Does composting need a puppetmaster?

For far too long, composting was relegated to a position on the fringe of waste management, despite the fact that 70% of the world’s wastes are compostable. Composters, quite literally, had to wait for someone else to feed them the leftovers.

A major chunk of composting’s potential feedstocks (yard waste, food waste, sludges, etc.) are “owned” by the municipalities in which those wastes are generated.  Traditionally, government has taken the lead in providing waste services of all types, from collection to final disposition.

Unfortunately, that ownership has made composting an ipso facto puppet dancing to the tune of others.  And that song is not a merry jig.  According to the American Bar Association, waste flow control is #2 on its list of the Top 5 most litigious MSW topics.

Numbers tell a sorry tale

There are about 89,000 local governments in the U.S.  But a November 2020 article in BioCycle estimated only 4,500 to 5,000 composting facilities serving those populations – less than 6%.  A mere 326 of 19,000 towns (less than 2%) offer curbside collection of food waste.

Granted, more than half of those are small governments managing jurisdictions of fewer than 50,000 people – our very rough estimate of the population base needed to support an industrial composting operation for urban organics.  

But that still leaves a sizable number of cities, counties, and towns that have the potential to generate the minimum volume of composting feedstocks required for commercial viability.  That support would come from municipal, commercial, institutional, and industrial generators.

Sadly, too many of those who control those wastes seem to be in no hurry to divert the bulk of that stream to a municipally- or privately-owned composting facility, even when it could be the most cost-effective management choice.  

Clearly, the prevailing paradigm needs to shift if composting is to become the management choice for all Urban organics.

Enter new models for resource recovery

Over the past 30 years, composting has matured to become an efficient, economical, dependable, and profitable technology for recycling the full gamut of urban organics. 

A big, 100,000 tons/year indoor plant can go from groundbreaking to start-up in 12 to 18 months, and when equipped with an efficient biofilter, can be sited closer to both waste generators and end use markets than windrow operations.  Its footprint is only 1/10 the size of that windrow operation, too.

When designed and managed with preemption as a priority, a composting facility generates no waste stream of its own, and the resulting compost is a much-needed product for restoring function to depleted urban soils. 

Compost use also sequesters carbon when soils will remain undisturbed for long periods of time, adding to its long list of benefits.

When a community can have all of this – privately funded by experienced commercial companies with no taxpayer investment – why do city and county governments hesitate to put out the welcome mat for composting? 

In recent years, the emergence of small businesses and community non-profits willing to cut the strings and do an end run around the municipal “middleman” has demonstrated new models for resource recovery.  

In the UK,  a bio-ware manufacturer, recyclables/food waste collection company, and composter are teaming up to create a service model outside of a municipal system. (READ: https://www.circularonline.co.uk/news/dedicated-collections-for-compostables-launched-for-london-and-brighton/)

In the U.S., door-to-door collection companies are picking up household and commercial organics and transporting the material to their own composting facilities and/or other established composting operations (of all sizes and descriptions) in the region.

Even companies who serve municipalities (like McGill) also work directly with high-volume generators in the corporate/industrial sector, bypassing the city or county collection system entirely.

While municipal composting programs can get tossed around and fumbled like a political football, collection services by independents providing direct service to the waste generator may offer more stability.

For municipalities struggling to set up composting programs on their own dime, the expansion of composting infrastructure via private-sector services and financing might be fostered and supported by local governments in several ways:

Exclude compostables from flow control.  Flow control is a contentious and much-litigated device used by governments to force all trash generated within its jurisdiction to be managed by a specific facility or facilities.  

At its worst, the practice protects the investment of a private waste contractor – typically a transfer station, landfill, incinerator, etc. – and eliminates any possibility of competition for the life of a project that can have an amortization period of 50 years.

This may be good for the private contractor investing many millions of dollars in the development of a facility.  But taxpayers can end up paying more over those decades when competitors (like composters) are barred from offering alternate services during the contract term.

Sometimes, specific streams are excluded from flow control ordinances.  If organics are included in those exclusions, then the door is open for independents to move in and offer direct services to organic waste generators of every size.

If not, this lock forces a community to use the contract disposal option even when composting might be the least expensive service.

Identify and advertise appropriate composting sites.  The best location for an industrial composting facility serving an urban area is not a farm field or landfill located 100 miles outside of the city.

It makes no sense from either an economic or environmental perspective to shuttle feedstocks out to the country only to truck the finished compost back to the city.  This strategy adds unnecessary cost to both composting services and products. 

So, when both intake and compost use markets are urban, that is where the composting facility needs to be, too.  But composting facilities of any significant size belong in areas zoned for heavy industrial use, not business parks or other locations with too much exposure to the general public.

Over the years, poor location choices may have had as much (or more) to do with facility closures as bad design or management.

While building industrial structures is usually cost-prohibitive on a closed out landfill, an old “dump” located within or near the city limits might be suitable for an operation utilizing tarps or other less permanent containment – with optional biofiltration, of course.

City managers and decision-makers know their jurisdictions better than anyone.  By identifying appropriate sites, acquiring and designating those sites for composting, and advertising/offering those locations to commercial composters, a local government can secure high-quality composting services for its city without a hefty capital investment or related management/operating costs.

Metro areas also benefit when multiple sites and/or companies serve the region, building redundancy into the composting infrastructure.

Mandate compost use.  As demand for compost rises, compost manufacturers will be able to hold steady or even lower tipping fees for composting services.  

One of the most effective mechanisms for increasing demand is for governments to mandate compost use for all new public and private construction projects, major residential landscaping rehabs, DOT construction and maintenance, and all publicly-owned parks, recreation areas, and other greenspaces.  

Typically, this is achieved through stormwater management and grounds maintenance programs.  As compost is one of the lowest cost stormwater capture solutions per gallon retained (native plants are a few pennies cheaper), it only makes sense to begin the restructuring of any stormwater program by mandating compost use whenever and wherever soil disturbance or maintenance takes place.

Working toward the win-win

The ultimate goal is to create a robust market for compost products, one that will generate an even stronger demand for the organic waste that feeds compost manufacturing processes.  

When this happens, manufacturers may be able to greatly reduce (or even eliminate) tipping fees for yard waste, food waste, sludges, and other urban organics received from local governments.

It’s a scenario where both small businesses and taxpayers win.  Isn’t that outcome worth the loss of a few strings?

Can I sell my backyard compost?

From time to time, a backyard composting enthusiast poses the question: Can I sell my backyard compost?  Unfortunately, the answer is complicated.  Switching from the backyard to the commercial world is like shifting the preparation of a plate of spaghetti from a home kitchen to a 120-seat Italian restaurant – even if you only want to sell one or two plates.

Rising interest in food waste diversion causes entrepreneurial spirits to think about starting a composting facility.  That’s great news and deserves encouragement. There is plenty of room at the table for composting operations of every size, including the backyard variety. 

Some pulling up a chair will come with little to no experience running a business, composting at scale, or managing wastes of any description.  On one hand, that is a good thing for the composting industry as a whole.  Fresh ideas and a non-jaded outlook (mixed with a dollop of desperation, naïveté, and plain dumb luck) drive progress.

But the budding entrepreneur must accept the fact that when money changes hands, the small-scale/backyard composter crosses over into the commercial composting world, one that is tightly regulated.

Fortunately, many states have exemptions or lighter “regs” for low-volume projects.  But that’s not the same as no regulation.   To find out more about regulations in your state, here is a list, compiled by the U.S. Composting Council.

If you are thinking about a for-profit or non-profit composting-related business, or even a public project, taking the time to do a little research before the planning process begins is the smartest and most economical first step any new business endeavor can take.

Can I sell my backyard compost?

There are many factors to consider before answering that all-important question.  Some are related to rules and regulations.  Others have to do with running a business.

Knowing the answers to questions like these can make the difference between success or failure:

  • If considering a door-to-door food waste collection and composting service,  what are similar companies charging in cities like yours?  What is the average size of their customer base?  What percent of the households that meet the identified customer profile (age, income, etc.) use the service?  How does your community compare and will you have the possibility of gaining enough customers to make your business profitable?  How are they marketing the service to potential customers? Talk to the local recycling coordinator.  Is s/he aware of any similar companies operating or considering start-up in your locale?
  • If you plan to intake waste from other household or businesses, most privately-owned composting facilities rely on tipping fees to support compost production, not compost sales.  Do you know the average tipping fee in your region?  Who are your biggest competitors for composting feedstocks?  What other competing companies or technologies are thinking about moving into your market?  A chat with your city or county business development specialist could be insightful.
  • What are the high, low, and average wholesale and retail prices for a cubic yard of compost in your targeted service area?  What about bagged products?  Will customers expect auxiliary services like delivery or spreading?  
  • Have you read all of the regulations, zoning ordinances, and building codes that will impact your operation?  Check in with the local planning department and correlating state agencies to determine if there are any changes in the works.  
  • Do you know where the high growth areas are in your region?  There is nothing worse for a composter than to open a remote facility only to find the land around it being gobbled up by housing developments a few years later.
  • Your annual reports to the state, including names of customers and volumes processed, as well as copies of your permit and any related violations, will probably be made available to the general public online or on request.  As a result, potential anchor accounts — large corporations, municipalities and commercial entities — may wait a few years before doing business with you.  They want to know the way you operate, the dependability of your service, and your efforts to protect the environment and local community are above reproach and will not negatively damage their own reputations by association.  Obviously, this can have a major impact during the initial years of operation.
  • First-time business owners may underestimate expenses and overestimate revenues.  Talk to people who actually operate composting facilities before developing financial projections.  Look for tradeshows, conferences, and other networking opportunities that will allow you to meet and learn from folks who have spent time in the trenches.
  • If you do plan to open a facility of any significant size, there are only a handful of engineering firms and technology providers with extensive experience in designing successful composting facilities.  Choose a designer with a resume that includes multiple, long-term composting operations with no technology/design-related problems.  

As with any business start-up, be prepared for long days and short nights.  The owner of a successful composting operation must not only know how to make good compost, but also keep the books, hire and manage employees, promote the business, and keep customers, regulators, and neighbors happy.

Until the business grows to the point where it can support others in managerial positions, the full weight of those jobs is carried on the shoulders of the owner.

More time will be spent on matters unrelated to compost production than on making compost.  Knowing how to make good compost will not be enough.  Before taking the plunge, be sure you have the drive, stamina, and desire to devote such a large portion of your day to shepherding a new business.

FAQ:  Should I use compost or topsoil to establish a new lawn?

Mixing compost with native soil makes topsoil.  So instead of either/or, when you use compost to establish a new lawn, you get both.

Simply incorporate the compost into the top few inches of in situ soil according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.   (Click here for McGill’s use instructions.)

Et voilà … a new layer of topsoil.

You can also broadcast compost with the seed or put down a layer under new sod.  The compost will accelerate establishment and green-up.  Compost use has been shown to encourage earlier green-up in the spring and extend the green season in the fall, too.

If you insist on buying topsoil, have it tested for organic matter content before application.  Because so much true topsoil has been lost over the years, especially in developed areas, that load of dirt may not be topsoil at all, but scraped up, nearly-inert subsoil.  If the product is mostly sand or mostly clay, you may need to add compost to boost its organic matter content.

Still not convinced?  Instead of buying topsoil and fertilizer, it can be cheaper to make your own topsoil, too.

But don’t make the mistake of using 100% compost when the job calls for topsoil.  Most plants will need the weight/density of soil to provide support and keep the plant upright throughout the growing season(s).

Planting in 100% compost may be too rich for some plants, as well.  

Remember, compost is intended to be used as a soil amendment, not a soil replacement.

Are you watering with tap water?

City water contains chlorine and chlorine kills microbes – both good and bad.  Will watering plants with tap water kill the beneficial microbes delivered through compost use?

 

Chlorine, chloramine, fluoride, and salts are used to treat city and household water systems.  None of them are beneficial to plants, soils, or the microbial populations contained therein.

The good news is that if your city’s water system maintains chlorine at recommended levels, most plants won’t be harmed and soil/compost microbes will quickly recover.

Generally, chlorine also dissipates quickly.  Fill a 5-gallon bucket with tap water and let it sit for a day or two before using the water on plants.

Chloramine, a compound that includes both chlorine and ammonia, is a little harder on plants and soils.  It is used throughout the US, including a number of metropolitan areas served by McGill composting facilities.  Check out this list to see if your water system is among them.

Over time, chloramine use can acidify soil and damage plants.  If this chemical is running through your watering tap, keep an eye on soil pH.

Fluoride is added to drinking water supplies to strengthen teeth.  It is also found in some fertilizers and perlite.  Burned tips and edges of leaves can be a sign of fluoride toxicity.

Using compost to maintain a neutral pH will limit fluoride availability, as will switching to rainwater or filtered water.

Household systems designed to soften water using salts can damage soil and plants, too. 

Short of installing a new spigot in the H2O line before it reaches the water softener, adding calcium to the soil through applications of gypsum or lime can help.  So does simple leaching (over-saturating the soil to flush out excess salts). 

But know that leaching will also wash away nutrients.  If you opt for this method, be sure to add some compost post-watering to help rebuild the soil.

Collecting rainwater and mixing it with tap water can dilute the harmful impacts of chemicals and salts.

For home use, rainwater harvesting systems can be as simple as a $5 bucket sitting in the yard or as sophisticated as a $2500 tank set-up.

Just make sure water in open-top collection containers is not allowed to stagnate and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Want more information about using tap water for watering plants?  We found this article that discusses the various chemicals used in water treatment and how they impact plants and compost.

FAQ:  What causes acid soil and how can I fix it?

The leaching action of rainwater, CO2 from organic decomposition, and oxidation of constituents in fertilizers all contribute to the formation of acid soil.

While some plants, like rhododendrons and blueberries, prefer an acid soil, most do not.  But acid soil can be fixed.

Back in the day, grandpa may have added lime or wood ash to fix the soil.  Today’s growers, however, are more likely to add compost.

With its neutral pH, compost makes an ideal amendment for both acidic and alkaline soils.

Get it tested

Don’t guess.  Test your soil at least once every three years.  Keep copies of those test results so you can monitor soil changes over time.

Pull a sample for testing through your local Cooperative Extension Service office or buy a kit.  Sample several locations, then mix together.

Do not use a metal trowel, shovel, or bucket to do your sampling unless you are certain it is stainless steel.  Some metals can react with the soil and distort results.  For the same reason, don’t use painted tools, either.  Plastic will be the better choice.

An inexpensive meter will also get the job done and costs about the same as testing or a DIY kit.

Find the Goldilocks zone

A pH range of 6.0 to 7.0 is considered ideal.  (Acidic soils are on the low of the range; alkaline soils are on the high end.)

For overall soil and plant health, keep pH readings in the Goldilocks zone.

But if you want to match specific crops to their ideal pH, this article includes pH preferences for many common vegetable crops.  For ornamentals, check out this chart.

Sorry, but there’s no quick fix for soil pH

It takes time to adjust soil pH.  Experts say if you’re able to nudge the number .5 to 1 point in a season you’re doing a good job.

It takes at least three weeks for early results.  Making a start in the fall for spring planting is even better.

If you make your own compost, pH testing prior to soil incorporation can be a good idea.  The specific ingredients in your compost will influence pH.

The same is true for commercial compost products.  Compost manufacturers will provide copies of their product testing results, which should include pH.  If these types of analyticals are not available, either choose another product or test it yourself.

If you have a choice, and your soils are slightly acidic, opt for the compost product that leans toward the alkaline.  If your soil is more alkaline, choose a compost with a lower pH number.

In addition to compost, you can also add things like coffee grounds (acidic) and baking soda (alkaline) to either the compost or the soil to shift pH levels. 

Minecraft composters – a sign of things to come?

Did you know there is a composter block in the popular videogame, Minecraft?  Minecraft composters have been available for a couple of years, though the unit is something of a Rumpelstiltskin model.  While the composter doesn’t spin organics into gold, it does turn food waste (no meat) and green waste into bone meal.  Quite a trick.

Gamers build the thing with wood planks and fences.  Each composter provides a job for one farmer.

Games designed to teach children and adults how to sort materials for recycling/composting have been around for a while.  But when a pop culture megastar like Minecraft (the best-selling videogame of all time with about 126 million active players worldwide) embraces composting, organics recycling has arrived.

There’s even a bit of 2021 forum chatter from gamers pushing for the inclusion of fish, meat, and rotting flesh as permitted compostables.

Questions about the origins of the rotting flesh aside, this seems to indicate a big swath of the general public knows composting is capable of recycling much more than yard waste and veggies.

But one has to wonder how much longer it’s going to be before the communities those players call home turn fantasy into reality.

There are no real barriers to composting, just excuses

It’s not unusual for an article to focus on “barriers” to large-scale composting projects.  Lack of infrastructure typically tops the list.

But when composting has proven itself to be an economical, efficient, and reliable technology for recycling urban organics, perhaps the time has come to admit the real barrier to universal composting is the human factor.

When any number of experienced, commercial firms stand ready to build, finance, and operate big, industrial composting operations in exchange for a suitable site, lack of infrastructure is not the barrier.  

Lack of publicly-funded investment capital is not the barrier.

Lack of curbside collection is not the barrier.  Yes, source-separation and collection is certainly an issue to be addressed.  But it’s not a barrier when cities around the world have figured it out.

Too often, these are simply excuses to justify inaction on the part of community leaders.

Time to get off your duff?

Composting in Cyberland provides a window into public awareness.  But the general public doesn’t enact change on a municipal, state, or national scale.  Their elected officials do that.

To convince 100 households in a borough to compost is laudable.  But to convince the elected representative of that borough to embrace composting can set the stage for a citywide program creating tens of thousands of composting households.

Decision-makers may be the vehicles of change.  But the energy and drivers behind transformation come from their constituents.

Want an elected official to support composting sooner rather than later?  Pick up the phone, visit their office, or send a letter from the heart using your words, not those of somebody else.

A phone call is better than an email.  A handwritten letter carries more weight than typed.  In the eyes of an elected official, a single letter is said to represent the views of 100 constituents.  Posting to social media may not outshine traditional communication, but it does provide opportunity for public awareness and dialogue.

There are also a couple of practices most professional advocates tend to agree on: (1) don’t waste your time trying to influence a politician if you’re not a constituent – even signatures from non-constituents on petitions may be disregarded – and (2) do not send a form letter/email. Use the form as a guide only … and restrict your correspondence to one page.

Include relevant facts and figures.  “Greenie” statements without science and hard numbers to back them up are a waste of space.  Show.  Don’t tell.

The time to act is now

In the months following an election, there are a lot of new folks settling into offices at all levels of government.

For the most recent race, there were thousands of incumbents who either opted out of the elections or lost their seats.  Taking those chairs are thousands of enthusiastic, fresh faces representing new opportunities to move composting to the next level.  Old pros are learning to navigate shifting currents of public opinion.

So, whether you are an experienced composting advocate or have never reached out to a public official, now is the right time to make sure organics recycling is on their radar.

INTERESTING FACTOID:  According to Merriam-Webster, the word “duff” can also be used to describe the partially decayed organic matter on the forest floor.  Synchronicity or kismet?

FAQ:  What is the best garden soil to buy?

The best garden soil you can purchase isn’t soil at all, but compost.  Adding compost to your existing soil is actually cheaper than buying soil, and it offers so much more than dirt.

As little as 1/8 to 1/4 inch of compost incorporated into the top layer of soil adds organic matter, nutrients, beneficial microbes, etc.  

But for a real power punch and some beautiful soil, add compost at a ratio of 1 inch or so of compost for every 3 inches of native soil and mix thoroughly.  Use no more than 30% compost in that four-inch layer of enriched garden soil.

However, since most garden plants need at least 12 inches of soil for good root development, you will need to consider adding at least 3 inches of compost to 9 inches of existing soil to achieve 12 inches of amended soil.

To help with your garden planning, we found this article with a chart that includes root depths for common vegetables and herbs.

NOTE:  If adding compost to a container or raised bed, hold the compost to 25% of the soil-compost mix.

FAQ:  Can I use potting soil for raised beds?

Using potting soil for raised beds is not so much a question of whether you can, but whether you should.  A product designed for a raised bed, added to a very large container, might work.  But the inverse is not advised.

Like many things in life, “one size fits all” may not be the best soil strategy for container-grown, raised bed, and open ground/row crop plantings. 

Soil has a number of functions.  It acts as a substrate to support plants.  Air, water, and microbes move through its pore spaces.  Nutrients are stored until needed by those plants.

But the manner in which that soil is contained (or not) may require some adjustments to ensure optimum plant health.

Roots need wiggle room

Think about your feet in a pair of tight-fitting shoes.  There is not much space for your toes.  Air doesn’t circulate very well.  Your feet may sweat a bit.

A plant in a container can experience similar problems.

For one thing, containers need to be portable.  That dictates a lighter soil than might be found in the garden or raised bed.

The confined space physically restricts root development, too.  So the lighter soil makes it easier for the plant to send out roots.

A typical container is watertight with a small drainage hole at the bottom.  Lighter soil helps move water quickly from top to bottom to prevent waterlogging. 

But this rapid drainage may also lead to less water retained – one reason to make sure your potting mix includes the moisture-holding properties of compost.

Raised beds are little different.  They are generally much larger than a container and do not have an impermeable surface between the bed and the native soil.

A raised bed is like a comfortable pair of boots – more room to wiggle toes, but still a confined space.  

Rain and irrigation water have the space to spread laterally before percolating down through the bed.  Roots are able to do the same.

But media mixes for planting beds often have wood chips or other materials added to improve drainage.  Because growing space is still confined in a raised bed, the soil needs to have a lighter density than the adjacent lawn or garden.

That garden soil can be much heavier because roots have unlimited space to stretch out to seek water and nutrients.  In the landscape, it needs to have the ability to support big shrubs and trees, too.

But do note that “heavier” is used here as a density comparison to the lighter potting and container soils.  A heavy garden soil is not desirable, either.  It requires amendment to lighten things up.  Otherwise, roots will not develop properly.

Assuming that garden soil is a good density, it might be likened to going barefoot – plenty of room to wiggle the toes.  Or, in this case, plenty of space to spread roots.

Make your own or buy pre-made

If mixing up your own container or raised bed media, know that compost can be substituted 1:1 for peat moss in your favorite soil recipes. 

And if using your garden soil as a base, sterilize in the microwave or under plastic before adding the compost.  Sterilizing compost will kill the beneficial microorganisms that make compost such an ideal soil amendment.

For readers along the U.S. East Coast, McGill does not make a potting mix, but we do offer a bulk landscape mix for raised beds.  Ask for it at your local landscape supply yard.

FAQ:  How does compost help soil?

Most of compost’s benefit comes from its organic matter content, i.e., decaying plants and animals.  This organic matter contains the carbon, nutrients, and beneficial microbes that make compost the perfect amendment for so many soil types.  How does compost help soil?

Compost is about 50-60% organic matter on a dry weight basis.  A bit more than half of that is organic carbon.

This organic matter acts like a sponge, helping soil hold water and reducing runoff.  It also increases pore space to facilitate movement of air and water laterally through the soil, which creates transportation routes for microbes.

Compost is a soil conditioner.  Texture, moisture retention, and a host of other factors contribute to a well-conditioned soil.  A deep layer of light, friable soil encourages root development.  These root systems provide additional pathways for water and beneficial organisms. 

Healthy soil also provides a welcoming environment for those beneficial microbes, as well as other “critters” like earthworms.

The presence of active microbial populations improves nutrient uptake and contributes to the degradation of pollutants, too.  The combination of improved uptake and fewer nutrients lost through runoff results in a reduced requirement for synthetic fertilizers. 

For many growers, compost is the only amendment needed for a beautiful, abundant garden.

But don’t get carried away

Compost is a soil amendment – not soil.  Too much organic matter can be as bad as not enough.

Your target is a soil with a 5% organic matter content.  The best way to determine soil organic matter (SOM) percentage is with a soil test.

Soil testing is easy, inexpensive, and always a good move.  If you never tested your soil or can’t remember the last time you pulled a sample, this is the year.  Every three years is recommended.

You can buy a gizmo for a few dollars online or at the local garden center.  Make sure it tests for SOM along with moisture, salts, etc.

For about the same money, you can also use your local Cooperative Extension Service.  If you are not familiar with this excellent resource, we found this site which allows you to search for your county office by ZIP Code.

FAQ: When is the best time to add compost?

Anytime is a good time to add compost.  Fall, spring, mid-season – every growing space can benefit from the boost of soil microbes and organic matter.

Is one timing option better than another?

A quick scan of gardening articles and blogs seems to indicate a slight lean toward fall.  Putting growing spaces to bed for the winter under a layer of compost and leaves gives soil microbes plenty of time to prep the ground for spring planting.

But incorporating compost a couple of weeks prior to seeding or transplanting at the start of the growing season works well, too.

No time to wait those extra 14 days?  Go ahead and add compost to the soil at planting time.  Just make sure that compost is fully mature.  (It should smell “earthy,” like soil from the forest floor.)  An immature product could compete with seedlings for nutrients or even burn young plants.  An unpleasant, ammonia odor is a telltale sign of immaturity.

If the compost at hand is still a bit too fresh, incorporate some air by turning with a shovel.  Dumping a bag onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow will add air, as well.  Let it sit a couple of days, then check progress.  Keep “fluffing” the compost until it’s ready for use.

And don’t forget to add a bit of compost to container mixes, backfill, and other non-crop uses.  Follow manufacturer instructions, especially about amounts to use.  Depending on the feedstocks that make up the blend, some compost products may be richer than others.  Here’s the link to McGill’s use recommendations.

Most plants will welcome a little mid-season pick-me-up, too.  Simply sprinkle a little compost on top of a container’s soil layer, use as a side-dressing for row crops, or add a dusting over lawns.  Water in or lightly rake.