What Is Organic Compost?

When researching how to make the perfect compost, people run into all sorts of unique terminology. If they’re a beginner, these terms may be a little confusing, but one term that should be very clear is the term “organic.”

Organic compost is fertilizer created by decomposing strictly organic materials without any non-organic matter, and without any components that were treated with pesticides or chemicals. Defining organic compost should be simple, but it’s easy for non-organic elements to find their way in inconspicuously.

Since composts are made out of scraps of food and leaves, aren’t all of them organic? What types of ingredients go into an organic compost, and is this an expensive type of compost to create? Believe it or not, it’s a lot less complex than people think.

Other types of compost:

What Does the Term “Organic” Mean?

The word organic is often compared to the term “natural,” and in some ways, this is accurate. When people farm organically, they use no chemical sprays or materials – only all-natural ways to keep the food or plants healthy as they grow.

If it concerns the word “compound,” it simply means a compound that has carbon in it. Organic chemistry is the study of those organic compounds, but is this relevant to organic composting? In some ways, it is, and in other ways, it isn’t.

Woman making compost from old vegetables
Yay Woman making compost from old vegetables

Organic composts involve using only materials that are biodegradable, which is why animal manure is such a popular ingredient. Other items include foods and leaves that will break down naturally once the compost is started.

That doesn’t mean the items break down without any help. Leaves, for example, decompose much faster when people shred or mow them first because they are in smaller pieces. Whole leaves decompose a lot slower than shredded leaves do.

When people look up the definition of organic composts, they often find many different wordings, including:

  • Free of chemicals
  • Sustainable
  • Eco-friendly
  • Healthy

Something can be chemically organic, which means it contains carbon; certified organic, which means it has gone through a specific process to prove it is organic in nature; or agriculturally organic, which means farming without chemicals or pesticides.

Organic composting always involves decayed organic carbon-based matter, which includes manure, grasses, fruits and vegetables, woody debris, and even dead leaves. In other words, everything added to the compost pile has to be sustainable and natural and not packaged or chemical-filled. It also has to break down naturally.

How Do Composts Work?

When people start an organic compost, it goes through a process to turn into a concoction that is beneficial to a garden. These processes include:

  • Fungi and bacteria break down anything with nitrogen in it to generate ammonium.
  • Microbes in the soil turn the ammonium into nitrite.
  • The process continues until nitrate is made.
  • Nitrates turn into nitrogen.

It is this nitrogen that tells people the compost is ready to be used. Of course, this doesn’t mean the compost doesn’t need some help along the way. People have to add water when the pile gets too dry and turn it on a regular basis so that oxygen makes its way through the compost.

When one of the four stages mentioned above is skipped or somehow compromised, it can result in incomplete compost that will often smell bad, letting the gardener know that it is likely no good. The compost is sometimes imbalanced because it didn’t go through the process like it should have.

black compost soil
black compost soil

That being said, how can a person tell if the compost is ready to be used in the garden? When organic compost is ready to be applied to plants and trees, it will be crumbly and have a lot of pockets in it. The resulting soil is sometimes sticky as well, but all of these things are normal.

Compost is not just fertilizer or plant food. It is very diverse; at least, the best composts are always diverse. This means that the more organic matter that is put into the compost pile, the better the final product will be. Don’t just include items mentioned in an article or blog – include anything that will naturally decay once it’s there.

How to Get the Perfect Organic Compost

Naturally, it takes more than just throwing some food scraps into a pile to make a good organic compost, but it isn’t complicated, either. If the right steps are taken, it is super easy to end up with a great compost that can be used to get healthier plants and trees. Below are some tips that can help anyone do that:

  • Make sure the compost is in the right spot. The best spot will always be level and even yet allow for proper drainage as well. Excess water needs to be drained well, and worms have to have enough room to get into the pile and work their magic.
  • Feed it properly. Besides the ingredients mentioned so far, other items that will work wonders in an organic compost include torn-up pieces of paper, leaves, eggshells, and cardboard egg boxes, to name a few.
  • Don’t add anything non-organic. There are certain items that should never be placed into a compost bin, and this includes meat and dairy products, plants that have diseases on them, diapers, or manure that comes from either cats or dogs.
  • Consider buying a compost bin. These aren’t necessary, of course, but they make composting a whole lot easier. For people who do not choose these bins, they’ll need to enclose the pile with chicken wire or some type of fencing to keep it compact.
  • Turn the pile regularly, preferably once a week. The turning action gives the compost some air, which it will need to continue the four processes mentioned earlier.
  • Be careful with the balance. Composts need “browns” and “greens” to be healthy. Brown items include straw, leaves, pine needles, and twigs, whereas green items include coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, and grass clippings. If the pile is too wet, add some more browns. If it’s too dry, try adding more greens.

While the ratio of browns to greens doesn’t have to be exact, it’s a good idea to shoot for compost that is three or four parts brown to one part green. Again, it is not an exact science, but there should always be more brown items than green items in an organic compost pile.

How to Buy Organic Compost

If gardeners love compost but don’t want to make their own, they can usually find this product at a garden center, but they should pay attention to what’s in the product and make sure it is truly organic. Just because there are carbon-based items in the compost doesn’t mean it’s organic.

Getting compost that is indeed organic means looking at the list of ingredients first. If the bag lists “inert ingredients” or “biosolids” as ingredients, the product is not organic in the true sense of the word. 

The compost should also look right – which means it should be dark, rich, and crumbly – and smell right, which means a fresh, earthy smell. Compost that smells bad or strong should be avoided at all costs. A bad smell means something went wrong during the composting process.

Poor compost can also have big chunks in it, as well as wood chips, or sawdust. This can also mean a compromised composting process, which is never a good thing. Picking up the compost and letting it crumble through the fingers is a good way to make sure it looks and feels the way it’s supposed to.