The Key Differences Between Regular Compost and Organic Compost

Compost is an invaluable resource for gardeners, landscapers, urban farmers, and anyone looking to improve their soil quality in an eco-friendly way. By recycling food scraps, yard waste, manures and other organic materials into compost, we can reduce landfill waste and create a nutrient-rich, beneficial growing medium for plants. However, not all compost is created equal. There are key differences between conventional, regular compost and organic compost.

What is Compost?

First, let’s define what compost is. Compost is the decomposed remnants of organic matter such as plant materials, food scraps, and yard trimmings that have been broken down through natural processes into a dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling soil amendment. Compost provides nutrients, improves soil structure, increases moisture retention, and encourages the growth of beneficial soil microorganisms.

Composting is the purposeful biodegradation of organic wastes from various sources into usable compost. There are numerous methods of composting from simple backyard piles to large municipal composting facilities. The basic ingredients needed for compost are:

  • Organic materials – carbon and nitrogen sources
  • Oxygen
  • Water
  • Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi

Proper ratios of carbon-rich “browns” like fallen leaves or straw and nitrogen-rich “greens” like food waste or grass clippings, along with turning or aerating, are key for efficient composting. The end result of the composting process after several months of decomposition is dark, crumbly, earth-smelling compost that can be used as a organic fertilizer and soil conditioner.

Regular Compost vs. Organic Compost

While all compost shares some basic characteristics, there are some clear differences between regular, conventional compost and organic compost produced according to organic principles. Here’s an overview:

Regular Compost

  • Made from yard waste, food scraps and other materials without restrictions on origin or chemical exposure
  • May contain some materials treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides
  • More focused on simply breaking down waste matter as efficiently as possible

Organic Compost

  • Made only from allowed organic waste materials without synthetic chemicals
  • Emphasizes building healthy soil biology and nutrients through natural processes
  • Avoids chemicals to maintain microbial life and natural soil processes

Materials Used in Regular and Organic Compost

A major difference between regular and organic compost lies in the source materials used. Organic composting follows organic guidelines which restrict the addition of any materials that have been treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other prohibited substances. Regular composting has no such restrictions.

Regular compost can contain:

  • Yard trimmings or plant materials potentially treated with synthetic chemicals
  • Food waste and agricultural byproducts regardless of origin
  • Manure or animal products from conventional farms using medications and chemicals
  • Some municipal green waste programs with mixed sources

Organic compost contains:

  • Yard trimmings and plant materials from organic sources only
  • Food scraps and agricultural byproducts following organic certification standards
  • Animal manures and products only from livestock raised organically without chemicals
  • Unprocessed, source-separated materials from verified organic sources

Conventional composting is less strict about inputs and the prior chemical exposure of added materials. Organic composting sets high standards to avoid any synthetic chemical residues.

Different Approaches and Priorities

There are philosophical differences between the two approaches as well. The priorities in conventional composting tend to be:

  • Breaking down materials quickly and efficiently
  • Producing large volumes of finished compost
  • Keeping the process simple and straightforward

Whereas the priorities with organic composting lean more towards:

  • Using natural materials and biological processes only
  • Building healthy soil life, structure and nutrients
  • Taking the time needed to produce a high quality end product

Conventional composting aims for simplicity, volume and speed. Organic composting focuses on quality ingredients, soil health, and maintaining standards.

Impacts on Soil Health and Plant Growth

There are measurable differences between regular and organic compost in terms of their effects on soil health, plant diseases suppression, and overall plant growth. Research studies have shown some key advantages of organic compost:

  • Organic compost contains higher microbial biomass and diversity of microorganisms.
  • It exhibits greater suppression of soil-borne plant diseases.
  • Applying organic compost results in lower incidences of plant infections.
  • It improves key soil health parameters like structure, porosity, and water retention capacity.
  • Plants grown with organic compost have higher yields, larger root systems, and increased drought resistance.

The lack of synthetic chemicals preserves fragile soil ecosystems in organic compost. This makes for richer, living soil biology and stronger, healthier plant development.

Composting Methods Used

There are no strict rules governing which composting methods can be used for organic or conventional compost. However, certain techniques align better with the goals of each approach.

Regular composting methods:

  • Turned windrow composting – simple, efficient, aerobic decomposition
  • Aerated static pile composting – pulling air through pile via perforated pipes
  • Anaerobic digestion – generating methane gas from organic waste

Organic composting methods:

  • Hot composting – fast breakdown at sustained high temperatures
  • Cold/passive composting – slower ambient temperature decomposition
  • Vermicomposting – using earthworms to digest organic matter

Hot composting and vermicomposting in particular are favored for organic composting to produce a stable, mature product free of pathogens, weed seeds and chemical residues.

Time and Effort Involved

Producing quality organic compost takes more time, attention and effort compared to regular composting. Conventional composting is comparatively fast and straightforward. With organic composting, the strict material standards, careful monitoring and extra steps add to the workload.

Extra effort needed for organic compost includes:

  • Sourcing only approved organic materials
  • Maintaining proper carbon-nitrogen ratios
  • Monitoring internal temperatures carefully
  • Turning or aerating piles frequently
  • Ensuring thorough decomposition and curing
  • Testing for stability and contaminants
  • Record-keeping and compliance paperwork

These extra steps result in a compost of higher overall quality but require diligence and dedication to the process. Conventional composting has fewer hurdles to clear.

Uses for Regular Compost vs. Organic Compost

Both types of compost can be used to fertilize gardens, landscaping, farms, nurseries and other plantings. Organic compost is especially valued for organic food production where synthetic chemical residues are prohibited.

Regular compost uses:

  • Home vegetable and flower gardens
  • Urban farms, community gardens
  • Landscaping, nursery stock
  • Lawn topdressing, mulching
  • Conventional farms, greenhouses

Organic compost uses:

  • Certified organic farms, kitchen gardens and orchards
  • Potting mixes for organic seedlings
  • Organic vineyards, coffee plantations, food crops
  • Organic nurseries and greenhouse food crops
  • Applications where avoiding chemicals is critical

For certified organic operations, using only approved organic compost is mandatory. For home or casual gardeners not concerned with organic certification, either type of compost can be beneficial.

Availability and Access to Regular and Organic Compost

Traditional, regular compost is widely available from many sources in most populated areas. Organic compost may take more effort to source since the production volume is lower.

Sourcing regular compost:

  • Municipal compost programs
  • Community composting sites
  • Landscapers, nurseries and garden centers
  • Farm cooperatives and agriculture extension agencies
  • Large-scale compost producers

Finding organic compost:

  • On-site if creating it yourself
  • Through organic waste collection services
  • From organic farms, cooperatives and CSAs
  • Specialty organic gardening stores
  • Directly from local organic compost producers

Regular compost can be purchased bagged or in bulk locally from greenhouses and stores. Organic compost may need to be sought out directly from approved organic producers.

Pros and Cons of Regular and Organic Compost

Regular Compost


  • Readily available
  • Relatively simple and fast to produce
  • Low cost
  • Useful for general gardening and landscaping


  • May contain chemical residues
  • Lower in beneficial microbes
  • Weed seeds may not be destroyed
  • Less effective for intensive food production

Organic Compost


  • Excellent soil enhancement without chemicals
  • Nourishes soil food web
  • Grows healthier, more robust plants
  • Supports organic farming methods
  • Environmentally sustainable practices


  • Can be difficult to source
  • Higher cost
  • More labor intensive to produce
  • Requires finding approved inputs
  • Needs strict process monitoring

Key Comparisons Between Regular and Organic Compost

FactorRegular CompostOrganic Compost
Input MaterialsNo restrictionsOnly organic certified
PrioritiesVolume and efficiencySoil health and quality
Microbial LifeLower diversityVery high diversity
Soil EnhancementModerateSignificant benefits
Plant Health ImpactGoodSuperior growth
Composting MethodsFlexibleFavor natural bio-methods
Time and WorkRelatively easyMore demanding process
AvailabilityReadily availableHave to seek out sources
CostLowerTends to be higher priced

Making Your Own Backyard Compost

Want to try your hand at composting? Making your backyard compost pile is simple and rewarding! Follow these basic steps:

Select a Site

Pick a level, well-draining spot near a water source and garden area. Aim for about a 3×3 foot size or larger.

Gather Organic Materials

Stockpile nitrogen and carbon-rich ingredients like food scraps, leaves, straw, and grass. Avoid meat, oils and pet waste.

Build the Base

Start with a layer of coarse sticks or chopped brush to improve aeration from the bottom.

Mix and Layer Ingredients

Mix, layer, and moisten materials as they are added. Aim for the ideal balance.

Turn and Aerate the Pile

Use a fork to stir and flip the pile, adding oxygen to aid decomposition.

Monitor Moisture and Temperature

Water as needed to keep the pile moist but not soaked. Check that inner temps reach 140-160°F.

Let Sit and Cure

After several months of active composting, let the finished compost cure before using.

Troubleshooting Backyard Composting Problems

Bad smell: Too much nitrogen-rich green matter or not enough air circulation. Turn and add carbon sources like leaves or straw.

Pile won’t heat up: The pile could be too small, dry, or lacking nitrogen. Make sure it’s large enough and moisten and mix in nitrogen sources.

Slow decomposition: Could be caused by lack of moisture, compacted pile, or improper ratio of materials. Check moisture and turn pile to fluff up.

Pests issues: Meat, oils and animal products can attract pests. Remove any such materials and cover pile with soil or yard waste to deter access.

Going Organic: How to Start Composting Organically

If you want to take the organic route, here are some tips:

  • Source vegetable food waste, leaves, straw, and manure from organic farms or your own organic garden.
  • Use organic waste collection services or community organics recycling programs.
  • Try vermicomposting with red wiggler worms to create worm castings.
  • Research organic composting workshops and training in your state.
  • Follow organic certification guidelines for all materials added and processes used.
  • Partner with neighboring organic farms to share equipment and composting resources.
  • Invest time into careful monitoring and record-keeping for compliance.
  • Test finished compost to ensure it meets organic stability, nutrient and contaminant standards.
  • Work towards having your composting officially certified organic.

Large-Scale Municipal Composting

Many cities now offer municipal compost programs to divert food waste and yard trimmings from landfills. Municipalities use a variety of large-scale composting methods:

Enclosed facilities: Materials are composted inside a warehouse-like structure with temperature and odor controls. This allows year-round operation in colder climates.

Aerated static pile: Compost is placed in elongated piles over perforated piping. Air is forced through the pipes to deliver oxygen and manage temperatures.

Anaerobic digestion: Organic waste is composted in an oxygen-limited environment, producing methane gas and nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer.

Windrow composting: Materials are piled into long rows called windrows, then turned mechanically to speed decomposition. Takes more land but is relatively simple.

Vermicomposting: Some facilities use large worm beds to break down pre-processed organic waste into worm castings and compost.

Municipal compost is generally conventional compost since source separation of organic streams is not always complete. Some cities offer premium organic municipal compost options for gardeners and growers wanting to avoid chemical residues.


The key differences between regular and organic compost show that not all compost is created equal. Organic composting takes more planning and effort, but for the soil life, plant health and environmental benefits, many find it to be well worth the extra work. Conventional composting is more straightforward and accessible, providing an easy first step into the world of composting. Whichever route you take, composting your organic waste responsibly creates a valuable resource from what would otherwise go to waste. Turning your food and yard scraps into “black gold” for your garden is one of the most fundamental and rewarding forms of recycling.