compost versus fertilizer

crueltyfre(Tampa 9a heat 10 sunset 26)April 10, 2009

End a friendly argument, puh-leez! I live in a suburb community that is 25 years old. For the first 20 years, the yard next door was owned by people who didn't plant, garden, fertilize, water, etc. It was nothing but sand and weeds for 20 years. IMHO, any nutrients that soil originally might have had were depleted years ago.

Five years ago my current neighbor moved in and is a gardening nut (which I love). But he has never fertilized a thing either, organically or not, he only lays down compost. The size of his plants tell me it is not (they're small, esp. veggies). The fact that his plants wither or freeze when mine (right next door) do fine, also tells me there's a problem.

One time I saw him put down store bought cow manure compost and showed him how the bag read 0-0-0 (he now makes his own). He contended that the other nutrients in that manure bag would feed the plants.

So, I think his yard is depleted of any nutrients and needs fertilizer of any sort. He thinks his yard is getting all it needs from his home made compost. Who's confused here??


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Fertilizer is a quick shot of grow juice that does nothing for the soil in the long term. Good compost is a weak fertilizer with lots of disparate nutrients that will greatly improve the soils structure, water retention/drainage and food web in the long term. In my opinion both are good and have their uses and applications. Personally I use fertilizer and compost on the yard and just compost in the garden.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2009 at 5:29PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

It isn't an either/or call IMO. While compost contains nutrients, it isn't a "fertilizer" per se and while store-bought fertilizer contains more nutrients, it does nothing for the soil - as already said.

But in naturally good soil, nutrient levels may be more than adequate and adding quality compost may indeed be all that is needed. Depleted soil is another matter initially. But even it will come around in time with adequate compost amending.

So do you have to use store-bought fertilizer to have a successful garden? No, not at all. Many never do. Can you use both store-bought fertilizer and compost? Sure. many do.

But also keep in mind that what one gardener considers a large, healthy plant may only be an over-fertilized monster to another. ;)

To each his own - method and plant size.


    Bookmark   April 10, 2009 at 7:04PM
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"While compost contains nutrients, it isn't a "fertilizer" per se and while store-bought fertilizer contains more nutrients, it does nothing for the soil - as already said."

Dave can you clarify the underlined part for me. I don't think the way I am reading it is what you really meant to say.


    Bookmark   April 10, 2009 at 8:21PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

The nutrient levels found in a gallon of 10-20-10 vs. nutrient levels in an equal amount of compost.

"Nutrients in a more concentrated form" would be a better way of putting it.


    Bookmark   April 10, 2009 at 11:49PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I'm going to side with your neighbor. His approach has caught you unaware of the benefits of weeds and compost.

If "weeds" grew then there were probably some nutrients. The definition of a weed is a plant that you don't want growing there. Your former neighbors might have enjoyed the plants that you are calling weeds. I'm not saying I would not call those same plants weeds, but your weed might be someone else's specimen plant. I know a guy who grows eight different varieties of the plant that everyone calls wild onion. He enjoys them but they are weeds to almost everyone who has them in their lawn.

Weeds do not always deplete the nutrients from the soil. Some plants are good at fortifying the soil. It could be your current neighbor has some of those. Clover and other legumes are good plants for the soil. If you mix the plants well, you may never need to buy fertilizer.

Compost provides a slew of beneficial microbes for the soil. If the soil is sandy, it can use all the beneficial microbes it can get. A covering of compost also provides an insulation barrier over the soil to keep temperature and moisture at relatively constant levels. This helps more beneficial microbes grow and live in the soil.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 12:13AM
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There is no "compost versus fertilizer" debate because with most "fertilzers" all you are adding is a very small portion of what plants need to grow strong and healthy, the Nitrogen(N), Phosporus(P), and Potash(K) which can easily grow unhealthy plants that are more attractive to insect pests and plant diseases.
Adding organic matter, compost and other vegetative waste, feeds the soil bacteria which feed the plants growing in that soil and once the soil is made into a good, healthy soil, and maintained there, that soil will grow strong and healthy plants that will better withstand attack by insect pests and plant diseases. It does take some time to take a soil from that unhealthy state to a good healthy condition, and the plants growing in that soil wil not necessarily be the force fed, unhealthy plants growing in a garden that is fed only with synthetic plant foods, drugs.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 7:25AM
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Lori, I think you may be the one confused and like dchall, I'm going to side with your neighbor also :-)

Adding compost or other organic matter to neglected soils does not always produce immediate results - building a good healthy soil takes time. But it is NOT accomplished by simply adding 'fertilizers'.......there is a whole host of benefits that compost or other OM provides to the soil that is simply not achieved through any type of fertilizing routine, organic or synthetic.

Benefits of Compost: (excerpted from the WSU extension publication Compost Fundamentals)
- Compost contains macro and micronutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers.
- Compost releases nutrients slowlyÂover months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers
- Compost enriched soil retains fertilizers better. Less fertilizer runs off to pollute waterways.
- Compost buffers the soil, neutralizing both acid & alkaline soils, bringing pH levels to the optimum range for nutrient availability to plants.
- Compost helps bind clusters of soil particles, called aggregates, which provide good soil structure. Such soil is full of tiny air channels & pores that hold air, moisture and nutrients.
- Compost helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients.
- Compost loosens tightly bound particles in clay or silt soil so roots can spread, water drain & air penetrate.
- Compost alters soil structure, making it less likely to erode, and prevents soil spattering on plantsÂspreading disease.
- Compost can hold nutrients tight enough to prevent them from washing out, but loosely enough so plants can take them up as needed.
- Compost makes any soil easier to work.
- Compost brings and feeds diverse life in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and more support healthy plant growth.
- Compost bacteria break down organics into plant available nutrients. Some bacteria convert nitrogen from the air into a plant available nutrient.
- Compost enriched soil have lots of beneficial insects, worms and other organisms that burrow through soil keeping it well aerated.
- Compost may suppress diseases and harmful pests that could overrun poor, lifeless soil.
- Compost increases soilÂs ability to retain water & decreases runoff. Runoff pollutes water by carrying soil, fertilizers and pesticides to nearby streams.
- Compost can reduce chemical pesticides since it contains beneficial microorganisms that may protect plants from diseases and pests. Only a 5% increase in organic material quadruples soils water holding capacity.

And the most important:
- Compost can reduce or eliminate use of synthetic fertilizers.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 10:56AM
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crueltyfre(Tampa 9a heat 10 sunset 26)

Ok, hanging my head in shame, I'll give the poor guy a break, lol. But I sure wish he'd offer me a cabbage that's bigger than a tomato!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 4:34PM
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Hi Lori

Keep in mind I am not a gardener so anything I say is speculation but I am going to partially agree with you, with a 'but'.

If his soil is as bad as you seem to think it is, then compost isn't likely going to do the trick all by itself for a period of time. How long? Who knows. It took time to deplete the soil, it will take some time to build it back up.

I see nothing wrong with adding some fertilizer to the soil along with lots of compost. As the soil gets healthier over the years, one can cut back on the fertilizer over time to a point where it might not be necessary anymore. This way one can get increased yield now and work on building up the soil long term, win/win in my books.

Here is the 'but':

If your neighbor is happy with his gardens yield, then by all means he should keep going the way he's going and I wouldn't tell him to do anything different.


    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 5:48PM
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I totally agree with Lloyd.
please don't rain on someones parade.
if you're neighbor is happy,... be happy for him.
your opinion may be valid, but you know what they say about opinions right ?
"opinions are like @#$holes, everyone has them, and they usually stink"
no harshness intended.
do your own thing :).

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 8:17PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I am kind of surprized that the untended lot wasn't more fertile after those years of no hauling away crops from it. I made a melon patch on an unused triangle of ground that had grown thistles, wild carrot, other weeds, sweet clover, and more. I was amazed at the fertility in that soil.....after the years of deep rooting weeds.

My take is to add lots of organic matter ......and fertilizer where needed until the soil is "superamic".!!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2009 at 8:57PM
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