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Uses of Compost

submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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Fall is a great time to build a compost pile. So before your trees begin to lose their leaves this fall consider all the great uses for compost in your landscape. Compost can be used in several ways – 1) a component in soil mixtures for containers or raised beds, 2) a soil amendment for ground beds, or as a 3) topdress fertilizer, 4) mulch, or 5) in compost tea. No matter how you use it, compost provides many benefits for plants.

Compost Mulch

When used as mulch, compost creates a protective layer over plant roots that reduces soil temperature, reduces soil moisture loss and suppresses weed growth. It can be applied as mulch to flower beds, vegetable gardens, landscape beds, or lawns, but be sure to screen the finished compost first.

A simple screen can be made using ½-inch mesh hardware cloth and attaching it to a wooden frame, like an old window with the grass removed or an old screen door. Place the screen over a wheelbarrow or other container and sift the compost into it. The large pieces left behind can go back into your next compost pile. When mulching around trees and shrubs, screening may not be necessary, since this is really a matter of aesthetics and your personal taste.

Prepare an area for mulching by clearing away existing grass or weeds, making sure to remove the roots of tough perennial weeds. Cover the garden or bed area with screened compost to a depth of one to two inches.

Topdress Your Lawn with Compost

When used as a topdressing, a light layer of compost is broadcast over an existing lawn to promote improved soil structure, add organic matter and nutrients, and promote increased decomposition of thatch. Apply a topdressing of compost in September or after the first spring mowing, but not during the middle of summer.

When applying compost on a lawn, be sure the compost is very dry, and finely ground or sifted so there is less chance of smothering the lawn with large pieces of organic material. To finely screen compost, use a ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth instead of the ½-inch mesh used for compost mulch. To apply ½-inch of compost over your entire lawn, you will need approximately ¾ cubic yard per 1,000 sq.ft. (A 30-gallon garbage can holds about 4 cubic feet of compost.)

One way to incorporate the compost is to aerate the sod, then apply a ¼ to ½-inch layer of fine compost. Afterwards, either aerate again, or use a rake to distribute compost into the corings. Water the lawn well.

Soil Amendment with Compost

When starting a new garden or landscape, soil amendment is recommended before planting. It is so much easier to add compost before anything is plant, than after.

When new homes are constructed the existing topsoil is often stripped away, removed, and not returned, so new homeowners are left with subsoil to establish a new lawn and landscape. Soil amendment with compost, worked into the underlying subsoil layer, before the final lawn or landscape is planted gives new homeowners much better soil for years to come. It's definitely worth the extra expense and labor.

To amend bare soil, cover the area with 1 to 2 inches of compost and incorporate it by tilling the upper six inches of the soil. One cubic yard of compost will cover 325 sq.ft. at a depth of 1 inch.

Using Compost in Potting Mixes

Compost is an excellent component for creating soil mixes, which can be used in containers or to fill raised beds. Compost is excellent for container growing mixes, because it stores moisture effectively and provides a variety of nutrients not typically supplied in commercial fertilizers or soil-free potting mixes. To create your own soil mixture, blend screened compost with topsoil, peat moss, or commercial potting mixtures.

However, make sure the compost does not make up more than 50% of the potting mixture's total volume. Research has shown that decreasing plant growth is found when plants are grown in potting mixes made up of more than 50% compost.

Compost Tea

An old fashioned way of providing liquid fertilizer for plants is to brew compost tea. Similar to manure tea, compost tea gives plants a good dose of nutrients. Compost tea works especially well for providing nutrients to new transplants and seedlings.

To make compost tea fill a burlap sack or an old pillow case with finished compost and secure the open end. Place the bag in a tub, barrel, or watering can filled with water. Agitate for a few minutes and then let it steep for a few days. Nutrients will leach out of the compost and the mixture will become tea-colored.

Spray or pour compost tea on and around plants. Use the bag of compost for several batches. Afterwards, simply empty the bag's contents onto the garden.

This resource was updated on September 2013 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement


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