Compost and Mulch: What’s The Difference

Healthy soil is the key to more productive fields, gardens and landscapes. Soil health is also a key contributor to proper water management. Soil delivers water and nutrients to crops, physically supports plants, helps control pests, determines where rainfall goes after it hits the earth, and protects the quality of drinking water, air, and wildlife habitat. Good soil management protects your soil, enhances performance and preserves environmental quality for decades to come.


Plants need to obtain nutrients from soil to live. Nutrient deficiency leads to limited growth and crop yield. Typically soil conditions provide plants adapted to their local climate enough nutrients to live. However, in almost all conditions when trying to maximize growth or increase yield nutrients need to be added. Compost contains a full spectrum of plant nutrients. Compost releases nutrients slowly. It helps sandy soil retain more moisture. Compost hangs on to nutrients so they don’t wash through the root zone, and just a small percentage of increase in organic matter makes a major effect on how much water the soil can hold.

An easy way to apply compost is to spread it in a thick layer on top of exposed soil. Worms and other creatures will help the compost blend with the soil. The speed the compost breaks down in the soil depends on several factors. These include what products used to make the compost, how fine, and the temperature.


I like to think of mulch as a blanket for soil. Mulch is spread across the top of the soil mainly to help soil retain moisture. Wood chips are used as mulch, as well as pine needles, leaves and inorganic material like rocks or decomposed granite. Some mulch provides a little nutrition for the soil, but that is not the main reason to mulch. The main reason to use mulch is for water retention and weed suppression.

When spreading mulch you need to be careful not to push the mulch up against your plants. When mulch covers your plant stem it provides an excellent habitat for bugs and a source of moisture that will promote disease, both detrimental to your plants. So be sure to leave a few inches around the plants.

Use Compost As Mulch

Try using compost as mulch. You will receive the benefits of mulch (water retention and weed suppression) and improve the nutrients in your soil. It will be at a higher cost if you buy compost or mulch from a vendor. Compost typically costs about twice what mulch costs. If you make your own compost (like we all should be doing) there is little cost and huge benefit to the environment. Most likely you will also have to reapply compost more often than mulch. However, considering the nutritional benefit to the plants and the aesthetics of using compost as mulch makes great sense.

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