Compost and soil conditioner are often confused with each other, but these are two different products. What's the difference between compost and soil conditioner, and is one better than the other? In this guide, let's define soil conditioner and soil compost and outline their key differences. We're also digging deeper into the best way to apply each of these products.
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What is a Soil Conditioner?
A soil conditioner is an additive to improve the soil's physical characteristics. This product could be made from organic or non-organic materials (some formulas include a combination of both). Generally, soil conditioners are applied directly into the soil to:
- Boost air circulation
- Improve water retention
- Enhance soil fertility
- Alter soil pH
Soil conditioners improve poor soils that cannot support plant growth. These products are also applied to damaged soils, typically those that haven't been amended for a long time. Soil conditioners are also used to improve soil structure.
Not all soils can support plant growth because the texture is too loose or stiff. For example, compacted, hardpan, and clay soils are often amended with soil conditioners to loosen the textures, unlock soil nutrients and improve the soil's overall structure.
What is Compost?
Compost is a soil additive from decayed organic materials such as yard waste and kitchen scraps. The product is made from a combination of green and brown materials (nitrogen and carbon-rich, respectively) that go through a process called "composting" to break the materials into a crumbly, brown, soil-like end product. The end product is added to the soil as a fertilizer to grow different plants. The materials are broken down by bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms.
Although compost can improve the structure of the soil, its primary use is to bring nutrients back into the soil. At the end of every growing season, the soil loses nutrients. To ensure that the next season will be just as bountiful as the last, the soil is amended with nutrient-rich compost.
Unlike chemical fertilizers, compost releases nutrients gradually so plants won't get nutrient burn, which is damage to plants caused by over-fertilization.
What is the difference between compost and soil conditioner?
Compost is the decomposed plant and animal materials. It is used primarily to boost soil fertility and encourage microorganisms in the soil to thrive. On its own, compost can support plant growth because plant roots have something to hold on to; plus, compost is rich in nutrients.
Soil conditioner is a broad term for any materials used to improve soil texture. These materials include organic (peat moss, worm castings, blood or bone meal) and inorganic compounds (small rocks, perlite, vermiculite, gypsum, pulverized limestone, etc.). On its own, soil conditioners cannot support plant growth because plant roots cannot attach themselves to the product.
The primary difference between compost and soil conditioner is the size of the particles and nutrient content. Compost looks and feels like average garden soil. The particles are larger compared to soil conditioner particles. Compost is directly mixed into the soil like fertilizer.
Soil conditioners have finer particles in general. These products can be applied in various ways. You can mix it directly into the soil, dilute it in water as a solution, or add drops of soil conditioners into the soil if in liquid form. Soil conditioners may contain essential nutrients plants need to grow, but the levels differ from compost.
Is soil conditioner better than compost?
Is soil conditioner superior to compost? It depends on the condition you're trying to resolve. To understand the differences between these products and know which one is better for your garden, you'll have to look closer at the soil structure you are amending.
Soil conditioners are additives that can change the physical characteristics of the soil - specifically, the structure and texture. Soil texture refers to the ratio of silt, sand, and clay to each other. Soil structure refers to the soil's ability to hold particles together. How easily oxygen can penetrate the soil and how much water it holds or drains.
Soil conditioners can make compact soil achieve a looser texture or improve the water-holding capacity of loose soils. But on their own, soil conditioners cannot be used to grow crops because the plant roots cannot hold onto the particles of these products. Soil conditioners are formulated primarily to improve soil structure and texture, not necessarily to boost fertility.
Compost is a nutrient-rich substance with a texture similar to garden soil, albeit lighter and fluffier. Because it has a similar texture to garden soil, it can be used to grow various crops on its own. But it is best used as a fertilizer because of the healthy balance of nutrients plants need to grow healthy. The nutrients in compost are readily available or usable by plants.
In addition, compost supports microbial activity in garden soils. Earthworms, fungi, and bacteria in the soil feed on the nutrients in compost, breaking these down further for better plant absorption.
If you are trying to improve the soil's overall structure and texture, soil conditioner is better than compost. But if you want to boost soil fertility and enhance microbial activity, use compost.
Which product is best for your garden?
Ultimately, the best product to use in your garden depends on the specific needs of your soil and plants. Conduct a soil test to determine what nutrients your soil lacks and what products work best for your soil needs. If your garden soil needs a boost of nutrients, use compost. If your soil is not nutrient deficient, but the texture is less than ideal for plant growth (can't hold water or is too compacted/loose), use soil conditioners.
While compost and soil conditioners are two different products serving different purposes, both are beneficial to gardening in many ways. If you're looking for organic soil conditioners made from the best raw materials, we got you covered.
Check out our online store and shop for soil conditioners.