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What Is Compost and How Do I Use It?

A shovel of compost used to fertilize a garden.

You have probably heard of compost, but you might not know exactly what it is or what its benefits are. You are not alone. Many homeowners know very little about compost and the ways this material can be useful around their yard. 

Basically, compost is organic material that has decomposed. It is typically made from plant-based kitchen scraps and waste from your lawn. People sometimes also include materials like shredded newspaper, fireplace ashes from natural wood, sawdust or cardboard in their compost pile. Some of the most common items that people use to make compost include:

  • coffee grounds,
  • tea bags,
  • fruit peels,
  • vegetable skins,
  • eggshells,
  • leafy tops from carrots,
  • nut shells,
  • uneaten vegetables,
  • grass clippings,
  • twigs,
  • houseplants,
  • untreated wood chips,
  • hay,
  • trimmings from bushes and
  • dead leaves.

Many people question the difference between topsoil and compost. Mature compost looks like crumbly, dark soil and it smells earthy. When you compost, it should only benefit you and your yard—not create further problems. Compost should not be made from animal products or anything that is contaminated. Otherwise, your compost pile could do more harm than good.

For example, if you use leftovers or scraps from products like meat, fish, yogurt, poultry, butter or any kind of oil, grease or fat, then your compost pile can start to smell bad and attract pests like insects and rodents.

If you put things like soiled cat litter, dog poop or diseased plants in your compost, then you could end up spreading harmful parasites and viruses around your yard. Additionally, if you use chemical-treated yard trimmings in your compost bin, then you might kill off the beneficial organisms needed to make the composting process work.

Getting Started 

Some homeowners buy compost or get it from a community composting site, while others choose to make their own compost at home. Depending on the type of compost process you use, making it can take four to six months, or as long as a year or two.

To start, gather a mix of scraps from your yard and kitchen. Using various types of waste will produce different elements like nitrogen and carbon that your compost pile needs in order to break down the organic materials. Once you have your waste materials, you can put them in an indoor or outdoor bin specifically made for composting. You can buy these containers at most garden supply and hardware stores, or you can make one yourself.

When the compost is ready, you can put this recycled waste to work in your yard. Some of the ways you can use compost on your property include:

  • sprinkling it on your grass;
  • using compost for planting by adding it to the soil in your vegetable garden, around fruit trees, in flower beds or with potted plants;
  • helping new flowers, trees or turf become established by incorporating compost into the existing soil when you are installing new plants or
  • using it as mulch.

Compost can be so beneficial for gardens, plants and lawns that some people refer to it as “black gold.” Using compost is a natural way to protect your plants and help them grow. Plus, it could even help cut down your water bill! Adding compost to your soil can maximize its potential by helping it retain moisture, which can help you cut back on how often you have to water your yard.

It can also help you save money by naturally helping plants ward off pests and diseases, which can reduce the need to use chemical treatments like pesticides in your yard. Using compost also encourages the growth of organisms like fungi and beneficial bacteria, which help break down organic materials in your soil. As this material decomposes, it works as a natural fertilizer in soil and can give plants nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus that they need to grow.

Additionally, composting can also help you put kitchen and lawn waste to use instead of just throwing it away. Many homeowners appreciate how composting helps them do their part to reduce their carbon footprint, cut greenhouse gases and protect the environment by reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfills. Over 30 percent of the materials in landfills is organic material like food scraps that could have been composted instead.

Despite the benefits, homeowners sometimes avoid composting because they do not fully understand it or think they do not have the time for it. It can be intimidating if you have never used compost before, but you don’t have to figure it out all on your own. If you contact an experienced lawn and fertilization service, they can apply the compost and take care of all your lawn care needs.

Sprouts growing after applying compost.

When to Add Compost to a Garden

Compost can be useful whether you are just starting a garden or trying to maintain the fruits and vegetables that you already have. With new gardens, you can mix a handful of compost into the soil in your hole before laying seeds or adding the new plant. This helps provide the nutrients that your plants need to establish in their new environment, plus it can help attract earthworms and beneficial organisms.

Once plants begin to grow, you can mulch around the base of each plant once a month with about half of an inch of compost. This is especially helpful for “heavy feeder” plants, like tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers and corn. These plants need more nutrients to flourish than the average plant. The compost will help protect the soil from erosion, and it can help your new treasures retain moisture and produce delicious fruits and vegetables.

For existing gardens, you can usually apply compost at any time of year. However, gardeners typically use it twice a year—in the spring and fall. To use it in the spring, lightly till about an inch of compost into the topsoil to help replenish nutrients in your garden. In the fall, use it as a mulch by applying a layer of compost around the plants about an inch deep to help protect their roots during the winter.

Composting can be invaluable for your garden, but it takes time and skill to get it right. That is why it’s useful to hire a lawn care professional to apply compost instead of trying to manage this on your own. These specialists know when and how often to use compost and can take care of everything for you. They can also work with you to set up a routine maintenance schedule to take care of all your lawn care needs, so you don’t have to worry about remembering when you need to call them again to set up a visit.

Kitchen scraps that are in a compost pile.

Humus Versus Compost

Despite the way its name looks, humus is not the chickpea-based dip you eat with carrots or pita. Instead, humus is a nutrient-rich matter that increases fertility in soil, retains soil moisture and helps soil maintain its structure. It also provides space for plants to drain and get oxygen, protects soil in the winter and insulates soil in the spring. 

While compost and humus can have similar benefits for gardens, they are not the same thing. Humus is a dark, spongy or jellylike material that you would find in healthy soil, such as the topsoil in forests or around other wooded areas. It is essentially the end product of decomposition. In other words, humus is organic material that has decomposed completely.

Although the compost that homeowners can make at home from recycled waste to use in their gardens is also produced by decomposition, compost is not actually finished breaking down all the way. This means that compost can eventually create humus, but it takes many years. You might even think of humus as really old compost that has transformed into something even better.

As organic material breaks down, it goes through a process called “mineralization,” where it releases nutrients and minerals that surrounding plants can then absorb. After the material finishes the mineralization process, it then enters the humification stage. At this point, it becomes food for earthworms, bugs, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that break the material down even further. The product that results after humification is humus, which is the final stage of the material.

Keeping a beautiful lawn and healthy garden can involve a variety of confusing tools and methods that can be overwhelming for homeowners. A better option is to contact an expert for all your lawn and fertilization needs. When you contact a trusted lawn care specialist, they can take care of everything for you. These professionals have specialized training, experience and knowledge and can help you determine whether compost, mulch, humus or another type of material will keep your garden and yard looking their best.

ABC Can Take Care of Your Lawn

There are many benefits to adding compost to your garden. Instead of spending your time trying to figure out your lawn care schedule, let ABC Home & Commercial Services handle this labor-intensive work. Our lawn care experts are familiar with how our local conditions can affect your soil and will be able to implement a yard care schedule that keeps your lawn and plants healthy.

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