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What is Organic Compost?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Organic compost is compost made from organic sources, making it safe to use in organic gardening. People can make organic compost at home if they are organic gardeners, and it can also be produced on a commercial scale. Many garden stores stock the compost for consumers who wish to use it. Commercial organic compost tends to be more expensive than conventional compost, because it requires more work, including attention to detail to confirm that all of the materials in the compost are really organic.

The definition of “organic” varies around the world, although it is usually spelled out in the law. As a general rule, organic agriculture does not involve the use of chemicals for pest control or fertilization, and it promotes the use of natural fertilizers, integrated pest management, and other more traditional farming techniques. In order to be certified organic, products must usually submit to inspection from government officials who enforce the organic standards. Things used in the production of organic products must also be certified as organic to avoid cross-contamination.

In the case of organic compost, the raw materials for the compost come from organic sources. Organic farms often generate waste material like trimmings which can be used in the production of the compost, and the compost may also have cuttings from ornamental gardens which are maintained with organic practices, along with waste materials from organic restaurants. Compost amendments like straw and coffee grounds are also obtained from organic sources.

Unlike conventional compost, organic type compost is supposed to be free of chemical residue and other materials which are not viewed as “organic” under the law. For organic gardeners, using organic compost is a must to avoid introducing substances which could threaten the organic status of a garden. If, for example, a gardener uses conventional compost made with sprayed fruit in an organic garden, the sprays used to treat the fruit could contaminate the soil, thereby rendering the garden ineligible for organic status.

Since organic status is very hard to get, organic composters use strict procedures to confirm that their products are organic. In communities with large numbers of organic farms, compost cooperatives which pool waste products from surrounding farms may be used to provide a steady supply of compost. Commercial composters can also collect material for composting for the purpose of making organic compost for gardeners and farms that do not want to handle their own composting.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon280875 — On Jul 20, 2012

In order to meet USDA labeling standards, one of two "hot composting" methods must be used that heat the compost to levels whereby pathogens and weed seeds are significantly reduced. There generally is no physical inspection for this for soils and compost like there is for agricultural organic certification. Currently there is no such thing as certified organic compost. It may be "Listed" with USDA certifiers like OMRI.

I am a commercial producer of organic compost and we strictly follow the USDA's NOP standards. Our products have been approved multiple times by certifiers of organic farms.

Home composting is another matter and very difficult to keep entirely organic. It is also very hard to attain hot composting in a smaller home environment.

I do agree organic has multiple definitions and for most consumers it means no chemicals sprayed on plants. When it comes to soils and compost, that level of 100% purity is not easily attainable.

By andee — On Nov 07, 2011

I have a small garden area, but always like to have bin with some organic compost in it.

It is pretty easy to throw my vegetable scraps and leaves on this pile as I know it will eventually make great organic compost fertilizer.

It doesn't take long to realize how much better yield you get with your garden when you use something like this.

If you are making your own organic compost, it is best not to use any meat, cheese or dairy products. Also make sure you don't get any animal waste in there.

By Azuza — On Nov 07, 2011

@JessicaLynn - I don't see anything wrong with the average, non-farmer purchasing organic compost. After all there are a lot of reasons someone might want to buy organic compost.

A lot of people can't afford to eat completely organic. So how can they make organic compost? But they might want totally organic compost for their garden. I think in that kind of instance, it would make perfect sense to just go ahead and buy organic compost. Then maybe once you get your garden going you can start making your own!

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 07, 2011

I can see why someone who ran an organic farm would want to purchase organic fertilizer compost to use. After all, they probably need a lot of it. But I think it makes a lot more sense for the average person to make their own organic compost.

If you make your own compost, it's free! I think that's the best part. It's also really easy. My mom had a compost pile when I was growing up and all she did was throw fruit and vegetable scraps onto a specific patch in the garden and let nature take it's course. What could be easier than that?

By Charred — On Nov 06, 2011

@nony - Do it yourself approaches are okay if you have the time. I’d rather buy the stuff myself. I buy organic manure compost online. None of the stores in the area where I live have it so I have to go online to buy it.

As any gardener will tell you, nothing beats what the cows produce. It has bacteria with beneficial nutrients that can be slowly released into the soil, and it also has nitrogen and potassium as well.

I’ve tried it on my garden and it worked wonders, helping to grow my cucumbers and tomatoes much faster than they did without the compost.

By nony — On Nov 06, 2011

@MrMoody - I used coffee grinds as organic fertilizer too. I drink a lot of coffee so this seemed like the perfect thing to do.

I just empty the grinds in a plastic bag and store them until I’m ready to use it. Obviously, this is more ideal for gardening than it is for a big lawn (I don’t drink that much coffee!)

However, it’s my understanding that you can visit some of the name brand coffee shops and ask them for coffee grinds. Apparently they give this stuff away by the bag load.

So if you can get your hands on that it would be the best way to go. I did use the stuff I made on my garden and it worked great. I’m not sure about pH balance though. I know that coffee is more acidic than other substances so you may want to do a pH check of your soil, before and after, if you try this approach.

By MrMoody — On Nov 05, 2011

I started making my own organic compost last year. I used leaves, and believe it or not, weeds too. You have to put this stuff out in the sun awhile and let it roast. You can’t use it fresh.

I didn’t have organic compost bins as such but I used an old tub that I have and it worked fine. I used the compost in my vegetable garden and it worked great.

The only thing is that it does take time and you need to find materials around that you can use. I wasn’t so much interested in the “organic” nature of the whole thing; I just wanted to avoid spending money on fertilizer.

Again, if you have the time and the raw stuff, it can be a great way to go.

By ElizaBennett — On Nov 05, 2011

I do my own composting at home, but I don't have a fully organic compost pile. I find it just too expensive to maintain that way!

I pay attention to the "dirty dozen" list of the most dangerous foods from a pesticide perspective. For instance, apples, strawberries, and celery tend to carry a lot of pesticide residue, so I always buy those organic.

But broccoli, bananas, and plums are examples of fruits and veggies we eat a lot of at my house but which it is not important to buy organic. So I don't. And it all goes in the compost pile.

I do grow a little of our own food - tomatoes, herbs, etc. - and these would not qualify as fully "organic" under the law because my compost is not fully organic. But I'm confident that it's safe for my family, and that's the important thing after all!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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