Compost or Fertilizer, that is the question.

Do you want a fertilizer or a compost, and what is the difference anyway ?


If the favourite Rose in your front border is looking a bit tired, and the dwarf conifer in the tub by the front door is also looking past its best, the solution to each is different. But why?

The answer to this question comes by asking another two questions – What conditions is each plant having to cope with? –  and given their situation, what would alleviate their symptoms?

The Rose is living in an open border in natural soil. Potentially it will therefore have access to the full range of naturally available minerals and nutrients.

The Dwarf Conifer is living in a container. It is totally dependent upon us to give it what it needs. The material in which it lives is its only world – it is down to us whether it thrives or dies.

So, which problem requires which solution, or do they both need the same thing ?

The thing about fertilizer is that, whilst it provides high levels of the nutrients that a fast growing plant requires, all it really does is top up the levels that the plant needs to grow. It does nothing to improve the medium in which the plant is living. When applying a fertilizer, we need to know which nutrients the target plant will need. Fertilizers and the nutrients that they provide vary enormously, so the addition of the wrong one can harm a plant, and also damage the soil.

Compost is different in that it works with the soil. This is because of its organic content, which feeds the microbes in the soil, which in turn improves the soils ability to feed and support plants.

An overworked area of ground which does not receive the addition of the right level of compost or other organic matter, but which only receives chemical fertilizer will become depleted of the natural soil fauna, lose its structure, and eventually blow away in the wind – as farmers have discovered to their cost.

So, to answer the original question about the Rose and the conifer, I would say that the Rose needs compost worked into the soil, to improve its structure and health, together with the application of a general purpose fertilizer to give the Rose immediate access to the nutrients it needs.

The Conifer in the container is probably suffering from nutrient deficiency, and a severely restricted root system. It will probably benefit from having its roots gently pulled out of its restrictive shape, a larger container, and fresh compost. Many composts are peat based, and that’s fine for bedding plants that will only stay for a few short months. However, if you want to have a permanent or long term planting in a container, choose a large container, and always use a soil based compost. Soil is a living thing which can be cared for and improved or revived – compost is just organic matter, with a limited nutrient content.

Remember though, when you throw your spent compost away, don’t chuck it in the Green Bin, put it on your borders and let the soil fauna improve your soil for you !!