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If you’re into gardening like we are, you probably already use compost or fertilizer to feed your soil. But, are you are of the major differences between the two?

In this article, we discuss exactly what makes them different.

The Difference Between Compost and Fertilizer

The most significant difference between compost and fertilizer is that compost enriches the soil with raw organic material and beneficial environmental factors like earthworms and fungus, while fertilizer typically overloads soil with nutrients.

If you’re not careful, fertilizer will even burn or make it hard for your plants to grow due to the unnatural amount of nutrients it provides.

Why Use Organic Compost?

A hand holds organic compost, rich and black in color.

If your garden isn’t massive, learning how to make your own organic compost is the safest, and healthiest, option for your garden’s soil (especially if you use no-till gardening methods as we do).

Organic compost acts both as a sponge for nutrients already present in the soil (and fertilizer) as well as depositing additional nutrients that plants need such as boron. More importantly, organic compost provides gardens with a happy and healthy environment for plants to grow in.

For those who use more “traditional” tilling methods for their gardens, which destroys all the hard work of the earthworms and soil environment each year, looking into specific fertilizers may be beneficial in addition to making and using your own organic compost.

Keeping your garden beds “topped-off” with homemade compost will keep your plants comfortable and thriving. With no-till gardens, organic compost can be added as often as desired though it is recommended to add at least two or three inches of fresh compost at the end of each year.

Steps to Making Organic Compost For Your Garden

Making your own organic compost for the garden is an easy process, albeit one that takes several months from start to finish.

Here are a few easy-to-follow steps that detail how to make organic compost:

1. Collect the best organic materials for composting

The first step to making organic compost is collecting the best materials available. Most gardeners use whatever is left-over from their gardens, kitchens, and yards.

For the best organic compost, you’ll want to add as many ingredients as possible, both “green,” or fresh natural stuff like grass clipping, and “brown,” dried out natural stuff like leaves and man-made items like cardboard.

Keep in mind that the brown materials will often require a bit of prep before they can be added to the compost pile. For example, newspapers and mail should be shredded first. Likewise, corks and thick cardboard packaging should be chopped out before being added to the compost pile.

That said, the more versatile your collection of ingredients is, the richer your finished compost will be.

Green materials

A pile of "green" materials lying on top of a compost pile.

Here’s a short-list of some of the best green (fresh and organic) materials for composting:

  • Leftover fruits
  • Leftover vegetables
  • Coffee grounds
  • Old bread
  • Manure
  • Grass
  • Leaves
  • Dirt
  • Old bedding from pets (only from pets who don’t eat meat)

Brown

Four used toilet paper rolls, two standing and two lying down.

Here’s a short-list of some of the best brown (non-fresh organic and man-made) materials for composting:

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Egg cartons
  • Newspapers and mail
  • Twigs
  • Pine cones and needles
  • Corn cobs
  • Wood chips
  • Nutshells
  • Cotton balls
  • Paper towel and toilet paper rolls
  • Old clothing

2. Avoid adding certain materials to the compost pile

Just as important as adding the best organic materials, avoiding the wrong materials is extremely important for making your own organic compost.

Certain materials, organic or otherwise, simply don’t do well as ingredients in compost. Some of the following materials require years to break down (like large bones), others break down as quickly as any other organic matter but are somehow harmful to the rest of your compost (such as diseased plants).

Here are a few common materials that you should avoid adding to compost:

  • Anything sprayed with chemicals
  • Bones
  • Coal
  • Colored paper
  • Diseased plants
  • Pet poop
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Metal

3. Choose the best location for the compost pile

A wooden compost bin bursting full of organic compost sitting in the shade of a tree.

Making great organic compost requires a great location in addition to the right materials.

The best locations for compost piles are both removed from the garden and directly exposed to as much sunlight as possible. Most gardeners choose the most isolated corner of their property for their compost pile’s location.

In the wrong location, your organic compost pile can sit unchanged for months, even years. So, be sure to take a few minutes to select the best location before simply starting a heap of organic materials and hoping for them to somehow magically compost.

4. Layer the compost pile when you add new materials

After you’ve selected the best possible location to set up your compost pile, and are adding ingredients to it, you’ll need to start laying it as you go.

Adding layers to your compost pile (green, brown, green, brown, and so on) helps the internal temperature to stay hotter (120 degrees Fahrenheit, or more) and break-down the ingredients more quickly. Adding water to the pile as you layer it increases the temperature even higher (to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and above).

5. Turn the compost pile repeatedly

Turning compost helps it to break down more evenly. Without regularly turning your compost pile, hot pockets will develop. When this happens, some parts of the pile are completely composted while others are left entirely unchanged.

Many gardeners turn their compost piles as little as once or twice per year. Others turn their compost piles every time that they add a few additional layers of ingredients.

In general, the more you turn your compost, the quicker and more evenly it will finish.

6. Water the compost pile regularly

A green watering can with an orange tip sprinkles water onto compost and plants.

As mentioned above, the more water added to your compost pile, the hotter the insides get. Well-positioned compost piles, which receive copious amounts of sun, that are watered frequently break down their materials much faster than dry compost piles.

You can water your compost pile as often as you wish. We suggest at the very least adding water each time that you add new layers of ingredients to help the break-down process occur more quickly and efficiently.

A Final Word About Organic Compost

Organic compost is often referred to as black gold by gardeners, and for good reason. There is very little that affects the health of your garden plants, aside from basic sunlight and water, in such a way as organic compost does.

Once you get the hang of creating your own compost, the habit will become second nature.

Here are a few reminders to keep in mind while practicing how to make your own organic compost:

  • Collect only the best materials
  • Properly prepare ingredients
  • Add ingredients in layers
  • Water compost regularly
  • Allow tons of sun to cook your compost
  • Turn your compost regularly

Hopefully, if you’re new to creating your own organic compost, this piece has cleared up any doubts you have about the subject.

If you still have questions, drop us a line in the comments section and we’ll do our best to answer!

Good luck learning how to make organic compost for your gardens!

Suggested Reading: What Is Organic Gardening?

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