Composting For Vegetable Gardens (Secrets to Success)

composting for vegetable gardens

Nothing compares to the taste, wholesomeness, and satisfaction of eating food you have grown yourself. 

And any seasoned green thumb will tell you the secret to a flourishing and bountiful vegetable garden relies on one thing…

Compost!

Composting for your vegetable garden is an excellent way to improve your crop’s resilience and yield.

But what type is best, how should you use it, and how do you make compost for veggie plants? And how do you make sure it’s safe?

Best Compost For Vegetable Gardens

The best compost for vegetable gardens should be rich in nutrients and be made from a healthy balance of green and brown organic matter. It must also not contain pathogens or harmful bacteria. Homemade compost is preferred as it is all-natural, economical, and usually chemical-free.

Gardening and composting are both rewarding, eco-friendly, and soul-nourishing activities. 

Put them together, and you have a magnificent garden bursting with delicious vegetables! 

However, there are a few caveats when it comes to using compost on veggie plants.

If you’ve ever had doubts about how to use compost for growing food crops, here’s all you need to know about composting for vegetables:

Should I add compost to my vegetable garden?

A thriving vegetable garden begins with nutrient-rich soil. Compost is a stellar addition since most backyards are not blessed with perfect soil.

The incredible benefits of adding compost to your vegetable garden include:

  • Improved soil structure and drainage

A soil rich in organic matter will have more air pockets to allow water and nutrients to travel freely.

  • Enhanced water retention

Compost-enriched soil holds water for longer. This also means less time and money are spent on watering.

  • Improved nutrient levels

Compost is rich in beneficial nutrients and microbes that energize and revitalize the soil for healthy, strong, and resilient plants.

  • Balanced soil pH

Compost will naturally lower the pH level in alkaline soils and raise it in acidic soils.

  • Extended growing season

Compost promotes healthy and well-structured soil that can hold heat for longer. As a result, planting can occur earlier, and harvesting will last longer.

Compost is truly nature’s nourishment!

What kind of compost for vegetable gardens?

what kind of compost for vegetable gardens

The type of compost needed for vegetable gardens is mature compost made from a wide variety of organic sources. Compost consisting of many different materials will include a wider variety of beneficial micronutrients for plants. But immature compost can be especially harmful to food crops because it may contain pathogens. 

An ideal compost for growing vegetables needs to have:

  • High levels of organic matter (the more varied, the better. Plant clippings, fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, leaves, coffee grounds, etc.). 
  • Free from pathogens and plant diseases 
  • A balanced pH

Some gardeners add animal manure to their compost. For example, if you keep chickens, the bedding and manure provide an excellent nitrogen source.

But if you use manures to make your compost, do not use it on your food crops. There is always a risk that harmful bacteria will transfer to the vegetable plants, especially root crops. 

This is also true for unfinished compost. But, again, because the compost hasn’t had time to cure or heat up, it may contain harmful bacteria as it begins to rot.

And vegetables tend to grow best with a relatively neutral soil pH. Mature compost becomes neutral near the end stage of decomposition but is quite acid, to begin with. 

Another good reason not to use immature compost!

Depending on whether you make your own compost or use commercially bought bags, there are several kinds of compost you might be considering.

Let’s review the most popular types of compost for vegetable gardens:

Mushroom Compost For Vegetable Gardens

The compost is not made from mushrooms but rather from a mushroom substrate, the medium in which mushrooms are grown.

Mushroom compost is a slow-releasing, organic fertilizer made from hay, straw, corn cobs, corn hulls, and poultry or horse manure. The product is usually sold in a bag labeled as spent mushroom compost or spent mushroom substrate (SMC or SMS).

You probably noted that mushroom compost uses manure in its ingredients, which begs the question of whether it’s safe to use for vegetable plants. But mushroom compost is pasteurized at high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria and weed seeds. Then it is usually re-pasteurized before being bagged as mushroom compost for gardeners.

How to use 

  • Topdress your vegetable garden with mushroom compost. It can be used as mulch to deter weeds.
  • Or till about three inches into the top six inches of dry soil.
  • Combine mushroom compost thoroughly with the garden soil before planting or allow it to sit over winter, then apply it in spring.

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Steady and slow-release of nutrients
  • Improves the soil’s capacity to hold water, which reduces your watering requirements
  • Enhances the soil’s structure
  • Rich in essential nutrients and microbes, which promotes soil health

Cons

  • Contains high levels of soluble salt, which can kill germinating seeds, damage seedlings, and harm salt-sensitive plants.

Seafood Compost For Vegetable Gardens

Seafood compost is another excellent compost option for vegetable gardens.  

This marine-based compost is typically made from recycled organic materials obtained from fisheries. This includes seashells, seaweed, fish innards, sea cucumbers, mussels, clams, and the residue from lobster, shrimp, and crab shells.

Plant waste such as peat, wood chips, and leaves are added to the mixture to help increase soil structure and water retention.

As microorganisms break down fish waste, heat is generated, which pasteurizes the compost. This favorable process eliminates any ‘fishy’ odors and prevents weeds and diseases.

Pros

  • Environmentally-friendly product
  • Improves soil structure and water retention
  • Rich in calcium which promotes fast root growth

Cons

  • It can be costly when used in large amounts
  • Can emit a slight odor

How To Use

  • You can apply it before planting in the spring to enhance plant growth and development
  • You can apply it during the warm months to help retain water and replenish soil nutrients.
  • Combine the compost with the existing soil at a minimum depth of 2-4 inches.
  • As part of an annual topdressing, apply a layer of seafood compost ¼” to ½” deep over your existing lawn.

Compost Vs. Manure For Vegetable Gardens

compost vs manure for vegetable gardens

Manure is not ideal for food crops, especially root vegetables. It can be used in vegetable gardens but only after a period of maturation. Compost which is free of manure, does not present the same risks.

Manure, like compost, can improve the soil’s water retention capacity and supplies nutrients to help plants grow. 

It must be thoroughly decomposed to be used as compost on vegetable crops. Otherwise, it will be excessively rich (high in nitrogen) for the plants. Additionally, it can spread disease to your plants and carry an unpleasant odor.

It is risky to use, as it can transfer pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella to humans. Ideally, manure should be applied to the soil at least four months before planting edible crops.

The Verdict: Compost is the most beneficial and safest amendment for home vegetable gardens.

Bagged Compost Vs. Organic Compost For Vegetable Gardens

You may be wondering if your homemade compost is as good as the commercial ones?

Let’s take a look…

Bagged Compost

Pros

  • Convenient
  • It may contain ingredients you don’t have access to
  • Easy to determine the exact N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) ratio
  • A good alternative if you cannot build your own compost pile

Cons

  • It can be costly
  • Usually requires large quantities to make any significant improvements in the garden
  • The majority of bagged composts sit and become dense over time, which is not ideal for soil structure
  • May leach nutrients if exposed to moisture during storage
  • There is no guarantee that all the ingredients are organic and what chemicals they have been exposed to
  • Most bagged composts are ‘single ingredient,’ which means they lack nutrient and microbe diversity

Homemade Organic Compost 

homemade compost

Pros

  • Homemade compost is free!
  • Environmentally friendly- Reduces landfill waste
  • You can control what materials go inside
  • All-natural ingredients
  • Free from toxins and chemicals
  • The diversity of materials used means it is richer in nutrients and more effective than store-bought compost

Cons

  • You might want to send samples away for analysis of nutrients and pH levels
  • You need to wait until compost has fully decomposed before use

The verdict

Most gardening experts agree that the best compost comes from your own backyard! 

You know exactly what’s inside, where it came from, and that it’s 100% organic. You’ll also get much more satisfaction from using your own compost!

Even so, bagged compost is not the wrong choice for your garden; it is a great alternative if you cannot build a compost pile.

How Do You Add Compost To A Vegetable Garden

  • Mix compost thoroughly into the soil before planting vegetables the previous fall. Combine the compost with the existing soil at a minimum depth of 2-4 inches.
  • When transplanting seedlings into the garden, add compost to the planting holes to boost the nutrients.
  • Add a thin layer throughout the growing season – no more than 1/2 inch – to improve the soil and add nutrients to your plants.
  • Topdress your vegetable garden with compost. It can be used as mulch to deter weeds.

​Related: How to layer compost

Ratio Of Topsoil To Compost For Vegetable Gardens

Gardening professionals recommend a ratio of five parts soil to one part compost (about 16%). This can be increased to 30% compost in poor-quality soils. Read this article to find out how much compost you need for a vegetable garden.

When should I add compost to my vegetable garden?

  • Apply compost to established beds in spring before the plants awaken. Spread about 2 to 3 inches of composted manure over your vegetable garden every year, and till it to a depth of 6-10 inches
  • Topdress your garden regularly to ensure the best results during the growing season.
  • Heavy feeders such as cucumbers, broccoli, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and corn require extra nutrients to thrive. In addition to the compost you added prior to planting, side-dress your vegetables with compost after they bloom.
  • Other than the annual application to improve the soil, root vegetables do not require an additional serving of compost.
  • Side-dress leafy vegetables with compost once a month to encourage rapid, healthy growth.

How To Make Compost For A Vegetable Garden

Food scraps and yard waste can be turned into “black gold” that will enhance your soil and feed your veggies. 

Follow these five simple steps to make the perfect compost for your vegetable garden:

1. Decide Where You Will Compost

Will you use a compost bin or create an open compost pile in the backyard? If you decide on an open pile, make sure you place it in a convenient location with level ground, sunshine, and good drainage.

2. Start To Collect Your Compost Materials

  • Collect your kitchen and garden waste in separate containers.
  • When the containers are full, empty the contents into the compost bin or heap.
  • Get your compost pile off to a good start by collecting these materials:

Note: If viewing on phone, please swipe the table to scroll horizontally.

GREEN ‘WET’ MATTER (Nitrogen) BROWN ‘DRY’ MATTER (Carbon)

Fruit and vegetable scraps

Dry leaves and twigs

Eggshells

Straw or hay

Organic tea leaves/bags

Paper egg cartons

Fresh grass, flowers & plant clippings

Shredded newspaper and cardboard

Organic coffee grounds

Cell

3. Alternate Layers Of Green And Brown Materials

  • Start off your compost pile with a layer of dry materials such as twigs, plant clippings, or leaves. This will enable adequate drainage and aeration.
  • Then alternate between layers of green materials (rich in nitrogen) and brown materials (rich in carbon).
  • Ideally, your compost pile should be mixed with two parts brown materials to one part green.
  • A compost pile with a variety of ingredients will be richer in nutrients

4. Maintain Optimal Composting Conditions

  • Whenever you add new material, be sure to mix it with the lower layers.
  • The compost pile should be kept damp (not soaking). Add water or dry materials to maintain the perfect moisture level.
  • Mix and turn the compost pile weekly for aeration and to eliminate odor.

5. Make The Most Of Your Precious Black Gold

  • Your compost will be ready to use within four to six months (if you’ve maintained the pile properly!)
  • Compost is at its best three to four months after completion.

For more ideas on how to make use of your compost, check out: How To Use Compost

Final Thoughts

If you want a thriving garden with abundant yields, don’t worry about feeding the plants; instead, focus on feeding the soil. Nourish the food that will ultimately nourish you!

Homemade organic compost is the superior choice for vegetable gardens. It provides the perfect growing conditions for wholesome, delicious, and affordable food that will give you nourishment and satisfaction with every bite. 

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