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Compost: Can You Buy It in a Bag?

Question. Mike: Do you happen to know if it's possible to buy good quality compost in bags? I'd like to use compost in my garden, but only seem to be able to find manure and topsoil in bags at the garden center. I've seen places that will deliver loose compost by the cubic yard, but I don't have a driveway for them to dump it. Love your show!

    ---Peter in Ardmore, PA

Answer. Thanks, Peter! Now if you have access to good quality yard-waste compost in bulk, my first suggestion is to see if it can be delivered to a friend's home nearby or some other mutually agreeable site where several gardeners could share both it and the cost. You'll find lots of info on buying bulk compost in this previous Question of the Week.

Otherwise, the basic answer is yes; there are high quality bagged composts out there. But as with most things gardening, the devil—or angel—is in the details. Here's an updated version of how I addressed this topic in my 2006 book, "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (still in print, kids; get your copy today!)

If we're talking about the cheap, wet, heavy, generically bagged stuff without a lot on info on the label sitting out baking in the sun at a big box store, it's not my first choice. (Or second, or third, or…) It shouldn't be anyone's choice, really. The labels and names on cheap bags of "Maybe Compost" are generally somewhere between non-existent, confusing and extremely misleading (as the materials inside the bag often are as well). And this low-rent spread has probably been anaerobic inside that bag for a long time.

If it's all you can find (and it isn't; there's always mail order if you truly live in a horticultural supply desert), two esteemed experts I interviewed for the book, Ohio State University Professor Dr. Dan Herms and University of Maryland Professor Emeritus Dr. Frank Gouin suggest you buy a sample bag, take it home, open it up and give the contents a 'quack' test. (If it looks like good compost, feels like good compost and smells like good compost, it might actually be good compost.)

If it quacks loud enough, go back and get some more, empty the bags out, mix the contents together (ideally with some REAL home made compost or some of the premium stuff we'll soon mention) and let it sit awhile before you use it.

"Square Foot Garden" author Mel Bartholomew once offered a variation on this method during one of our conversations. He suggested you visit a number of different stores, buy one each of their bagged composts, bring them home and evaluate them. Then go back and buy a couple bags each of the best ones and mix them together—again, ideally with some backyard compost or stuff from a premium bag.


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