What to Use When You Have Run Out of Compost?

There’s arguably nothing better for your backyard garden than your own homemade rich compost made from kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and other organic garden waste.

Compost adds nutrients to the soil creating food for plants, worms, fungi, and microbes it also helps give the soil structure and water holding qualities reducing the need to water or fertilise as much.

But there are times when you will run out of this precious resource due to: a large gardening project, a lack of organic waste material to actually compost, or your current compost is still maturing and not quite ready to use in the garden – what do you do then!?

In this article (and video below if you prefer to watch instead of reading) I’m going to show you what I do when we run out of compost and some tips to overcome this horrendous dilemma. 

Before we get into the tips I want to explain our composting set-up, what’s gone wrong, and what we’re planning to do to fix it.

We have some old composting bays made from pallets – a 3 bay system which works well except the build isn't the best. Unfortunately, the material used to line the outside of the bays is degrading and needs fixing. 

Meanwhile, we got a composting tumbler and hopefully, we can use this method for “faster compost.”

According to tumbler operation notes, between 2 and 6 weeks our next homemade compost will be ready – however, this doesn’t help us now when we are busy planting our winter crops here in our subtropical garden so what can be done?  

What to do when you've run out of homemade compost?

Don’t use compost at all – and this is perfectly fine to do simply weed the bed give it a light dig and rake over perhaps a little fertiliser and then plant or sow seed. However, you will find that over time especially in raised bed gardens that the level will reduce, the soil will become depleted of nutrients and even more importantly structure such as moisture holding capacity and microbes and even worms.

Therefore, it still is vital that we do something about it eventually – you can get away with not using compost every time you plant or sow a new crop but at some point, compost will need to be added if you want continued success in the garden.

Substitutes for composting the meantime can be mulch: your own seed free grass clippings, woodchip, or you might buy a mulch such as sugarcane which can be very cost effective or Lucerne which can be a little expensive but more nutritious for plants. These mulches break down in the garden bed and eventually become compost.

Get compost for free from your local council (if they offer this service) and ours does but the composted organic matter can be a little too “rough” for the vegetable garden and one can’t be too certain that there aren’t contaminants that may affect vegetables so we tend to use this type of free compost for fruit trees only.

Buy compost ingredients and mix your own – my Father-in-law who used to be a farmer and is still an avid backyard container vegetable grower gave me a piece of advice years ago about creating a cost-effective compost growing mix for times when you’ve run out of your own homemade compost. It was, buy the budget $3 compost or potting mix bags and simply add a hand full of organic blood & Bone or other organic based fertiliser to the bag mix it up and there you have a nutrient-rich growing medium rather than buying the premium mixes for 8-12 dollars a bag.

I still follow his advice from time to time but lately, I have been using a compost mix that already has preadded blood & bone and this is working well. Yes, I’d prefer my own compost but as a substitute, this beats nothing…

One of the main benefits of using a commercial compost mix is also one of the main disadvantages and that is its sterility. Homemade compost (done the slow way) is full of life – microbes, worms, fungi spores etc which are beneficial to the garden and plants whereas many commercial compost mixes are heat-treated and don’t contain these elements. On the other hand, a sterile commercial compost mix won’t contain weed or grass seeds or introduce plant diseases into your patch.

Personally, I don’t have any moral objection one way or the other for using commercial composts just to say that if you can make enough of your own then that’s what I prefer to do but if you have a large garden like ours you may find from time to time your compost runs short so you can either do without for the short term or if you still don’t have enough and the soil in a garden bed is really needing some love then buying a commercial compost mix in the interim will not only allow you to grow good quality produce without delay, it also saves wasting seeds and plants to poor soil structure, and helps the local economy at the same time.

Resting bed composting pile – You can rest a bed altogether and at the same time add mulch and even kitchen scraps to turn it into a "garden bed compost pile" then leave it to break down and use the bed next season. Obviously, the negative is that’s a bed not able to be used for a period but if you have the space to spare then resting a bed or two as a "composting bed" can be an option.      

Resting beds can also be good for getting rid of pests such as nematodes (which love attacking tomato roots and other popular food crops) practically starving them by not growing any plants in the bed for 12 months is often a good ploy.        

And there you have it that’s what I do when I run out of our own homemade compost – do you do something similar or have you got some composting tips to share? Then write them in the comments section below so we can all learn from them.

Don’t forget to like this article and feel free to subscribe to our newsletter and also my YouTube channel for more self-sufficiency and general food gardening tips – remember you don’t have to be self-sufficient in everything just be self-sufficient in something also look and see the earth through her eyes because working with nature is other much easier than fighting against it…

Here's a video on what to use when you've run out of compost?

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