Buying Compost

We are kind of addicted to quality compost. There’s nothing better than opening up a bag of aged Green Mountain Compost and getting a whiff of the rich, fertile soil! But the smell is the least of it – there are lots of great reasons to use compost on your lawn & garden.

Compost workshop at Green Mountain CompostIf you have the space – and the time! – making compost at home can be very rewarding. (We host backyard composting workshops in the Spring and Fall, in case you’re interested. Click here for more info!) For the rest of you, chances are you’re looking for a compost source that you know and trust – and for good reason!

As Cheryl Long writes in Organic Gardening Magazine,

We collected 30 bagged composts from stores across the country. Right away we saw that there was a problem with the labeling – or rather, with the lack of information on the labels-of every single bag…

Several manure-based composts were so wet and gooey that they looked like brown Play-Doh. A couple of the bags reeked of ammonia, which is a sure sign that they weren’t fully composted. And several more contained shredded wood and bark that were mislabeled as compost.

I am fond of the composting version of an old adage: “You are what your food eats.” You need to trust your compost! If you’re buying compost, it’s important to get to know the company – and their quality control measures – before you start spreading their soil all over your beloved garden or grass.

If you’re looking for your perfect local compost supplier, there are some easy ways to spot high-quality compost. Cheryl again:

Fortunately, a simple look (and sniff) can be all you need to do to find a good-quality product. Here’s how to check out the texture, color, moisture, and “bouquet.”

  1. The texture should be loose and granular, with little or no recognizable wood or bark. If the compost isn’t loose enough for you to spread and work into your garden beds easily, don’t buy it. (See the photo on page 51 for examples of what to avoid.)
  2. The color should always be dark brown or almost black in color. Avoid products that are light in color. They probably contain too little organic matter and too much soil. It’s easiest to tell the true color if you let the compost sample dry out.
  3. Compost should be moist, not dry or soggy. One of compost’s biggest benefits, once it’s in the soil, is that it can hold up to 2-1/2 times its weight in water. But in bagged products, excess moisture makes the compost difficult to spread. It also means that if the compost is sold in 40-pound bags (as most of them are) and you buy a wet product, you’ll be paying for water, not compost. (Hefting a bag will give you a good idea of its moisture content. If it feels like a big glob, the compost is probably too wet; if it feels loose, it is probably drier.)
  4. Ideally, mature compost will have a nice earthy smell, but this isn’t a reliable test for bagged compost-at least not right away. That’s because the plastic bags restrict the oxygen supply to the organisms that release the earthy odor. If you do find an earthy, woodsy odor, you’ve probably struck “black gold”-a mature, good-quality compost. Most bagged composts will probably have a slight musty or barnyard odor when you first open them, and that’s fine. Avoid any products that have a strong unpleasant smell (ammonia or sewer gas, for example) because the odor indicates an immature compost that might damage plants. If you don’t want to smell it, don’t put it on your garden.

(Some stores may not let you inspect a bag before you buy it. So if you buy a bag and find it’s not up to these standards, either take it back or dump it onto your home pile to dilute and fully compost.)


Just like looking for signs of good compost, you should ask tough questions of your compost company as well – to keep them honest. Ask to take a tour of their facilities, and get to know them inside and out.

Feel free to put Green Mountain Compost through the ringer, and let us know what you think! We’d love to give you a tour of our facilities out here in Williston, Vermont – just a few miles away from beautiful Lake Champlain. (Sign up for a tour here!)

Got a question for us? Ask away!

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