How to Use Compost in Your Yard and Garden

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As we’ve mentioned before, master gardeners consider compost “black gold” for their lawns and gardens. One of the reasons is that compost is so rich in nutrients that it improves the fertility of your soil, making plants healthier. It’s a virtuous cycle for your soil. Food gets grown, consumed, and then the scraps go into your compost pile or bin. Later, the finished compost is used to nourish the soil again.

So once you’ve finished making compost, how do you use it? There’s no need to worry, the answer is really simple. Use compost much as you would any sort of fertilizer or potting soil – it’s up to you whether you want to use compost while it’s fully decomposed, or even if there are still little bits of straw, hay, twigs and such in the mix.You can always put it through a compost sifter if you want it nice and broken up.

Four of the most common uses for compost are: 

 1. A moisture holding mulch

2. A soil amendment. 

2. A compost tea. 

4. A lawn top dressing. 

Mulch: If you are using the compost as a moisture holding mulch – do exactly what you would do with any mulch. Spread it around plants, trees, shrubs – the usual entities in your garden or lawn. Just make sure there is a good 2-3 inches on whatever the surface, and you will be good to go. Just like regular mulches from organic materials, it will break down over time. Just keep adding to it once or twice a year, and you’ll soon have the healthiest lawn in town, as the compost continually increases the fertility of the soil.

Soil Amendment: If you use compost as a soil amendment, just dig anywhere from 2 to 4 inches down and then throw the compost in there, and mix it in with the rest of the soil at planting time. Your flowers, plants, or whatever you have planted there will thrive.

Compost Tea: Compost tea refers to the liquid matter released by the compost. Sometimes, compost produces the tea naturally, but you can also produce your own compost tea by steeping a shovel full of compost in a 5 gallon bucket for a few days. When it is ready to go, simply just pour it on the flowers or plants you wish to use it on. If you want to keep the compost separate from the liquid, put the compost into a burlap sack when you dunk it into the water.

Lawn Top Dressing: Top dressing? Sounds kind of like something you’d put on a salad, but it’s really just adding a layer of compost on top of your grass, where it will work its way into the soil as the grass grows. Just apply anywhere from 1 to 3 inches of compost to the lawn and rake and water it in. Although it might look like you have a pile of dirt on your lawn for the first week or two, it will eventually settle into the soil and disappear, leaving you with much healthier soil that also holds water better and keeps your grass nice and green. Continuing to rake it in also makes it disappear faster. Early spring is a good time to add compost like this, or the end of the season. Yet another benefit: you’ll need less fertilizer, or no fertilizer at all when you use compost as a top dressing at least once a year.

By using compost around your yard in any or all of these ways, you’ll notice healthier plants, soil, and a greener lawn. You’ll also cut down on waste in the home. The nutrients contained in compost will have an amazing effect on the output of plants, vegetables, and overall appearance of your lawn and garden.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

sherry June 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I started composting in a large plastic garbage can. I alternate between raw fruits & veggies, coffee grounds, egg shells leaves and shredded news paper. I have been laying the can on it’s side and rolling it trying to mix it up but now it’s too heavy. It’s been 3 months and still really looks like a lot of rotten, stinky garbage. There’s also a zillion fruit flies in it…even with a lid on. I’ve tried reading what I can and I think my compost is too wet. Do I need to leave the lid off? I’ve considered punching holes in the bottom of the garbage can, but then I read about “compost tea” and think maybe the brown liquid in the bottom is ok. Please advise.

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j August 12, 2010 at 4:55 pm

It sounds like your compost is too wet, add more newspaper, or leaves, and definitely add holes to the bottom so the excess liquid can drain out. Try using a shovel to mix it up, as this is a really important component of keeping a healthy compost bin. I would also recommend buying redworms, I found mine on the internet, and they really take quite a bit of work out of the situation, and break things down at an amazing speed.
Good luck

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Teresa September 6, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Once your compost is completed and ready to use in a garden, how much compost do you use in the garden? We are thinking about building raised boxes for our garden next year. What would be a good ratio of dirt, compost, and anything else you recommend for starting a raised box garden? Would this be the same process also for flower beds, potting plants, etc…?
This site has been soo helpful and has been guiding my through my first experience with composting. I really appreciate your advice/information.

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QWOP September 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm

What about eggshells?

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Steve September 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

@QWOP, Yes, egg shells can be composted. It is best if you break up or crush the egg shells before adding them to your compost bin.

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Jolynn October 21, 2011 at 11:07 am

i go to school at ravenwood elementry im in 5th grade. and we have a garden and its dieing we done everythin anymore tips

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Steve October 25, 2011 at 10:37 am

@Jolynn, There could be any number of things going on. You need someone there with experience to lend a hand. Mention it to several of the teachers and other students. Tell them you are having trouble in the garden and you are looking for someone with gardening experience who can lead out in turning the garden around or atleast come by and give some suggestions.

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Cathy April 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm

If you are planning on working your composte into the ground, is there any benefit to spreading it out first for a few days?

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Steve April 5, 2012 at 8:58 am

@Cathy, No, not that I know of, unless you want to spread it out to look for unfinished compost, but I would first use a sieve and screen out all the twigs, etc.

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Ivan the Striving May 19, 2012 at 1:35 am

I have been composting exclusively black & green tea for a while now. But since it is tea, I have been worried that the resulting compost might be too acidic for the plants and possibly harm them. Any advice?

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Steve May 25, 2012 at 1:26 pm

@Ivan the Striving, Go to the hardware store and buy some lime and add a cup or two to the compost.

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Lisa July 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I recently began to collect materials for my compost and I maintain it in jars with lids. You can use plastic or glass containers with lids. I intially retained everything in plastic bags and when they became full I would put the full bags in a large trash can. The fruit flies were overwhelming and my family wouldn’t support the effort. The plastic and glass containers are air tight so less vermin. I keep the jars in a refrigerator we have in our garage.

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EW July 24, 2012 at 11:46 am

My lawn is basically brown from the lack of rain and a very hot summer despite me watering it regularly. However, I think there’s still hope for it to come back. If I place compost all over it, and rake it in after a few days, will that help my grass recover?

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Steve July 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

@EW, Yes, adding finished compost will help, however you may want to consider aerating it first. You can rent an aerator at most equipment rental shops and if you have a neighbor or two who needs it you can divide up the cost. Then add the compost, rake it out and water.

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Carol August 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I have two large steel trash cans for fast composting. I have an abundance of leave in my yard and in the fall, instead of raking them and bagging them, I blow them into a corner of the yard where it is out of sight and leave them there. All in all, about 100 bags of leaves if I had bagged them all. That being said, I always have a supply of leaves for my compost bin. After I dump my 2-gallon pail of kitchen scraps into the composter, I put in about 6-gallons of crunched up leaves on top, that way, my compost never gets full of fruit flies or bugs, and it doesn’t stink at all. I crunch the leaves up small by using my leaf blower that has an attachment that sucks up the leaves and crunches them up (small) and into a bag. Once my bin is 3/4 full, I leave it baking in the sun (with the lid on) and I also water it every now and then. I also turn the pile and mix everything around every few days. My trash cans have many many drainage holes drilled into it, all around the sides and on the bottom. In about 1 month or so, I have ready to use compost!

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