Providing high-quality, nutrient-dense compost is essential for maintaining a healthy and high-producing vegetable garden. There are a lot of different methods and ideas around what is the very best compost for the vegetable garden. How do you know what’s best?
In this article, we’ll cover what components make the best compost, the 4 best bagged compost products on the market, how to make your own compost and how to use it in your vegetable garden.
Let’s jump in!
What Makes the Best Compost for a Vegetable Garden?
Compost is made up of decomposed organic matter that, in turn, puts nutrients back into the soil and improves the soil structure. It should be dark brown or even black, smooth in consistency, hold moisture well and crumble easily.
However, not all compost is created equal, especially in regards to growing vegetables. Here are the essential components to consider for the best compost for your vegetable garden.
This one seems obvious, but it’s definitely important to talk about. If you are wanting to grow your food organically, then don’t ruin it by adding compost that is filled with herbicides, pesticides, plastics, sewage sludge and who knows what else!
If you are making your own compost, then ensuring that it is organic is easy to achieve since you have full control over what goes into your compost pile. No mystery ingredients here!
However, if you are outsourcing or purchasing your compost, it’s important to investigate what ingredients are included. Definitely ask some questions before you buy! Did you know that a common source of compost is sewage sludge? Yep. Hard pass! While buying high-quality, organic compost is more expensive, it’s money well-spent, in my opinion.
There are many, many different ways to compost and things that can be composted, but what’s the best for a vegetable garden? Here’s what I look for in things to include (and things to avoid!) when composting or shopping for compost. For an exhaustive list, check out my favorite gardening book: “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.”
What to include in compost:
- Coffee grounds
- Chopped corn cobs and corn stalks
- Egg shells
- Fruit scraps
- Grass clippings (if no chemicals were used)
- Hay or straw
- Hops (from beer brewing)
- Manure from herbivore animals (cows, horses, etc.)
- Peanut hulls
- Peat moss
- Sphagnum moss
- Tea leaves
- Vegetable scraps, stalks, vines, leaves (disease-free!)
What to avoid in compost:
- Ashes (coal and wood) – unless soil pH adjustment is desired
- Diseased plants
- Manure from omnivore or carnivore animals (dogs, cats, etc.)
- Meat, bones or fat
- Non-organic plant materials
- Oils, fat and grease
- Sewage sludge
- Weeds that have gone to seed
- Wood shavings or sawdust – unless soil pH adjustment is desired
Smell and Appearance
The best compost for your vegetable garden should be dark brown or even black in color, smooth in consistency, and moist yet crumbly. It shouldn’t be sticky, muddy or have whole pieces of plant matter. It should have a neutral, earthy smell – never stinky or offensive!
If you notice some of these negative attributes, don’t add it to your garden. The compost likely isn’t done composting down yet, or has questionable ingredients that you don’t want to mess with.
Nutrient Density and pH
Ensuring that your compost has proper nutrients and a balanced pH for your vegetable garden is essential for strong, productive growth. Most garden plants require a pH of 6-7, so your compost should be near this range as well.
The nutrient density of compost depends on what is being composted, but it generally provides 2% nitrogen, 0.5-1% phosphorus and 2% potassium. This knowledge can be helpful when trying to decide what type of compost you want to use.
*Data gathered from UC Davis
As you can see in the chart above, chicken manure really takes the cake as far as nutrient-density goes for compost. I like to use chopped straw in my chicken coop so I can compost all of the poop and bedding together to get some amazing compost.
The Best Bagged Organic Compost for Your Vegetable Garden
If you’re short on time or space and can’t compost your own, there are some great options on the market for you! The nice thing about bagged garden compost is that you know exactly what you’re getting as far as nutrient content – it’s right on the label!
I’ve done some careful research and here are the 4 best organic compost products on the market.
The Homesteading RD's Product Picks
This compost is on the pricier side ($40/ft3), but it's AMAZING. It is nearly black in color and is made with recycled materials including brush, cut firewood, garden debris, grass clippings, leaves, sod, vegetable waste, and wood chips. Tested by a certified lab, the compost meets OMRI’s standards for use in organic production.
This well-balanced, organic compost is full of active fungi and bacteria to benefit your garden without a heafty price tag ($29/ft3). It has a nice brown color, without any chunks because they carefully sift the finished compost so that you have a smooth, easy to spread product.
This is a unique product because it utilizes composted soil that has been used (only once) for growing mushrooms! Mushroom compost is becoming a popular option due to its nutrient density. Another inexensive option at $32/ft3.
If you have a large garden, this larger size product is a great option! Rich in green-fed earthworm castings, valley grown alfalfa meal, oyster shell (tomatoes love calcium!), cold water kelp meal, and a plethora of organic nutrients. A little on the pricer side at $41/ft3, but well-worth the price for an awesome product that your garden will love.
How to Make the Best Compost for Your Vegetable Garden
Ready to get your hands dirty and make your own? Awesome! Making your own compost allows you to have full control over what goes into your garden, plus it’s inexpensive and a great way to recycle food scraps, garden waste, etc.
Before you start composting, identify where you want it to go. The best location is near your source of compostable materials.
- For me, I mostly compost chicken bedding, so my compost bins are located near my coop.
- If you mostly compost garden waste, place your compost pile near your garden.
- If you mostly compost food waste, place your compost pile near your back door.
Compost Pile vs Compost Bin vs Compost Container
There are so many different ways to compost, but the three most common methods are simple piles, functional bins and sophisticated containers. I highly recommend having a minimum of 2 piles, bins or containers because if you are continuously adding to just 1 then you’ll never end up with finished compost.
A compost pile is exactly what it sounds like. Just a pile on the ground of organic matter that is laid to rest to start composting. This is the cheapest way to compost and how I started years ago! The negatives of this method is that it looks messy and critters easily get into it. If you have chickens, they will make quick work of scratching through it so that it gets spread all over the place.
A compost bin is a simple 3 or 4-sided structure that is open on top. It still utilizes a “pile” method, however the sides keep things a little more contained. The sides can be as simple as some chicken wire or wooden pallets, or as complex as my compost bins in the photos below.
If you are worried about unwelcome critters, an unsightly pile or bothersome smell, a compost tumbler would be a great fit for you! These are fully enclosed containers that contain the mess while giving you more control over the moisture level resulting in some fast, amazing compost! The only negative about these is that they are plastic, but the ones I have linked below do state they are BPA-free and food grade.
The Homesteading RD's Product Picks
I love this compost tumbler because it has two seperate compost bins. That way you can leave one side to finish while actively adding to the other. This is a smaller model, which would be perfect for those composting food scraps or have a small garden.
This is the larger version of the same compost tumbler above and features the practical double bin style. If you have a lot of yard, garden or chicken waste to compost, this would be a great size for you!
Steps for Making The Best Garden Compost Ever
Now that you have your location identified and your method in place, it’s time to add our compost ingredients. It doesn’t stop there, either. There are a few other steps along the way that are essential to ensure that you end up with the best compost ever!
The key to making good compost is striking the right balance between green matter and brown matter. The ideal ratio is 30 parts brown (carbon) matter to 1 part green (nitrogen) matter. If you have too much carbon, composting slows down. If you have too much nitrogen, odor problems and muck-like consistency is sure to occur.
- Brown matter: Straw, hay, cornstalks, pea/bean vines, autumn leaves, wood shavings, sawdust, pine needles, etc.
- Green Matter: Animal manure, yard clippings, garden waste, food scraps, egg shells, etc.
To be honest, I never really pay attention to the exact ratios. Since I mostly compost dirty chicken bedding from our coop (chopped straw mixed with chicken manure), plus any extra garden scraps, it always tends to work out OK.
- If I notice it getting stinky/mucky, I just add some extra leaves or straw to balance it.
- If it’s composting too slowly, I push mow some of our lawn with the bag on to collect more fresh greens and toss it in.
Lastly, smaller pieces compost down much more quickly than large pieces. You can technically throw an entire broccoli plant in there, stem and all, however, it will take a LONG time to compost down. Plus, it’s hard to turn your pile if there’s big chunks in the way. Chop it down into smaller pieces and you’ll thank yourself later.
There are two methods for when you add your compost ingredients: “all at once” or “over time”.
- All At Once: With this method, everything is added at once and then set to rest. We use this method when collecting leaves in the fall. Another situation would be if you use the deep litter method in your coop and are doing your yearly clean out.
- Over time: With this method, you add to your compost pile whenever you have scraps from cooking dinner, when doing your weekly coop clean-out or when pruning your plants. This is the most common method and what I use in my main compost bins. If you use this method, it’s important that you are using 2 different piles so that you can eventually put one to rest so that you end up with finished compost. If you only use 1 pile with a mix of fresh and old stuff, you’ll only ever have half-finished compost.
Air and Moisture
Once you have your pile started, it’s important to turn it intermittently and provide adequate moisture so that it will compost down properly.
The ideal moisture content for compost is 40-60%. If the moisture drops too low, then your compost will dry out and the organisms will go dormant. If the moisture is too high, then it will turn mucky and prevent oxygen from penetrating into your pile.
- If you live in a dry climate, you may find that you have to water your pile occasion
- If you live in a wet climate, you may find that you need to cover your pile, up your brown matter and turn it frequently
Turning your compost pile with a pitch fork (or hand crank if you are using a tumbler!) will help incorporate more air and allow the wet materials to dry out. Plus, you’ll find that the materials in the middle of the pile are composting faster than the outside. By turning the pile, this will ensure that everything is composted evenly.
How to Use Compost in Your Vegetable Garden
Now that you have your finished compost or have purchased some amazing compost, it’s time to add it to your garden. There are a few methods that you can use, so let’s break it down!
Ways to add compost to your garden
There are three different ways that you can add compost to your garden to help it thrive.
- Add as a top layer to the garden – This is most often done when the garden is empty, ideally in the fall when putting the garden to rest. Add 1-3″ inches to the top layer of garden soil to replenish what was lost during the growing season.
- Side dressing – Use this method as a little nutrient boost mid-growing season, especially for heavy feeders like tomatoes, squash and corn. Sprinkle a little bit around your plants roots (be careful not to touch up the stem or leaves) and your plants will thank you!
- Compost tea – Make some compost tea using this recipe by The Prairie Homestead. Then, you can use it as a foliar spray in the evening, or pour a bit of it around your plant’s roots.
How much compost to add to your garden
The answer to this question depends on a few things. If you live in a cold climate like me, adding a 1″ layer of compost to your garden may be all that you need, along with side dressing as needed. However, if you live in a warm climate you’ll need closer to 2-3″ to account for a higher biological activity due to high soil temps in addition to a longer growing season.
The other thing to consider is how nutrient-dense or nutrient-void your garden soil is. If you’ve been amending your garden soil for years and it has a good consistency to it, a light layer of compost yearly might be all you need. However, if your soil quality is poor or you have low nutrient levels, you might need a little extra help. If you’re not sure what your soil is like, try this soil test below!
The Homesteading RD's Product Picks:
This kit comes with 40 tests and measures pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. All you do is take a sample of soil, mix with water, transfer some of the solution to the color comparator, add powder from capsule, shake and watch the color develop. Fast, easy and it only takes a few minutes!
When to add compost to your garden
There’s really no wrong time to add compost, but the best time is in the fall. That way it’ll give it time to meld in with your growing soil and be available come spring planting. I also like to add my compost in the fall because I’m busy enough in the spring! One less thing to do. If you missed it in the fall, do it early in the spring (about a month before planting).
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Well, that was fun! I hope you are now feeling confident in purchasing or making the best compost for your vegetable garden. There’s nothing better than providing a quality compost and watching your garden thrive. Happy Gardening!
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