Knowing what compost actually is (and what it’s not) leaves no doubt why it’s the hero of the container garden! While fertilizers are a fantastic addition to your garden, there simply is no substitute for the enriching benefits compost can offer your potted plants.
Anyone who grows within containers knows there’s a price to be paid for the conveniences and benefits that container gardening offers. After selecting your favorite containers, potting soil, and fertilizers; tacking on a bag of compost to that order can be a tough pill to swallow. Let’s look at where the benefits of composting shine as a soil amendment, and why its value is well-worth its presence on your shopping list.
What is Compost?
Composting is the process by which organic matter decomposes into rich organic matter called humus (HYOO-muhs). Finished compost improves the actual structure of the soil, which promotes water retention and is fantastic for root development. Compost itself contains and attracts a living ecosystem which brings actual life to your soil, boosting the health of your soil which strengthens plants grown within it by increasing their defense against disease. From a nutritional standpoint, compost is rich with both macro and micronutrients that plants need during their development.
Isn’t Compost the Same as Fertilizer?
Although it shares some qualities with fertilizer, the two are very different things and serve different purposes. Fertilizer, while a great addition to your garden, doesn’t contain the spectrum of micro and macronutrients that compost does. Fertilizer also doesn’t improve your soil structure, and water soluble fertilizers drain quickly out of containers, taking much of their nutritional goodies with them.
Benefits of Compost in your Container Garden
Regularly adding compost to the native soil of your in-ground garden can pay dividends, but compost offers even greater benefit when applied to container gardens! Potting mix doesn’t contain native soil and thus lacks the biodiversity that in-ground gardens enjoy. Let’s look again at the benefits of compost through the lens of a container gardener.
Water retention can be one of the container gardener’s biggest obstacles. Compost boosts your growing medium’s ability to retain water while altering its structure to allow the roots to stretch. These are massive wins for plants grown in containers!
Compost also adds life to your potting mix. Potting mixes are intentionally sterilized, resulting in a lack of minerals and microbes that are found in native soil. The introduction of composted organic material into your potting mix creates a living ecosystem within your soil, bringing happiness to garden and gardener alike!
How to apply compost
The three most common methods of applying mature compost to your container garden are soil conditioning (before planting), top or side dressing during the growing season, and the addition of compost tea.
Before tucking your next plant into its container, consider enriching the soil with compost as a soil conditioner. Mixing compost directly into the growing medium boosts its capacity for water retention and effectively aerates the potting soil. It also adds that jolt of natural life that only organic matter can bring to the party! Adding compost to your container mix from the beginning sets your plants up for a happy growing season, and refreshing the container soil each year with a healthy dose of compost will create a thriving growing medium for your plants.
Top Dressing and Side Dressing
Both of these methods are typically utilized during a plant’s development. Top dressing is a rather indiscriminate addition of compost or fertilizer on top of your growing medium, while side dressing is intentionally adding compost around the specific vegetables, flowers or herbs that it is intended to benefit. Think of it as buttering a piece of toast: top dressing is smoothing butter across the whole surface of the bread whereas side dressing is only adding butter to the specific bite you’re about to take. When it comes to adding compost to your container garden, both top dressing and side dressing are spectacularly easy for you and beneficial for your plants.
Compost tea is simply the liquid version of solid compost. Much like brewing a cup of tea, compost is steeped in water until the soluble nutrients and microorganisms are successfully extracted from the solid material into the liquid. It is then used to water your container garden, making those nutrients immediately accessible to your plants. Creating compost tea can be a rather aromatic endeavor, so consider keeping it in a closed container for your own sake and so you don’t accidentally invite unwanted critter attention.
Your next Steps
Now that you know why you’re going to love adding compost to your garden, let’s talk about how you can absolutely make it yourself by leveraging the variety of composting strategies that will provide the compost you want in a way that works within your schedule and space.
When it comes to compost, the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll have an amazing soil amendment that will boost garden production and give you a higher return on your gardening efforts. Knowing what compost is and the benefits it adds to your container garden empowers you to take a “good” garden, and make it great! Trust me- once you start incorporating compost into your containers, you’ll never look back!
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