Washington State University Extension

Garden Tips


GARDEN TIPS – Written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Published July 31, 2016

While both new and experienced gardeners know that garden soil may benefit from the addition of compost, they do not know about the problems that can arise when from adding too much or using poor quality compost. Let’s take a little time to chat a bit about the pitfalls of adding compost to garden soil.

While good quality compost is considered the holy grail of garden organic matter, there are no set standards for compost. The quality of compost varies with the types of materials composted and the composting processes used. Mature compost is one where the organic materials are fully broken down into stable organic matter. Quality compost is mature compost that is not high in salts, contains no contaminants from industrial waste, has few weed seeds, and can provide plant nutrients.

You can not discern quality compost by looks. If purchasing commercially made compost, ask the seller for a copy of the laboratory analysis provided by the compost producer. Look for the carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N) that indicates the stability of the organic matter (OM). A ratio between 12:1 to 15:1 is an indication that the OM is stable. If the ratio is less than 10:1, it is an indication that it contains organic materials that are still in the process of decomposing. A ratio above 25:1 indicates that the compost contains high carbon materials that break down very slowly and will tie-up available nitrogen as it decomposes, depriving garden plants of nitrogen and hampering plant growth.

On the analysis look for the EC or electrical conductivity of the compost. This is a measure of the soluble salts in the soil. High soluble salt levels are harmful to plant roots. Compost with an EC above 8mmho/cm are high in salts and should be avoided. It is better to purchase compost with an EC that is between 0 and 4 mmhos/cm.

Also, pay attention to the percent (by dry weight) of organic matter in the compost. If the percentage is lower than 30 per cent, it means that soil or sand have been added to the mix. If higher than 60 percent, it is unfinished or immature compost containing undecomposed organic materials.

Be aware that each batch of compost that a producer makes varies in its analysis. One time the salt levels may be acceptable and the next time they may be too high, so check the analysis each time you purchase compost even if it comes from the same supplier or producer.

While local soils often benefit from the addition of quality compost, it is possible to over do it. Too much compost can cause problems including excess nutrient levels, especially nitrogen and phosphorous, high soluble salts, and excessive levels of organic matter. (Levels of organic matter above 5% to 8% by weight are too high.)

The general rule of thumb when adding compost to the soil in vegetable gardens or annual flower beds is to add no more than 2 to 3 inches of quality, low-in-salt compost to garden. The compost should be thoroughly incorporated into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil before planting. Done annually, the level of organic matter in your soil will increase. To avoid excessive levels of organic matter, reduce the amount of compost you are adding to only 1 inch after three years or get a soil test to determine the level of organic matter in your soil. As with so many things in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. The same goes for compost.

Garden Hint: How much compost do you need to apply one inch to the garden? Three cubic yards will cover 1,000 square feet to a depth of one inch.

Garden Tips, WSU Extension, Benton County, 5600-E West Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336-1387, 509-735-3551, Contact Us

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