soil? 

A. No. Soil is the uppermost layer of the earth. Soils are composed of various proportions of sand, silt, clay and small amounts of organic matter.

MATURE COMPOST IS a complex organic material that has been transformed into a stable humus by microorganisms.

Q. Is compost a chemical fertilizer? 

A. No. Chemical fertilizers are inorganic compounds, composed of specific proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (and sometimes other nutrients), that are soluble and readily plant-available. Commercial fertilizer contains no organic matter.

MATURE COMPOST IS in part, an organic mixture of plant nutrients that are released slowly at a rate that is compatible with uptake by plant roots.

Q. Is compost a manure? 

A. No. Manure is animal waste often mixed with bedding or sludge, and containing nutrients, weed seeds, and potential disease organisms. Raw or partially processed manure is not stable and can release nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) at less predictable rates than compost.

MATURE COMPOST CAN BE produced from manure feedstocks and combined with bedding, leaves, chips or other carbon bulking agents. Proper composting destroys weed seeds and potential disease organisms.

Q. Then what is compost and how is it made? 

A. MATURE COMPOST IS a stable humus material created by: combining organic wastes (e.g. yard trimmings, food wastes, manures) in proper ratios into piles, rows, or vessels; controlling temperature, moisture and oxygen to achieve accelerated decomposition; and adding bulking agents (e.g. wood chips), as necessary, to provide air space; allowing the finished material to fully stabilize and mature through a curing period.

Decomposition is performed by naturally occurring microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi) that utilize the organic materials for their food and energy sources. Proper primary composting involves temperatures between 110 and 150°F, moisture content between 50 and 60%, and adequate oxygen for the microbes. It is complete when pile temperatures decline and remain below approximately 105°F. A subsequent curing period of 2 to 6 months is required for the compost to mature, after which it will not overheat or produce unpleasant odors during storage, and can be beneficially used.

   

binhand.jpg Backyard compost bin (top) and mature compost.


Q. Whose friend is compost ? 

A. MATURE COMPOST IS the farmer's, gardener's, homeowner's, landscaper's, and nursery operator's best friend. Compost provides multiple benefits as a soil amendment, potting mix supplement, and mulch.


   

turner.jpg Windrow turner--mixes and aerates compost

BENEFITS OF MATURE COMPOST

Soil / Plant Improvements

  • Improves soil structure
  • Improves nutrient holding capacity
  • Reduces soil compaction and crusting
  • Reduces fertilizer requirements
  • Increases ease of cultivation
  • Improves root growth and yields
  • Improves water infiltration and drought tolerance
  • Protects plants from disease
  • Increases microbial and earthworm populations

 


   

dumping.jpg Landscapers use compost for soil building


   

cabbage.jpg Vegetables mulched with compost.

For more information, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office or the ORCC (@VRA 703/549-9263).

Reviewed by Greg Evanylo, Extension Specialist, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences

Rights


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Publisher

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.

Date

May 1, 2009